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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

He went warring and drinking and blaming gods: Hitchens and alcohol

Pharyngula has been the site for heated (and often off-topic) discussion about some recent comments by Christopher Hitchens at a "Freedom from Religion" convention in Wisconsin. Apparently, Hitchens took the opportunity to urge a more violently militaristic approach to the current tensions between the West and much of the Muslim world. If he's been reported accurately, he has, in effect, declared war on Islam and called for the infliction of massive casualties if we in the West are to prevail.

This, it seems to me, is the last message that we need to hear from a major public intellectual such as Hitchens. We may, in some metaphorical sense, be at war with terrorist networks, but to imagine that we are at war - literal war - with Islam itself, or with Muslims as a group, is starting to sound a little crazy.

A lot of Hitchens' critics blame his wilder comments on his supposed alcoholism and alleged penchant for drunkenness. Ho hum! It's amazing how readily some self-identified "rational" thinkers can resort to reductive, moralistic garbage whenever they find themselves in radical disagreement with somebody. Despite the slightly facetious title of this post, I have no particular reason to believe that Hitchens has any serious problem with alcohol ... or that any such problem, if it does exist, has impaired his judgment. If, as widely rumoured, he does have a special fondness for whiskey, then good for him. I'm partial to a drop myself. Can't we engage in intellectual debate without indulging in silly personal slurs?

As I said on one of the Pharyngula threads, I wouldn't care if it turned out that Hitchens is a heroin addict who listens to Barry Manilow records and has sex with a parrot while dressed in a rubber suit. It's his ideas that matter, not his habits.

But what about his ideas? Hitchens has been built up as some kind of hero to the cause of anti-religion. There's been a fair bit of rhetoric about "four musketeers" in that cause - Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and of course Hitchens. Dawkins' site has used this meme, but I wonder how wise it is when some of the muskets are, at times, more like loose cannons.

I love some of what Hitchens delivers - I greatly enjoyed God is Not Great, and he makes some telling points even in the speech that he gave in Wisconsin (from what I've been able to watch so far on YouTube). But as we've also seen recently with Sam Harris, who doesn't even like the words "atheist" and "atheism", the "New Atheists" do not form a philosophical school. The more we see of them, the more we can see that they are very diverse individuals, sharing only a non-belief in deities and a knack for explaining difficult concepts very clearly.

That diversity of clear voices expressing powerful criticism of religion is healthy for our intellectual culture, but I do think that the four musketeers idea is rather lame, and the "New Atheism" is a journalistic tag of limited value: it's more useful if we apply it to the entire publishing phenomenon of recent, high-profile books attacking religion (of which there are now many) than if it is simply shorthand for Dawkins-Dennett-Harris-Hitchens.

Dawkins (along with his friend Dennett) might be safer associating himself with people like Alan Sokal, A.C. Grayling, and Philip Kitcher than with Hitchens and Harris. Never mind that Kitcher himself has been less than tactful in distancing himself from Dawkins! It was always apparent that there's no monolith of unbelief, but it's becoming more evident that Hitchens and Harris, in particular, have distinctive personal agendas and will never subordinate these to any "movement". Nor, of course, should they. They are entitled to say what they really think - just as we are entitled to think (and say) that Hitchens has jumped the shark in his latest comments on Islam.


Brian English said...

Hi Russell, I was thinking Hitch jumped the shark too yesterday. I think the alcholism tag is just an easy out for people who fell in love with him and now feel jilted as he's not the atheistic knight in shinning armour anymore. I loved "God is not great" by the way.
Do you recommend reading Sokal, Grayling and Kitcher?

Russell Blackford said...

Sokal has a new book coming out next year. Meanwhile, Sokal and Bricmont's Intellectual Impostures is a wonderful attack on the excesses of post-structuralist critique/exploitation of science.

Kitcher's Living with Darwin and Grayling's Against All Gods are delightfully lucid books that also have the great advantage of being short.

Brian English said...

Hi Russell, totally off topic, but do you read the journal "Philosophy now"? I bought an edition today (no 62) because it had a review of Dawkins' "God Delusion" and thought it'd be cool to get a philosophers take on the book. Instead it was a review by Mark Vernon whichattacked Dawkins' with strawmen and quoted John Cornwell who Dawkins describes as willfully ignorant or plain mendacious. Don't philosophy journals have peer review or standards? I don't mind if Dawkins' get dragged over coal for poor arguments, but at least be honest...
Anyway, to cut this rant short. I was thinking of subscribing to the journal as I liked a previous isssue, but probably not now. Any good suggestions for a non-philosopher like myself journal wise. Sometimes it makes it easier to understand a book on philosophy when you read a commentary on it in a journal or an "Aristotle for dummies".
I really must stop picking your brains here and on RD's website.

Russell Blackford said...

I don't know how reputable Philosophy Now really is. I suppose the problem is that the best journals are not always that accessible, while the accessible journals are not always that high in their standards. Note, though, that a book review is not the same as a refereed article and won't necessarily have gone through any process of refereeing, no matter how high the journal's reputation: it's just one person's opinion.

There seems to be a fair bit of support around for Sophia as a good philosophy of religion journal, if that's your main interest. Or since you're an Aussie, have a look at The Australasian Journal of Philosophy as a general journal in the field; it has a good reputation and is not necessarily super-technical.

Blake Stacey said...

I know I've made at least one Hitchens-and-whiskey joke, so I claim no moral high ground; in my defense, such remarks are harder to avoid when one actually knows people who have stories about drinking with Hitchens. (Holy small world, Batman! This means I know somebody who knows somebody who's interviewed somebody who's met Thomas Pynchon.)

Is there some essay contest for strawman hatchet-jobs on Dawkins and The God Delusion? 'Cause that sure seems like the most common review mode, and I have to wonder if they're all competing for some grand prize. Templeton money, maybe?

Russell Blackford said...

Well, I know someone who has met Pynchon - though it's not Salman Rushdie. The person concerned might not appreciate it if I dropped his name (which you'd recognise) and stole his thunder.

I also met Greg Egan a long time ago, before he became so reclusive (hi, Greg!)

Brian English said...

It seems I'm not the only one who thinks Mark Vernon got the wrong end of the pineapple and inserted it anally when treating Dawkins: