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Does Atheism Poison Everything?

Does Atheism Poison Everything?

¿El ateísmo lo envenena todo?

Christopher Hitchens, David Berlinski

David Berlinski: The proposition before us is atheism poisons everything. Ladies and gentlemen, I’m perfectly aware, and you should be too, that that proposition is fully compatible with the proposition that religion poisons something. Were Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins tomorrow to announce that they were prepared to invade Hell in order to roust a variety of pederastic priests, I would wish them well, although for reasons of personal inconvenience, I could not join them.

In some respects, as Doctor Johnson once said, the proposition that atheism poisons everything hardly requires a defense. “The inquiry is not needed,” he said. The last state in which atheism was a possibility in social thought was also the last state in which it was a plausibility in social thought. I ask you to cast your mind back to all around 1790 and 1791 in Paris, France in front of the cathedral of Notre Dame, and standing there, as somewhat elaborated by my historical imagination, is [Maximilien] Robespierre (reed-thin, narrow green-eyed, fanatical, rabid as a bat) and [Georges] Danton (large, boisterous, and remarkably eloquent), and they’re looking at Notre Dame and one guys says to the other, what should we do with this pile of Gothic junk? And the answer is, let’s rename it. Good idea, what should we call it—each man was hoping they would call it after themselves, but that was not to be.

Robespierre came up with the wonderful idea; let’s call it the Temple of Reason. Good thinking, his companion said. The Temple of Reason. That works splendidly—it means nothing, but it works splendidly. We might as well have called it the Temple of Evidence, the Temple of Rationality. What should we do next was the question, and the inevitable answer—the answer known from historical circumstances—is well, let’s go out and kill a lot of people. And that’s exactly what they did. Once they had renamed Notre Dame the Temple of Reason, it was relatively easy to go out and kill 50,000 innocent men, women, and children. That, I submit to you, is the nature of the proposition we are discussing.

1851, sixty years later, an age of remarkable progress, enlightenment, and a wonderful sense of material possibility. Matthew Arnold, in a poem entitled Dover Beach, reflected on the decline of religious faith in Europe—“Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar”. He didn’t see anything particularly optimistic in that withdrawal, and he could think to say to himself and his readers this, only this—“Ah, my beloved, let us be true/ To one another.” My beloved, true to one another. “For the world, which lies about us like a land of dreams so various, so beautiful, so new, hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,/ Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;/ And here we are as on a darkling plain/ Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/ Where ignorant armies clash by night.” This is a prophetic declaration from the heart of the progressive enlightenment of the 19th century. In 1914, surveying the carnage that was to come, the foreign secretary of Great Britain said, again prophetically, “The lights are going out all over Europe.” The lights, what a strange word. “We shall not see them lit again in our time.”

Ladies and gentlemen, I submit to you that the 20th century was a record in Germany, Russia, China, Cambodia, and elsewhere of remarkable stupidity, brutality, and violence, but of unparalleled brutality, stupidity, and violence. And each of the regimes behind this remarkable decay of civilization had features in common, two characteristics we should bear in mind. In the first place, the men guiding these regimes and their entourage did not believe for a moment that there was any power higher than their own. And they acted on that assumption. In the second place, in the mass murders they conducted, they were aided and supported by any number of crackpot scientific disciplines. That makes for a characteristic combination. In the case of the Nazis, the scientific disciplines were derived from biology, especially from Darwinian biology. In 1937 having murdered 70,000 handicapped men, women, and children, the Nazis released a film and on the background of the film the narrator says in terms of solemn comprehension, “My goodness, we have sinned against the law of natural selection.” The law of natural selection. What could that mean? We have sinned against the law of natural selection. The communists, of course, had an equally crackpot theory they had derived from Marxian economic—the two crackpotteries joining in one deeply repugnant stream.

