Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Christopher Hitchens: a nincompoop?

For some reason I feel like writing about the "New Atheist" journalist Christopher Hitchens. He has been something of an inspiration for me: he is devastatingly eloquent, brilliantly funny, and is very outspoken. However his speaking style is very rhetorical, not always entirely logical, and he has held some puzzling positions in his lifetime. This post will surprisingly contain mostly criticism.

God is Not Great

Hitchen's book God is Not Great is really quite bad. Through a few antidotes he falls terribly short of showing that "religion poisons everything." He provides a few weak inductive arguments against God's existence that I might explore later, but for the most part I was quite disappointed. At one point he states that Kant had demolished the cosmological and teleological arguments by showing that they reduce to the ontological argument. He left that statement asserted and unexpanded. In his debates he never argued (as far as I know) for this conclusion that Kant had "proved" which leads me to think he doesn't quite understand Kant's line of thinking. On the topic of understanding philosophers, Hitchen's includes the conclusion of Mackie's The Miracle of Theism (which is a very good book, but a bit dry, heavy, and at times dull) in The Portable Athiest. Mackie expands quite nicely on Kant's arguments, but again Hitchens didn't feel like bringing Mackies arguments into debates--perhaps he only read Mackie's conclusion?

All this being said God is Not Great is still probably better then many popular books arguing for theism or Christianity but that is not saying much (D'souza and Strobel, now there are two nincompoops).

Simply evil

In this piece Hitchen's nicely lays out his neoconservative views. Many, including myself, have found these views quite confusing from the former left Marxist. At any rate he argues that 9/11 was "simply evil" and as such demanded a response.
"The proper task of the "public intellectual" might be conceived as the responsibility to introduce complexity into the argument: the reminder that things are very infrequently as simple as they can be made to seem. But what I learned in a highly indelible manner from the events and arguments of September 2001 was this: Never, ever ignore the obvious either."

What was so obvious about the 9/11 attacks?

“To the government and most of the people of the United States, it seemed that the country on 9/11 had been attacked in a particularly odious way (air piracy used to maximize civilian casualties) by a particularly odious group (a secretive and homicidal gang: part multinational corporation, part crime family) that was sworn to a medieval cult of death, a racist hatred of Jews, a religious frenzy against Hindus, Christians, Shia Muslims, and "unbelievers," and the restoration of a long-vanished and despotic empire.”
And he continues:

"To me, this remains the main point about al-Qaida and its surrogates. I do not believe, by stipulating it as the main point, that I try to oversimplify matters...Moreover, many of the attempts to introduce "complexity" into the picture strike me as half-baked obfuscations or distractions. These range from the irredeemably paranoid and contemptible efforts to pin responsibility for the attacks onto the Bush administration or the Jews, to the sometimes wearisome but not necessarily untrue insistence that Islamic peoples have suffered oppression. (Even when formally true, the latter must simply not be used as nonsequitur special pleading for the use of random violence by self-appointed Muslims.)"

The problem with this is that the 9/11 attacks were hardly random, insofar as random events do not have reasons. Osama bin Laden was also terribly explicit about the reasons for 9/11, there was his fanatical Muslim aspirations but there was also his desire to change American policy towards the Middle East. Specifically the murderous embargo against Iraq (which to Hitchen's credit, he criticized), the support of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, and primarily the United States military presence in Saudi Arabia. Hardly random. This is of course not to say that  9/11 was justified, but that there were legitimate grievances behind it. As such we should have both resisted Al Qaeda (Maybe start by accepting the Taliban's offer of Bin Laden?) and the causes behind it. Instead we have accentuated and surged the causes of terrorism: immensely popular bombing campaigns and wars, the support of dictators in the region, the continual military presence, and mindless support of Israel's policies. There will probably be a blow back to these policies. This of course will be random violence by pure evil monsters whose motivations we should not investigate.

Have I established that Hitchens is a nincompoop? Hardly, this piece is quite short and perhaps too poorly and quickly written to establish that conclusion. Hopefully though I have given some reasons for supposing that at least some of his views are false.

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