Unitarian Minister Interviews Christopher Hitchens January 5, 2010

Unitarian Minister Interviews Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens is speaking tonight in Portland, Oregon, and as an appetizer before the main course, he did an interview with Unitarian minister Marilyn Sewell. There’s audio available as well as a transcript.

There are some great excerpts from the interview, made even better by the idea that it’s not a “traditional” Christian who is taking on Hitchens, She’s very liberal and agrees with him on quite a bit:

Sewell: The religion you cite in your book is generally the fundamentalist faith of various kinds. I’m a liberal Christian, and I don’t take the stories from the scripture literally. I don’t believe in the doctrine of atonement (that Jesus died for our sins, for example). Do you make and distinction between fundamentalist faith and liberal religion?

Hitchens: I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.

Hitchens: …can you name me a single moral action performed or moral statement uttered by a person of faith that couldn’t be just as well pronounced or undertaken by a civilian?

Sewell: You’re absolutely right. However religion does inspire some people. You claim in the subtitle of your book that “religion poisons everything,” but what about people like the Berrigan brothers, the Catholic priests who were jailed over and over again for their radical protesting of the Vietnam War? Or Bishop Romero, the nuns and priests who gave their lives supporting…

Hitchens: They’re all covered by the challenge I just presented to you. I know many people who…

Sewell: Yeah, but these people claim to be motivated and sustained by their faith. Do you deny that?

Hitchens: I don’t claim. I don’t deny it. I just don’t respect. If someone says I’m doing this out of faith, I say, Why don’t you do it out of conviction…

(Thanks to Helen for the link!)

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  • Shawn

    I don’t claim. I don’t deny it. I just don’t respect. If someone says I’m doing this out of faith, I say, Why don’t you do it out of conviction…

    An honest admission of ignorance, followed by 19 words that succinctly summarize the problem with arguing for the existence of god based on the good deeds of his followers. This is why I like the grumpy old fart (Hitchens, not God).

  • Revyloution

    Damn. 3 hours from my house, but I can’t make it. Anyone who gets to attend wave at Hitch for me.

    I do like hearing him speak, but his ‘can you name one thing’ line is getting a bit stale. He should try to rewrite it. I think thats one reason I took little interest in his debate with William Lane Craig. They both just brought their old talking points out, and neither brought anything new.

  • Neon Genesis

    Speaking as an atheist, I did think of one possible answer to Hitchen’s question of what moral action can a religious person do that a non-religious person can’t. A religious person can ban some religions but they can’t ban all religion unless they end up banning theirs but I’m not sure if this is what Hitchens had in mind.

  • Colin

    Interesting… I’ll have to read through the interview when I get time. Myself, I’d be a bit more hesitant to tell someone else that they’re not really a Christian… why does Hitchens get to decide on the dividing line? I’d be curious to hear the interviewer’s explanation of what it means to be a Christian.

  • I thought some of the comments (like the first one) at the PortlandMonthlyMag site were interesting. It seems quite a few people were upset that they didn’t get a “take no prisoners” believing evangelical to interview Hitchens. Perhaps many liberal “Christians” are too polite to leave comments.

  • ed

    This was an interesting debate, in particular I was interested in the following exchange as I have been thinking about religion’s ability to inspire.

    You’re absolutely right. However religion does inspire some people. You claim in the subtitle of your book that “religion poisons everything,” but what about people like the Berrigan brothers, the Catholic priests who were jailed over and over again for their radical protesting of the Vietnam War? Or Bishop Romero, the nuns and priests who gave their lives supporting…

    Hitch: They’re all covered by the challenge I just presented to you. I know many people who…

    Yeah, but these people claim to be motivated and sustained by their faith. Do you deny that?

    Hitch: I don’t claim. I don’t deny it. I just don’t respect. If someone says I’m doing this out of faith, I say, Why don’t you do it out of conviction?

    Rabbi Wolpe and Christopher Hitchens had a debate recently and Wolpe mentioned a story about a family that had lost its husband/father. He went on to describe how every week for the last 3 years people have brought that family dinner. He ends with something like “I don’t know of anywhere outside of a house of worship where something like that happens” Hitchens pointed out that he like many atheists donates blood as well as money to charity, and he also trotted out his “name one moral action an atheist could not preform,” but Wolpe’s example illustrates religion’s power to inspire. Certainly this does not prove God is real, or even that religion is a “good idea” but it does illustrate how religion can provide structure, discipline and community. What is so disastrous about faith/religion is also in some cases a great strength- it can be a way of subverting or over riding self centered desires, thoughts and behaviors.

  • What is so disastrous about faith/religion is also in some cases a great strength

    I would agree with that. Religion serves as an amplifier. Through both numbers and by focusing attitudes, it can cause people to take greater action than what they otherwise might have done. It cuts both ways, though. A member of a church congregation may end up taking more food to people in need than they would have otherwise if they were not part of the congregation. They also might end up voting against and denying rights to minority groups (like atheists or GLBT) more than they otherwise would have because of the congregation affiliation.

    This may be more of a group thing than a religion thing though. Political parties also act as amplifiers.

  • Myself, I’d be a bit more hesitant to tell someone else that they’re not really a Christian… why does Hitchens get to decide on the dividing line? I’d be curious to hear the interviewer’s explanation of what it means to be a Christian.

    I think that anyone who doesn’t believe Jesus “died for our sins” (or was just a man, or didn’t exist) is rightly disqualified. 🙂

  • Scott Hanley

    I was going to make the same point that Jeff just made, so I’ll just ditto: religion is an intensifier, but that can mean greater good or much greater evil.

