Radicals, Religion and the death of Hitchens

Radicals, Religion and the death of Hitchens

In the few days since Christopher Hitchens died of cancer I've been puzzled by the unqualified tributes by certain 'radicals', for "my enemy's enemy is, only perhaps, my friend"

I'm unmoved by Hitchens' death. I'm neither happy nor sad, why would I be?

I'd read quite a lot of his articles, and seen a lot of interviews and debates of his, but I didn't feel compelled to comment either way on his passing until a I'd seen a slurry of facebook statuses by supposed 'radicals' paying tribute in various ways, usually one of his tirades against religion.

As radicals, Richard Lewontin says that, despite the problems of science and reason, we have a 'prior commitment to materialism' and that commitment is 'absolute' - that means an unwithering opposition to religion and the supernatural, for, "cannot allow a divine foot in the door".

But we should qualify this - as sociologist Hilary Rose warned in the midst of the 'science wars'; "my enemy's enemy is, only perhaps, my friend". This I take to mean that while, as radicals, we do indeed have a prior commitment to materialism and rationalism, that should not lead us to de-contextualised, reductive, bourgeois rationalist critiques of certain aspects of human life. In Rose's example the case in point was postmodernism - she often found herself at odds with both sides. While a critique of strands of postmodernism was timely, Rose had always warned against cheerleading forms of scientism, and wouldn't abandon what worth the postmodern project had, namely modernism looking at itself in the mirror. But she didn't necessarily find herself singing from the same hymn sheet as the various feminists, relativists and other postmodernists she'd sometimes been slumped in with. With that in mind she'd a cautious approach to forming allegiances.

This considered approach to the criticism of postmodernism can be equally applied to the criticism of religion.

Yes, Hitchens was a strident public atheist. Yes he was happy to engage religious bigots of all persuasions, very publicly where others might not. Yes he was a supposed 'defender of reason'.

He shared our 'prior committment to reason'.
But he was not an ally.

It's not the noting of Hitchens' death, or sharing of some of his works that bothers me, it's the unqualified nature of it. He undoubtedly was an intelligent man, a good writer, and certainly was ballsy. He came across as very sober in his time with cancer, and maintained a public profile while speaking candidly about what little time he had left.

He never seemed to give much of a shit about rubbing people the wrong way. But his contrarianism came to a head with his cheerleading interventionist politicies in light of September 11th attacks and his later support for the Iraq war.

He had himself waterboarded for Vanity Fair, to show how waterboarding was definitely torture. No shit Sherlock. It was also a vital tool in the sorts of foreign policy that he hadcheerleaded, and that left hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead.

Compatible with his cheerleading of the invasion of Iraq, was his status as a figurehead for the 'new atheism' and its associated attacks on Islam by what Terry Eagleton calls the liberal literati, or the "academic wing of the 'war on terror'"

In Reason, Faith & Revolution: reflections on the god debate, Eagleton comments on how he and Hitchens used to attend pickets and leaflet factory workers when they were both Trots at Oxford. But Hitchens 'grew up' and I dare say he'd never have attended a picket in support of striking workers since his 'maturation'. Eagleton, however, says that he has clung to his left politics 'like a toddler to his blanket' . I have to say, as frustrating as Eagleton's theological inclinations are (I doubt what validity theology has, I'd prefer literary criticism) I'll take him any day over an Iraq-war cheerleader.

Comments

Alexander Roxwell
Dec 19 2011 01:06

Christopher Hitchens was in the vein of James Burnham, Max Eastman, and some of the "New York Intellectuals" who temporarily embraced some dissident form of anti-Stalinism on their way from a stylish radicalism to giving smoochy kisses to the Empire. He was a traitor to the left.

As for his "atheism" I have little to say except that this is not the way to frontally attack the illusions of the working class. A "God" that could come up with "10 Commandments" for a group of people just freed from slavery that wasted several of them on worshipping some competitor "God" but said nothing at all about enslaving one's fellow man disproves that "He" is not God at all; but the "issues of the day" are not about God but about human beings exploiting other human beings and wrecking the planet we all live on.

Arbeiten
Dec 19 2011 01:14

nice one Choccy.

lettersjournal
Dec 19 2011 04:39

I mourn Hitchens' death. He was a beautiful writer, and I will miss very much his celebration and deep love of poetry. But I do not think he understood religion at all.

Religion is not about belief. It is a body of heuristics to deal with the impossibility of understanding a complex world and to give negative ethical principles (thou shall not) in a way that can be understood and collectively acted upon. I agree with Wittgenstein that if scientists were able to compile a book about every object and being in the universe, their characteristics, movements, and ideas... this book would not contain a single ethical judgment or anything that would logically imply such a judgment. Again from Wittgenstein, I agree that religion does not add to our knowledge in any sense. This is why I affirm it.

The communism of the world to come, if it does come, cannot emerge from rationalism and science. If anything, it will be a return to the suprarational. There is more to learn from the mitzvah of the red heifer (or even, dare I say, Mozart's Requiem) than from every work of modern science.

