“Think for yourself” was the advice given from every available lectern by late writer and antitheist Christopher Hitchens. It was advice given—you can probably guess—as an alternative to the “repressive” belief in God that he had spent his whole life trying to extinguish from the world.
I was watered, as a young weed, by pretty language. A major early distraction of mine was marveling at others’ clever stylings in speech. It was not difficult to get an idea into my head, provided that idea was wrapped and bowed in eloquent, musical prose.
How unlucky I was, in light of this, to have stumbled upon Christopher Hitchens, the reigning king of rhetoric, still reigning from beyond the grave. Never has someone so confused me. Never have I been so incensed, so disgusted by the bile and bigotry that came from a man’s mouth while simultaneously, grudgingly in love with how he managed to put it into spoken and written word. What a magnificent, dangerous mind. If I’d had any remaining hesitations in my disdain for religion as a young man, it was hearing Hitchens that removed them. Not through reason, or historical accuracy, but through rousing, commanding, beautiful, devastating language. My relationship with him and his work remains, to this day, complicated—even as a member of a religion for which he reserved particularly hot blood.
Hitchens’ history of idol-smashing extends further back than the publication of his bestselling book God Is Not Great: Why Religion Poisons Everything. He began his writing career a Marxist (specifically, a Trotskyist) before switching loyalties late in life to an odd mix of Jeffersonian conservatism and Cheney-flavored imperialism. What seems to have remained constant, however, is a defiant streak that bordered on a chronic inability to respect any kind of authority. He was a passionately independent man until his last breath. In his words: “My own opinion is enough for me, and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, any place, any time.”
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It seems to me that it was this inability to be contained that was at the heart of his antitheism. Simply put, he couldn’t stand the idea of being told what to do, or what to think. Be that as it may, Hitchens went looking for more attractive, more intelligent reasons to rage against religion, and he found what seemed to him a honeypot in the European Age of Enlightenment.
For those unfamiliar, the Enlightenment was a period of intellectual renaissance in 18th-century Europe. Philosophers like Locke, Kant, Voltaire, and Spinoza all worked to revive the Ancient Greek ideals of reason, rationality, empiricism, and free thought, in order to break from what they saw as a dark age of religious authoritarianism. Though few of them abandoned the idea of God altogether, most of them seemed to think that it would be a good idea to step back from the more complicated points of theology and religious thought. Locke, for example, a Christian, seemed to settle on the conclusion that belief in Jesus as a savior was enough. To contemplate anything further would ultimately lead to the religious conflicts that he and his contemporaries were actively trying to avoid.
Hitchens went further than his Enlightenment heroes. Not only did he lift from them a love for the above-mentioned Greek values of reason, free reign of thought, etc., but he took those values to an extreme (rather like the fundamentalists he was so fond of criticizing). The result was a complete souring to the institution of religion—a desire to have the religious impulse ripped from human nature. Why? Hitchens was glad to explain: “To ‘choose’ dogma and faith over doubt and experience is to throw out the ripening vintage and to reach greedily for the Kool-Aid.”
In his assessment, religion is not only improbable—it is anti-intellectual. Wherever religion has predominated, Greek free thought has suffered, leaving its human victims in a “mammalian,” “stone-age” state, stripped of the ability to practice Hitchens’ golden rule of “think[ing] for yourself.”
The reader will forgive me for so often bringing up the word “irony” in this series. It is simply unavoidable when dealing with these arguments. The irony here—a delicious irony—is that these aforementioned Greek principles, which Hitchens considers anti-religious, would not be appreciated to the same degree today were it not for generations of believers.
It was Arab Muslim scholars, during the Golden Age of Islam (8th – 13th centuries CE), who produced some of the most significant commentaries on Aristotle, Plato, and other Classical Philosophers. Enlightenment thinkers like Spinoza later used these Muslim commentaries in the formation of their own work. So strong was the Islamic influence that Ibn Rushd (known by the Latin name ‘Averroes’), has been called “the founding father of secular thought in Western Europe.”
