This interview took place immediately following the spectacular Intelligence Squared debate on the motion, “The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world”, in which Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry annihilated Ann Widdecombe and Archbishop Onaiyekan.
I managed to get this interview partially by good fortune. I’d emailed every and any contact address I could find asking him if I could speak with him after the interview, but I’d received no reply. Some friends and I went to the debate, and afterwards I made a beeline for Hitchens, who was stood outside the private, behind-the-scenes area, and was surrounded by book-wielding fans. He made friendly helloes with a man I didn’t then know very well – Keith Porteous-Wood of the National Secular Society – before turning to me.
I told him I was from the Freethinker, and he gave 21-year-old me a strange look. “Are you serious? It’s not some kind of joke?”, he replied. I’m still not entirely sure what he meant by this, but I’ve since concluded that he was commenting on my youth, relative to the stature of the magazine. When I insisted on my authenticity, he told me to stay with him, and that we’d go backstage to talk. I honestly couldn’t believe how easy it had been; I can only assume one of my emails got to him.
We went backstage and, after he’d returned from the gents, both he and Stephen Fry entered the room I’d been waiting in. Am I the only man to have been alone in a room with Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens? Hitchens immediately sought out a bottle of whisky, and to his irritance, discovered only an empty display box of Johnnie Walker Black. He grumbled a little, before he was collected by a member of staff who wished him to come and do some post-debate interviews (which are somewhere online now), but he insisted that he and I must talk first.
We ended up conducting the interview in a tiny, cramped kitchen, lit by a bright phosphorescent ceiling lamp. I cannot convey quite how surreal the experience was. Half-way through he lit a cigarette, careless of smoke detectors. I told him I’d read he’d quit smoking because of his ailing health. “Please don’t tell anyone about this”, he said. Our heroes are, after all, merely mammals. He hid the cigarette butt in a plastic cup he found, and pushed it deep into the bin.
When we’d finished up, we exited to where the Intelligence Squared crew were nervously hovering. I noticed that he still had with him, attached to a clip board, the notes he’d written for and during the debate. I asked if I could have them. “I don’t see why not”, he replied, “but if I see them on eBay I’ll know it was you.” One day I’ll scan and upload them. It’s not right that only I can read them.
For now you get this, my brief conversation with Christopher Hitchens, one of the strangest, most excellent, most contradictory humans I’ve ever encountered:
How would you respond to the religious apologists who would say that the majority of religious activity is benign in nature?
Well, I have a standard reply, I hope you don’t mind. I’ve evolved it over a lot of debates, and put it to a lot of religious believers and spokesmen, and I’ve never yet had a reply: Name for me a moral action or a moral statement ever made or committed or uttered by a believer, that a non-believer couldn’t have made.
No-one’s ever come up with one. Name for me now a wicked thing done or an evil thing said because of their religion – you’ve already thought of one.
There’s wickedness in print and in action, directly so with religion. Goodness can be found in the giving of yourself to other fellow creatures. And for it’s own sake, I should add, not so you’ll spread the word, sign up more people so you can keep on saying your number is a billion. That’s not a good motive for charity. So, although it’s a question one has to ask, I think it is a fatuous question.
What would you say to those who level accusations of racism against those who criticise Islam? It’s an increasingly popular stance on the Left.
Indeed. The creepy word “islamophobia” has been coined to give the idea, without actually saying so, that quarreling with Islam involves a dislike of Muslims –the majority of whom are darker skinned than I am. But that’s absurd because Islam promises to be a religion of universality. It at least does say that. Some religions aren’t accessible to all. Judaism for example. Well, you can convert, but it’s not quite the same.
Rather more painful to join.
Quite so. There’s always a special preachment. For a long time you couldn’t be black and be a Mormon, for example. In America you could, but you couldn’t be a deacon, and you didn’t really have a soul. That kind of thing. Islam, at least, doesn’t do that. So it’s pathetic to say that there’s any racial prejudice in criticism of Islam, as pathetic as it would be to ask Ann Widdecombe if she thought that being against Catholics meant being against Italians. Which, incidentally, at one point in America, it probably slightly was.
Bush, we discover, told Jacques Chirac that the biblical demons of Gog and Magog were at work in Iraq. Have you heard about that? What are your thoughts?
Yeah, I don’t believe Chirac. I don’t know what the truth of the matter may be, but I do know that Jacques Chirac is an untrustworthy scumbag. And anyway, that’s not the way Bush talks. I don’t believe the Palestinian guy who said that Bush told him that God told him to invade Iraq, either. Bush is a Methodist. What he’s said, and he’s said it often, is that once you’ve worked to a certain point, you can do no more – it’s in God’s hands. That’s fatalism. Actually he’d make a very good Muslim. And if he’d been born in Saudi Arabia, he would be one, just as he’d be a protestant if he was born on the right side of Belfast.
Voltaire once said that the religion of one age becomes the literary entertainment of the next. What do you predict for the future of religion?
Yes, Voltaire is right, of course. But that doesn’t mean that the thing won’t keep on mutating. I mean, I do think we are mammals and primates. We are in some sense programmed to look for patterns, we’re easily scared, and we often put up with a crap theory over no theory at all. And we’re afraid of dying. And we’re only partly rational. Our pre-frontal lobes are too small, our adrenaline glands are too big, because we’re adapted to the savannah, from which we fled. So I think religion is not eradicable, but then, I wouldn’t want it to be eradicated.
I’d be sad, in a way, if it did die out, because it is human. But I think it can be domesticated in the same way as our violent tendencies. We have other anti-social or superstitious tendencies which we can, at least for a while, rid ourselves of. It’s the job of civilization to bring superstition under bounds and keep it there.
If all writings from throughout human history were to be destroyed, and you could choose to save the writings of a single author, who would you choose, and why?
That’s a very good question. Well, here’s what I would look for. I’d look for the author from which you could reconstruct the work of many, many other writers because of references, quotations, allusions that one is supposed to get.
That’s a cunning answer. Very tactical.
Yes, well, that would put Shakespeare very high, for example. From that there’s a great deal of Biblical stuff, classical, Italian renaissance, history, mythology … there’s a huge amount of other learning in it. I don’t think there’s any other writer of bodies of canon in that way. So from that we could work out quite a lot about what we were before, as a species. But for that reason, not because of it’s extraordinary beauty and wisdom. Otherwise it would be Darwin. It would have to be Darwin. His work, too, is full of great references, and teaches us a great deal about the natural world. He was a literary type.
Ah, I had hoped you might say Darwin. That might just be my choice, too.
Next, what can we do, as individuals or groups, to further the cause -if you can call it that- of reason and unbelief?
Well, it may sound like a religious, or confessional answer, but you have to start with yourself. We all have to overcome our own irrationalities and superstitions first. That’s a lifetime of education, and it’s worth having. I try and do it everyday. I expose myself to other people’s opinions, writings and so forth, so that’s the main thing. Oh, and if you do well enough, you might just get asked your opinion.
The other thing is not to give anything the go-by. You have to get up and say no when someone suggests there should be a tax break for churches, or that the bishops should sit in the House of Lords, or anything like it. Oppose anything that trespasses on the secular line of the separation of church and state, because civilization begins where the separation of church and state begins. There are no exceptions to that in any country. So it’s in the general interest, as well as your own, that we patrol that line with great vigilance.
Originally published on October 20 2009 at freethinker.co.uk