"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Of all the criticisms that could be leveled at Christopher Hitchens – and there are many – a boring style is not one of them. Despite some controversial positions and persuasions, his writing was always exciting, entertaining and engaging. Regrettably, the same cannot be said for Curtis White. In an excerpt from his recent book “The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers” published in Salon last week, White accuses the “notorious” Hitchens of some of journalism’s worst crimes – lying, dishonesty, shamefulness and an all-round lack of “decency.” However, while running through a litany of examples apparently highlighting Hitchens’ intellectual turpitude, White manages something remarkable. Rather than convicting Hitch of “telling less than he knew or ought to have known’,”White shows how it is in fact he who is literarily lazy, inconsistent and mendacious.
White begins with some concessions, curiously feeling the need to acknowledge his own qualified atheism by rejecting the notion of a “CEO God” – whatever that means – he then concedes that religious extremism is “still very much a problem politically” and across the globe. Yet, after admitting that the “religious right is real, and international fundamentalism is dangerous and frightening,” White goes on to admonish Hitchens for reducing religion down “to a series of criminal anecdotes” – presumably ignoring all the good stuff it has done for the world.
In this way, White rehashes a well-worn criticism of the new breed of atheists – that they do not recognize the positive, progressive aspects of organized religion and instead focus only on the negative. This is neither new nor compelling. How many times during a debate, or town-hall-style meeting has some smug reverend or pastor not sat up and said, “Ah! but don’t religious charities in Africa and South America do such fantastic things, Mr. Hitchens?” As if that somehow discredits any analysis or interrogation of institutional religiosity.
It is the same simplistic approach that leads campaigners against childhood immunization to cry ,“There are always two sides to every story!” This may be a fantastic, if ultimately meaningless dictum to live by but it ignores the institutional dominance and societal ubiquity of religion. How can there be a balance between the two sides to this story when for centuries there has only ever been one accepted book on the issue? Hitchens recognized this disparity and devoted himself to rejecting a status quo that for millennia had been unchallengeable and incontestable. Just because it has now become more acceptable to be an atheist does not mean Hitchens should have dropped everything and devoted half of his book “God Is Not Great” to enumerating the charity work of the supplicating minions of Christ.
One of these gifts from religion to society apparently ignored by Hitchens is what White calls the “rich cross-cultural fertilization” of theology to philosophy. Apparently, without Christianity and Judiaism there’d be no Slavoj Zizek or Isaac Newton. Perhaps. However, Hitchens never denies the significant role religion has had to play in the formation of ideas and movements. In fact, he openly admits the opposite, stating that religion has been directly responsible for a number of humanity’s first discursive efforts: “Religion is part of the human make-up. It’s also part of our cultural and intellectual history. Religion was our first attempt at literature, the texts, our first attempt at cosmology, making sense of where we are in the universe, our first attempt at health care, believing in faith healing [and] our first attempt at philosophy.”
By turning Hitchens’ argument into a tinder-dry straw man, White has no problems in pushing it over. But his claim that Hitchens failed to recognize the important role religion has played in these fields is unequivocally and demonstrably untrue. Let’s not forget, either, that while perhaps some scholars and artists took much of their influence from religious movements, just as many had to face the very real threat of torture or death if they chose to ignore the wishes of the church. Examples of this abound from the very recent – Salman Rushdie – to the more ancient – the famous trial of Galileo. If White wants to claim that religion has been a wellspring of ideas for the intellectual and artistic classes he must also admit that it has also been an unyielding source of suffering, persecution and censorship at the same time.
White concludes this section of his analysis with a dismissive reference to the Binding of Isaac, the infamous biblical parable where Abraham shows his servility to god by agreeing to slaughter his own son. White’s criticism here of Hitchens as “a textual literalist” is the first of a number of ill-conceived cheap shots that ignore the reality of our major religious institutions and contemporary, political paradigm. Undoubtedly Hitchens read this section of the Bible literally, and with good reason; this is the way in which it’s read in the Madrassas of Islamabad, the Creationist museums of the South and the home schools of America.
White’s unhelpful reference to Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling” as a more interesting interpretation of the tale does nothing to recognize the dogmatic and literal adherence to theological text that perpetuates fanatical religious violence. Kierkegaard’s “complex, poetic, and deeply felt philosophical retelling” of the story may be a fantastic undergraduate assignment for students investigating the duality of man, and other theological/philosophical areas of contestation but it is not the source of Hitchens’ concern. And rightly so. When scruffy, hung-over undergraduates start making improvised explosives, leaving Kierkegaard’s “Three Upbuilding Discourses” as their calling card, this might be appropriate, but until then, existential interpretations of barbaric biblical tales have little to do with Hitchens’ overall critique of religion.
This leads to White’s most egregious (as he puts it) “howler.” Attempting to contradict Hitchens’ assertion that there was no Jewish “flight from Egypt, no wandering in the desert … and no dramatic conquest of the Promised Land,” White takes a quote from William J. Hamblin who in turn claims that James Hoffmeier provides evidence that corroborates the Old Testament description of a mass exodus of Israelites from Egypt into the Sinai desert. “Dishonest” Hitchens once more apparently up to his old tricks, saying less than he should or revealing that he knows “less than he ought to” about a heavily contested area of history. However, if White himself had conducted “even a superficial survey” of the evidence and literature available he would have seen that Hitchens’ view is in fact completely unremarkable.
