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Tony McKenna challenges the portrayal of the late Christopher Hitchens as an irreverent representative of enlightened secular atheism battling against the dark and archaic forces of religion.

Christopher HitchensIn a recent television special devoted to the life of Christopher Hitchens, Stephen Fry drew together various friends and admirers of the journalist in a series of short interviews designed to pay homage to his life. To take the spiritual pulse of a dying man (Hitchens died this December from throat cancer) is no easy task and the programme shifted in tone from the sensitive and poignant to more hagiographic outpourings which served only to evoke a certain saccharine morbidity. But the one thing which all the commentators held in common is their belief in the personal courage of Hitchens; his need to confront ‘bullies’ and ‘tyrants’, and moreover, his ability to question the status quo, to challenge received and dogmatic ‘wisdom’ be it left or right orientated, and this, according to them, is what made him both controversial and necessary.

The adjective ‘controversial’ was reeled out over and over. With regards to this there was one moment in the programme which was perhaps more instructive and more telling than any of the various praises and commendations sounded by the interviewees. The moment came during a Richard Dawkins interview when Fry posed the question ‘What kind of reason is it not to do something - because it might cause offence?’ The evolutionary biologist replied - ‘Let’s all stop being so dammed respectful! One of the problems with our world today is the way we are expected to be respectful…to tiptoe around to avoid giving offence.’

This all feeds into a deliberate and delicately cultivated narrative in which Hitchens, Dawkins and their ilk are seen as leading a new wave of enlightened secular atheism against those dark and archaic forces of religion which obtrude into the modes and forms of government, state and social life more generally. In such a narrative Hitchens and Dawkins refuse to be ‘respectful’ for they are men of principle and conscience who will not and cannot conform, despite the ominous costs which might incur. And who would deny a streak of courageous ‘non conformism’ in any society is anything but necessary precisely because it combats the process by which ideas, ideologies and perspectives are allowed to harden and congeal, thereby acquiring the status of fixed prejudices.

And yet, while Dawkins and Fry lauded notions of non conformism in order to celebrate Hitchens, and vicariously themselves, there was one detail which might at first glance seem trivial and unremarkable. Both these men had poppies pinned to the lapels of their shirts. The poppy is, of course, the symbol of Remembrance Day but the memories it is designed to induce are not those of millions of young men in opposing armies who are corralled into a futile slaughter - a slaughter visited on them by the territorial demands of several small and competing imperial elites. Instead the ‘poppy’ provides the mediation which allows us to frame the first world war in terms of a conflict between good and evil, where the soldiers were conscripted to fight and die as a necessary measure in order to protect ‘our freedom’ from the dark, sinister and external forces of the ‘other’. A noble, traditional England vs a rapacious, militaristic Germany.  The poppy is an exercise in abstraction which annuls living history by preserving a paradigm of good and evil.

If ever such a conformist vision needed to be challenged it is this one. And yet from these radical titans of modern day enlightenment we heard not a murmur. They were not alone in this. What is interesting is that on Remembrance Day there was no one on television, no matter what their politics, who declined to wear this symbol which glories in patriotic war. Not a single person chose to ‘not conform.’ For this the contemporary act of rebellion seems to have a paradoxical character. One can be non-conformist only as long as one conforms to the strictly delineated parameters of an accepted rebellion, a rebellion which has a formal character in as much as it is permitted to rile against ideas (evil, religion) but not structural forms (imperialism, class-oppression)

Hitchens account of religion is underpinned by the same rationale; that is its critique remains at the level of ideas leaving structural and historical forces of oppression entirely undisturbed. Hitchens claimed to be a Marxist but it is worth noting that his critique of religion has little in common with that of the great German philosopher. Marx’s attitude to religion was nuanced; for him, the religious impulse was profoundly human but simultaneously cultivated in the most inhumane of conditions. A truly human experience is denied to those whose lives are distorted by class oppression: they do not have the chance to develop their spiritual faculties which are thwarted by the dull, alienating grind of the labour process. For this religion assumes a quasi-tragic character - I experience little joy, dignity or inspiration in my earthly existence, so I inevitably look toward a heaven where such things can be realised; a genuinely human essence is objectified, projected outward onto an alien realm and frozen in eternity, for it has been irrevocably lost to the here and now.

