Two of the most divisive figures in public life, one a statesman, one a polemicist, are debating on Friday night one of the most vexing questions of this time or indeed any time: Is religion good or evil? The sixth semi-annual Munk debate, held in Toronto, will be between Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, and Christopher Hitchens, author of the best-selling God is Not Great. Before their confrontation, Mr. Hitchens sat down with The Globe's editorial board editor, John Geiger, to reflect on faith, or the absence thereof.
John Geiger: Thank you very much for speaking with The Globe and Mail. It's a pleasure to meet you. When did you know you were a non-believer? Was there a moment you decided, "this is nonsense" and I'm thinking here of Mrs. [Jean]Watts.
Christopher Hitchens: Yes. Well to answer your first question the first bit of your question is the better half of it because it is more I think a matter of realizing that one isn't, for many of us at any rate. rather than as for some I know, having had beliefs or thought one had them and having them fall away or indeed, suddenly, find then not any longer tenable. I think...[garble]
I must have been 10, I suppose. When I was a little boy, at a little boy's boarding school in Devonshire, my country of birth. Religion is compulsory in English schools, you know. And it's not just taught as a subject but Christianity is taught as true, as well as in scripture lessons. And out scripture teacher, Mrs. Watts, was also our nature teacher. So in very beautiful way taught about birds, trees. I used to know a lot more about all that than I do now. And one day, Mrs. Watts, who was a modest old woman, I think overreached herself and tried to combine role of scripture and nature teaching. And said, you notice, boys, that God has made the vegetation and the trees and the grass very green, a lovely kind of green, which is the most restful colour to our eyes. And imagine instead if they were orange, or puce, or magenta or something. So that shows that God is good. And I remember thinking, 'I know nothing about chlorophyll, photosynthesis, let alone natural selection.' But I remember thinking, 'that's nonsense.' That must be untrue. If either thing adapted to the other, it would have been our eyes to the vegetation, surely. And it's one of those little proofs of a large thing ... Once you have a thought like that you essentially can't unthink it. And I started to notice if I hadn't already, other things about the scriptures too that didn't appeal. So, you couldn't call that a conversion, exactly, or a revelation or a counter-revelation. It was more, as you implied with your first point, discovering this was meaningless to me as a way of thinking.
Geiger: Was that solidified at some point? Were you at university or was there some moment where you felt really an accumulation of these sorts of observations and you felt this is...
Hitchens: Well, I noticed as I grew up, I noticed other things about it. Also, I think in my schools days, I noticed it was a very powerful reinforcement tool for authority. They had the masters of the schools, also the man who conducted the service. Just as Her Majesty the Queen as well as being head of the state, was head of the Church of England. And so, I thought it was extremely convenient for certain kinds of traditional authority to be able to claim some sort of religious justification. And that also put me on my guard against it. I read Betrand Russell's famous book, Why Not Christian, at around that time I would think, and found it fairly persuasive. But of course, for a good bit of time I'm talking about I was born in 1949, I was in university in the 60s and so forth. It was a very political time, but religion wasn't a huge subject. I mean, most people were, if religious, fairly mildly so as is the Anglican communion. What Shelley, in his famous essay, called the necessity of atheism,. wasn't something that troubled me very much. I just thought it was the more intelligent way to think. And I distrusted those who claimed divine authority. There may or may not be a creator, but there's no human being who can speak in his or her name. So it's more in the last few years, it seemed to be a matter of urgency to say the gains made by the Enlightenment, the permission to think about things without religious intimidation really need to be defended and need to be reasserted. That plus the enormous developments in the natural sciences, the amazing discoveries we've recently made about our own nature, through the human genome project, and about, we're only grazing on the outer fringes of it, the nature and origins of the cosmos all seem to me to make the argument a lot clearer and more interesting and more pressing than it used to be. Hence the misleading term new atheist which is applied to people like myself. There's nothing par new about it except with the enormous new discoveries and the way that they've been opposed by some people of faith to say the least, and then the challenge of theocratic barbarism, being felt very immediately. I think that's the one thing that combines me with my co-thinkers on this matter, those we disagree on quite a range of other things.