“The reality is that there is no evidence whatsoever that the Jews were ever enslaved in Egypt. Yes, there’s the story contained within the bible itself, but that’s not a remotely historically admissible source. I’m talking about real proof; archeological evidence, state records and primary sources. Of these, nothing exists.” (Emphasis mine)
That’s not some “new-atheist,” irreligious source. That’s from Haaretz, Israel’s oldest daily newspaper, supporting a well-established historical consensus that there was no mass Jewish flight from Egypt, nor widespread Jewish indentured servitude. Most shocking, however, is the fact that James Hoffmeier – the expert quoted by both White and Hamblin – is the former chair of Illinois’ Wheaton College of Biblical, Theological, Religious and Archaeological Studies. A school that recommends archaeology as “an indispensable tool for interpreting the Bible because it provides cultural, historical, social, religious, and linguistic information that sheds light on the context of biblical passages.” This is not an issue with two secular sides, one conveniently ignored by Hitchens to further his fundamentalist form of atheism. Rather, Hoffmeier is part of a minority of religiously motivated individuals who are trying to use historical and archaeological evidence to support a literalist interpretation of the Bible, something which would have been obvious had White investigated Hoffmeier at all. This example is not unique but rather indicative of White’s approach, clutching at straws to paint Hitchens as an intellectually dubious charlatan, but in the process revealing his own hypocrisy and ignorance.
White is on surer footing criticizing Hitchens for his stuffy Eurocentrism and on this point he’ll find no argument. Hitchens was undeniably more at home on either side of the Atlantic than anywhere else, intellectually, philosophically and literally. It’s perhaps because of this that Hitchens’ most convincing arguments were reserved for the Abrahamic faiths, always feeling slightly out of his depth when commenting on Buddhism or “noxious gurus” like Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh. This could be why he allocates just 10 pages of “God Is Not Great” to all Eastern religions. As White points out, Buddhism may in fact be a solid ethical framework, but this is not the point. Buddhism is yet another fiction, another deep sleep that convinces adherents that life is only an appetizer for the next incarnation; whether or not their ethical structures have more in common with Western notions of “decency” or violent Wahhabism remains irrelevant so long as Eastern religions preach that life here and now is merely foreplay before the real thing, and that more than anything provoked Hitchens’ ire.
White’s next point comes just as expected with the appeal to the moderate. Like many before him have done, White suggests that Hitchens’ visceral resentment for all religions ignores “an important source for correcting the very real shortcomings of fundamentalism.” In a subtle reworking of the stale “why focus on the extremists argument” White suggests that only by accepting religion can society attempt to redress its excesses. Hitchens has consistently refuted this line of argument, contending that even seemingly moderate religions are in essence a kind of extremism as they reject the most basic forms of reason and instead trust a faith that praises an unseen creator and runs counter to most objective notions of reality. Furthermore, Hitchens saw moderates as facilitators of the abhorrent extremist brand of religiosity that threatens abortion clinics and blinds “adulterous” women with acid. When the Danish cartoon controversy erupted in 2005 Hitchens was shocked to see that moderate adherents to Christianity and Islam spent their time decrying the cartoons but not the violence itself, ignoring the murderous mobs who had taken to the streets in reply. This was illustrative of a broader issue, namely, that moderate religiosity provides a plinth upon which a firebrand version of any faith can be constructed, moderation in essence creating the environment necessary for extremism to thrive.
It is here that White finally comes to the point that he and many others like him have been making for at least the last decade – that the “new-atheist” movement is just another religion. A contention that echoes the twist at the end of the mediocre Hollywood blockbuster, atheism is religion. White asserts that Hitchens’ reliance on enlightenment reason is a metaphysical claim and tantamount to the faith-based logic of the religiously inclined. White asks: “What is “reason” for Hitchens? Your guess is as good as mine. Is it the rules of logic? Is it the scientific method? Is it Thomas Paine’s common sense? Some combination of the above?”
Yes, here White is correct. We should understand what made up Hitchens’ irreligious principles and ethical framework. How can we possibly be expected to trust a man who decries religion yet offers very little in the way of a description or framework of ethics as an alternative? Except, he does. On the very same page, in the very same paragraph that White quotes, Hitchens succinctly and brilliantly outlines his own version of an ethical and principled kind of reason: “Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, open mindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake.”
With the claim that there is no “real difference between Hitchens’ outrage to reason and an evangelical’s outrage to God,” White’s argument falls apart entirely. Hitchens’ foremost commitment is to open-mindedness and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake, a position expressly contrary to the mawkish dogmatism that characterizes religiosity. White’s decision to ignore this pivotal statement of principles in this paragraph can really only be put down to one of two things; accidental obtuseness or deliberate misdirection. Either way, his decision to omit these words again shows White himself to be more guilty of “telling less than he knows or ought to have known,” than Hitchens ever was.
Despite his trenchant criticism of Hitchens as a sloppy, dishonest author, it seems that White has failed to read him closely. In a final quandary, White ponders: “[Hitchens] claims that religion is “poison,” but is he suggesting that religion made men cruel in spite of themselves? All of them? Millions upon millions of people over thousands of years zealously and destructively defending the faith … in spite of their own innate sense of good and evil?”
Yes. He is. If White had held himself to the same standard that he clearly expects of Hitchens he would have found that this is exactly what he is saying. Echoing Steven Weinberg during a debate with Tony Blair, Hitch states: “In the ordinary moral universe, the good will do the best they can, the worst will do the worst they can, but if you want to make good people do wicked things, you’ll need religion.”
Perhaps this answers White’s questions regarding Hitchens’ attitude toward the totally corrupting nature of religiosity. At the very least, it answers any questions about White and his ineffective, misleading criticism.
Carlo Dellora is an honors student at the University of Melbourne. He is currently working on a thesis evaluating the role of contrarianism in politics and journalism with a specific emphasis on the work of Christopher Hitchens.More Carlo Dellora.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)