Do no harm?

On Monday Christopher Hitchens was on the Simon Mayo show on Five Live. The interview can be downloaded here. His basic argument is that religion, far from being a force for good, is essentially the root of all evil in the world. I fundamentally disagree with him on this and other points, agree totally on others, but throughout it is a fascinating piece of radio.

  • Hmmm… I reckon authors promoting their latest books are responsible for all manner of timewasting nonsense!

    On the actual debate, the evidence seems to show that there is evil in secular as well as religious states (consider Enver Hoxha’s Albania) – so it seems to me that you’d be better off blaming human nature than “religion” in general.

    For the purposes of the debate, does intolerant fundamentalist atheism count as a religion?

  • Pounder

    Very few athiests start wars as opposed to religious fanatics.

  • Very few athiests start wars as opposed to religious fanatics.

    Except for, like, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, those weirdoes from the Shining Path in Peru, Ataturk, etc., etc.

  • joeCanuck

    Ataturk didn’t start the war. He responded to the invasion of the western powers.
    And we’re still fighting the wars of the Ottoman succession. History would indicate that that could go on for another few hundred years. Bah.

  • Token Dissent

    Cheers for the link Michael.

    I loved the distainful tone that Hitchens employed when speaking to the CofE Reverend. Clearly the Hitch has the tendency to over-simplify but he still makes a strong case. His description of how religious theology and psychology was present in the Soviet Union was especially convincing.

    Sammy, is it certain that Hitler was an athiest?

  • Pounder

    According to fluff Hitler was far from an athiest, he was infact heavily into the occult and born a catholic IIRC.

    Though I’ll concede on the Stalin point, however how many people died in the invasions of the Holy Lands? How many people now die in Israel and in Iraq all in the name of allah, yaweh, god or whatever sky pixie takes your fancy.

  • Obscure Reference

    Hitchens has eternally endeared himself to me by dispensing a satisfyingly vicious posthumous beating to the late Jerry Falwell, the ridiculous American TV evangelist and so-called leader of the Religious Right, on the happy occasion of his death. I downloaded several appearances from different news programs from and it seems that Hitchens was the lone voice of dissent from uniformly toadying coverage of the life of this baleful influence on world politics.

    So say what you like about him, and he annoys me frequently, but he fulfills a function.

  • Turgon

    The problem with the argument regarding the evil of religion is not merely the fact that it is falacious. Yes it is true that both religious and irreligious people commit dreadful acts. Incidentally Hitler had rejected his Roman Catholicism (he was confirmed to please his mother whom he did reputedly actually love). He was also disinterested by the biazzare pagan beliefs of Nazism except to regard himself as appionted by a non specific “providence”. It was actually Himmler who was really into the neo paganism (The book A Social History of the Third Reich, R. Gurnberger is a fairly good introduction to Nazi religious beliefs)

    Leaving aside the falacy that religion is a force for evil or indeed all evil one should look at the intolerant immorality of the allegation.

    Instead of saying religion is the source of all evil, try substituting Jews, Catholics, Blacks, Protestants, the British, the Irish, or anyone else for that matter. This shows not merely the error of the argument but also the intolerant biggotry of it. Because it says “religion” rather than a religion or a group of people is the problem it looks less biggoted. It is actually no different. If any of the above groups was singled out such books would probbaly not be published or if published would not recieve any positive attention.

  • GavBelfast

    I simply think Christopher Hitchens is amusing to listen to, especially when debating with (and normally wiping the floor with) sanctimonious, superior, patronising God-botherers.

    But, like most self-publicists, I don’t take him seriously either.

  • paul

    Hi Turgon
    Hitler was a devout catholic who stated in Mein Kampf “I am convinced that I am acting as the agent of our Creator. By fighting off the Jews, I am doing the Lord’s Work.”

    What about Hitch on Falwell, “If they gave him an enema they could have buried him in a matchbox!”

    The guys a genius, even if he says so himself!

  • snakebrain

    Interesting that a commentator in a country ravaged by fundamentalist religion “fundamentally disagrees” that religion is a force for evil.

  • I wonder…

    I seem to recall a country where a young teenage girl died because of a pregnancy she couldnt tell anyone about at a religious shrine – in the middle of that island. Of course, that sad lonely pitiful death wasn’t anything to do with religion.

  • I Wonder: I suspect that has everything to do with “Religion”, and very little to do with Christianity. Religion is what happens when people get hold of (or don’t quite grasp) the faith which Christ summed up as “Love God with all your heart and mind and strength, and your neighbour as yourself”.

  • snakebrain

    It’s a very good interview all the same, all very genial but tooth-and-nail all the same. Good to hear a bit of impassioned reason with the lid kept on.

    The section on the interweaving of religion and culture is particularly good. Hitchens puts up a good defence though.