As all of you know, atheism today is not simply the private doctrine of a handful of individuals, it’s become a social movement. And as a social movement, it has been advanced chiefly by the scientific community—certainly in the United States, but to a large extent in Europe too. Some of this is adventitious. A few popular writers, such as Richard Dawkins, discovered that by writing books indicating that science has shown that God does not exist, well, they can make a fortune. I’m very sorry I wasn’t there to join them. I didn’t think of it at the time. I’m quite sure that someone now is writing a book how margarine science shows that God does not exist. But the inevitable consequence of this degree of atheism within the scientific community has involved a deformation of scientific thought quite striking in its character and its extent. After all, the sciences, if we restrict our attention to the serious sciences, and those may be found in mathematics or mathematical physics and no other place, then we must recognize that those serious sciences have nothing to say about the existence of God either in their premises or in their conclusions. What a remarkable fact that that people are writing books how physics show that God does not exist, but physics has nothing to say about the existence of God. The aching questions that trouble the human imagination about which the sciences, when seriously considered, are resolutely silent, [the questions] remain just as they were. And the religious tradition, especially the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, has offered a coherent body of belief and doctrine by which they can be explained. Do we understand why the universe arose 14 billion [years ago]? No, we don’t. Do we understand why it’s there at all? No, we have no idea. Do we understand how life emerged on Earth? Not a prayer right now. Do we understand the complexity of life? We can’t even begin to describe a living creature in anything resembling precise terms. A recent article in Science Digest [said] that cell division requires four thousand coordinated proteins acting together. What a remarkable statement. What a wealth of information we possess about biology. What an abundant lack of understanding we have about living systems. Do we understand why the laws of nature are true? No, we have no idea. Do we understand the miracle of analytic continuation in physics—when certain kinds of functions can be pushed forward into the future contrary to all experience? Do we understand why the universe remains stable from moment to moment? The medievals pondered this question. Ladies and gentlemen they came to the conclusion, and I quote a Medieval theologian, that “God is everywhere conserving the world.” What a remarkable declaration—can we do without it? Do we have an explanation for the continuity and stability of the universe? There is one paper that I know of in the literature by Freeman Dyson that addresses the stability of matter, but beyond that, everything is enigmatic. How can we propose, seriously and solemnly, to rule out of court in advance a hypothesis that not only answers to the human heart in many respects, but that answers to genuine intellectual needs in other respects? When one sees the American scientific community like a herd of wildebeests trotting across a fruited plain, it’s very reasonable to ask are they going someplace or are they fleeing from someplace? And I think the overwhelmingly obvious answer is that they are fleeing. They are fleeing from an idea that they reject for a variety of reasons. Not only is the inquiry about atheism not necessary in terms of the history of social thought, it’s not necessary in terms of the outline of scientific thought.

But there is a last question to be addressed. [It is] perhaps the most important for you and me. The cosmologist Joel Primack asked an interesting question. He asked what compels the electron to follows the laws of nature. Good question. I don’t know. But Heinrich Himmler, who had presided over the destruction of churches and synagogues throughout Europe and was the mastermind behind the extermination of the Jewish people, asked a very similar question in 1944. When confronted with the onerous treaty obligations the German state had adopted with respect to its own satraps, he asked insouciantly but pregnantly, “After all, what compels us to keep our promises?” Moral relativism is very often derided as an unhappy consequence of atheism. I don’t think moral relativism is a particularly deep issue, but I do think the issue of what compels us to keep our promises is very relevant.

I have in front of me a rather remarkable button. If you should press it, yours would be untold riches and whatever else you desire. The only consequence to pressing it beyond your happiness is the death of an anonymous Chinese peasant. Who among us would you trust with this button?