    The one extreme danger that some religions provide is a moral “trump card.” A secularist has trouble thinking of exceptions to Thou Shalt Not Kill, Thou Shalt Not Lie, and the like. Religious identity can provide easy excuses for identifying exceptions: Ken Hamm and David Barton will lie shamelessly to further their causes; certain Muslims are rather quick to call for murder of those they don’t like. Secularists tend more to recoil from “the end justifies the means” arguments.

  • John

    Another choice quote:

    Sewell: For Tillich, God is “the ground of being.”…What do you think of Tillich’s concept of God?
    Hitchens: I would classify that under the heading of “statements that have no meaning—at all.”

    Love this. I find myself constantly coming back to such a feeling whenever I hear Karen Armstrong say “religion is poetry” or friends say that “God is the universe” because “the universe is all-knowing and all-powerful because it contains all knowledge and all possible things”. There’s no there there. There’s no useful, actionable content to those statements.

  • jose

    and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.

    Catholics don’t believe that and Catholics are Christians.

  • ed

    @jose

    Really? I thought all Christians believed Christ died for their sins as some sort of scapegoat/sacrifice. A “by his blood washed the sins of the world away” type of thing.

  • Philip

    Catholics don’t believe that and Catholics are Christians.

    I was raised Catholic. We ere taught that Christ’s sacrifice opened the doors to heaven and made it possible for our sins to be forgiven. I think this is close enough to what Hitchens is saying.

  • Thanks for posting this!

    Also, I’d recommend listening to the audio. As I’m listening right now and looking at the transcript, they seem to have cut some parts out of the transcript for some reason. (It takes a couple of minutes to load. At least, it did on my computer.) Plus, I just love hearing Hitchens speak.

    Some of what Hitchens says, I’ve heard before, but it’s still enjoyable to listen to such an interview. It’s nice to hear an atheist in an interview with a liberal Christian instead of a fundamentalist who’s being insulting or questioning the morality of anyone who is not of the same faith.

  • Jeff Dale

    What is so disastrous about faith/religion is also in some cases a great strength- it can be a way of subverting or over riding self centered desires, thoughts and behaviors.

    I would urge that selflessness, charity, and public-spiritedness can and should be developed in all citizens thru secular institutions, particularly by means of values education in our public schools. Christianity has had centuries to develop values education while (for much of that time) suppressing non-Christian alternatives. So if Christianity seems to offer a benefit in this respect, it is only because of Christianity’s long head start, not because of any inherent virtue of the religion. Even if the bible’s accounts of Christ’s teachings were a complete and unsurpassable moral guide, secular education could simply promulgate those teachings without the metaphysical distractions.

  • Hitchens is exactly correct about the definition of “Christian.” If you do not believe that the creator sent his son to die as a sacrifice in order that your sins might be forgiven, and without which sacrifice you are irredeemably doomed to an eternity in hell, you’re not a Christian.

    What’s remarkable is how so many people are so attached to that word. They don’t believe anything like what Christianity is but insist upon using that word to describe themselves. Unitarians are particularly guilty of this.

    I cannot tell if it’s nostalgia or some social need that motivates this addiction to the language of religion, but it’s fascinating to me.

  • AxeGrrl

    Jeff Dale wrote:

    I would urge that selflessness, charity, and public-spiritedness can and should be developed in all citizens thru secular institutions, particularly by means of values education in our public schools. Christianity has had centuries to develop values education while (for much of that time) suppressing non-Christian alternatives. So if Christianity seems to offer a benefit in this respect, it is only because of Christianity’s long head start, not because of any inherent virtue of the religion.

    You nailed it 🙂 nicely said. And again, I’m reminded of that GREAT poster/ad put out by Seattle atheists:

    “In this holiday season, let us remember that
    kindness, charity and goodwill transcend belief, creed or religion.”

    Religious belief may inspire such things, but it’s not the sole source for such inspiration. That’s the essence of it all, imo.

  • ed

    JeffDale

    I would urge that selflessness, charity, and public-spiritedness can and should be developed in all citizens thru secular institutions, particularly by means of values education in our public schools.

    Hmm I think we can offer classes dealing with ethics/morality in schools but is a philosophy type class really what you meant? Otherwise, I am not so sure I want the government mandating what values my children learn and hold. What would a class like this look like/consist of?

    My main point was that can religion suppress or alter thought and behavior and this is not always a bad thing. I agree other methods of doing the same thing exist and often are preferable. None the less one of the things religion excels at is providing community, structure, and discipline, all things that help support behavioral change. Certainly we can have all these things without religion/supernaturalism. Ethical Culture, Humanism, some Buddhism, therapies like REBT or CBT are all examples of things that provide some or all of these benefits without the supernatural baggage, but as you pointed out they don’t have the same hold on our culture as mainstream religion (Christianity) does. I think in the main we are in agreement, secular options exist, are preferable, and are needed.

  • Jeff Dale

    @ed:

    Hmm I think we can offer classes dealing with ethics/morality in schools but is a philosophy type class really what you meant? Otherwise, I am not so sure I want the government mandating what values my children learn and hold. What would a class like this look like/consist of?

    I’m only talking about the kinds of values that are fundamental to civil society: free expression, education, charity, not killing each other, etc. Sunday school teaches kids how they’re supposed to behave, and as has been observed here, some of that teaching has led to virtuous behavior. I’m just saying there’s no reason to leave that teaching to the churches, and great reasons not to, starting with the fact that civil society obviously has a legitimate (secular) interest in promulgation of values like those I listed above. And of course, the teaching would have to be age-appropriate: no philosophy lectures for kindergartners, but I think our teenagers would benefit from studying philosophy.