  • Token Dissent: “His description of how religious theology and psychology was present in the Soviet Union was especially convincing.”

    I found his attempt to shift blame for evil carried out by athiests onto religion both unconvincing, and rather dishonest.

    He seems to use any evil done in the name of religion as evidence that that religion is evil, but when considering what is done by atheists, you’re only allowed to think about the “nice” atheists, presumably since the nasty ones like Stalin were using “religious” techniques (not simply manipulating people or anything) to help them carry out out their evil. Bit of a double standard, surely?

    And his idea that forgiveness is immoral – or that the parents of a murder victim were simply grandstanding when they forgave their son’s murderer – that seemed repellent!

  • I wonder…

    Despite your disavoyal, most people continue to have an addiction to their *religion* and ignore those places where the views they have, accepted by their religion, clash with Christ.

    Hence those who killed here on a Saturday night often took Communion on a Sunday morning…

  • IW: You’re right enough, I’m afraid. Religion, in that sense, seems more common than Christianity – even among Christians.

    I suppose if you define religion as “that thing we humans do to perfectly good belief structures”, then you could say that religion is often harmful. But in that case you’re basically only saying that humans tend to do evil a lot of the time – which is not really the point Christopher Hitchens was trying to make.

    Terry Pratchett makes a similar point in “Small Gods”, when Om considers some of his priests and prophets.

  • Harry Flashman

    Hitler publicly disavowed Christianity, he had many Christian pastors murdered, he chose as his badge the pagan symbol of a broken cross.

    He also led a party called the German ‘Socialist’ Workers Party, his chief opponent, Stalin ruled the Union of ‘Socialist’ Soviet Republics, between them they manged to murder thirty or forty million people and lay waste an entire continent.

    Add in the mega death tolls from other socialists like Mao, Pol Pot and their little socialist buddies in Viet Nam, Cuba, Laos, Burma, Peru, Romania, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia,(and countless other African nations), Nicaragua etc. well you end up with a butcher’s bill of well over a hundred million people murdered by socialist atheists.

    So you tell me socialist atheists are accusing religious people of being evil? Projection, anyone?

  • Obscure Reference

    So Germany suddenly stopped being Christian in 1933 and then took it up again just as suddenly in 1945? Nonsense. Auschwitz and the Gulags are monuments to the failure of religion in general and Christianity in particular.

    As Hitchens correctly points out the credulity and the irrationality promoted by faith and worship allowed canny manipulators of mass psychology and the then new media technology like Hitler and Goebbels to appeal to irrationality, to humanity’s bestial impulses, to gain power for themselves.

  • Harry Flashman

    So Russia stopped being Christian in 1917 and took the mantle on again in 1989?

    No, in both cases Christians still practised their religions to a more or less restricted degree but their governments labelled themselves “socialist” and were absolutely NOT Christian. Any attempt to label these atheistic socialist governments as monuments to the failure of Christianity rather than monuments to the failure of state imposed secular socialism is a complete fraud by atheistic socialists.

    You want to beat organised religion over the head? Fine, the record ain’t perfect, but be prepared to take a hell of a lot of stick for the horrific and appalling record of atheistic socialism in both its hideous “national” and “international” varieties.

  • Obscure Reference

    Oh, so it was the “government” operating the machine-guns at Babi Yar, the German people were still Christian, just practising their religion to a restricted degree. Just when I was trying to give up sarcasm.

  • Harry Flashman

    *Oh, so it was the “government” operating the machine-guns at Babi Yar, the German people were still Christian, just practising their religion to a restricted degree. Just when I was trying to give up sarcasm.*

    Er, yes it was government agents, in this case soldiers and gestapo members acting on behalf of the German National Socialist government who slaughtered the victims of Babi Yar, they did so in the name of German National Socialism and not in the name of Christianity, is that a really difficult concept for you to grasp? I can’t see why because it seems rather obvious to me.

    By your logic Russian Orthodox Christianity was the reasoning behind the Red terror and Buddhism was the motivating force behind the horrors of Pol Pot and Mao Tse Tung merely because some of their followers still practised religious thought as invariably many must still have done. To blame the mass murder on their individual religious beliefs is as illogical as to blame it on their opinion of broccolli or ballroom dancing.

    Look it’s a very simple concept (and I appreciate decades of left wing indoctrination in schools and the media might have destroyed your ability to master critical, logical thought). Whatever about the crusades or the Spanish Inquisition (the excesses of which are largely exaggerated anyway) the biggest mass-murderers of the last century and probably of all time were the agents of various forms of anti-religious international and national socialism.

    Many of these murderous international and national socialist agents may well have held private religious viewpoints but that does not change the fact that the atheistic socialism which enabled them to carry out their slaughter fervently and utterly rejected Christianity, Judaism and other established religions.

