Hitch: It makes me laugh when people say “fundamental,” because what it means is you believe that these books are the word of God. That’s what fundamental means, fundamentalist means. If they’re not, then in what sense are you religious? If I ask you—
Andrew: You can say that they are inspired—
H: If someone says to me, “I’m a Catholic,” I say, fine: Does this mean that you believe in the following: in the transubstantiation of bread and wine, etc. … On the whole they’ll say, “well, you don’t have to believe all of them…” Now excuse me, that may be possible now, but there would be no such thing as the Catholic Church if people had not been forced to believe this, compelled to believe, or—though I doubt it myself, really do doubt it—may actually have believed it at the time. Without it, what’ve you got but some menu of spirituality options that you might as well have as a Hindu?
A: Well you can have it as a Hindu, in some respects. Although, the kind of way of life as being portrayed in the Gospels as a way to live is a little different than Hinduism for example, or Buddhism. I think there are overlaps.
H: But Andrew, I wouldn’t bother with this, I would let these beliefs exist in a parallel universe except for argumentative purposes and dialectal purposes. It’s nice, I enjoy discussing with Jesuits—nothing could be more agreeable—as I would with a Hegelian or a Randian or any of the above. But much more than Hegelians and Randians, these people want to influence my life. They say I want your children to be taught things that aren’t true.
A: No, no, my point is that the kind of religion I’m talking about—because it is much more aware of the provisionality of its own knowledge—is a much humbler approach to the divine. And certainly, someone like me would say, “This is what I believe but even I, at some level, cannot give you reasons for this; I cannot explain it entirely; I think this is how I’m trying to figure it out for myself”. The last thing on Earth such a religion would do is tell you how to live your life. Now I understand most religions are not that way, but I am trying to say that at some level, some way of being at peace with one’s own mortality and have some understanding of why we’re here, does not necessitate—even though it’s often accompanied by—the desire to control anybody else’s life. I don’t see Jesus trying to control anyone else’s life.
H: Why don’t you let me make the assumption, or make the claim, that I take the words and the positions of a true believers seriously and that I respect them. When I examine these beliefs I find that they cannot be private. It is not possible for someone to really believe this, and especially its redemptive character, and watch me go straight to hell. They would be failing in their duty, they must save me, even if it means killing and burning me would be best.
A: Not if what stops them is their understanding of their own doubt. Doubt and faith can co- exist.
H: How can this be allowed if you know God’s will?
A: You don’t know it, you think you know it.
H: When I was a Marxist I used to think, or sometimes was tempted into thinking, “look, people may not realize they need this, but they really do and the consequences of not adopting—“
A: Well, there you are, that was a religion you had.
H: Well, it was not a religion in the sense that I accept but I’ll take it as a dogma. The feeling one had was, “many don’t seem to want what we’re telling them, but the consequences of not adopting an international socialist program would be so bad that one might have to give people the occasional nudge. It’s for their own good. Marxism has its glories, but its principal failing must have to be accepted as that, the idea of false consciousness.
A: Ratzinger has this concept, too. He gave this astonishing talk in Dallas in 1991—I put it in my book—where he describes what he understands to be conscience. And the Second Council, though it took two millennia, did actually make a significant shift to say that we do recognize that the individual conscience alone is the ultimate arbiter of one’s own faith. Ratzinger, I think having pioneered that idea with Kung, subsequently pulled back from its implications.
H: Which are obviously heretical and incompatible with true belief.
A: Well his argument, in Dallas of all places…(laughs) “Ratzinger in Dallas.”
H: God is everywhere.
A: It’s like “Dusty in Memphis.”
H: All is decided by Heaven, all praise belongs to Allah.
A: His argument was: If your conscience tells you one thing, and the Holy Father through the authority of the Magisterium has determined something else, then it is not your conscience against the hierarchy; there is actually, beneath what you think is your conscience, your real conscience which must, because you’re made by God, understand already, that you’re wrong. It’s the false consciousness mode, again. You may not realize that you need their authority, but you do. But that is not the obliteration of conscience altogether…
H: I could, in a Platonic sense—in the proper sense of the word, deriving from Plato—I could concede, or even concur, that that might be true. What I could not accept is that Ratzinger could know and not me. That he had the right to interpret it. Who is this Herr Ratzinger? By what right does he arbitrate it? Do these people want power in this world or the next? It’s always this world. That’s how religion strikes me as absolutely material, nothing to do with the spiritual or after-existence. They want power now and they’re very wise to. When else would you want to have power?