Christopher Hitchens: Let’s take, instead of Notre Dame and the famous story of its deconsecration by Danton and Robespierre, the erection of the other most prominent église of Paris—the one you see on your way in from the airport. The grand wedding cake-style erection of Sacré-Cœur, the Sacred Heart, built on top of the commanding heights of Montmartre. Why? [It was] built to celebrate the massacre of Parisian workers and intellectuals after the Paris Commune of 1871, [which] tried to save the honor of a humiliated France that had thrown itself officially and was thrashing at the feet of Bismarck and its Prussian invaders. Many, many more people were killed in that massacre and in that terrible reprisal than were killed in the Reign of Terror, and it wasn’t enough, that was the case, that a whole church had to be consecrated by the French religious, clerical establishment, and their political allies to celebrate the massacre of their fellow countrymen. Now, does this prove that religion poisons everything? By no means does it do so. Does it help to understand the terrible century which Professor Berlinski and I have both studied? Yes, to a degree it does. This branch of clerical right-wing goes on to the terrible arraignment and frame-up of Captain Alfred Dreyfus—possibly the most serious miscarriage of justice, the most thoroughgoingly-justified in advance by a political establishment in modern European history. This and the sides taken in it determine who will be who in the terrible war of 1914, which Diarmaid MacCulloch—admired by Larry Taunton, among others, as a historian of Christianity and very much venerated by me—in his magnificent new history of the first 2,000 years of Christianity describes as a theocratic war. Christendom as we used to understand it, as our fathers and grandfathers used to understand it, ends in 1914 when every country goes to war in the name of its own god or church. King George VI is the king emperor and head of the Church of England. The tsar of Russia is the head of the Orthodox Church, and is considered to be not a god but a little bit more than a human being. You know the rest of it. It’s the first time that “Gott mit uns (God with us)” is put on the belt buckles—but not the last time—of the German army, and this is the end of Christendom and the curtain-raiser to fascism. Without that terrible war of Christendom, it’s impossible that the totalitarian movements that became such a threat to civilization could have arisen in the first place. And just to stay with France, it is the Vichy—the collaborationists regime, the round-upper of French Jews, the massacre agent of the French colonies , the collaborator with the Third Reich—that strikes from the French coinage the noble words “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” and replaces them with the Catholic slogan “Travail, famille, patrie”; and under this, France fell to the lowest point of its history.

I’m with [Berlinski] on the larger point [he] made, and I’ll also try to illustrate it from the work, actually, of a great Anglo-Catholic, Anglo-American poet—Thomas Stearns Eliot—who, in his choruses from “The Rock” asks the question, “Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” This question has to preoccupy us all. When I am told—and I suppose in one way you could accuse me of taking it on faith, because I couldn’t prove it for myself and having it demonstrated to me, I probably couldn’t repeat the demonstration—but having been told by Stephen Hawking, Lawrence Krauss, and all the leaders in the field of physics that we now estimate that there about a total of 400 billion galaxies—that’s not universes or solar systems, but 400 billion galaxies—and [told that] one sun has been going out every second since the big bang, so that’s quite a long while I’m talking about. This is more than we can handle. We cannot say we know about this. It can be argued that all that was indeed set in motion with the intention of producing on a very small planet, in a very small solar system, in a tiny neglected suburb of a relatively unimportant galaxy a race of beings—primates, but capable of language and reason, who believe, if they make the right propitiations, they could live forever. You could say that all that gigantic explosion and destruction was designed with that in mind, but I wouldn’t take your word for it. It seems to me that the burden is not on me. I don’t have to prove that kind of thing. I don’ make the equivalent claim that the religious person has to make. The religious person doesn’t have to just say, “Of course, God wanted it that way, and that’s the way it is, because a design of that kind doesn’t just imply a designer, it implicates a designer.” If there is such a designer, he’s fantastically destructive and wasteful as he is a microcosm. 99.8% of all species ever on this earth have already become extinct. This is a wasteful, capricious designer—I can’t prove that that isn’t the way He wanted it to be, but I can say that there’s an implication for the designer. But again, it’s not me who’s saying that if you believe in it, you have the means of grace, the hope of glory, the possibility of redemption, the vicarious salvation, the forgiveness of sins through human sacrifice, and eternal life. We can’t attempt and don’t try anything like that.