    But secular values education could do better. The bible presents “Thou shalt not kill” as an absolute rule, so it doesn’t admit of exceptions (or at least, it’s not clear from the context that any exception would be legitimate). What about self-defense, or protection of loved ones from aggression, or relief for a terminally ill person in extreme and unending pain who wants to die? And of course, the bible actually does go on to condone killing in many other contexts, which hopelessly confuses whatever teaching value the commandment might’ve had, and simply forces kids to swaddle cognitive dissonance in a thick blanket of willful ignorance. Secular values education would teach that non-killing is a value, not an absolute rule, so that it may sometimes need to be set aside for a greater or superseding value. Extend this approach to all the values, and we’d be teaching kids how to make value judgments: by using reason, not merely following rules.

    If all the Sunday schools suddenly closed for good, I imagine we might see a rise of selfishness, amorality, etc., in the next generation. But that doesn’t mean we should have Sunday schools. It just means we ought to be developing secular alternatives. Schooling is required because our society has determined that kids need to learn some things. Among these things they need to learn are the values of a civil society and the ability to make value judgments. Our society has the need and the justification to provide such education, but it doesn’t (or does so only in selected classrooms where the teachers dare to tackle it) because of deference to religion.

    Hope that clears things up!

  • jose

    Justin: According to Catholics, the Father didn’t send his son “to die as a sacrifice”. Not at all. That’s more like an evangelical thing.

    To Catholics, what’s important is his resurrection, not his death. That he’s alive. It’s nothing to do with sacrifices. For that matter, Sewell doesn’t even has to be a “liberal christian”. She could be a perfectly traditional Catholic christian.

  • Aj

    Anyone can take the bible as metaphor, atheists can take it as metaphor. This “minister” chooses to have an imaginary friend because it makes her “live with more integrity”. I and many others make do with a conscience, not an imaginary judge following us about. This “kind of an agnostic” is most likely an atheist herself considering you cannot really choose to believe, that’s something people say when they actually don’t believe in something. If you’re not even a theist, that means you’re certainly not a Christian. I hate it when they call atheists fundamentalists, just because these “liberal” “Christians” are truth relativists and nihilists, it’s useful as a sign of idiocy though.

  • Neon Genesis

    For all the complaints about how hypocritical Sewell is, isn’t Hitchens hypocritical arguging how evil pacifism is, followed by falsely claiming pacifism = non-resistance (pacifism is non-violent resistance, not no resistance period), but then Hitchens hypocritically turns around and sends his daughter to a Quaker school,and compliments the Quakers on how moral their teachings are right after calling pacifists and all religion evil even though the Quakers are pacifists and gasp, a religion? It’d be like if Hitchens went up to a Quaker and said “I really like your morals, I just think one of your key doctrines is plain evil and I’m going to send my daughter to an evil liberal religious school after ranting about how evil and hypocritical this liberal religion is.” Is Bertrand Russell suddenly evil now because he was a pacifist even though he was an atheist?

  • I thought it was an interesting interview.

    It seemed strange to me that Hitchens insisted on a certain narrow definition of ‘Christian’. I don’t expect he’d appreciate it if a Christian in dialog with him insisted on a certain narrow definition of ‘atheist’ that didn’t cover all self-professed atheists (especially if it excluded Hitchens).

  • muggle

    If all the Sunday schools suddenly closed for good, I imagine we might see a rise of selfishness, amorality, etc., in the next generation

    I seriously doubt it.

  • Aj

    Neon Genesis,

    …followed by falsely claiming pacifism = non-resistance (pacifism is non-violent resistance, not no resistance period)…

    In this Hitchens means in times when violent-resistance would be required. Although I assume you already know this, and are just writing this to accuse Hitchens of false claims.

    …but then Hitchens hypocritically turns around and sends his daughter to a Quaker school…

    Hypocritically? That he strongly disagrees with them doesn’t mean he wouldn’t send his daughter to a school run by them, perhaps he was considering other things, such as her education.

    …and compliments the Quakers on how moral their teachings are right after calling pacifists evil even though the Quakers are pacifists?

    Where, the audio? All I saw about Quakers was Hitchens saying:

    The smallest privilege of faith over reason is a betrayal. My daughter goes to a Quaker school, for example. Do I think that the Quakers are the same as Hezbollah? No, of course I don’t, though I think there’s a lot to be said against Quakerism morally and what Quakers and Hezbollah do have in common is the idea that “faith” is an automatically good word. I think it’s not.

    Indeed, he seems to be saying the opposite.

  • When Hitchens calls her “not in any meaningful sense a Christian” it sounds as if he is allowing the loonier among Christian believers to define what Christian means. Why can’t she be Christian in the same way that many Americans are Buddhists? Both “Jesus” and Buddha are slandered as gods by their followers, and some of Jesus’ slanderers may have put words into his mouth.

  • Neon Genesis

    In this Hitchens means in times when violent-resistance would be required. Although I assume you already know this, and are just writing this to accuse Hitchens of false claims.

    Expect that’s not what Hitchens says. Hitchens clearly equates pacifism with non-resistance because obviously MLK Jr’s pacifism was not resistance at all, of course not (sarcasm). Here’s the quote itself

    I don’t like the Barogen brothers anyway. They’re fanatical and they’re pacifists who believe in the non-resistance to evil, which is itself an evil doctrine.

    Where, the audio? All I saw about Quakers was Hitchens saying:

    Again, in the above quote, Hitchens specifically says that pacifism is in itself an evil doctrine but then hypocritically turns around and says he has nothing against Quakers who are pacifists. It’d be like if I said the Iraq war was evil but I turned around and said I have nothing against the Bush administration and compliment them on how moral they are.