A: Well of course, there’s no other place to have power.
H: It could be that astrology was true. It could be, for example—I can’t prove it isn’t—that the movement of the planets determine my future, and that that’s what they’re there for; they know that I’m Aries. Though why and how they manage to cover the shift between the Julian and Gregorian calendar would still be a mystery to me—it wouldn’t be the main mystery—but okay, let’s agree. The planets know my future and they determine it. I could agree to that, and I could agree that there could be a computer in a building that I had never seen that was running this permanent experiment: there’s my life, being lived by me, and there’s a computer predicting it, day by day, before I could see it.
Once I could see the computer, it wouldn’t be true. Once I’d read my horoscope, it wouldn’t be true, by definition. So all the other perfectly brilliant arguments against astrology—such as identical twins don’t have the same future, most of the planets weren’t discovered when the Zodiac was drawn, many other such objections—are nothing to me: No one can tell me that they know what the planets are doing.
So there couldn’t be astrological priesthood. So, ever since I had learned to think in the least, and among other things, see through astrology I saw through everything else in much the same way. It could be the case – I’m not, and no one else is, clever enough to tell me it isn’t – but no one is clever or moral enough to tell me that it is. So I return to my point, we begin by excluding those who claim to know. And I think that is Occam’s Razor in practice.
A: Well it does make religion much more private, meditative. I mean Gandhi, for example, was not going around seeking that much power, at least in his religious mode.
H: I wish that was true.
A: Jesus, specifically, does not seem to be interested in actually acquiring power in the Gospels, to any degree.
H: No, a very modest guy. Unassuming, as long as you accept him as in some way, the son of God. He never claimed to be exactly that, but spoke rather loquaciously about his father and suggested that he knew the way to paradise. As long as you accept these incredibly arrogant claims on his part, he’s a very modest guy, almost unassuming, self effacement…
H: He’s not like the Prophet Mohammad, really interested in material gain, warfare, spoil, conquest. No, he’s not like that.
A: At all.
H: Gandhi, I think, was a bit more ambitious than you allow.
A: But, these arrogant claims nevertheless were not, by him at least, turned into a doctrine or a church as he lived.
H: Well, his disciples couldn’t have been Christian, for one, because they had not read any of the Gospels. They couldn’t have been able to, among other things, they were written long after they were around. So, they can be excluded as non-Christian. And he too, because there is really no evidence—and this is conceded by most serious Christians, too—that he desired to found a church or have one founded in his name. It’s very plain that he expected his followers to see him again in their own lifetimes.
A: And it’s very clear that they expected to see him again in their own lifetimes.
H: And they were wrong, weren’t they?
H: So every time people say “Christ is risen” at Easter for the next 2,000 years they’re wasting their time, and other people’s. It’s just not gonna happen and to sow the false hope that it will—
A: Well, the Christ has risen thing is not about the Second Coming, it’s a reference to something that has already occurred.
H: Yes but it’s a promise. If you can do it once…
A: I think you could shear, if you will, Christianity of the Second Coming.
H: All you have to believe in then is resurrection, which in the Bible occurs routinely. It’s a commonplace. According to the Gospels, the graves are opened all around Jerusalem at around the time of the crucifixion and many strode out of their tombs and greeted people in the streets. At least two people are resurrected on request by the Nazarene, Jairus’ daughter and Lazarus, who nobody interviews about their extraordinary experience and nobody finds out about their subsequent life.
Did they die again? We don’t even know. Were they resurrected in the form of the body that had previously died on them? We’re not even told that. Resurrection, however, was not considered particularly remarkable at that time. But never mind, I concede all this: Jesus rose again from the dead. It doesn’t prove one thing about the truth of his doctrines.
H: Resurrection’s an old myth. It doesn’t vindicate the claim of someone who makes it.
A: Well in my mind the big—and you know, I’m committing heresy throughout this entire conversation—
H: And you’re better for it.
A: For me, the Incarnation is a much more central doctrine than the Resurrection. The Resurrection, in some ways, is the necessary consequence of the Incarnation, because it’s hard to think of God dying a mortal death.
H: Not for me. Actually, I take that back, it’s hard for me to think of him living.
A: Right. Well, it’s hard for me to think of him dying. (Laughs.)
H: Alright, that’s one difference I’d split.
To be continued.
(Photo: Pope Benedict XVI attends the 2012 World Meeting of Families at Meazza Stadium on June 2, 2012 in Milan, Italy. By Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images.)