So, the agnostic or the deist is not arbitrating between equal kinds of certainty. Those who are certain in the face of all this uncertainty, the strongest ground of agreement between me and Dave, are bound to say—if they’re arbitrating it properly—the first people to leave the island are the ones who say they already know enough, that they know why this is happening, that they know the mind of God. Those who claim the certainty are out of the argument. The argument then goes on between deists, agnostics, and atheists how to make sense of what we know, and how can we—in doing so—be true to the great principle elaborated by Socrates, which is this: you must educate yourself by striving constantly, as hard as you can, to get to the point of understanding your own ignorance. Only then can you claim to have any acquaintance with knowledge at all. That’s the appropriate and due modesty that the founder of our school brought to the question. And there’s no proof that Socrates ever existed. I tend to think from the eyewitness accounts and secondhand ones that he did, but it doesn’t matter to me whether he existed or not. We have the method. He taught us how to think. If I was to tell Larry that the Jesus who is so real to him is in fact or could be proved to be a fictitious person, a mythical individual, it would have to ruin comrade Taunton’s day. Not just his day, his life. It would extinguish his hope. Is there not something slightly fanatical in placing such large claims—remember the size of the claims I’m talking about—on such a slender and narrow basis.

Until 17,000 years ago, only in one case, and not many more years than others, there were at least three other hominid or human species. Primates like us with large brain pans and language capacity. In the case of Neanderthals [they had] very significantly decorated graves, which suggests the idea of a ritual and a religion. They have genes in common with us, they are of our species, and they’ve left important traces. They weren’t very well understood or in some cases known at all, as in the case of the Flores Islands in the Indonesian archipelago, but there they always were. They were our brothers and our sisters and our kin, and they had all these yearnings, hopes, terrors, and fears; and they’re not in Genesis, and they’ve had no one to visit their graves or do them honor until very recently. So, I just think it’s worth brooding since we talk about ourselves as the objects of a tremendous cosmic and biological process that was set in motion, supervised, and—if it’s to be believed—designed and intended, I just think we should take a moment of silence and think of our fellow humans, our fellow creatures, our fellow already extinct member of our species to whom we might spare a little thought before we go on. I’m in your debt and I’ll be back. Thanks.


Berlinski: There’s a disturbing area of agreement that I sense between Mr. Hitchens and myself, which I will do my best to minimize. Please remember, ladies and gentlemen, that when it comes to the wickedness of religion, I’ve conceded the point. It’s no longer argumentative. I would argue, however, a remark Dr. Johnson made about Original Sin. I’m paraphrasing, but he said the inquiry is not necessary, for all the laws of Heaven and Earth are unable to prevent men from their crimes. Now, Mr. Hitchens is very much in the position of someone watching a cripple walking painfully with two crutches, moving arduously, and saying to himself and to you, “I’ve got a great idea; kick one of the crutches away. Everything will be so much better.” That seems to me a weak argument. A weak argument. Not an impossible argument; I would welcome the defense of the argument. But, it is no rebuttal to my position that atheism poisons everything, that religion poisons something. There are plenty of poisons in the world. We don’t lack in abundance. The second point I would like to mention is this strange enchantment with the views of say, Lawrence Krauss or Stephen Hawking. You know, Stephen Hawking just published a book, and I don’t know whether any of you have yet seen it. It is, again, a book explaining how everything began, why it’s there, why we shouldn’t worry about God, and a multitude of other subjects. He published it in collaboration with a friend of mine, Leonard Mlodinow, and of course, the lines are very deep in the bookstores; and to paraphrase the claim that he now makes, having given up on “A” through “N”, he now champions something called M-theory. The claim he now makes is that the universe just blasted itself into existence, following the laws of M-theory. I don’t deny what Hawking has said. I do not endorse it; I haven’t read the book (although I have read his other books). I respect Hawking as a reputable physicist who did great work 30-40 years ago. But, I can tell you this. What is lamentably lacking in every one of these discussions is that coruscating spirit of skepticism which a Christopher Hitchens or a Richard Dawkins would bring to religious claims, and then lapses absurdly when it comes to scientific claims. Surely, we should have the sophistication to wonder at any asseveration of the form that the universe just blasted itself into existence following the laws of M- theory— a theory no one can understand, whose mathematical formulism hasn’t been completed, which has never once been tested in any laboratory on the face of the Earth. The third and final point of the rebuttal, the fact that the Earth, our home, is a small part of the physical universe does not mean it is not the center of the universe. That is a non-sequitur. After all, no one would argue, least of all Mr. Hitchens, that the doctrine that home is where the heart lies is rendered false by distance. We should be very careful about making these claims. I agree that the universe is very big, lots of galaxies, and amazing things. And there is certainly some continuity between humans and the animals that came before. But as for the central religious claim that this particular place is blessed and important, that’s different. No doctrine about physical size rebuts it.