    It’s really simple folks, atheistic International and National Socialists are far and away the biggest mass murders in history; they beat organised religions into the ha’penny place.

  • Obscure Reference

    An ad hominem attack on my education level, ironically followed by a dismissal of my powers of logical reasoning. A bit grumpy no?

    Have you considered the Islamic conquest of India? If body-counts are so persuasive my straw man beats your straw man by a length.

  • Obscure Reference

    My indoctrinated education leads me to demand an explanation at this point for the “atheistic socialism” (surely atheist socialism would suffice)term which conflates Fascism and Communism so egregiously.

    The Roman Catholic Church supported and promoted Fascism all through it’s existence, most notably in Italy and Spain where the Church still defends it, and was actively complicit with Ustashe death squads in the former Yugoslavia during the Second World War. Several clerical war criminals from that country were subsequently given refuge in Ireland subsequently, to my shame. National Socialism and Fascism and the Axis were not secular at all. The Japanese perpetrators of the Eastern Holocaust were actually led by a God – atheistic socialism my arse.

  • Brian d’Escartasat

    Actually I’ve always believed that people just slag off religion because it helps them to argue a well-worn point yet to avoid the real uncomfortable truth: it is actually culture and the diversity of same that is the cause of wars. religion is but a single facet of a society/community’s culture. it is so right-on and politically correct to celebrate the wonder of ‘culture’ and, as previously mentioned, ‘diversity’. Unfortunately there is already too much diversity in the world, obviously more than we are able to handle. Yet when people attack each other over religious differences, I often wonder if the truth is such that they don’t really care about the other person’s religioin, it’s the differing ‘cultural’ practices they can’t really abide. And in truth, how much cultural diversity is there or should there be? I mean, what is the difference between a sandwich, a tortilla and a kebab? Is a jewish wedding ceremony really that different from a hindu or a muslim or catholic one? Diversity me arse. It’s all just (very slightly) different versions of the same things that ordinary people all over the world do every day.

    ‘Culture’ has a lot to answer for, in my opinion.

  • Harry Flashman

    Obscure Reference, if you continue to willingly delude yourself into believing that German National Socialism was a Christian religious movement there really is little I can do to enlighten you.

    I will however concede that the Islamic conquest of India may well have neared the body count of the various branches of twentieth century secular socialism.

  • Obscure Reference

    Hitchens point is this distinction between secular and religious faith is fallacious since they are both man-made creations. Both are in essence secular unless you believe that Angels really did appear to Joseph Smith and Mohammad, and a burning bush to Moses.

    Both deny requirements of evidence and reasoning and both cynically capitalize on the fact that mankind is only partly rational. It is the religious impulse he distrusts and in his opinion this impulse motivates both the Khmer Rouge fanatic and the Shia militia man, whether one or other believes in the supernatural or not. I think history is on his side of the argument and I see little practical difference between a Nazi and an Islamic fundamentalist in the demonstrably disastrous effect each has on the society that spawns them.

    Fascism had many elements of a conventional religious movement, it was deliberately designed that way. Christianity and Communism and Fascism borrowed much symbolism and I would argue large elements of the personality-cult, from the Imperial Roman repertoire – itself a distillation of the Greeks, Persians and Egyptians. Is that a coincidence? No. There’s nothing new about mobilizing the masses behind a faith and the tried and tested formulas still work.

    Would Einstein, Voltaire, Jefferson, Payne and Russell bother with the personality-cult and the symbolism and other religious jiggery-pokery designed to bypass reason and appeal to the religious impulse like Mao and Stalin?

  • snakebrain


    Good words on the elephant in the world’s living room – the division or lack of between culture and religion. Reminds me of a interesting attempt to define the concept of culture in an archaeological-anthropological article I read once.

    The author eventually concluded that all cultural activity could be considered using a model of isochrestic variation; that is, cultural activity is defined in the use of qualitatively different actions to carry out functionally equivalent actions, from what colour you tip your arrows to how you acknowledge exclusive monogamous relationships.

    If you follow that argument, which is surprisingly pervasive, all cultural activty seems relatively simplistic in derivation, and yet it offers a convincing explanation of the huge diversity of cultural traits that we display as a species.

    Religion would then be just one of a range of cultural activities developed for the purpose of group solidarity and social cohesion, rigorously adhered to as part of what defines a group’s unique identity and holds it apart from all other groups. Which would explain quite neatly how we ended up where we are today.

    Your thoughts on the sacrosanct nature of diversity and culture show that, even in our liberal new world that delights in rigorous rational examination of perceived truth as the best model for intellectual development, there are still unchallenged and empty truths on which we found our system, and dark corners we have an unspoken agreement not to poke around in.