Friday, December 23, 2011

Roger Cohen on Christopher Hitchens

Roger Cohen

Writing for the New York Times in an article titled "The American Hitch" (December 19, 2011), Roger Cohen, like many others this week, remembered Christopher Hitchens for his thoughtfulness and generosity, though he admits that he didn't know the man well:
I did not know Hitchens well. The last time I saw him was at a boozy Brooklyn lunch hosted by my friends Gully Wells and Peter Foges, the couple he stayed with on coming to the United States in 1981. "You've got Scotch, haven't you?” he inquired, to which the reply was non-affirmative, a crisis overcome by a foray to the corner store for a bottle of Black Label, followed by a second expedition for the Perrier to accompany it.

"The best blended Scotch in the world," Hitchens murmured as he began the almost single-handed demolition of the bottle. He could be wrong -- even if he was always wrong with panache and for the right reasons -- but he was right about whisky.

Hitchens was right about a lot of things, and wrong about many others, but he was authentic, or seemed to be, for one never knows, but he had a special gift in common with Steve Jobs. The creative Mr. Jobs had the ability to make you feel, when buying an Apple product, that you were receiving the device directly from him, as though he had personally developed it expressly for you to have as a gift from him. Hitchens had that ability in his writings. You could read anything he'd written and feel that he was addressing you personally. I did, anyway, and I hazard to suggest that others felt the same.

And he took risks. Despite Alexander Cockburn's attempted take-down, to wit:
Attacking God? The big battles on that issue were fought one, two, even five hundred years ago when they burned Giordano Bruno at the stake in the Campo de' Fiore. A contrarian these days would be someone who staunchly argued for the existence of a Supreme Being.

Really? In what part of the world? Well, maybe in Europe (though less so year by year!), but certainly not anywhere among Muslims! Nor in the States, either. On that, Cohen pointedly observes:
Of course, he took on God, a dangerous occupation in the United States, declaring him not great and religion the product of a time when nobody "had the smallest idea what was going on."

Why was he against religion? His chosen title, God Is Not Great, implies that the Islamic conception of God, expressed in its chant, "Allahu Akbar"("God is Great"), was particularly on his mind, yet the book -- which I've not read -- deals with more than that, arguing against religion generally. But as for why he was against religion in general, I've read too little of Hitchens on that issue to know for sure, though Cohen explains a bit:
Like Einstein, he viewed ethics as "an exclusively human concern with no superhuman authority behind it," a position that sparked conflict with his journalist brother, Peter, who has argued that, "For a moral code to be effective, it must be attributed to, and vested in, a nonhuman source. It must be beyond the power of humanity to change it to suit itself."

Were I to side with brilliance in this family dispute, I'd be firmly on the side of Christopher, in company with Cohen:
I'm with the atheist Christopher against the believer Peter. It's precisely the vesting of morality in a nonhuman source that's dangerous because how then can you apply reason to temper the God-given absolutes that may lead to fanaticism?

I understand this position quite well because so many theists think the way that Christopher and Cohen suspect that they do. Too many theists follow reason up to a limit -- an ill-defined limit -- and somehow turn to 'faith' as a refuge from critical thought, a quasi-fundamentalist appeal to what they feel is the hard evidence of things fervently hoped for, and they presume to have direct insight into the mind of God, doubting not the consubstantiation of God's thoughts with their beliefs, recognizing no hermeneutical distinction between the two.

I could mention my freshman roommate who believed, concerning the Bible, that "God said it. I believe it. That settles it." Not every theist of that ilk is quite so bold as to phrase the issue like that, but many theists seem to think that way.

But if God is God, then he is rational. Otherwise, he is irrational, and thus not God. Faith must therefore be rational to approach God with security against fanaticism.

Otherwise, one is left with the fideistic view: "God said it. I believe it. That settles it." What then, except to fight over the 'truth' against those who think or believe differently, for if reason cannot serve as arbiter, then what is left but force? I suppose there's always indifference, but that unbespoke suit hardly fits the form of fervent belief.

To the extent that Cohen and Hitchens appeal to reason, I'm with these two atheists, but I disagree if they think this means there are no absolutes . . .

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