Hitchens: Atheism by itself is not a moral position. It is simply the refusal to believe in the supernatural dimension or a supernatural supervisor or dictator. It is the maintenance of the view that though it cannot be disproved, no good evidence has ever been deduced from it nor any good argument put forward for it. But that’s where it ends. You can be an atheist and a nihilist. You can be an atheist and a sadist. As is said in Dostoevsky’s famous passage in The Brothers Karamazov, without God, anything is possible. Anything is doable, thinkable. Of course, that’s open immediately to the objection that anyone who says they have God on their side also wants themselves, and you can see it happening by opening the newspaper, the right to commit any crime, however ghastly. There’s no escape from certain psychopathic human beings, who either for want of supervision or by invoking that they are the agents of a divine supervisor, will do anything at all. That gets us no further forward. You can be an atheist and a fascist, though most fascists were Christian. You can be an atheist and a communist; most, but not all, communists were non-believers by definition. You can be an atheist and perfectly indifferent to your fellow creatures, but there is a humanism within atheism. It starts, I think, with Lucretius who put the atomic theory of Democritus and Epicurus into a wonderful poem that effectively suggested not that people were using religion as a crutch, as [Berlinski] in such a domesticated way put it, but that instead on a very hot day, they were putting on a very large overcoat and dragging a ball and chain. Oh dear, my crops have failed, I didn’t make enough sacrifices. Oh God, I’ve had a filthy thought. Now I’m going to Hell or my children are because I didn’t baptize them. Man-forged manacles of terror, ignorance, and stupidity, the emancipation of which our species has been millimetrically slow, but in which materialists and atheist thinkers have played a great part. Without Lucretius, you would only have to read Galileo’s work. He was inspired by the work of Lucretius; he considered himself to be very lucky to possess one of the very few copies of Lucretius’s work that was not destroyed in the Christian centuries in the hope to putting an end to such terrible, unwise speculations; as so much of Galileo’s work was either destroyed or censored. On the slow, the thread is passed on. It is picked up by the greatest Jew who ever breathed, Baruch Spinoza, changing his name after his excommunication from the synagogue to Benedict. He said if there’s a God, He’s pantheistic in nature. There is no personal God, prayers are not answered, divine interventions do not occur. The consolations of philosophy must be resorted to. From him and people like him we get the Enlightenment in which not only Danton and Robespierre, which, ladies and gentlemen, had their share, but Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson and the founders of this great republic. This is not a tradition in which anyone on my side may be ashamed. And of course, not all of this is atheist, some of it is deist, but it becomes more atheist as Darwin and Einstein and others approach us with their mind-boggling, mind-altering findings.

