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My take: My love/hate relationship with Hitchens
December 17th, 2011
09:00 AM ET

My take: My love/hate relationship with Hitchens

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

(CNN)–My love/hate relationship with Christopher Hitchens started when I read “God Is Not Great.” Before that, he was a hero of mine. I loved his slashing style, his intelligence, his learning, his self-possession and, above all, his passion. But I hated this book.

So I panned it in the “Washington Post.” “I have never encountered a book whose author is so fundamentally unacquainted with its subject,” I wrote, before taking Hitchens to task for demonstrating one of his own pet themes: “the ability of dogma to put reason to sleep.”

I panned the book because I knew Hitchens could take it, and because he deserved it. But what really motivated me was disappointment. I had disagreed with him before, of course. But in every other case I had the sneaking suspicion he knew more than I did about the subject. And even if he didn’t, I didn’t care, because he was always so much fun to read.

(Did he really call Mother Teresa "a lying, thieving Albanian dwarf"? Yes, in a book called "The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice.")

Everyone has a blind spot, however, and for Hitchens it was religion. I remember being confused when I began reading “God Is Not Great,” chiefly because I agreed with virtually everything he was saying. Of course, religious institutions have visited all manner of horrors on humanity. Of course, theological writing is often literally incredible. And yes the whole enterprise can be poisonous.

But what I finally saw was that Hitchens wasn’t really dynamiting, as he believed, the whole world of “religion.” He was just blowing up, over and over again, his little corner of a little vacant lot in his own little neighborhood and imagining he was leveling Mecca and Rome.

The problem with Hitchens’ writing on religion is that he did what many preachers do; he let his emotions get the best of him, and then he started preaching to the choir. In the process, he helped to lead a whole generation of New Atheists down a rabbit hole of their own imagining.

Inside that fantasy world, the atheists are always the smartest boys in the class, and around every corner there is a new religious sin to sneer and chuckle at. In the real world, there are millions of intelligent Christians and Muslims, Hindus and Jews sneering and chuckling at precisely the same stuff. The criticism of religion begins, believe it or not, with embarrassment in the pews.

After my review of "God Is Not Great" appeared, there were various efforts by various people to arrange a debate. I don’t know what I think about God, and I'm not in any hurry to clarify the matter. But I would have welcomed the opportunity to joust with Hitchens on the vices and virtues of religion. Do his critiques apply to Buddhists and Daoists, for example, or to Christians for whom Christianity is something you do on Easter and Christmas, and Hindus for whom Hinduism is something you do when you are getting married or starting a new job?

There was an offer to appear with Hitchens on some show involving Roseanne Barr. I declined. For some reason I didn’t think that talking over her was going to make for good conversation.

Then there was an event involving the two of us set for November 2010 in New York. But Hitchens got sick and had to cancel at the last minute.

It would be fun to rip Hitchens here. It might even qualify as a tribute of sorts, since he had a well deserved reputation for speaking ill of the dead. He called televangelist Jerry Falwell “an ugly little charlatan” just after his passing, adding acidly that “if you give Falwell an enema, you could bury him in a matchbox.” But I do not come to bury Hitchens.

I have been doing some research recently on Thomas Paine, whose “Common Sense” (1776) may well be the most influential piece of writing in U.S. history (second, I say, to "Uncle Tom's Cabin" by Harriet Beecher Stowe). Paine died penniless and disgraced, however, largely because he decided to air his religious heterodoxy in “The Age of Reason" (1794-95).

Paine and Hitchens share much. Each bravely rejected the religious orthodoxies of his time, and did so publicly and without equivocation. Each wrote in a fighter's style intended both to cut and to bleed. So it did not surprise me to come across a 1987 essay in which Hitchens calls Paine “the greatest Englishman and the finest American.”

Hitchens, who was born in England but made America his home, was a pretty great Englishman and a pretty fine American himself. He will always be one of my favorite writers, and I am missing him today a lot more than I imagined I would.

But he didn't know the first thing about religion, so whenever he wrote or spoke about it he made himself look stupid. I suppose I should give him credit for that. It's not an easy thing to do.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Uncategorized

soundoff (369 Responses)
  1. The Catholic PR Genius $ Maichine

    I just saw that the Romans will be running a $15,000,000 PR campaign this Christmas, to get RCs to return to Our lady of Pedophilia. What's wrong with this picture ? Supposedly their god sent his son to be born a poor babe, in a lowly manger, in a backwater town, in an occupied country. Isn't this campaign the TOTAL opposite of their Christmas values ?

