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Author and athiest Christopher Hitchens (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Author and athiest Christopher Hitchens (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)


Interview: Christopher Hitchens, on not believing Add to ...

Geiger: You write that your own particular atheism is very much a protestant atheism, that you, I guess it comes out of your own experience when you were young. But is there something peculiar to the King James Bible or to the Church of England practice of faith that you think inspired your journey.

Hitchens: No. All I mean by that is the kind of atheist I originally was, was someone who felt very taken by, or stricken by love for what some have called the authorized or the King James version of the Bible. ... I found that it didn't answer, it didn't answer morally, it didn't answer philosophically. It was that that I cut my teeth on. Friends of mine who are a former Shi'a 12th imam, believers for example, have had a totally different experience coming through to the other side. But I must say I recognize their dilemma. They were told to do it. 12 imams, one of whom has gone missing, who is only waiting to return. I think that reminds me of something, almost certainly plagiarized from an original, not very persuasive script. But I think people have all to find their own way. What I do find is what the experience of unbelief in formal belief is remarkably similar. Very, very similar. So I deduce from that, that the original beliefs are probably very similar too. For all the outward discrepancy, the willingness on their part to make a cause of war. If you look at the number of Shia muslims who've been killed by Sunni Muslims in the last year, it vastly exceeds the number of casualties inflicted in the Iran, excuse me, the Iraq or Afghanistan conflicts by the other side.

Geiger: Many people, I think, derive a pleasure value from religion in part because of the ceremony. Does ritual play a part in your own life? Is there some aspect of that that's missing?

Hitchens: I say in the opening of God is Not Great, that one of the huge advantages or being a non-believer is that you don't have to keep on reinforcing your non-belief by going to ceremonies. And in the keeping of company, sort of try to make it seem more true because it's being affirmed in a crowd. Or by ritual, or by incantation of any sort. We don't need that. And I can run into a non-believer who I haven't known before and in a very short time discover roughly what we have in common. But we don't have to keep reminding ourselves, hey, remember, keep the faith on this point. It's absolutely what we don't need. I don't even belong to any atheist or secular group for example. I'm a little suspicious of people who do. Though I can understand how many of them feel isolated, especially in some parts of the United States. But I think the need for that reaffirmation is kind of a pathetic thing, even when it can have beautiful outcomes, as in certain celebrations ...

If some people, nonetheless do find it comforting or consoling, I say I wish them joy with it. I just don't want to have to hear about it. In other words, I don't want at Christmas time, to know anything the government says or does, such as displays of Christmas trees or indeed, Santa Claus, or nativity scenes, or anything of this sort. ... I don't want them teaching it in school. I don't want them asking for government subsidies for it. I don't want them saying it's illegal to ridicule it. All of these things they do, all the time. I'd prefer not to have to know what these people think. Isn't it enough for them that they have a God who loves them and will give them salvation? I mean, if I believed that, I'd be happy. They're not happy. They won't be happy until everyone else believes it too. And that's surely a very bad sign and it's a sign of intellectual and moral weakness.

Geiger: You don't have a Christmas tree, I take it.

Hitchens: Sure, I do. As long as I've been a father, I've always had one. And I have Passover as well, in homage to another tradition of which I have a partial claim.

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