You may, perhaps, will say it’s a coincidence that Einstein was expelled by the Third Reich, along with anyone else who understood anything about biology and physics, as a practitioner of Jewish science. I’m sorry, the area of agreement has just contracted, sir. For you to say of Nazism that is was the implementation of the works of Charles Darwin is a filthy slander, undeserving of you and an insult to this audience. Darwin’s thought was not taught in Germany. Darwinism was derided in Germany, along with every other form of unbelief. All the great modern atheist thinkers (Darwin, Einstein, and Freud) were alike despised by the Nationalist Socialist Regime. And it is said, I believe it to be true, that a misprint in one of the German editions of On the Origin of Species from which the full statement that evolution requires the survival of the fittest is taken—a statement never made by Darwin, who as anyone knows, says adaptability is what is likeliest to give survival or luck or advantage, we better say. Now, just to take the most notorious 20th century totalitarianisms, the most finished example, the most effective one, the most ruthless and refined one—that of National Socialism. The one that fortunately allowed the escape of all these great atheist thinkers and many others to the United States, the country of the separation of Church and State, which gave them welcome. If it’s an atheistic regime, then how come in the first chapter of Mein Kampf, Hitler says he is doing God’s work, and executing God’s will in destroying the Jewish people? How come the Führer oath that every officer of the party and army had to take, making Hitler into a minor god, begins with, “I swear in the name of Almighty God my loyalty to the Führer”? How come on the belt buckle of every Nazi soldier it says “Gott mit uns (God on our side)”? How come that the first treaty made by the Nationalist Socialist dictatorship is with the Vatican, exchanging political control of Germany for Catholic control of German education? How come the Church has celebrated the birthday of the Führer every year until democracy put an end to this filthy, quasi-religious, superstitious, barbarous, reactionary system? Again, this is not a difference in emphasis between us. To suggest that there’s something fascistic about me and my beliefs is something I won’t hear said and you shouldn’t believe.


Moderator to Hitchens: What are the weaknesses of Pascal’s Wager?

Hitchens: Well, sometimes known in the West as Pascal’s Gambit, which I think is suggestive coinage. It’s obviously a very hucksterish claim—or offer, I need to say. It’s pretty cheap and pretty vulgar, I would say, especially so when offered to people who are dying, ill, frightened, or are extremists. I think it’s a distinctly nasty and sharp practice to try it on them, but I think it’s pretty nasty and sharp at the same time. And you’ll notice that it postulates, and here are its other weaknesses, two things. One, a very cynical and gullible god who will, if I say to him, “Tell you what. I’ll give up convictions for a lifetime, putting myself at your feet, pretend I believe. Hope you’re impressed,” would go, “Yeah, that’s progress.” In other words you get no reward for intellectual consistency, courage, honesty, or anything of that sort. Of course, as with all these human-made ideas of these divine tribunals, there are no lawyers to represent you, no appeal, and no opportunity to produce any evidence. I pass over that lightly and say, what does it ask also to be wagered? It asks for someone to be a credulous, cringing, unprincipled serf who says sure, what are principles for if not to be sold in the hope for a future boon. Well, those are the largest shortcomings of Pascal’s Wager and, by implication, all other religious reasoning about death, Judgment, and the other last things.

Moderator to Berlinski: What are the strengths of Pascal’s Wager?

Berlinski: [No answer]

Hitchens: And that’s coming from a distinguished mathematician. They still don’t know.

Moderator: Christopher Hitchens, would you agree with the following statement made by Sam Harris: “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them”?

Hitchens: You would be idle in dismissing it at the first reading. Obviously Sam has put it at its most blunt, but I’ll give you a very practical example of a current theocratic dictatorship. We’ve all wondered, at least everyone of my age when they were small, what will happen the day a really nasty guy gets hold of a bad weapon? That’s how I thought about it when I was seven. I would now say what happens when a Messianic regime gets hold of an apocalyptic weapon? Well, we’re about to find out, and the people who have plagiarized the ingredients of this weapon; stole it by piracy on the high seas; broken every international law, every agreement, every treaty they signed with the U.N., and so forth, are governed by the totalitarian theory called Wilayat al Faqih, the Guardianship of the Jurists or Supreme Leader—notice again, another supreme leader, another divinely-inspired dictator whose word can’t be challenged and who wants to bring on the end of days. It’s not the least of my dislikes of religion that it has openly or covertly expressed a wish, a clear one, for the end of the world. It does not like this world, it wants it to finish. People who are in the process of acquiring the secular weaponry with which they wish to bring about genocide deserve, I think, to have their ideology treated as toxic and its characters as dangerous vermin. And, as like pirates and terrorists, people who it is lawful to destroy. Yes, so to that extent, I’m with Sam.

