Sully And Hitch: “Why Should I Deserve Forgiveness?”

The late night conversation continues. For a recap, the whole thing is here. I should let readers know that I’d proposed to Hitch that we discuss Iraq as well as religion, but for reasons I leave to you to snicker about, we kept putting off that question later into the night. In the last installment, we were still talking about whether the message of Jesus was actually wicked – but the question of the combination of religious fundamentalism and weapons of mass destruction was at the edge of the conversation – and where it would soon turn.

A: It’s wicked to love one’s neighbor?

H: It doesn’t ask one to love one’s neighbor. That was said by Rabbi Hillel, in fact, long before. It says, “Love the neighbor as oneself.” An impossible—you see, the real wickedness of Christianity, or one of many, is it demands the impossible: To ask me to love you, Andrew, sometimes seems too easy…

A: [Laughs.]

H: But to ask me to love you as I love myself is an impossible demand, I cannot possibly, cannot conceivably do that, and it would be wrong of me if I did because I have other things I have to do. I have a wife, children, others.

A: But as an aspiration—

H: No, absolutely not, it’s a dissolution of the personality, it’s the abolition of the individual.

A: No it’s not.

H: Of course I’ll have enough self-respect to like myself more than I love you. I’ll have to do it. It’s a morally impossible demand. The demand to give up all possessions and to forget the future is not just unlivable and impossible, but would be, if it could be done, cruel and stupid.

A: Because it would abrogate responsibility.

H: It would mean there’d be no investment, no thrift, no thought about subsequent generations. There’s no saving Christianity from the charge, it seems to me, that as stated even at its strongest by its warmest believers that it’s recommendations, its precepts, are rather nonsensical or evil. Sometimes both.

A: I just find that the aspiration to treat others as one treats oneself, you know, which could be rendered in secular terms.

H: No, it doesn’t say “treat,” Andrew.

A: Love.

H: It says “love” as yourself. Rabbi Hillel comes up with the Golden Rule.

A: I’m just trying to grapple with the idea that that aspiration is evil or wicked. It strikes me as preposterous.

H: No, because it’s too strenuous, I mean to say. Because it’s impossible it means that anyone falling short of it is in a state of sin. To do to others what you want done to yourself doesn’t mean “always be nice to me,” because it would be banal, was well as tautological. It could mean you have to be very hard on someone, to use force on them, as you would hope they would to stop you committing a crime, for example, or a theft. So it’s—

A: It could be, except there’s also the doctrine of forgiveness and—

H: Forgiveness?

A: Yes, forgiveness.

H: Yeah, that doesn’t completely work for me either but…

A: (Laughs) I know, none of it’s gonna work for you, Christopher!

H: No, just as the donor, excuse me, I mean not just as the donor but as a recipient. Why should I deserve forgiveness from someone else, let alone have the power to offer it?

H: Who gives me this right? It’s a social question. It’s to be decided by law and by even utilitarianism, I suppose.

A: It can be, it may not be. It can also be a sense that—and again, I have to say things like this— in ways we do not understand…

H: You do have to say that.

A: Yeah, well, that is a premise of every religious statement, okay?

H: Then agree that you are one of those who doesn’t understand.

A: To some extent we can argue, as we are, about whether this doctrine makes sense in the way that one lives one’s life, or whether it’s inherently dangerous or inherently wicked or, indeed, inherently totalitarian. But at some level, what matters therefore is the level of certainty with which one holds certain truths. There is a fundamentalist mindset in which the perfect is always the enemy of the good and in which the human being thrashes around in guilt and condemnation and judgment. And the last thing one sees in another human being in the sway of this religion is serenity or calm or benevolence. One sees insecurity, anger and a frustration that the world as it should be is not as it is. And an attempt to close the gap, somehow, in your own life and everybody else’s.

H: Well, it doesn’t want everyone reconciled to the status quo. But the human discontent with the way things are has been a great spur to invention and innovation, usually waged against the priests and against religious dogma ever since we have records.

A: But they will also die, and you will die. And whatever achievements you have managed will no longer be available to you.

H: Well that’s a priori true. It doesn’t give an inch to religion. It doesn’t advance the case for a spiritual belief.

A: No, what religion does is ask, “what is a human being’s best response to that fact, of completely mortality of not just our lives but everything we do in our lives?”

H: Well to borrow a phrase from you, acceptance.

A: Right.

H: The first thing is to realize that that is the case, that we are born into a losing struggle, that we’re from a poorly evolved species that now understands rather better its cosmology and its DNA. To do the best we can with that, but not to deny it, or to make up stories that appear to pretend that it isn’t so.

A: No, but at some point to understand also that there may be some capacity that is not our rational capacity, but that is what one might call one’s spiritual capacity, to be in touch with what one cannot know. And to have what one cannot know be in touch with us.

H: See that sounds like white noise to me, I have to say. And you don’t normally talk white noise. Religion has the effect on you, as it has on many intelligent people, of making you appear to be dumber than you are. I have to tell you this.

A: (Laughs.)