    December 17, 2011 at 8:05 pm |
  2. Fred

    Okay, one less loudmouth atheist in the world.
    Amazing how atheists think they are the smartest people in the room and yet,
    based on conversations I've had with them and reading the posts I've seen here, I am not impressed.
    Your dead hero is some alcoholic with an axe to grind against Christianity? Pathetic choice of heroes, I think.

    December 17, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
    • Inspector Cluseau

      Kind of like your hero, who had a axe to grind against the religion in which he grew up, who was supposedly omniscient, but never said one thing that was not known in his day by everyone else. Some god ya get there.

      December 17, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
    • Sid

      Fred, soon you'll be dead too. The maggots will find you more useful as food than your sub-par brain is while you are alive.

      December 17, 2011 at 8:10 pm |
    • steve mootz

      God is Not Great is one of the best books written to date. It was an eye opening experience for me and helped me realize that it is science, not fictional fairy tales, that govern the universe. The proof is in the pudding as they say and the religious fanatics who despised Christopher for writing factual information and celebrated or welcomed his death and contradicting there actually beliefs and are a bunch of zealots. If they were truly Christians as they claimed they were, then they would forgive him for his alleged sins. A few of my favorite quotes from the book were from Sigmund Freud:

      "The voice of reason is soft, but it is very persistent"—Freud

      and my personal favorite:

      "The religious impulse is essentially ineradicable until or unless the human species can conquer its fear of death and its tendency to wish-thinking." -Sigmund Freud

      As for me, I take comfort in believing that there is something out there that is bigger and greater than ourselves. But what NO one can say with any certainty at this point in time, is what or who created ignited that first spark of life. Cheers to you Christopher, you will be missed by many. Steve

      December 17, 2011 at 9:40 pm |
  3. Richard Block

    The world has lost a brilliant mind and a fine debater, and as a militant agnostic myself I regret only that he was not with us longer to decry the world and its hypocriscy. No goodbyes just good memories of a fellow Scotch drinker.........

    December 17, 2011 at 6:27 pm |
    • Ungodly Discipline

      Amen to that and a Glenfiddich toast to HP too.

      December 17, 2011 at 6:40 pm |
    • Sid

      What UD said. And I have Glenfidditch in reach as I type this. Cheers, friends.

      December 17, 2011 at 8:11 pm |
  4. Ungodly Discipline

    Conversations with Grandma – “The Radiation Problem”

    You know the problem with being human Grandma? The important parts of the universe are either too small or too large for us to comprehend. We are stuck in the middle with a bunch of whacky superst-itions to cling to. Give us comfort. Help us face our fears.

    The only thing I know for sure is that I don’t know anything. Is there a God? How would I know? Where did this Super Being come from? How do we know what came before God? I mean, who made him, or It, and who made whatever came before that?

    Remember when you told me how the light from the stars is from the past because it takes so long for it to travel back to Earth? That we are actually looking back in time?

    It’s funny how long things stay around, even though they are from the past. Persistent like star light.

    Yeah, me and Grandma, we had some great conversations in her back yard back in Kansas. Looking up at the stars and talking about God and the Universe. She would really listen to my ideas. I would ask her things like,

    Do you think there are planets out there with life on them? If there is, I doubt if they would resemble anything on Earth too much. It might be invisible to our eyes, or too tiny to see or in some parallel dimension…

    Even if there is life, intelligent life, I seriously doubt if we have been visited by aliens. Earth is so tiny and the universe so vast, how would they ever find us?
    Plus there is the radiation problem.

    UD

    December 17, 2011 at 6:20 pm |
    • Ungodly Discipline

      In remembering Hitchens, I am also reminded of my Grandmother who passed away only a few months ago. She was a mentor and teacher and I miss her.