  • Aj

    Neon Genesis,

    Expect that’s not what Hitchens says. Hitchens clearly equates pacifism with non-resistance…

    If you want to falsely believe that fine, keep your delusion. Your English comprehension doesn’t seem to be up to much.

    but then hypocritically turns around and says he has nothing against Quakers who are pacifists.

    Let me quote to you again what Hitchens said about Quakers:

    The smallest privilege of faith over reason is a betrayal. My daughter goes to a Quaker school, for example. Do I think that the Quakers are the same as Hezbollah? No, of course I don’t, though I think there’s a lot to be said against Quakerism morally and what Quakers and Hezbollah do have in common is the idea that “faith” is an automatically good word. I think it’s not.

    Although it will do no good because you will just ignore it. He actually says “there’s a lot to be said against Quakers”. WTF do you think that means?

    Helen,

    It seemed strange to me that Hitchens insisted on a certain narrow definition of ‘Christian’. I don’t expect he’d appreciate it if a Christian in dialog with him insisted on a certain narrow definition of ‘atheist’ that didn’t cover all self-professed atheists (especially if it excluded Hitchens).

    If words are to have meanings they need to be used with definitions. Hitchens’s definition is pretty wide in how many people it applies to, pretty old, and popular. Christians often have different definitions for atheists, and would consider most self-described atheists “agnostics”. I haven’t seen many atheists that have a problem with that, as long as their views are being communicated accurately.

    smellincoffee,

    When Hitchens calls her “not in any meaningful sense a Christian” it sounds as if he is allowing the loonier among Christian believers to define what Christian means.

    The vast majority of Christians, who have over a thousand years of loony tradition, actually believing the stories with Jesus in the Bible. I don’t understand why you assume it isn’t Hitchens himself who decided upon the definition he uses. Tigers aren’t being allowed to define what the word “tiger” means.

  • Ed

    Muggle, I doubt it too!

    Do you think there might be a dip in “extra” virtuous activity though if we suddenly went religion free? Social service, soup kitchens, visiting invalids, hospital volunteers, blood donors, volunteer hospice, dinner to the bereaved.. I think the desire to do all these things is natural to all people but it often seems to take something to get over the initial inertia and fear of entering into these type of situations. It also seems to take something extra to stay committed in the service role. For many people, faith, a spiritual advisor, and a like minded community provide that something extra.

    Perhaps for many suddenly secular people, reason, a wise role model, and a like minded community would provide enough of a something extra. But it IS hard to herd cats…they don’t really seem to like joining things..

  • Jeff Dale

    Do you think there might be a dip in “extra” virtuous activity though if we suddenly went religion free?

    Perhaps, at least in the short run, since so many people think morality comes from “God” and would be set adrift by the demolition of that idea.

    Perhaps for many suddenly secular people, reason, a wise role model, and a like minded community would provide enough of a something extra.

    Eventually, with enough education and time to develop institutions, it would.

  • Neon Genesis

    Although it will do no good because you will just ignore it. He actually says “there’s a lot to be said against Quakers”. WTF do you think that means?

    So, it’s ok for Hitchens to send his daughter to a religious school even if he disagrees with them, but if Sewell goes to a UU church, she’s wasting her time? So, Hitchens is not wasting his daughter’s childhood?

    If words are to have meanings they need to be used with definitions. Hitchens’s definition is pretty wide in how many people it applies to, pretty old, and popular. Christians often have different definitions for atheists, and would consider most self-described atheists “agnostics”. I haven’t seen many atheists that have a problem with that, as long as their views are being communicated accurately.

    Then the same should apply to Hitchens as well. What gives Hitchens the right to change the definition of what a fundamentalist Christian is? Hitchens tried to redefine fundamentalists as people who take the bible seriously (because obviously liberals never take their faith seriously and fundamentalists are never ever lazy believers), but a fundamentalist is merely a Christian who believes in the Five Fundamentals and says nothing at all about their seriousness.

  • Karen

    I am an atheist/secular humanist and attend a UU church. Most of the congregation at my church would not identify themselves as Christian at all. The one that I know for sure would, is a kind of curiosity to us. I’m not sure what she means by it.

    UU is at its core a religion of humanity, not of the supernatural. There’s room for woo, but it’s not required. The practice of the religion – lighting the chalice, attending services, religious education, etc – are about bringing yourself into a place of mindfulness and community, and the secular values education mentioned above.

  • Aj

    Neon Genesis,

    So, it’s ok for Hitchens to send his daughter to a religious school even if he disagrees with them, but if Sewell goes to a UU church, she’s wasting her time? So, Hitchens is not wasting his daughter’s childhood?

    Yes you accurately misrepresented Hitchens, saying the opposite of what he actually meant. Your response to me pointing this out is to talk about something else.

    I think I have already responded to why Hitchens might have chosen the school. Schools are for education, and perhaps Hitchens sent his daughter there for that. You can get a good education from a school run by pacifists.

    Then the same should apply to Hitchens as well. What gives Hitchens the right to change the definition of what a fundamentalist Christian is? Hitchens tried to redefine fundamentalists as people who take the bible seriously (because obviously liberals never take their faith seriously and fundamentalists are never ever lazy believers), but a fundamentalist is merely a Christian who believes in the Five Fundamentals and says nothing at all about their seriousness.

