Christopher Hitchens – In Memoriam

Christopher Hitchens

It has been a while since I posted anything on here which has been down to a mixture of a hectic work schedule and a need to crystallise part of my world view. I am currently putting the finishing touches to another longer post which I hope to post by the end of 2017.

For now though, I happened to notice that today is the sixth anniversary of the death of Christopher Hitchens, who passed away on 15th December 2011 from esophageal cancer. For those unfamiliar with his work, Christopher Hitchens was a journalist, author and public intellectual, arguably most famous for his criticism of religion. Rather than  describing himself as a mere atheist, Hitch coined the term antitheist, stating that:

You could be an atheist and wish that the belief was true. You could; I know some people who do… An antitheist, a term I’m trying to get into circulation, is someone who’s very relieved that there’s no evidence for this proposition.

(https://web.archive.org/web/20070516100646/http://www.cbc.ca/arts/books/nothing_sacred.html)

I am somewhat ashamed to say that I became aware of Hitchens’ work rather late, having in fact never seen any of his debates or read any of his work until about a year ago, which is when I made the decision to seriously examine my own worldview.

My first ‘encounter’ with Hitch was via a debate on YouTube, in which he and Stephen Fry duked it out with former Conservative MP Anne Widdecombe and Cardinal John Onaiyekan. The topic of the debate was The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world. As with many YouTube videos, the entire two-hour debate was available to watch in one go and was also split up into smaller videos. I initially watched both Fry and Hitchens argue against the motion i.e. that the Catholic Church is not a force for good. I guess I should have seen the other side’s arguments as well just in case they espoused a particularly compelling reason why I should convert to Catholicism ASAP.

A conversion was unlikely even before I viewed the debate. Following Hitchens’ and Fry’s turns at the lectern, it became impossible. To say the least.

I urge everybody to view both men’s arguments against the Catholic Church, for it is a masterclass in oration. Christopher Hitchens eviscerates the Church for their policy towards homosexuality, powerfully stating that his debating partner Stephen Fry (who is both gay and an atheist) would be condemned by the Church “not because of what he does, but because of what he is“. Had I been in the audience, that one sentence would probably have been enough for me to vote against the motion, but that was only the tip of the iceberg. Hitchens goes on to slam the Church for condemning the use of condoms in Africa while AIDS remains such a huge problem and also for the deplorable cover up of child abuse within the Church.  I suspect at that point, the final result was only ever going to go one way. I will post the video here and I heartily recommend spending an hour or so watching two literary heavyweights doing what they do best.

From that point on, I lost count of the number of times I typed “Christopher Hitchens debate” into the YouTube search engine. How fortunate we are to live in a world where such intellect is available to us all so easily.

I am currently working my way through Hitch’s 2007 book God Is Not Great and even two-thirds in, it is clear that his skills with printed words were just as enviable as his skills with spoken ones. His autobiography Hitch 22 is next on the list and is sure to be an embarrassment of riches.

Hitch encouraged all of us to think for ourselves; he implored us not to allow blind faith and irrationality to rule the roost. Whilst he was often accused of going on the attack against religion far too aggressively, he was in fact only giving as good as he and his fellow atheists were getting. He makes his position very clear in God is Not Great: the world is a big enough place for more than one worldview to co-exist, however much we may disagree with others. We have the right to believe what we like, but we should have the common courtesy to leave others out of it, something which the Abrahamic religions in particular are often loathe to do.

Even if you are not an enthusiastic reader or simply do not have the time, just do what I did. Simply type “Christopher Hitchens debate” into YouTube and follow the white rabbit.

I am so thankful to Hitch for inspiring me to reassess my own worldviews and for inspiring me to take leap of faith of my own in starting this blog.

I regret being so late to the party, but better late than never…

Christopher Hitchens: 13 April 1949 – 15 December 2011

 

PS: Here is the actual video of the debate that I wrote about above. It is a great starting point for anyone who may wish to seek out the work of Christopher Hitchens:

The disheartening toxicity of the illiberal left

 

It is with a truly heavy heart that I write this post. The reason for this malaise…

I have to defend Piers Morgan.

I know dear reader, I know. Be assured though that there’s nothing you can say to me that I haven’t already said to myself. But in the pursuit of truth I must call things as I see them and in the case I am about to write about, Morgan was not in the wrong. Even a broken clock tells the correct time twice a day.

For readers fortunate enough not to have heard of Piers Morgan, he is a former newspaper editor who has recently carved a niche for himself on UK and US television. He was a judge on Britain’s Got Talent in an attempt to rebrand himself as a national treasure and when that failed, he hosted talk shows on both sides of the Atlantic. I can’t be constructive about him – he’s an idiot.

His latest hosting gig is on the breakfast news show Good Morning Britain, which I don’t really watch. Apart from anything, Everybody Loves Raymond is a far better companion for my morning coffee. However an interview broadcast on Tuesday September 5th grabbed my attention.

The interviewee was a doctor who specialised in the utterly abhorrent practice of gay conversion therapy. Dr Mike Davidson stated that he had in fact cured himself of homosexuality, which he called “an aberration”. Lovely chap (!)

The content of the interview isn’t relevant here, but suffice to day, Piers Morgan expressed his utter contempt for Dr Davidson’s opinions, which is to his credit I suppose.