      December 17, 2011 at 7:07 pm |
  5. Atheist 1#

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=4SRZwuqrU-s

    December 17, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
  6. John Stevenson

    Entertaining, but I completely disagree with you. Here's an obit I found more insightful than yours, although I never heard of this site before. http://corporateconfessor.com/?page=editorial&id=e5e14f6324&ref=Hitchen's-Unrequited-Tough-Love

    December 17, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
  7. Atheist 1#

    "he helped to lead a whole generation of New Atheists down a rabbit hole of their own imagining." You'll never be halve the man he was or a quarter the debater for his side of the argument. And that all has to do with the fact there being no god..P.s there are no Gods and heaven is just millions of peoples wishful thinking

    December 17, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
  8. *frank*

    Prothero is a third-rate hack who fancies himself an intellectual.

    December 17, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
    • *not frank*

      i agree with you frank. this article is trash and the author is only now brave enough to post this once his adversary is dead. if hitchens was alive head tear this article apart.

      December 17, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
  9. Mike

    http://theleastobviousanswer.blogspot.com/2011/12/in-heaven-christopher-hitchens-debates.html

    December 17, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • EnjaySea

      I don't believe in your heaven. But I will, as soon as you prove that it exists.

      December 17, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
  10. Ungodly Discipline

    Heaven is a place in Hell.
    A place where Angels and Demons dwell.
    The bell rings, the Devil Swings and on God’s throne he begins to dwell.
    Looking through space and time the duality of the immortals shine.
    The singing begins and the song is one of the infinite.
    Universes are sung, Galaxies too.
    Stars and planets and me and you.
    But we can hear the singing not.
    For we are here on this planet caught.
    The web we weave to cry and deceive.
    Robs us of our own immortal lot.
    UD

    (sorry, found a type-o)

    December 17, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • hippypoet

      that is good...whats UD? was it written by you? seriously, that was very good!

      December 17, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
    • Ungodly Discipline

      Yeah HP, that's me! You have inspired me. I used to write a lot more.

      December 17, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
  11. Rafael

    Stephen, I doubt that a post on this blog will change your mind much, but I would like to say that I think you're missing the point. Yes, there are millions of people who call themselves Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists. Taoists, Deists, etc. but only adhere to the tenets of their professed religions at certain times, but these are not the people Christopher Hitchens ever addressed. These people are, in truth, secular but consider themselves religious out of tradition and have never cared enough about the matter to look into it or change their way of life. Christopher Hitchens addressed those who claim religion in word and practice. He addressed people who read at least some of their holy book and attempted to live their life as close to those parts as possible. These are the people who actively promote religion on one end and actively promote hate on the other. These are the people who care about religion and with which debate must occur.

    December 17, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • Junius Gallio

      Why, precisely, "must" debate occur?

      Oh, for those who insist on attempting to mandate my belief, or the beliefs of others, against their will, I agree that debate is vital to maintaining and securing our freedom. But I have t also see it from their side: my freedom to disbelieve is sprung from the exact same moral underpinning as their freedom to believe, and if I would deny that freedom to them, I should be denied that freedom in turn. Far too often I see atheists persuaded that they must somehow be more evangelical in their disbelief than the religionists that they decry.

      Let people believe whatever they wish, provided they do not attempt to force those beliefs on others, and I am quite content. However silly or rational their beliefs are, it"neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

      December 17, 2011 at 6:48 pm |
  12. Ungodly Discipline

    Heaven is a place in Hell.
    A place where Angels and Demons dwell.
    The bell rings, the Devil Swings and on God’s throne he begins to dwell.
    Looking through space and time the duality of the immortals shine.
    The singing begins and the song is one of the infinite.
    Universes are sung, Galaxies too.
    Stars and planets and me and you.
    But we can here the singing not.
    For we are here on this planet caught.
    The web we weave to cry and deceive.
    Robs us of our own immortal lot.
    UD

    December 17, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
  13. Mott the Hoople

    Contrary to popular belief, Christopher Hitchens was not an atheist. He actually believed in God, who was Hitchens' source of strength and comfort. It is just that Hitchens' God was named "Alcohol".

    December 17, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • TruthPrevails

      that's about the stupidest thing anyone has said yet.

      December 17, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
    • Inspector Cluseau

      And we all know there are no Christian alcoholics. Brilliant. Just brilliant.

      December 17, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Actually Inspector Cluseau, those folks are just as blind as you to His truth.

      Great post Mott the Hoople.

      Amen.

      December 17, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • tallulah13

      @Mott the Hoople

      Wow. That was profound. I guess that means that the real god of the christians is food.

      http://thechart.blogs.cnn.com/2011/03/24/frequent-church-goers-frequently-fatter/

      Amen.