    You have misunderstood what Hitchens means by “serious”, dictionaries are helpful in educating yourself how people use words. “Seriously” means taken in a literal manner. The five fundamentals are about the inerrancy of the Bible and taking the events described in the Bible about Jesus as if they happened. This is a difference between fundamentalists and liberal Christians.

  • stogoe

    Do you think there might be a dip in “extra” virtuous activity though if we suddenly went religion free? Social service, soup kitchens, visiting invalids, hospital volunteers, blood donors, volunteer hospice, dinner to the bereaved..

    I would actually like to see the whole edifice of the charity industry replaced with a stronger social safety net that catches people before they have to stand in line at the soup kitchen. Charity is a symptom of a failed society, one that cannot or will not adequately provide the necessities of life to its poorest and most vulnerable citizens.

    Which is not to say I don’t understand the current necessity of charity as triage, only that I wish it weren’t needed.

  • Neon Genesis

    You have misunderstood what Hitchens means by “serious”, dictionaries are helpful in educating yourself how people use words. “Seriously” means taken in a literal manner. The five fundamentals are about the inerrancy of the Bible and taking the events described in the Bible about Jesus as if they happened. This is a difference between fundamentalists and liberal Christians.

    I have looked up the word serious in the dictionary and I’ve never heard of a definition of the word serious that equated seriousness with literalism. That’s the most inaccurate definition of the word seriousness I’ve ever heard. So, Jesus wasn’t a serious believer when he told allegorical parables? The book of Revelation isn’t serious because it uses religious symbolism? Here’s the definition of serious from dictionary.com

    of, showing, or characterized by deep thought.
    2. of grave or somber disposition, character, or manner: a serious occasion; a serious man.
    3. being in earnest; sincere; not trifling: His interest was serious.
    4. requiring thought, concentration, or application: serious reading; a serious task.
    5. weighty or important: a serious book; Marriage is a serious matter.
    6. giving cause for apprehension; critical: The plan has one serious flaw.
    7. Medicine/Medical. (of a patient’s condition) having unstable or otherwise abnormal vital signs and other unfavorable indicators, as loss of appetite and poor mobility: patient is acutely ill.

    Where in these definitions do you see that seriousness = literalism? Again, a fundamentalist Christian is merely a Christian who believes in the Five Fundamentals and has nothing to do with your seriousness. I think I should know since I used to be a fundamentalist Christian myself before I deconverted.

  • Aj

    Neon Genesis,

    Hitchens is talking about taking the Bible seriously, as in its communication. Specifically things like the miracles of Jesus and ressurection etc.. Not about how important it is to someone, or how important any metaphoric or symbolic meaning they get from it. He is talking about the authors who wrote the Bible meaning for it to be an historical account, a serious account. I seriously doubt that you have never used the word “seriously” in the same way Hitchens has used it.

    I have looked up the word serious in the dictionary and I’ve never heard of a definition of the word serious that equated seriousness with literalism.

    serious, dictionary.reference.com:

    3. being in earnest; sincere; not trifling: His interest was serious.

    seriously, dictionary.reference.com:

    3. with genuine, earnest intent; sincerely: Seriously, kids, we have to get home before dark.

    serious, thesaurus.reference.com:

    austere, bound, bound and determined, businesslike, cold sober, contemplative, deadpan, deliberate, determined, downbeat, earnest, funereal, genuine, go for broke, grave, grim, honest, intent, long-faced, meditative, no-nonsense, pensive, pokerfaced, reflective, resolute, resolved, sedate, set, severe, sincere, sober, solemn, staid, steady, stern, thoughtful, unhumorous, unsmiling, weighty

    I think I should know since I used to be a fundamentalist Christian myself before I deconverted.

    It doesn’t surprise me…

  • monkeymind

    In the quote about the Berrigans, Hitchens misrepresents them, they were all about resistance to evil. Non-violent resistance is still resistance.

    And it is hypocritical to say “religion poisons everything” and then send your child to a Quaker school. Or maybe it doesn’t matter if your child gets poisoned a little bit?

  • monkeymind

    Aj, what do deadpan, sober, honest, etc, have to do with literal? Have ever translated anything into another language? Then you would know that the best or “serious” translation is not always a literal one.

  • Aj

    monkeymind,

    In the quote about the Berrigans, Hitchens misrepresents them, they were all about resistance to evil. Non-violent resistance is still resistance.

    Is it resistance if you could violently stop an evil taken place, but could not non-violently? If that is including in your definition of resistance then I have to agree. However, when I use the word resistance, I mean actually doing something, or attempting and failing, not doing nothing, or something that won’t work.

    And it is hypocritical to say “religion poisons everything” and then send your child to a Quaker school. Or maybe it doesn’t matter if your child gets poisoned a little bit?

    Fact is we don’t know much about his decision making process on this matter. Does he think that the school would be better if the religious element was left out of it? Probably. Is he a hypocrite for taking other things into account like the quality of education? Obviously not.

    Aj, what do deadpan, sober, honest, etc, have to do with literal?

    dictionary.reference.com:

    literal: 3. true to fact; not exaggerated; actual or factual: a literal description of conditions.

    thesaurus.reference.com:

    literal: accurate, actual, apparent, authentic, bona fide, close, critical, faithful, genuine, gospel, methodical, natural, not figurative, ordinary, plain, scrupulous, simple, strict, to the letter, true, undeviating, unerring, unexaggerated, unvarnished, usual, veracious, verbal, verbatim, veritable, written

    dictionary.reference.com:

    deadpan: adj. Impassively matter-of-fact, as in style, behavior, or expression: deadpan delivery of the joke.
    earnest: 4. full seriousness, as of intention or purpose: to speak in earnest.
    genuine: 1. possessing the claimed or attributed character, quality, or origin; not counterfeit; authentic; real: genuine sympathy; a genuine antique.
    honest:
    4. sincere; frank: an honest face.
    5. genuine or unadulterated: honest commodities.
    7. truthful or creditable: honest weights.

