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For Christopher Hitchens
Posted on Dec 17, 2011
By Mr. Fish
Can a person be spiritual without being religious?
I suppose so. Everybody, whether they’re laying a brick wall with a trowel or shearing a sheep, has experienced the transcendent, that’s one thing. It’s quite another to believe that the universe is directed towards you. The holy texts do actually say what they say and they do mandate a lot of incredible stupidity. I’m rather proud of the chapter [I wrote] about Dr. King. Many people, at least ostensibly, have been motivated to do grand, good things by faith, but why is that necessary? You don’t need the supernatural to be in favor of abolishing the condition of slavery, for instance, whereas you do need the Bible to keep slavery going so long. Subjectively, do I really know whether Dr. King was a believer or not? I don’t. Did he actually think that the story of the Exodus was true? If so, he contradicted it at every turn because he did not promise black Americans that they could kill everyone who disagreed with them.
It could be argued that the threat to humanity posed by religion pales in comparison to the threat posed by science and technology—napalm didn’t come out of the Vatican, it came out of the chemistry department of Harvard University. One could feasibly make the point that at least God doesn’t require 30 billion barrels of oil a year to keep his halo glowing.
No, but then if you look at what could be very frightening you would have scientific knowledge plagiarized by unscientific people who have contempt for both science and reason. That’s now been made possible by our global internationalized civilization. Surely, to most people, that’s the most scary thought; in combination is apocalyptic technique in the hands of messianic forces. Let’s be honest about it, there is an advantage to the rational mind as opposed to the fanatical one—the fanatical one is not very good at science and, so far, this advantage has played out in our favor.
Still, does science bear no responsibility when they create, essentially, a doomsday machine and then say it should only be used for peaceful purposes?
I would think it was a bad thing if the species was destroyed by an apocalyptic weapon, but I can’t see how any religious believer would think it was such a bad thing. To them it’s not a tragedy, it can’t be. They’ve repeatedly said so. And, sure, a secular power with a nuclear weapon could make the mistake [of ending the world] and several times nearly has. Nothing stops that. The idea that we could die as a species is obviously very high. The fact that we’ve survived this very brief time is rather surprising. It would be ironic if it were something that arose from our intelligence that got rid of us.
Maybe intelligence is the wrong word.
Well, we’ve been used to that ever since nuclear physics was discovered. This kind of thing seems to be common sense, our tenure on this planet is very fragile—goddamn. By the way, in my view, in case I didn’t make this clear enough in the book—which, actually, I think I didn’t—outgrowing the supernatural and the superstitious is not sufficient for emancipating the human race. It’s only the beginning. All our big discoveries and big arguments are ahead of us, but the one that has to be subtracted is the fanatical one that prays for the end of time.
Most of the religious people I know are not religious because they’re adhering to some ancient, antiquated text or because they’re afraid of spending eternity burning in hell if they misbehave. Do you think that religion, for some people, simply fulfills the same purpose that fiction and literature might for you or I, [as a way to quantify] ideas of right and wrong?
That’s why I say, in many ways, that [the question of religious inquiry] is a literary question; it’s about ethics and the origin of ethics and the best way in which they’re expressed is a dilemma—ethical dilemmas are in literature and myth, yeah, sure. The difference is that I can step outside of it and as soon as you can see it from the outside you can see that it’s man-made. Being man-made isn’t the worst thing. It’s just you can’t then make it into a transcendent law that everyone must obey. And that’s what I object to and that’s what has to stop.
There’s a basic question that I seldom see included in this discussion and that is the question of the viability of human consciousness itself, and whether or not it perceives reality or just perceives itself perceiving reality. In other words, can consciousness even perceive the truth or does it only interpret a version of the truth relative to a person’s mood, opinion, ideology, [et cetera]?
No school of philosophy has ever solved this question of whether being determines consciousness or the other way around. It may be a false antithesis. Here’s what I do know, those who claim that they do know this are bound to be wrong. The argument is not equal between us and the supernaturalists. They don’t just claim to know there is a supernatural that can be miraculous as a designer, they don’t just claim to know that, which is more than they can know. No one can know that. I admit that I can’t. They say, ‘No, no you can! Not only that, you can know God’s mind. Not only that, you can know what he wants you to do about food and sex.’ If we start by excluding those who say there’s no point in the argument, who say they already know the truth, if we drop them then we may get some progress. Then we’re left with an argument among grown-ups.
Do you find that an argument against the existence of God is not unlike an argument against the existence of obscenity? Or, how about this—this is the equation: There’s a difference between a cent and a penny. The cent is the imaginary value of the penny, it isn’t real, yet when we see the penny we see the cent because we’ve made them interchangeable. The cent is what we react to, but [we] have to believe it exists first.
I think I know what you’re saying—go on.
We’ve developed this habit of using the incontrovertibility of physical reality to give incontrovertibility to our imaginations, therefore, we’re capable of making our imaginations seem real, so God can seem real. You can see it when you look at the words “cunt” and “vagina.” Both words refer to the same exact thing, yet one is considered obscene. The difference between the words cunt and vagina is imaginary.
I know what you mean. However, cunt is a hate word.
But it was invented to be such.
It’s true that obscenity is a matter of taste and in the eye of the beholder. The real objection to obscenity, in my opinion, is the result of our makeup, specifically that the urinary/genitry/excretory is mixed up. That’s what makes children laugh and whistle and grin. If that were not the case, we’d be a lot better off, perhaps. Obscenity comes from grime. “Free education is a gift to the poor, it raises them out of the gutter. It teaches the girls to write cock on the door and the boys to write cunt on the shutter.” It’s the relationship between the spiritual and urinary, that’s where obscenity comes from.
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