Moderator: Dr. Berlisnki. You’re not a Christian, and indeed, you’re not religious as I understand it. Why do you argue for the influence of Christianity or a Judeo-Christian influence in society?

Berlisnki: I presume you are not asking me that in the hopes of a personal declaration. I argue for a great many things that are mostly involved in topics for debate is variable. This particular question strikes me as more important and more demanding of the personal involvement than most. I think the issue is tremendously significant. I think if we’re honest about the times in which we live in, it’s quite right what Matthew Arnold suggested, that the Sea of Faith has been receding under the power of a variety of forces. The results have in a certain way been catastrophic for the human race. I should not say that the secular Jew has remarkable degree of authority when it comes to these events. After all, I have lived my own life under the impress of having a good time, all the time. On the other hand, it doesn’t hurt to hear these words from someone such as myself, because at least you are hearing these words from someone with no conceivable bias in their favor. I count myself as an objective observer of these circumstances. So perhaps, that is the only reasonable answer I can give. These are important questions that have had horrific consequences in human history, and they continue to have horrific consequences, especially in intellectual history. And as to why should a secular Jew open his mouth to questions pertaining to the Christian religion? It’s a big tent. I’m presuming I would be welcomed.

Moderator: Hitchens. What specific teachings of Jesus do you believe to be evil or poisonous?

Hitchens: The concept of vicarious redemption is the most repulsive, I think, and the most central one. I could take a lot of peripheral utterances of the Nazarene or alleged utterances, but the inescapable one, the one none of his followers troubles to deny is the idea that by throwing your sins onto somebody else, a scapegoat, you can have them annealed or abolished. That is a disgusting and immoral doctrine. If I care for you enough, I can pay your debt, even if you incurred it out of your own stupid irresponsibility. I could, if I wished, and it’s been done, offer to take your place in prison, but not many people will allow the exchange. Or if you were a hostage. I could do that if I loved you enough, and there are a number of examples if people willing to put themselves forth as the substitute of someone else’s execution. I suppose Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities is the best known folkloric one, but you cannot relieve people of their responsibility. It is immoral to offer to do so, and it would be disgusting if it could be done. So, the moral rot of Christianity is exposed in its central doctrine of vicarious forgiveness. It’s an abdication of moral responsibility. I think the idea of taking no thought for tomorrow—the instructions are abandon your family, if you don’t, you are one who hates me. Give up investment, any thought of a future, children, anything of the sort. Forget all that, and follow me is moral only on one condition: the world is about to come to an end. And that only those who stick by me, a familiar trope used by deluded prophets throughout the ages, are gonna get out of it. Again, I would say a multiply wicked thing to be saying. We would be so much better off without this cult. We would think so much more clearly about the real moral questions that confront us.

Moderator: Given this choice and no other, would you prefer a secular or an Islamic Europe?

Berlinski: What, my dear sir, makes you think it is a choice right now? Large portions of Europe are already Islamic. You mean, how would I adjust the European continent? I have no opinion. Why should I judge the European continent? As far as I can tell, having conducted a relationship with the Arab community for more than eleven years, I have no objections to Muslims in Europe.

Hitchens: David, do you mind if I breach German convention and talk one degree, so that I can advance that better?

Berlinski: Sure.

Hitchens: Implied in your view that atheism poisons everything is, is it not—and I think this is the intention of the question anyway, that I would be better off as a Wahhabi as I would as an atheist. Now, what I think Larry was trying to ask you was, do you seriously maintain any such thing? Would Europe be better religious but Islamic, or without God, I think is the question, is it not? I miniaturized it for myself. I advise you take another run at it.

Moderator: This is a forced choice. Which would you prefer to live in an Islamic Europe or, and you do live in Europe, a secular one?

Berlinski: The trouble is that the question has no provocative urgency for me. It has none whatsoever. I mean, it’s like asking what would you rather be dressed in, gold or silver? It’s not a living issue.