    Have ever translated anything into another language? Then you would know that the best or “serious” translation is not always a literal one.

    It doesn’t take translating to realise this, anyone who interprets language has to decide how to take it, literal, metaphorical, symbolic. The important thing is to be honest in how you decide whether to interpret the meaning of the author as something literal or not. “Best” for some Christians is what they wish it would mean, not an honest attempt to interpret what the author meant.

  • monkeymind

    Is it resistance if you could violently stop an evil taken place, but could not non-violently? If that is including in your definition of resistance then I have to agree. However, when I use the word resistance, I mean actually doing something, or attempting and failing, not doing nothing, or something that won’t work.

    I have no clear idea what you are trying to say. It sounds like you are saying that non-violent resistance equates to inactivity.

    It doesn’t take translating to realise this, anyone who interprets language has to decide how to take it, literal, metaphorical, symbolic. The important thing is to be honest in how you decide whether to interpret the meaning of the author as something literal or not.

    Absolutely. So you agree that taking a text seriously does not equate with taking it literally?

  • Aj

    monkeymind,

    I have no clear idea what you are trying to say. It sounds like you are saying that non-violent resistance equates to inactivity.

    It can and often does. If you know that non-violent means will have the same consequence as inactivity, how do you call that resistance? If your believe the consequences of inaction and non-violence to be the same, then they are the same, ethically.

    Absolutely. So you agree that taking a text seriously does not equate with taking it literally?

    That’s a bad choice of words. “Taking” can mean “interpret” (.e.g “I take this as a joke”) and therefore in the context of text, taking a text seriously would mean interpreting it seriously, therefore as fact (i.e. literally). If by taking you mean “consider” or “assume” which says something about values (or importance), then in this sense you can take a text as serious without taking it literally.

  • Dan Covill

    @smellincoffee:

    When Hitchens calls her “not in any meaningful sense a Christian” it sounds as if he is allowing the loonier among Christian believers to define what Christian means.

    I don’t think Hitchens was referring to Sewell specifically, I interpret his ‘you’ as rhetorical rather than accusatory.

    Besides, if my experience as a Unitarian is any guide, Sewell may well not be a Christian by most standards. (I have nothing but good to say of the Unitarians, but it’s more of a half-way house for agnostics than a conventional church!)

  • monkeymind

    Non-violent resistance can and often does equate to inactivity? Huh?

    If you know that non-violent means will have the same consequence as inactivity, how do you call that resistance?

    Obviously, if we knew the consequences of our actions beforehand, things would be a lot easier.
    Most people engage in non-violent resistance because they believe it will achieve real change, and this is a belief well-founded by evidence. On the other hand, there is ample evidence that people are drawn to violent methods of resistance because violence gives a comforting illusion of efficacy and power (cf. Bill Ayers and the Weather Underground, Baader-Meinhof, etc)

    RE: literalism and “seriousness”:

    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
    I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference.

    [http://www.bartleby.com/119/1.html]

    Is it taking Robert Frost seriously to insist that the poem’s meaning is confined to the literal meaning of these words?

    Anyway, your definition of “serious” Christians as biblical literalists excludes all Catholics, and that’s a rather glaring omission, I think.

  • James

    What Hitchens does not appreciate is that his sense of morality is merely piggy-backing on a Christian rationale and on Christian presumptions bequeathed to him. Christians are commanded (not persuaded) to love the unlovely, to deny themselves for the weaker, and to forgive this who persecute them.

    Hitchens might be able to construct (after the fact) rational reasons for why doing any of those things is ultimately beneficial anyway, but he would not have considered them at all except for the original, entirely irrational, imperative from God. Only collectivist societies have come up with utterly secular reasons for performing similar altruistic actions by merely creating a religion out of civic life.

    What Hitchens understands as his own rationalized sense of morality is just the grandkids blowing thru their inheritance.

  • Aj

    monkeymind,

    Most people engage in non-violent resistance because they believe it will achieve real change, and this is a belief well-founded by evidence. On the other hand, there is ample evidence that people are drawn to violent methods of resistance because violence gives a comforting illusion of efficacy and power (cf. Bill Ayers and the Weather Underground, Baader-Meinhof, etc)

    Hitchens was talking about people who were pacifists on principle not from performance. Are you claiming that non-violent resistance works in every situation against every problem? Also, are you claiming that violence only gives an illusion of efficacy and power? I’d like to see the “well-founded evidence” for that, I haven’t laughed at wish thinking in a few hours.

    Is it taking Robert Frost seriously to insist that the poem’s meaning is confined to the literal meaning of these words?

    Irrelevant leading questions aren’t welcome.

    Anyway, your definition of “serious” Christians as biblical literalists excludes all Catholics, and that’s a rather glaring omission, I think.

    Why? The question to Hitchens was about fundamentalists. If Catholics don’t take the New Testament seriously, as a historic account (e.g. don’t believe in miracles) then they’re not fundamentalists. Also last time I checked it wasn’t my definition of anything, I was commenting on what Hitchens meant, and I don’t think anyone used the phrase “serious” Christians.

  • Neon Genesis

    Hitchens is talking about taking the Bible seriously, as in its communication. Specifically things like the miracles of Jesus and ressurection etc.. Not about how important it is to someone, or how important any metaphoric or symbolic meaning they get from it. He is talking about the authors who wrote the Bible meaning for it to be an historical account, a serious account. I seriously doubt that you have never used the word “seriously” in the same way Hitchens has used it.