If radical means getting to the root of things, there is nothing radical about a prior commitment to materialism and rationalism.

RedEd
Dec 19 2011 04:05
lettersjournal wrote:
If radical means getting to the root of things, there is nothing radical about a prior commitment to materialism and rationalism.

Whilst I agree that the two are not self-evidently linked, if it's the case that materialism and rationalism are the best way of getting the the root of things, then a commitment (not sure about the term prior) to them is part and parcel of radicalism.

I can't see how see how in the world as it exists today anything other than rational materialism can properly allow you to understand things as they are beyond surface appearance and how to change them beyond surface appearance, in other words to undertake the radical project. I certainly don't see how a mystical or supernatural approach could help with this as a core part of the project.

In response to the OP, I don't think people should necessarily accept that Hitchens was a materialist, though rationalist seems to fit.

lettersjournal
Dec 19 2011 04:50

Well, for me part of getting to the root of things is accepting the impossibility of understanding the world (or the human body or love or music or whatever) with reason and rationality. I accept suprarational heuristics because they are a body of knowledge (for lack of a better phrase) that works from this impossibility, rather than trying to overcome it.

Lots of mystical concepts are accepted on this site: self-interest, real movement, solidarity, technological neutrality, et cetera. (In the name of rationality, skepticism of the medical industry has been shouted down. The belief in doctors is a strange mystical belief, given their history, and one that religion has rightly urged against. Until the accidental discovery of antibiotics, one was much better off going to the priest or rabbi to pray than going to the doctor.)

While Hitchens was confused by religion, in his writings about cancer he did put forward the most basic proposition of materialism in a way I appreciated: I do not have a body; I am a body.

Alf
Dec 19 2011 09:32

I agree with Choccy's assessment. Hitchens came from a long line of former Stalinists and Trotskyists who delight the ruling class with tales about 'I was once a marxist but I now know better'. But in his God is not great he still uses Marx's quote on religion as the opium of the people and claims that the passage has been widely misunderstood, which is certainly true. His whole approach to religion, like Dawkins', is based on a total failure to understand religion as a product of and response to man's alienation from himself. For them it's all down to being sensible or silly, a debate about ideas. It's also totally ahistorical: there's a passage in the book which argues that we would we would better off if there had been just the Greeks (sensible, the sort of people you could invite for dinner) and we had avoided all that stuff produced by the Hebrews (silly).
He had a brave death and all, but so do many people who don't get so many pages in the Guardian that today's letters page has a few people questioning why this has been the case.
I'm a bit biased, of course, but I thought jaycee's 'Critique of the New Atheists' deserved more responses. lettersjournal might be interested. http://libcom.org/library/critique-new-atheists

bastarx
Dec 19 2011 09:33
lettersjournal wrote:
I mourn Hitchens' death. He was a beautiful writer, and I will miss very much his celebration and deep love of poetry. But I do not think he understood religion at all.

It seems funny that someone who had a lot to say about Aufheben's alleged collaboration with the cops would mourn someone who attempted to get an erstwhile close friend charged with perjury.

I don't know why everyone is beating around the bush here, I think the world is better off without this cheerleader for imperialist bloodbaths.

Ernestine
Dec 19 2011 12:04

"The communism of the world to come, if it does come, cannot emerge from rationalism and science. If anything, it will be a return to the suprarational. There is more to learn from the mitzvah of the red heifer (or even, dare I say, Mozart's Requiem) than from every work of modern science.

If radical means getting to the root of things, there is nothing radical about a prior commitment to materialism and rationalism."

This is very contradictory, and seems to make the mistake of equating 'rationalism and science' with ' materialism and rationalism'. Modern education encourages this equation.
Science is often misunderstood as a system to pinpoint certainty from the way things work. But if you read Euclid, Bertand Russell, Einstein, Schrodinger, Godel and their responders the debate is more about degrees of uncertainty. This is something like supra-rationality, and seems to me to be of the essence of reality - a bridge between science and art. Both are intricately connected and we prioritise one or the other at our peril.

I've also been reading comments on Chomsky's linguistics, which relates to this discussion, particularly to Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein analyses linguistic lines in a manner akin to mathematical strings, and incidentally points at the contextual meanings we build from a cultural aspect. The main problem I have with Chomsky's take on language is that he adopts an axiom - that language is intrinsic - and develops a theory without being willing to question his own assumption. This is a dangerous mode of development and unscientific. It also denies a huge field of debate. What science should be encouraging is to question the root principles on which we build.

But perhaps I shouldn't be posting here as I am not particularly interested in Christopher Hitchins.

morgan_gibson87
Dec 19 2011 11:56

If one wants to oppose the relativism of postmodernism whilst avoiding the trappings of positivism (or scientism, if one would prefer) and 'hold up a mirror' to modernity (as it is claimed Rose seeks in this article) then why no mention of Frankfurt School critical theory? The likes of Adorno, Marcuse, Horkheimer, Habermas and even Honneth have sough to develop a reflexive modernism that still opposes itself to the relativism and subjectivism of postmodernism. Perhaps something to be explored in the context of this article?