Moderator: Christopher, do you believe that all religions are equally poisonous?

Hitchens: My beloved younger daughter became a senior at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., so at least I know that she is under serious police guard during the day, and, as its name implies, it’s a Quaker foundation where if she hasn’t understood the story of Frederick Douglass , Elizabeth Katy Stanton, and many other people by now, it’s not for want of trying. And so, would I not be demagogic if I said that Quakerism is to me exactly the same as Wahhabism, the Twelver Shiite theory, or Khomeini’s theory of velayat-e faqih? Of course not. But different religions do take their turn at bat, I think, to show how dangerous their religious propositions are. Quakers, for example, expelled from their ranks those who supported the American Revolution, because they thought that they had taken an oath of loyalty and that it transcended all other principles, and there had to be another Quaker meeting setup in Philadelphia for people that had been shut out—Betsy Ross, who had stitched the American flag, had been thrown out of the meeting for marrying an Episcopalian, and so on. The more you look at some of these supposedly innocuous sects, you’ll realize they’re only innocuous because they’ve had their fangs drawn by civil society over the years. When Jefferson says to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, “Well, don’t worry. You live in a country that has a wall of separation between church and state and it will ever be thus,” who were the Baptists of Danbury afraid of? Congregationalists. The Congregationalists of Danbury thought that Baptists shouldn’t be citizens. So, just as I would have said 50 years ago that the Catholic Church is by far the most dangerous because of its open, soggy, disgusting, and rotten alliance with fascism, which it didn’t get over until well after the Second World War—obviously now it is not because it had been going through a long period of latency—but it is still by far the most dangerous religion, but yes, they all make the same mistake. They all take the only real faculty we have that distinguishes us from other primates and from other animals—the faculty of reason. The willingness to take any risk that reason demands of us, and they replace that with the idea that faith is a virtue. If I could change just one thing, it would be to dissociate the idea of faith from virtue. Now and for good, and to expose it for what it is—a servile weakness, cowardice, and a willingness to follow, with credulity, people who are, in the highest degree, unscrupulous. Thank you.

Moderator to Berlinski: What do you make of the claim that science and Christianity are in opposition to one another?

Berlinski: I would need to hear the claim articulated properly. To claim a point of opposition in general seems to me unhelpful. To claim points of opposition in particular seems to me rather more reasonable. In its largest aspect, Western science is of course an outgrowth of Judeo-Christian tradition, especially to the extent, perhaps only to the extent, that it is committed to the principle that the manifest universe contains a latent structure that can be discovered by the intellect of man. I think this is true. I don’t think this is very far from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ declaration that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God”. They represent, rather, the same position in the world of thought. The world is charged with the grandeur of God, therefore it can be rationally comprehended. Please notice, this is very different from the Islamic tradition, in which God is assigned a rather capricious role. There is a reason that Muslim science, so fecund and glorious in the 10th, 11th, and 12th Centuries, did come to an end unceremoniously. And it can be traced back to Muslim theological writings. So yes, I would say the Judeo-Christian tradition, the tradition of a revealed religion that is revealed in nature but pointing to a supernatural order has been a powerful influence on the development of Western science—one, by the way, recognized by virtually every significant scientist, every single one of them.

I’ve offered you three considerations. I’ve listened very respectfully to what Mr. Hitchens has said, and I have found myself, as he expected, immeasurably reproved. However, I have heard nothing that discourages me or dissuades me from affirming the propositions that I have affirmed. The influence of atheism, even though religions have done dangerous things, has been poisonous for at least 300 years, and especially poisonous in the 20th Century. Second, atheism is a position of thought—a dogmatic position of thought, an asseveration that there is no God—that has had a deforming influence on the sciences because it leaves open unanswered questions that press on the human heart. And third, that atheism inevitably, in the moral sphere, leaves unanswered the question: what obliges us, what forces us, not what persuades us, what forces us to behave as we should?