    Where does he say anything about the biblical authors when he talks about literalism? He specifically claims that

    Well, I’m sorry, fundamentalist simply means those who think that the Bible is a serious book and should be taken seriously.

    Where does he say anything about biblical authors in this sentence? He doesn’t say anything about them at all. He’s clearly talking about the believers and claiming that a fundamentalist is a Christian who takes the bible seriously and then he goes onto to repeat his “what can religion do that humanist’s can’t” challenge after Sewell says she’s a serious believer too. Where do you get he was talking about the authors?

    Is it resistance if you could violently stop an evil taken place, but could not non-violently? If that is including in your definition of resistance then I have to agree. However, when I use the word resistance, I mean actually doing something, or attempting and failing, not doing nothing, or something that won’t work.

    So, Martin Luther King Jr wasn’t doing anything to resist the immorality of slavery because he did it non-violently and he should have violently assassinated Abraham Lincoln instead?

  • monkeymind

    Aj, my question was not irrelevant or misleading. It has everything to do with literalism and seriousness. To interpret the poem as referring to hiking trails is unserious. Certain christian denominations believe that to read the bible as an accurate historical record, or a science textbook, is to take it unseriously.

    Hitchens was talking about people who were pacifists on principle not from performance.

    Specifically, he was talking about the Berrigan brothers, and saying they believe in non-resistance to evil. This is a complete misrepresentation of their life and legacy.
    http://www.democracynow.org/2003/5/26/remembering_peace_veteran_phil_berrigan_1923

    People who have made a commitment to non-violent resistance, whether in a particular situation or as a general principle, have made remarkable achievements. So there is good evidence that making non-violence a cornerstone of resistance is effective as well as morally defensible.

    Also, are you claiming that violence only gives an illusion of efficacy and power?

    No, I am claiming that it often does, especially in resistance movements. And especially for people, like you, who seem to think that it is possible to know ahead of time exactly what the consequences of their actions will be.

  • monkeymind

    NeonGenesis:

    So, Martin Luther King Jr wasn’t doing anything to resist the immorality of slavery because he did it non-violently and he should have violently assassinated Abraham Lincoln instead?

    Confused. Brain hurts. Please let’s keep time travel scenarios out of this.

  • Aj

    Neon Genesis,

    Where does he say anything about the biblical authors when he talks about literalism?

    What do you think you’re “taking” when you read a book, not the authors communication? What else then?

    So, Martin Luther King Jr wasn’t doing anything to resist the immorality of slavery because he did it non-violently and he should have violently assassinated Abraham Lincoln instead?

    Resist slavery or to gain civil rights? Assassinated him via his time machine? Wasn’t Abraham Lincoln involves in a war that resulted in an end to slavery.

    Creating an imaginary version of what I have said, suggesting that my claim was that nonviolence has never achieved something, is the way you people operate. I didn’t expect any different. You couldn’t argue against the points I actually make, because ignoring them allows you to ignore reality and keep your irrational beliefs.

  • Aj

    monkeymind,

    Certain christian denominations believe that to read the bible as an accurate historical record, or a science textbook, is to take it unseriously.

    They do not approach the Bible with honesty. The science textbook comment is cheap rhetoric I’ve heard thrown around. It represents the views of the time, it’s to be expected. Other interpretations are wish thinking because these people have already invested in the authority of the Bible, they have to resolve problems with absurdities.

    People who have made a commitment to non-violent resistance, whether in a particular situation or as a general principle, have made remarkable achievements. So there is good evidence that making non-violence a cornerstone of resistance is effective as well as morally defensible.

    So you’re actually arguing that in no circumstance that violence would be the more moral option? For instance, would you have shot down the planes heading for the Twin Towers in 2001? Would you shoot a suicide bomber on a bus in Israel? How do you think WWII would have gone if Britain had taken the nonviolent resistance route?

    No, I am claiming that it often does, especially in resistance movements. And especially for people, like you, who seem to think that it is possible to know ahead of time exactly what the consequences of their actions will be.

    Exactly? Did I say that? No. Do you care? No. It’s not my problem that you lack imagination enough to consider that someone might know beforehand that non-violent action would not work in a particular circumstance. I guess you think this is impossible.

  • James

    Nonviolence has worked against Christian-founded civilizations since it appeals to fundamentals in their own worldview. It would not have worked on Nazi Germany nor against Soviet tanks in Hungary and Prague.

    Appeals based on German purity or on the rights of the Russian proletariat *might* have had an eventual effect. But not non-violence. Nor did it work against the Communist Party in China. It’s only proven to work against Christian societies…if, as in India, the objective is not deemed existential.

    The gains of Martin Luther King’s pacifism required the backing of the US National Guard. So pacifism has little to trumpet there.

  • monkeymind

    So you’re actually arguing that in no circumstance that violence would be the more moral option?

    No, I’m not Aj, so stop making things up. Go back and read what I wrote. I did not say that movements that made a commitment to non-violence always achieved success in resisting evil.

    As far as my personal convictions go, which aren’t really under discussion here, I think that in the relatively small set of circumstances where it is obvious that a violent action would prevent further violence, violence can be justified.

    Anyway, what you’re trying to defend here is that Hitchens was not mistaken or deliberately lying when he said that the Berrigans believed in “non-resistance to evil”. You haven’t even addressed this.

    (Hitchens also seems to have no effing clue who Oscar Romero was, he seems to think he’s still alive, instead of having been assassinated in 1980 for calling on the Salvadoran soldiers to resist orders to shoot their fellow peasants.)

