March 2, 2015
For Christopher Hitchens
Posted on Dec 17, 2011
By Mr. Fish
That’s my point, is obscenity—or God—something we can even have a rational conversation about if we’ve only been conditioned to react to it? Is consciousness an evolutionary flaw?
That’s what I say in my first quotation in the book.
“Oh, wearisome condition of humanity
The situation is we’re mammals, we leak and we excrete and then we’re told to forget about that or to deny it. Religion is totalitarian because it demands the impossible. [Like religion], obscenity shuts you down. The secular argument, or the liberal argument, is to, as much as possible, remove taboos so things do not become unmentionable; to let some air into the discussion. I’m old now—I remember when D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley” was banned because the government thought that once you ban the book you can get people to stop thinking about these things. And I remember thinking that’s a mistake, a very obvious mistake. You probably increase the chances of [people] thinking about these things.
Which reminds me of my favorite Lenny Bruce quote.
Knowledge of syphilis is not instruction to get it.
[Chuckles] It was easy to argue this kind of thing in the ’60s, against censorship, against bans on homosexuality, et cetera. Now you do run into people who say, then why would you forbid pedophilia? Would the same standards hold for this? Or snuff movies? Or third trimester abortions? This argument takes place among rationalists and humanists and sociologists. We don’t say that if you allow [these things] we would be comfortable with obscenity. I do think there are lots of things you don’t have to be taught. Most people don’t have to be taught not to eat dead human beings, let alone to kill them in order to eat them. You don’t have to drill this into children. You don’t have to drill it into children that if one of their parents wants to go to bed with them that they should go and stay at the neighbor’s for the night, you don’t have to. You could say that that’s an argument for a creator with a benevolent view but then you’d have a huge rational argument about why we are programmed to kill and torture and so on. It does show that morality precedes religion, that ethics precedes religion, not the other way around.
Still, I wonder if our survival as a species is something we can will given a consciousness that is able to make its imagination seem real?
We can’t stand far enough outside of our dilemma to think it completely through. It’s like the mind/body distinction. There may not be a distinction. The mind is clever enough to consider the distinction, but it’s not clever enough to get far enough outside the body to arbitrate it.
And that’s the rub.
We don’t know that we’re not dreaming. Look, we can’t resolve these things today. Here’s what I insist on: Those who say they know are out of the argument and should be treated with less respect. We are having, even here in this lobby with the traffic, here in L.A., we’re already having quite a high-level discussion, about things that are fairly imponderable to combat, up against a phalanx of people who say what’s the point in having this discussion? We already know the answer. What’s the point of struggling and arguing and researching? This is what I find hateful.
Some people might accuse you of asking everybody to be comfortable living in a godless universe that is completely indifferent to them. How do you imagine people will go about satisfying their own sense of purpose?
Obviously, it’s not possible for people to do that all of the time, but it is possible for them not to draw any conclusions from their belief that the universe is all about them. If a huge rusted fridge fell through the ceiling and obliterated you without warning, I would think well, that was lucky. Presuming that the fridge was directed at neither of us, it’s not lucky at all. But I would not be human if I didn’t think it was a bit of luck. This is why religion can’t be beaten, because it does derive from all these forms of selfishness, self-centeredness, fantasy and so on. Fine, I concede to that, but then why do people keep saying that I have to respect it? I don’t have to respect any belief, nor do you, that a rusted fridge that killed you and didn’t kill me was a piece of luck. You do not have to respect that. You can recognize it and see where it comes from. You can analyze it, you can even sympathize with it. You can’t really say that I insist also that you respect it.
There is in religion, however, some practical application. Take, for instance, the very radical notion that the meek have some intrinsic value. African-Americans, just to take an obvious example, were told for centuries that they were something much less than human, so for them to have access to a Bible that tells them that they are significant, that white society doesn’t determine their worth, is, well, significant. For them it was a belief system that acknowledged, and still does in large part, that they were human beings that were being mistreated. Respecting that aspect of religion doesn’t demand that you also kowtow to superstition.
Of course, of course, I see what you’re saying. Since there’s no justice in this world, there better be some justice on offer in the next. Again, you can see where it comes from, fine. It’s the same when Karen Armstrong [author of “The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions”] writes about Islam. Arabs were being teased by Jews and Christians, “You haven’t had a prophet yet.” Well, they were going to get one, weren’t they? Then you have the Archangel Gabriel appear to some fucking peasant merchant who can’t read, exactly borrowed from the [Judeo-Christian] faith. Yes, of course I understand that, but it’s too much to ask me to believe it. It’s too much to ask me to respect it. It’s too much like I would be, too much like myself. I can’t respect something that follows my own wish fulfillment. I don’t. The last time I prayed was for an erection. Don’t ask me if I got it or not—who cares?
Having had just enough Sunday school to know the story of Lot’s wife and how to recognize an unhealthy temptation when I heard one, I struggled hard to keep my eyes above c-level and asked Hitchens a final question about whose existence was easier to disprove, Henry Kissinger’s or God’s. He laughed and said that it was the same process for eviscerating each high-profile Jew in print and that, essentially, the quantitative differences between nonexistent entities was not measurable, being the difference between the hole in a very old bagel and the hole in a relatively recent one.
When he stood to say goodbye three hours after we began our conversation, I did not stand to shake his hand, not because I was trying to be disrespectful, but rather because I figured a greater disrespect might have been expressed had I fallen down on him. I was drunk. Waiting until I was sure he was a safe distance away, I stood slowly, stacking my vertebrae like hermit crabs beneath a bowling bowl, and zigzagged outside and took a moment to look up at the stars and to recall something that Mark Twain had said: “Go to heaven for the climate, hell for the company.” “And back and forth,” I thought to myself, amending the sentiment, “if you have any interest in learning anything about anything.”
Four years later, on the morning of Dec. 16, 2011, I poured myself a glass of red wine and went to the window and toasted the same stars that, although I couldn’t see them, I knew were still there.
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