      December 17, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Ah, so no "true Christian" drinks alcohol? Is that it?

      What a moron.

      December 17, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
    • TruthPrevails

      @Tom: No true christard drinks about sums it up because there are no true christards. The ones claiming to be tend to forget that even their own jesus dude turned water in to wine or at least that's how the story goes but I guess it's okay as long as jesus approves and is able to absolve them of their sins.

      December 17, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
    • EnjaySea

      When one has no valid argument, name calling is the only other option.

      December 17, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
    • fred

      TruthPrevails
      Jesus never said not to drink alcohol. There is a sin problem associated with alcohol excess and Christians should not do anything that would cause another to stumble. In short don’t drink if it encourages others to sin. Some denominations as with anything else expanded on what the Bible says and outlaw things such as coffee or alcohol. TruthPrevails in the Bible, man misses it up a bit.

      December 17, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
    • TruthPrevails

      @Fred: I understand this but my point is that there are christian alcoholics also and christians that smoke. There have been numerous comments made about Christopher's actions leading to his death and unfortunately most have brought it down to his heathen ways of Atheism. My point is that arguing about his drinking habits or smoking habits if rather hypocritical when you will find those same habits amongst some of the most god fearing people out there. It is a known fact that tobacco usage and alcohol are not good but not many people of any belief or disbelief are innocent of either. Our governments make it far too easy for both to be obtained and used. Anyone can get sick from cancer...my mother was a devout christian who died from the disease at a young age and she had quit smoking years before it hit. The fact is that this man is dead now and regardless of his disbelief, he doesn't deserve his bad habits to be picked at...it's kind of like kicking a dog when it's down...rather cruel.

      December 17, 2011 at 6:28 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      No argument? Please. There's an argument. It's just over your head.

      December 17, 2011 at 10:22 pm |
    • fred

      TomTom
      I agree Truth Prevails.

      December 18, 2011 at 1:16 am |
  14. Brad Edwards

    Stephen Prothero manages to say absolutely nothing in this article or in his earlier Washington Post review of Hitchens's book. We learn nothing of what religion is supposed to be – only a an arrogant proclamation that Hitchens supposedly doesn't.

    December 17, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
    • Mildred the Mouth

      And just what is "religion supposed to be" ? It's as many things as there are believers. It seems to be useful to some, destructive to others. If you want someone to parrot what it's "supposed to be", go back to Bible College. And anyway, wouldn't a professor of religion be required to be an observer, and keep an open mind ?

      December 17, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
  15. hippypoet

    ... i feel like he looks right now , dead...after a lovely night of debauchery which btw gave way to two things the first and important because its not a possiblity but a fact is that i spent about 10 hours drinking and the like and now i get to spend near the same cleaning it and the second thing – a novel idea – lets all believers and non believers leave the t!tles at home and all go on a picnic, has anyone ever gotten mad or fought (save for the 15 year olds) at a picnic...come on think about it – we'd be outside with sandwichs and ants, chips and birds....we can fly kites, maybe even fish, play disk (frisbee) toss a ball or maybe kick one around... oh what fun, and good for stress. its a win win – there is but one rule at proper picnics, no politics or religion as they don't make good blanket chat over chicken salad...maybe egg salas (which i find to be humours, which came first the egg salad or the chicken salad?) yeah, you know it'd be fun. 🙂

    December 17, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  16. EnjaySea

    Stephen, he knew all he needed to know about religion. When the entire premise of religion is based on promises rather than evidence, and all the most studied theologians are just weaving ever more detailed tapestries upon the same foundation of speculative fiction, then the degree to which you understand that imagined picture is moot.

    December 17, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
  17. tallulah13

    I think Prothero has a very elevated opinion of himself and his intellect.

    December 17, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • AGuest9

      I look at so many ministers who walk around with a D.Min (or professors like Prothero, with a PhD in Religion). What does it take to obtain one? Writing a 100 page (if that) dissertation based on a fictional subject that can neither be proven nor refuted can't be THAT difficult. Even football players and rock stars can do that, as we have seen.

      December 17, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  18. Freethinksman

    If you think Hitchens was ignorant about religion, you either don't much about him, or you don't know much about religion. To try to bestow nuance on something so heavy handed as "Definitive Answers to Questions We Can't Know" is silly. The nuance comes from admission of the fact that those answers are man made. Hitch knew it. He didn't suffer fools. Couching christianity in a "scientific" light doesn't do christianity justice, and it doesn't do truth justice either.

