The last installment of my 2006 taped late-night conversation with Christopher Hitchens can be found here, along with all the previous extracts. This new one, on re-reading, stopped me short, as you might imagine from the opener – and Hitch’s priceless response:
H: Well, look, you’re not gonna trap me into saying the Gospels are true. I don’t think they’re true at all, I don’t think there’s a word of truth in them.
A: You think it was entirely made up. He didn’t even exist.
H: I think the entire thing — the Gospel account of his life is of course an absolute fiction —
H: Well, an absolute confection. A jamming together of mutually inconsistent and weird accounts. If you now tell me, “hey, are you resting yourself on the Gospel,” I’m saying, Andrew, please don’t make my point for me. That is what Christianity, however, does depend upon. And there is one thing on which they certainly agree that makes no sense at all: moral advice such as “take no thought for the morrow.” Don’t care about clothes, or wealth, or investment, or your children, or anything for the future, why bother? This is immoral advice. Anyone who took it would be highly irresponsible at best.
H: It only makes sense if you believe that there is no point in doing this, if you take the James Watt view of the national parks: why preserve anything when it’s all coming to an end? This is wickedness.
A: Well, because it will come to an end, because you are going to die.
H: [Lights cigarette.]
A: And you and I are not going to be here in 50 years’ time, neither of us. We will end.
H: Well I’m holding out for stem cells, myself.
H: Particularly embryonic ones, because apparently they last longer. No, no of course, no one argues more strongly than me that we’re born into a losing struggle, as is our cosmos, certainly our universe. For all we know, the heat death of the universe certainly might occur before we die!
A: Is it a more logical thing to surrender to that and accept it rather than to fight it?
H: Not as moral advice, no. To say, “in that case, what is the point in preserving a surplus from the harvest and trying to make sure that the next one will be larger,” because one has children, say, or because there are other people to be fed.
A: But Jesus, of course, did not have children, and instructed his disciples to abandon their own children and abandon their own families…
H: Immoral advice.
A: …and abandon their own wealth.
H: Does the Church do an imitation of Christ in this way?
A: No. No, they do not—it’s an impossible doctrine. It is an absolutely impossible doctrine.
H: Andrew, you’re doing my work for me.
A: No I’m not, I’m actually doing my work.
H: It’s either morally incoherent or it’s actually wicked, but as a precept of morality it’s utterly void, null.
A: Or it is truer than anything you’ve said. Or it is the only sane response to living as a mortal. Now it may be that we are, as mortals, incapable of it.
H: It’s too man-made, and it’s too obviously man-made for that to be true. And it bears, as Darwin says about our species, the lowly stamp of its origin. You can tell its man-made, as you call tell with the Qu’ran as well, as with the Torah and the Talmud. This is the work of fallible mammals, and it shows.
A: Of course.
H: Well, that’s all there is to be said about it.
A: No, that isn’t. The people who wrote down the oral history of this figure that they knew—
H: Copied down from other fragments, inserted later. Have you read Barton Ehrman’s book?
A: I haven’t read it but I know of it.
H: Well, it’s quite extraordinary, much more than I thought.
A: The Misquoting Jesus book?
H: It’s called ‘misquoting’ which is a very mild statement of its title, and I hope I don’t interrupt you but I just want to say this: the story, say, the famous story of the woman taken in adultery and the very interesting and odd behavior of Jesus on that occasion that everyone remembers in their childhood—
A: Was put in a hundred and fifty years later, yeah.
H: And it isn’t in the same kind of language that the other Gospels are in, it’s to Prof. Ehrman’s shock—and I mention him because he had become the chief spokesman of the Biblical fundamentalists, was their most skilled and most multilingual and sincere and scholarly advocate. His realization that this is at best a legend, I consider to be significant. I’m taking Bertrand Russell’s test of “evidence against interest.”
A: Well yes, in his case—although I think you’re exaggerating a little his previous stature. I mean I don’t think he would claim that he was the most important fundamentalist scholar.
H: He would be too modest for that, but he was being advanced by them as such and had been to, first to Wheaton I believe and then to the college that looks down on Wheaton as slightly too secular…
H: Yes, and undoubtedly entered this vocation mastering all the relevant tongues in the hope of vindicating Biblical literacy.