These feats were possible because the thinkers of the Golden Age were not intimidated by thought that was inconsistent with their own. Instead, they used dissenting sources to sharpen their own theology, sometimes even learning lessons and adjusting dogma in response. For example, Ibn Rushd drew from Aristotelian philosophy to propose that God operated through set laws of nature, contradicting the prevailing belief of his time that God, through direct exertion, caused every event in the universe individually to unfold.
In short, Hitchens’ prized Enlightenment ideals which are in part the fruit of religious minds. His personal “emancipation” from the “shackles” of religion is owed in no small way to labors in the name of God. As such, to say that religion discourages free thought or dissent is to show a complete ignorance to the centuries of serious developments by religious scholars not only in matters of theology, but in secular philosophy, literature, medicine, and the natural and social sciences from which we (Hitchens included) have benefited in a very concrete sense even today. Had these men not “thought for themselves,” and excelled at it, Hitchens is not likely to have been able to utter this same condescending piece of advice centuries after.
Of course, it’s not only in lofty, stuffy, scholarly pursuits that Hitchens insists that religion stifles free thought. In humanitarian causes, such as the abolition of slavery or the liberation of women, he also claims that we fall short.
Ironic again, coming from a man who went on record calling himself “not particularly a feminist,” and claiming of women: “they’re called the gentle sex for a good reason.”
Meanwhile, the Qur’an is ‘guilty’ of the following anti-feminism:
- I do not waste the deed of any doer among you, any male or female. The one of you is as the other. [ Sûrat Âl-ʿImrân, 3:195, Ghali trans.]
- Women fought alongside Prophet Muhammad ﷺ in the Muslims’ war of liberation from the Quraysh. In the 7th century Muslim women were given rights under the revelation of the Qur’an (i.e. the right to divorce, and to their own earnings) that had been previously withheld from them in pre-Islamic Arab Culture.
In the west (19th-20th centuries CE), Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, Dorothy Day, and a horde of other women’s rights activists found inspiration in their liberal spin on Christianity for their causes of women’s liberation, suffrage, and equal rights under the law.
For the student of history, I’m sure it’s unnecessary to remind you that the American abolitionist movement was Christian in ethics and nature. The Qur’an also speaks of the virtue in those who free slaves (90:4-13, 2:177).
The itching doubt in the back of your skull is undoubtedly this: what about the passages in the Bible, the Qur’an, and other holy books that might seem to explicitly endorse anti-feminist and pro-slavery behaviors? I won’t lie to you; there are many that exist. To discuss their validity or invalidity is something that would take volumes. Indeed, whole movements in theology have been devoted to doing so. Instead, I will say this: discussions are taking place. The consensus nearly everywhere in the modern Islamic world is that the act of keeping slaves is no longer in line with the tradition. Similar progress has been made in the Jewish and Christian worlds.
As in the non-religious world, feminism is something still actively debated in all three of these Abrahamic traditions. Arguments exist from all angles, some more convincing than others. Depending on her/his reading of the Qur’an, one Muslim may be far more amenable to women’s liberation than another.
But this alone is enough to squeeze the air from Hitchens’ premise. The world of religion that he imagines—one governed by lines of dusty, placid text unchanged and unchallenged for centuries—is one that has never existed. More lifetimes than are possible to count have been devoted to wrestling with and disagreeing over our everyday creeds, agonizing over single words, drawing from them more life than can be found in whole epics. And this effort is important; along the way, civilization has seen many victories.
I have spoken of a few ironies in this episode. The final one is this: in a self-described effort to free the world from dogmatism and unswaying thinking, Hitchens invented his own reality and then put a stopper on dissent. To challenge him was to tempt his skill for exacting very public, very personal humiliation, leaving no option but to accept his words as sacred. I encourage you to follow the man’s own advice: Think for yourself. Do not accept his reality simply because it is forced on you.