    December 17, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
    • pablo

      Atheist often have a much more detailed knowledge of the bible than people of faith because they research it carefully before they form an opinion. The faithful are simply followers of their pastors teachings.

      December 17, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
  19. Answer

    It is hilarious how christards will attack an atheist when we don't buy into their fraud.

    We will continue to stop them from silencing us.
    We won't let them use their threats on anyone.
    We certainly will continue to implore facts and reasoning to their detriment.

    Christopher Hitchens never lost to their ilk in any manner. He spoke out with the truth of reason, as all atheists have done, in the past. Our fight won't end til all religions are vanquished from this world.

    December 17, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Answer, you atheists are the fraud. If you were bright beyond anyone else, you would have made up your own language without the need to steal Jesus' wisdom, naming it something else and calling it your own.

      That's why you folks don't hold water on any debate. At least children made up pig latin.

      Amen.

      December 17, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
    • TruthPrevails

      @HS: Really? You have yet to validate any of your claims!

      December 17, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      HS, you are such a lousy writer. A argument might "hold water". The person making said argument doesn't.

      And you apparently don't have an argument that holds water. You quote scripture as if that were proof of your claims. It isn't.

      December 17, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son, babbling again with his post "HS, you are such a lousy writer. A argument might "hold water". The person making said argument doesn't. And you apparently don't have an argument that holds water. You quote scripture as if that were proof of your claims. It isn't."

      Answer: I'm skipping your posts because of your ingrained foolishness.

      Amen.

      December 17, 2011 at 5:49 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      TruthPrevails, you posted "@HS: Really? You have yet to validate any of your claims!"

      Answer: Fools writing their hatred over Jesus' truth is proof enough.

      Amen.

      December 17, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
    • Johan

      @HS

      It is hard to imagine that you aren't aware you are misrepresenting facts. The fact is that atheists have all the advantages in debates because of logic and reason. This obviously shames you enough that you have to lie about it to others, but please have enough integrity to speak the truth to yourself. When the beliefs of any given religion contradict logic and reason and established facts about the real world, the honest followers of those religions adjust their beliefs leaving only the dishonest.

      Abandon dishonesty. Admit the truth to yourself and begin the process of freeing yourself from unreasonable beliefs.

      December 17, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Johan, He's already provided us with what you complain about.

      "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Through him (the Word) all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made."

      John 1:1

      Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.

      Isaiah 1:18

      Put me in remembrance: let us plead together: declare thou, that thou mayest be justified.

      Isaiah 43:26

      Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.

      Proverbs 3:5
      There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof [are] the ways of death.

      Proverbs 14:12

      Amen.

      December 17, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
    • evolvedDNA

      HS.. you have still not told us what Jesus truth is yet, in any language. HS, sorry but you do not debate you berate.. you offer nothing in your comments that would allow water to even form a puddle. Have you read God is Not Great? or anything else that may ask you to question why you think the way you do.. such as your hatred of other " god fearing" religions?

      December 17, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
    • Johan

      @HS
      Quoting scripture is completely unconvincing, as I am sure you are aware.
      Why respond at all if you can't be forthcoming and truthful? Each time you are challenged to back up your claims and you fail, those who bother reading your tripe are shown that true believers such as yourself always resort to lies and trickery.

      Debates go to those who can use reason. Your lies won't change the truth. The fact that you need to lie is a sign that you should reconsider your belief system. A true belief will never require you to lie to defend it.

      December 17, 2011 at 9:13 pm |
    • Inspector Clouseau

      HS,
      When are you going to realize that quoting the babble, to prove the babble, just doesn't work. I believe in the Grinch, and I know it because it says "He puzzled and puzzed till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before. Maybe Christmas, he thought... doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps... means a little bit more!"

      December 17, 2011 at 9:51 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      You're "skipping my post"? Why did you respond to it, then? How did you "skip" it if you read it, copied it, pasted it, and answered it?

      December 17, 2011 at 10:25 pm |
  20. David Johnson

    I never was fortunate enough to meet Christopher Hitchens, but I have read most of what he wrote.

    I will miss him.

    Cheers!

    December 17, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.