A: No, his story is an absolutely riveting one, and what I find fascinating in terms of the church—and not just my Church but other churches, what we’re seeing the Episcopal Church as well—is, I think, the impact of a lot of this. And I think that part of what you see in popular culture is the sort of dreck of the Da Vinci Code, it’s a kind of ghastly … I’m not going to get into the content of it, I’m just saying purely as an anthropological, sociological phenomenon, it seems to me without the awareness that scholarship has essentially destroyed the notion of a single, inerrant text.
H: I think the difference between us may be this, then: I don’t believe scholarship is necessary for that. It’s interesting, but I’m so made—and I think I’m not the only one, but if I was I wouldn’t mind—as to be certain that there wouldn’t be an infallible text dictated by God to men. That the idea is impossible to begin with, ex hypothesi, by definition, it cannot happen, there will be no revelation, there never has been one and if there was, why wasn’t it made to everybody to judge whether it’s true or not? Why was it made to a group of Bronze Age villagers who then have to pass it on, who would be incapable of passing it on in its original form?
A: Well, it has to be made to somebody—
H: Of that we can be absolutely certain.
H: So it’s not that there wasn’t a revelation, it’s that there can’t be a revelation.
A: Or the truth that would be imparted would be extraordinarily hard to translate. I mean, what Jesus speaks in are these mysterious parables that are subject to all sorts of interpretation. It’s not as if what Jesus is saying is the kind of doctrine that one would read in the catechism of the Catholic Church. I mean, if Jesus was the son of God, then it’s certain the God speaking through him spoke in paradoxical, mysterious contradictory dialogues.
H: I wouldn’t say paradoxical. Contradictory, incoherent. And very often wicked, the injunctions are very often evil. They say all other tribes must be destroyed physically and—
A: I don’t recall Jesus saying any of those things.
H: Jesus doesn’t say that—
A: Well let’s stick to Jesus, then.
H: Alright, let’s stick to Jesus, then.
A: And let’s stick to Jefferson’s Jesus. Because if Jefferson, for example, who you believe had no interest—why was he so interested? What drew Jefferson to the Gospels?
H: It was compulsory to be interested…
A: No it wasn’t, he kept this privately. Why did he privately construct his own Bible?
H: In order: if I can’t mention, I won’t dwell on the evil instructions of genocide and enslavement and rape that are mandatory in the Old Testament except to say that nowhere in the Old Testament is there any mention of Hell or punishment of the dead, the most evil doctrine of Christianity, I think of them all. It’s only until gentle Jesus, meek and mild makes his appearance, or only when, rather, he does so, that the idea of eternal torment is introduced. The Old Testament contains no warrant, at least, for that. Slavery, yes, genocide, yes, racism, yes, rape, all of that, certainly. Human sacrifice, and its equivalents. But no Hell. That has to come with the gentle, more modest New Testament. But Jefferson cuts all that out of the Bible as best he can…
A: Because why? What is his justification for that?
H: Jefferson died in I think 1826. Darwin and Lincoln were born on the same day in 1819, Jefferson is just at the point where there isn’t quite enough science to disprove the Bible or to utterly negate religion. He’s a man of enormous curiosity, he wanders, goes on expeditions and has debates with French naturalists about the topography of Virginia. “How can it be the shells, the sea shells, are so high up on the mountain?” He’s just below the summit, he can’t see over— bit like Moses—but he really wants to know.
And he knows that religion is, in its clerical form, nonsense, but he feels, can it really be all untrue? Well, it might be truer if I cut out all the things that are self-evidently untrue. Well, this is a very primitive pre-Darwinian almost pre-modern view. Because he was trying his best, he was one of the precursors. One looks at the Jefferson Bible with interest but one doesn’t learn anything from his amendment of it. Except that it can’t be the word of God.
A: When you read Jefferson’s Bible, does it say anything to you? Are the sayings of Jesus, insofar as they reflect upon the way one should be among one’s fellow human beings, do they strike you as…
H: What’s left over is just as wicked as it was to begin with, it seems to me.
A: It’s wicked to love one’s neighbor?
(Photo: taken by yours truly on the beautiful grounds of Willamette University in Salem, Oregon.)