Christopher Hitchens and religion

Jamie asked:

I watch a lot of online debates and discussions with Atheists and theists I watched many with the late Christopher Hitchens who was one of the first people to interest me in the subject. In the opening of one of his debates he made the point that if we knew at the infancy of of species what we know now religion would never have had the chance to really take off.

He said that we have much better explanations to our questions now and religion even though it may have benefited us in the past has been made redundant. He said that the chances of any religion being true was in the highest degree improbable but how does one measure those odds? Is it because there are many other different religions and Christianity is only one of them or is it because the actual concept of a god is unlikely? What is the method or tool he used to determine the probability? Thank you.

Answer by Peter Jones

Christopher Hitchens knows very little about religion. I would advise you to read people who know more. It a strange world we live in where such an ill-informed person is considered to have a worthwhile opinion.

His comment about the ‘infancy of our species’ is blatantly idiotic. Philosophers should not get personal but when a person is guilty of poor scholarship and sloppy thinking on the scale of Hitchens there seems no other choice. If you look around you’ll see that thanks to the internet the human race is beginning to realise the true meaning of religion and any interested layman can quickly exceed Hitchens’ level of expertise.

Do you see today’s scientists and philosophers sitting around  patting themselves on the back for having disposed of religion? Of course not. Hitchens seems to equate religion with some sort of naive monotheism so of course it looks daft to him. It’s his idea of religion that is daft, not religion. This will become obvious to you if you continue to study the subject.

The atheistic academic establishment does not have better explanations for metaphysical problems than it had two thousand years ago. Sure, we’ve learned some science, but all the important problems fall outside of the natural sciences. This hardly needs saying.

He said that the chances of any religion being true was in the highest degree improbable but how does one measure those odds?

I see no purpose in measuring the odds. The fact that Hitchens mentions the chance of a religion being true tells us that he cannot prove it is not. We need not measure the odds, we need to establish truth of falsity or at least logical consistency and coherence.

Is it because there are many other different religions and Christianity is only one of them or is it because the actual concept of a god is unlikely?

The multiplicity of religions is often used as an argument against the truth of any one of them, and on the surface it’s a powerful argument. However, it only works if we take a superficial view. There is a profound interpretation by which all significant religious traditions arise from the same underlying truth. I would recommend Frithjoff Schuon’s wonderful book The Transcendent Unity of Religion, or perhaps Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy. These two authors actually know something about religion.

The concept of a God is not necessary to religion. This is the catastrophic flaw in many arguments against religion, that they argue against some naive anthropomorhpic idea of God. The best arguments against such naive ideas are found in religion. Meister Eckhart would dismiss Hitchens’ writings as meaningless prattle.

It is very easy to interpret the teachings of Jesus as endorsing the ‘non-dual’ view shared by all traditions within the Perennial philosophy. If you visit the home page for the publishers of the Christian book A Course in Miracles and read the explanation and summary you’ll  notice that this is an explicitly ‘non-dual’ presentation and explanation of the teachings by which ‘God’ is nothing at all like the straw-man Hitchens’ and most atheists argue against. This is the sort of literature Hitchens seems never to have read despite the vast quantity of it. Opponents of religion rarely take the trouble to read the literature and mostly tend to argue against the Sunday-school ideas they grew up with and never allowed to evolve.  Sometimes it seems like they’re arguing against the theory that babies grow under gooseberry bushes.

What is the method or tool he used to determine the probability? Thank you.

He appears to have no method or tools.  To a large extent logic can establish the plausibility of a theory, and generally where a theory causes contradictions we reject it. But logic cannot establish the truth of a theory of Reality unless we know Reality obeys the rules, and to speak of its probability is probably meaningless. In this context probability would be just a measure of our ignorance for a religious doctrine must be true or false.

This answer is something of a rant, admittedly, but it agitates me to think anyone would consider Hitchens worth reading on religion. He has no more understanding of metaphysics than Carnap, Russell, Rand or Dennett. He is baffled and waiving his arms around. You should note his poor scholarship, lack of metaphysical understanding and temperamental approach and be very suspicious.

If you’re asking this question as a wavering Christian I’d recommend the writings of Paul Ferrini for the simplicity of his approach, with A Course in Miracles as the post-grad version of the same message.  If you do some research and are averagely intelligent you’ll soon know a lot more about this topic than Hitchens.

5 thoughts on “Christopher Hitchens and religion

  1. I am in mostly agreement with Peter Jones’ response, although I am a bit more forgiving. The ‘new’ atheists such as Hitchens and Dawkins really came about from a source of frustration with the typical monotheistic treatment of religion. Hitchens mostly from his experiences as a foreign correspondant in countries where there was a lot of religiously motivated conflict and Dawkins’ from in the US at the time was a legitimate worry over creationist influence on science subjects such as evolution. This I think gave them a bit of an axe to grind. That said, in my experience they have addressed common arguments in the philosophy of religion (such as the cosmological, telelogical arguments, the problem of evil, and so on) but only do so at a very superficial level. Similar to Sam Harris’ treatment of the free will problem.

    I am not sure I agree with the comment regarding rejecting probability. Philosopher of Religion Richard Swinburne makes a probabilistic argument for the existence of the monotheistic God (his book ‘Is there a God?’ is a good concise version of his argument). Sadly I never got to see him engage with the likes of Hitchens and Dawkins, it seems the only philosopher of religion that was interested was William Lane Craig. And this is disappointing because I think Swinburne’s argument was better (but still fails in my view). And I don’t think Hitchens or Dawkins ever claimed deductive knowledge of atheism, it was always expressed as a agnostic atheism based on probability.

    Given my journey as a philosopher began with the ‘New Atheists’, but now reject most of their arguments, my view is that there’s nothing wrong with engaging with their work as a starting point, but something to ultimately grow out from as your journey continues.

    1. Thanks Andrew. This is a great addition to my rant and brings a little balance. It’s certainly fair to note that some of these extreme atheistic thinkers were fighting against equally extreme views and the arguments needed to be made. But there’s no excuse for the naivety. As you say, a starting point but something to outgrow.

      1. Thanks Peter,

        And yes absolutely no problem with a good rant. It is annoying to see ‘pop’ philosophers gain so much attention whilst making basic mistakes. For instance I’m not a philosopher of religion, my area of focus is political philosophy. So if the question was about Jordan Peterson, I would probably be the one ranting :). And yes of course my comments do not absolve them for naivety, if critical thinking is going to be popularised by these people, they have an additional duty to employ it.

        Thanks again,

        Andrew.

  2. Thank you for reply. Even though I admire the way hitchens doesnt shy away from controversy and I also like many of his talks I by no means stand by everything he has said. I have read up on others and intend to keep looking into many more people for and against religion. I dont take one persons view as gosble I wouldnt want to be that narrow minded and I would never call someone who believes in a religion naive or silly I’m simply trying to increase my understanding. I will look at the books you recommended. Appreciate your answer.

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