  • monkeymind

    James:

    Andrei Sakharov
    Vaclav Havel
    Lech Walesa

    Not complete washouts.

  • James

    monkeymind:

    Korean War
    Vietnam War
    Endless CIA operations
    Strategic Defense Initiatives
    Mujahadeen

    They had a lot of really violent help.

  • monkeymind

    Vietnam? Seriously?

    Endless CIA operations? You mean like 9/11/73?
    Now there was a real success for freedom and democracy.

    And Reagan’s idea of financing the mujahadeen in Afghanistan has worked out sooooo well, hasn’t it?

  • Aj

    monkeymind,

    As far as my personal convictions go, which aren’t really under discussion here, I think that in the relatively small set of circumstances where it is obvious that a violent action would prevent further violence, violence can be justified.

    Anyway, what you’re trying to defend here is that Hitchens was not mistaken or deliberately lying when he said that the Berrigans believed in “non-resistance to evil”. You haven’t even addressed this.

    Lets put it this way. It’s safe to assume that Hitchens has in mind a larger set of circumstances where it’s obvious that violent action would prevent further violence. That’s what he’s getting at when he talks about the Berrigans, they as pacifists would be on the wrong side of that moral argument, and would not resist evil if it meant using violence. He’s talked about pacifism before in audio interviews, so it’s not possible for me to find quickly, but that’s the gist.

  • Jeff Dale

    What Hitchens does not appreciate is that his sense of morality is merely piggy-backing on a Christian rationale and on Christian presumptions bequeathed to him. Christians are commanded (not persuaded) to love the unlovely, to deny themselves for the weaker, and to forgive this who persecute them.

    Hitchens might be able to construct (after the fact) rational reasons for why doing any of those things is ultimately beneficial anyway, but he would not have considered them at all except for the original, entirely irrational, imperative from God. Only collectivist societies have come up with utterly secular reasons for performing similar altruistic actions by merely creating a religion out of civic life.

    I’m sorry, but this is simply a mistake. Our sense of morality predates religion; it was not given to amoral humans by the Christian god. Our species evolved to be socially interdependent, and morality was adaptive for us and therefore preserved and enhanced by natural selection. Likewise, as we’d expect, there is evidence of moral sense (less developed than ours) in various other species.

    Every society, religion, or other social institution from the beginning has built on this moral sense. The differences have been in the interference of dogma (supposed divine commands that sometimes take precedence over moral action) and in what each society defines as its circle of moral concern, the “in-group” who are supposed to have moral rights. For example, every society throughout history, regardless of religion, has had sanctions against killing people, but not everyone necessarily has qualified as fully a person: when they’ve had reasons to kill certain people (neighboring tribes or nations, criminals, rebellious lower-class citizens, slaves, etc.), they’ve simply defined those people as beneath moral concern. But no society has ever said its people could kill just anyone.

    And in modern times, we’ve evolved pluralistic societies with a higher appreciation for human life and dignity (i.e., the values of humanism), so we’ve widened our circle of moral concern to the point where we don’t think anyone ought to be killed without very good reason. But the in-group/outsider distinction was also adaptive in earlier eras.

    There are many places you can read about the natural origins of our moral sense; one that I enjoyed is a book by Michael Shermer, called “The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule.”

    The notion that morality comes from a supernatural being is persistent in religions, since it’s a necessary fiction to support retention of adherents. But it’s a pernicious notion, because it causes so many religious people to think nonreligious people (or people of other religions) are amoral or immoral, and has led to much persecution over the centuries. And of course, it hampers our evolution from our original tribal, in-group/outsider mentality to our modern, pluralistic, advanced morality, and is dangerously maladaptive in a world of WMD’s, mass communication, and cheap transportation.

  • monkeymind

    It’s safe to assume that Hitchens has in mind a larger set of circumstances where it’s obvious that violent action would prevent further violence.

    I think it’s far safer to assume that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or is deliberately distorting the Berrigan’s legacy, by saying they advocated not resisting evil.

  • monkeymind

    What Hitchens does not appreciate is that his sense of morality is merely piggy-backing on a Christian rationale and on Christian presumptions bequeathed to him.

    And the christians were piggy backing on the the greeks and the zoroastrians, and the israelites, who piggy-backed on the babylonians and the sumerians, etc, etc. In fact, when it comes to moral norms and ethical systems, it’s a matter of “plagiarize, plagiarize, let no one else’s work evade your eyes!” (Though independent origination is probably also needed to explain the ubiquity of the basic ethic of reciprocity.)

  • Neon Genesis

    What do you think you’re “taking” when you read a book, not the authors communication? What else then?

    Huh? What does this have to do with anything?

  • James

    Vietnam? Seriously?
    Endless CIA operations? You mean like 9/11/73?
    Now there was a real success for freedom and democracy.
    And Reagan’s idea of financing the mujahadeen in Afghanistan has worked out sooooo well, hasn’t it?

    As for the mujahadeen, don’t change the subject.Socialist economies are Ponzi scams. They can only work by progressively growing, devouring the wealth built up by freer systems. The mujahadeen stopped the expansion of the USSR allowing it to implode. And the so-called pacifists you listed benefitted from that. Deal with it.

    The Vietnam War, badly mishandled as it was by the Johnson Administration, still stopped the expansion of Communism throughout SE Asia. Ditto for the CIA operations overseas. In Chile, we traded a Communist dictatorship for a conventional one — one that would not seek to expand its brand of tyranny across state lines. Sometimes, you have to choose between bad and worse. God bless the CIA.