Such criticism has profound revolutionary implications. The destruction of religion as an idea is not confined to mere ideological critique but also depends on the destruction of the (inhumane) material conditions and social relations which engender it. Unfortunately Hitchens did not choose to reproduce such profundity in his own critique of religion. Instead we are simply assured that ‘God is not Great’ and that ‘Religion Poisons Everything.’  What Hitchens offered us was a generic concept of religion purged of all its social-historical content, which in turn permits for an essentially moral critique whereby a rational atheism throws into relief barbaric superstition.

In his brilliant novel A Thousand Splendid Suns Khaled Hosseini presents us with two Afghanistans. The first one is a place where girls go to school, where people dress freely (or at least as freely as in any other place), where they choose who they wish to have sex with, where books on the most diverse themes are readily available and where music forms a natural, if unremarked upon, background to everyday life. Hippies from all over Europe come here to smoke pot. In contrast to this, the second Afghanistan is a place of fear, where the relationships between people are overseen by the guns and knives of soldiers attired in black, where books are burnt and girls are forbidden from attending school - execution by stoning is a common public event. There is, of course, no music in this place.

But what is interesting about these starkly different portrayals of Afghanistan – the first the Afghanistan of the mid-seventies, the second Afghanistan at the turn of the millennium – is that both have a Muslim government which presides over a predominantly Muslim population. In other words the horror which is such a sustained part of the latter Afghanistan is not the result of religion per se. Instead it is the expression of a historical transformation: the arming of Mujahedeen fighters by the United States government in the late 70s in order to repel Soviet influence, the Soviet invasion of 79 and the decade long occupation, the civil war which followed between the remnants of the soviet inspired government of Najibullah and the Taliban.

It was under the pressure of these events that the cohesion and infrastructure of Afghani society seizes and fragments, and the possibility for a military fundamentalist dictatorship, which might restore order, develops. It is, therefore, the historical context which creates a religious fundamentalism, not the religious fundamentalism of the Taliban which creates the context. But in Hitchens’ account the reverse is true. ‘Religion poisons everything’ – i.e. religion is the determinate force in creating the barbarisms we encounter in contemporary Afghanistan. The very superficiality of Hitchens’ religious critique allows it to perform a specific ideological function; religion occurs as a generic, unadulterated corruption which renders invisible the historical events which have set the stage for its worst excesses.

If one does view the world from such a perspective - then we can quite easily see why it is morally incumbent on ‘us’ (the west, or at least western governments) to take action and impose the secular state model particularly on those countries whose religious excesses must be thwarted in order to ‘protect’ their populations. The same countries, of course, are often those which have been attacked, colonized and disrupted by imperial power in the first place, but such historical content perishes before the static dichotomy of a rational and enlightened western secularism over and against a morose religious, and most often, Islamic medievalism.

Hitchens’ great skill always lay in his ability to present his politics as ‘non-conformist’, as revolutionary in fact. He lashed out against ‘the radical left’ who, according to him, as a result of their ‘political correctness’, are desperate to leap to the defence of creations like the Taliban: a radical left who are content to see young women splashed with acid or stoned to death in the streets as long as they are able to sustain their own anti imperialist credentials.
But it is the attempt to move beyond a black and white narrative which Hitchens was really lashing out at.

The atheistic-religious, rational-irrational, dichotomy is merely a sophisticated and contemporary version of the old, biblical standard of Good and Evil, us and them. Hitchens’ has given to this a modern and compelling form which dissolves historicity within itself, thereby transubstantiating any political objection to the intervention in Afghanistan into support for the Taliban. Either you are with us or against us. Either you support imperialist intervention or you support the horrific acts of the Taliban. Either you are rational or backward. Good or evil. But what Hitchens’ enlightened rationalism really serves to do is present the imperialist wars which have bloodied the early twenty first century as necessary endeavours. In other words - Hitchens’ ‘radicalism’ and ‘non conformity’, his humanism and his abstract atheism, manage the truly miraculous – that is they justify the unjustifiable, and secure the status quo.

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