H: Just as religion will often make people accede to immoral acts that they would never, ever consider, if they weren’t under the warrant of Heaven in some way. No decent Catholic is going to go around saying “I’d rather have AIDS than condoms;” it’s the Church that makes them, makes good people say wicked things. And you just asked me a piece of pure babble that you wouldn’t have thought of, it’s so well below your usual standard, because you feel that religion in some sense makes you have to do it. It’s like people stop writing poetry when they become poet laureate. Something about the monarchy kills the poetry. (Laughs.)

A: No, that is not—let me just protest, for a second.

H: Please, my dear chap. Do you want some coffee? I’m not sure there is any.

A: If I have any more coffee I’ll never sleep at all.

H: Well, we’ve strayed from Mesopotamia.

A: We have. Except we haven’t, in a way, because of course…I think one of the things that happens when you blog every day or you read the news every day and you’re obsessed with news stories and news cycles is you can forget that the reason we’re in Mesopotamia in the first place, the context in which any of this makes sense is a fundamentalist religious movement that attempted to kill us and does want to destroy us and everything we stand for. So in some ways we are not digressing from the war; we are talking about it, aren’t we? Isn’t this the origin of this war? It’s like talking about the fight against Soviet communism without talking about totalitarianism.

H: Well in a way that’s true. As you know, there’s a huge argument that has, I wouldn’t even call it a half-truth, but a partial truth in it that says the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime has little or, some people say, nothing to do with the quarrel with fundamentalist Islam. I would say I’d give this much to it: the decision to remove Saddam Hussein—the realization that our existence was incompatible with his regime, or international law was incompatible—was made in 1998 by the Senate in a unanimous vote, and that was a bit too late. It could’ve been made in 1991. Saddam Hussein’s regime is evil and it has broken all the laws governing genocide, weapons of mass destruction, aggression against neighboring states. But it was also, as it happens in my opinion, flirting with and helping to incubate jihadist groups and that became part of the case against it.

But I regard it as a war on two fronts with Saddam Hussein and his regime and his followers. As we’ve now seen the Ba’athists and the jihadists have fused on the battlefield, and they began doing that before his regime was overthrown and anyone who’s cared to look knows this. But I think this general quarrel with the totalitarian, one-party, one-leader state that needs to be pursued in any case. So, I agree they’re aspects of each other but they can just as happily be considered separate.

A: But the cost-benefit analysis shifts when one also understands that such a state can also sponsor entities outside of itself with access to technologies.

H: Voila.

A: I mean, one of the things, one of the more fundamental issues that you raised is this: homo sapiens at this stage of evolution. I ask myself this question in the dark of the night, “has our technological power vastly outpaced our capacity to handle it as human beings in terms of our ability of self-restraint, our understanding of toleration, et cetera?” It seems to be quite self evident it has, and its a miracle in some ways that it hasn’t led to worse…

H: Oh my God, one has—well, you and I are both simians but we can look down on some primates as inferior to ourselves and you see people, the tapes of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan testing chemical poisons on dogs and so forth. You realize, boy. Here you have the nightmare. A subhuman—

A: With superhuman powers.

H: With technology that was developed by people like Albert Einstein, who restore one’s faith in the species to which we all belong. But who did it, in an awful paradox, for humanitarian reasons so that the real sadistic primates didn’t get a hold of it first.

A: Right.

H: So, does AQ Khan suffer from these scruples? No. He invents nothing, he does no real scientific work; he’s a plagiarist, he’s a thief, and he cannot wait to spread what Einstein was hoping against hope to keep confined. This is a huge difference, yes, it’s all the difference in the world. But it doesn’t free us from the knowledge that we’re all primates, mammals.

A: Right: and as primates, mammals, as you say, we increasingly understand are subject to certain patterns of behavior that were formed over millennia and millions of years of behavior which lead to awareness of history as a constant violent struggle on some level or other. We’re certainly not progressing morally at the same pace as we’re progressing technologically, which leads one to a certain prediction of catastrophe, right? Is it not a matter of time?

H: It’s come back to me a lot, lately. I mean, when I was a kid—I’m older than you, a lot; when I was 15 or 14—a particularly objectionable and conceited primate John Kennedy considered that his own vanity in a quarrel that he’d helped to pick with another thuggish mammal, Nikita Khrushchev over Cuba, among other things, was worth risking the destruction of the human race for. And I remember the evening when we all thought it would happen. And so intense was that memory that, when it was over, I think a lot of people forget how bad it had been. We began to think, “well, maybe there were other things, and maybe deterrence will hold up and maybe there are other things we should be concerned with…” And there were, too. But it’s come back to me a lot lately, that 60s feeling of the imminence of the mushroom cloud.

A: And the 50s feeling, too. I mean, the thing that the intellectuals of their time are obsessed with is the bomb. Not just its existence, but that it was a paradigm shift, the paradigm shift to astonishing destruction.

H: Or, let’s not say the bomb as a summa of human achievement, as nuclear physics is, but the return to the age of Biblical plagues. The idea of spreading, deliberately, terrible violence, toxic…

A: Why do you think this hasn’t happened?