Hitchens wasn't a philosopher

His style, the "brilliant uncle talking at a party," doesn't always hold up in the trenches of religious argument

By Joe Winkler
July 14, 2013 9:15PM (UTC)
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Christopher Hitchens (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)

Welcome to the next round of the “New Atheists” fight. Writer Curtis White put up an excerpt from his new book, “The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers,” which makes certain inflammatory claims about Christopher Hitchens and his intellectual traits. In response, his like-minded supporters have come to his defense, and with good reason. Calling Hitchens, one of most prominent and beloved public intellectuals of our time, “notorious” and “dishonest” is no small attack.

But here’s the problem with much of these discussions of the New Atheists. As in many conversations about philosophy, we forget to define our terms. White claims that Hitchens does not discuss or give credit to the good in and brought about by religion, which Hitch technically did not do. In his intelligent Salon article Carlo Dellora responds in explaining that the positives of religion are beside the point of the evil it reaps on the world. (We tend not to say, oh yeah, he’s a sociopathic serial killer but he’s really nice to animals.)


However, Dellora consistently makes the mistake of conflation. He conflates a political point or a sociological point with an intellectual point. In a sense, as in many of these conversations, the participants talk around each other. Hitch sought to rid the world of the scourge of religious extremism and its societal effects like clitoral circumcision, or misogyny or public hangings, but this type of argument or claim says nothing about the intellectual foundations of religion. Lamentably, those we've dubbed the New Atheists, while intelligent, rarely speak in clear terms and arguments. As public intellectuals, or scientists writing outside of their professional field, they rarely partake of the clarity and jargon of classical philosophical arguments. Generally, we look down upon jargon as extraneous, and dense for the sake of denseness, but jargon also gives us specific, clear terms with which to converse.

For instance, we can look at the oft-invoked argument of religion as dangerous, as harmful to society. What kind of argument is that, logical or practical, and what is it trying to prove? From a practical point of view, it can opine on how to choose a lifestyle, what sort of life we want to advocate in the world. If religion, regardless of its truth claims, harms the world in some obvious and significant way then that's an argument "against" religion, but not necessarily against its intellectual claims. On the other hand, the argument can be used as an intellectual argument as to the Truth of religion. In the vein of William James's theory of pragmatism, in which we measure truth to the extent that a concept adds to our lives, then religion would fail this pragmatism test. These two ideas each deserve their own analysis, but they are easily conflated. Hitch, though, never delineated what he meant in his list of religious ills, which to some extent creates this problem in understanding his work. Yet, if you work within other frameworks of truth, then religion can be both true and evil, much like many other things in our world.

Therefore, you cannot dismiss the counterclaims against Hitch in this argument, which states that religious people and institutions do great things, and secular societies commit atrocities. If you think of it in terms of the practical, social question, then this author is somewhat right. You don't get rid of an evil simply because a person or institution also does good. However, from the intellectual viewpoint, White’s response is both an obvious and correct response. If we are measuring the wisdom and Truth of religion through a pragmatist lens, then these factors must go into the equation in the balancing of the scales.


Dellora continues in this mistake of conflation throughout the piece. White criticizes Hitchens for reading the Bible literally and consequently seeing evil and violence in God and the Biblical characters. White contends that many do not read the Bible this way. Dellora, though, sees this as a shallow criticism because plenty of people and societies still do take the Bible literally. But again, that conflates a societal point with an intellectual one. Even if the majority of the people of a religion read the Bible in a literal manner, that wouldn’t necessarily say anything about the truthiness of religion or its claims about the world. Throughout the history of religion, the thoughts of the leaders, writers, theologians and thinkers always differed drastically from the masses. Religion, in some respect, becomes intellectually less ambitious and experimental, more rigid and limited, as it winds it way throughout the masses. (Which raises a question Hitchens never deals with. What is religion -- the religion of the masses or the leaders and thinkers?)

Of course, no one would ever claim that all religion is good, or that all religious people are good. However, that a religion of today, en masse, would call for the death of Salman Rushdie says something about the practice of religion as opposed to the truth claims religion makes. Even if some of that religion calls for violence, there always has been progress and development of religion, just as there is development and progress of society. The world, even the atheistic world, has only recently come around to embracing same-sex marriage. 

Dellora then moves on to the historicity of religion. White claims that Hitchens doesn’t mention the scholarship on the historicity of Biblical events, which he perceives as intellectually dishonest. While I agree that academia has largely discredited Exodus as an historical event, and therefore Hitch didn't need to mention it, Hitch, though, does again conflate two different kinds of claims. Religion itself, especially the avant garde thought of religion, has been grappling with the issue of historicity in an honest manner for decades. What’s worse is that Hitch doesn’t really do justice to the systems of countless of thinkers (Wittgenstein, Jung, Heschel and Niebuhr) who discuss the nature of religious claims and their relationship to truth. At no point does Hitch think to ask himself in this respect, what kind of truth are we talking about, historical truth, experiential truth, or maybe symbolic truth?


Hitchens' informal style, the sort of brilliant uncle talking at a party, causes trouble because it appears that he skipped generations of important philosophers and certain intellectual traditions. How do you talk about religion and truth and knowledge without bringing in explicit questions of epistemology, of what we actually say about truth? All of these questions make some of Hitchens' argument feel amateurish, like late-night dorm room philosophizing, which can be brilliant, but rarely precise. Not that academic jargon always matters one way or the other, but to discount countless theories on what it means to know, on the meaning of truth, makes Hitchens' arguments sound simplistic.

To give a small example, at no point does anyone question the ability to know and learn anything specific from history. What historical events, especially trends that span many centuries, are ever so clear as to point to any sort of lesson. Let’s say we did sit down and judge the value of religion throughout history. How do you go about  truly gauging the effects of religion on society? What counts as variables, as evidence, even as religion? History, as all historians of today will tell you, is not a science in that sense. How do you know what to put on the scales, and how much everything weighs? To begin to use point systems attests to the impossibility of this attempt. Moreover, how do you begin to assess cause and correlation? Does religion engender evil or provide an outlet? Couldn't any system of government or societal makeup serve as an outlet for our violent tendencies? Again, I don't agree with any of these positions, but not to flesh out these ambiguities makes Hitchens polemical and not philosophical. Polemics, while interesting, enlightening and often compelling, rarely further the conversation.

Joe Winkler

Joe Winkler is a staff writer for Vol.1Brooklyn, and a contributor to theRumpus.net, HtmlGiant, and Tablet Magazine, among other online publications. You can follow him on Twitter @JosephWinkler.

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