The following day, Morgan interviewed Patrick Strudwick, the LGBT editor on Buzzfeed (I have no idea what a Buzzfeed is, but it’s a thing apparently). Patrick was understandably offended at the previous day’s interviewee and I don’t criticise him for this. However, Patrick then proceeded to castigate Piers Morgan and Good Morning Britain for providing such a small minded bigot with a national platform. The basis for this criticism was that expressing views was one thing, but drawing attention to the actual practice of conversion therapy was akin to saying that chemotherapy shouldn’t be given to people with cancer. Patrick Strudwick then argued that the most vulnerable people in society could be harmed by the decision to air the interview with Dr Davidson.

The interview eventually became so heated that Piers Morgan ended it, after Strudwick proclaimed that Morgan had gone from journalist to narcissist. (for the record, I wholly dispute this assertion on the grounds that Piers Morgan has been a narcissist from the get-go) . Morgan defended GMB’s decision to air the segment because ultimately, if offensive opinions are censored entirely, there is no scope for these views to be challenged through debate.

I am not in a position to second guess just how heartfelt Morgan was in his denunciation of Dr Mike Davidson – it may have been exaggerated for opportunistic purposes. But let us leave that aside for the moment.

The sad fact is – on this issue, I’m with Piers [shudder].

Actually I’m probably going to be fine because Morgan is not the first person to have made this point, nor is he the most articulate person to have done so. I only use the GMB interviews as a framework to discussing the issue at hand, namely, the toxicity of the illiberal left.

Let me clarify – I do not say that the left as a whole is illiberal. Indeed, my own core values hover between the centre and the left of centre. But it is now abundantly clear that the way things are going, the left will eat itself.

As repellent as I personally find the practice of gay conversion therapy, I absolutely fail to see how merely airing an interview with one of its proponents would in any way amount to an endorsement of the practice. Whilst anybody has the right to feel offended at anything, offence is always taken and never given. It is entirely subjective. I personally find the music of Ed Sheeran offensive but I am not lobbying to have his recent cameo on Game of Thrones edited out.

Although irrational prejudices such as homophobia and racism are considerably more taboo than in bygone days, the sad fact is that we are not a post-prejudicial society. Bigotry must be exposed by having a light shone on it so it can be challenged.

 The best way to combat prejudice is not simply to throw our hands in the air and just declare ourselves offended. Whilst our offence may well be entirely justifiable, it does not constitute a concrete argument. I am not for a moment saying that there is a valid argument in favour of gay conversion therapy, but then I am blessed with a modicum of intelligence. There are plenty of morons out there who do not have the benefit of coherent thought, so their stupidity needs to be spelt out. This cannot happen if organisations are vilified for bringing such stupidity to our attention.

Of course the major limit to free speech is when it is being used to incite harm towards another individual. In some cases the potential harm can be readily identified – A Neo-Nazi openly encouraging the murder of non-whites for instance. However, identifying a potential harm is not always so straightforward and this is something which the illiberal left seem unable to grasp. I submit that simply being offended does not constitute sufficient grounds for censorship or ban. In the case of the Good Morning Britain interview, the viewer is free to turn over. I apologise for over-simplifying but to me that is the bottom line there was nothing in the aired interview which suggested that homosexuals should be hunted down. The interviewee was unequivocally denounced for his views, not celebrated for them.

Good Morning Britain did not give Dr Mike Davidson a platform. Democracy did. It also provides a platform for others to challenge bad ideas through civil debate. However this counter platform is being used sparingly and badly. Let us not delude ourselves into thinking that it is only the alt or extreme right who seem utterly incapable of such a civil discourse. When alt-right professional troll Milo Yiannopolous was invited to speak at Berkeley University, did the protesting left-wing students raise their objections through a carefully worded email to the head of department? Not quite. Instead, 150 masked idiots threw rocks at police and passers-by, set fire to property and pepper sprayed others being interviewed for the news. The end result? Yiannopolous’ autobiography goes to the top of the US book charts. Nicely done.

When did the illiberal left lose all sense of perspective? Milo is quite insanely unlikeable, but he is not Pol Pot. He was not planning to talk about the virtues of ethnic cleansing on his book tour. His views are so flamboyantly over the top that he comes across more like a performance artist than a serious intellectual. If a student can’t cope with hearing offensive views without turning to arson, they’re unlikely to be able to make it in the real world.

I must emphasise again –we all have the right to be offended. If we spent enough time thinking about, it, the world provides enough impetus for us to be constantly offended. I am far more sensitive than is perhaps useful, so I am talking about myself here more than anything. However, democracy does not provide anyone with the right not to be offended. If your dress sense offends me, so be it, but I cannot insist that you go and get changed. I must accept your red velvet bell bottoms or leave the room.

Nevertheless, being offended at something does not automatically invalidate the offending view. In many cases it of course does, but even then, unless we are directly under threat, we are free to challenge, dismiss or ignore. The illiberal left have totally lost sight of this to a frankly dangerous degree. Whilst I dislike most of what the right stand for, I see no better behaviour from some so-called liberals. Patrick Strudwick had a chance to engage Piers Morgan in a debate about why gay conversion therapy is so damaging. He preferred to attack Morgan instead, which, let’s be honest, is shooting fish in a barrel.

Morgan himself has played the role of illiberal idiot as well, when ‘interviewing’ former English Defence League leader, Tommy Robinson. For the non-UK reader(s), The English Defence League is a far right-wing activist organisation who campaigns against what its members describe as the “Islamisation” of Britain. In plainer English, they’re anti-Muslim bigots. Their former leader Tommy Robinson since left the organisation because he felt that the EDL supporters were too reliant on violence and anti-social behaviour during their rallies. He has since co-founded PEGIDA UK, another anti-Muslim organisation. Plus ça change.

Robinson appeared on Good Morning Britain in response to the recent terrorist attack on Finsbury Park Mosque, when a white supremacist attacked worshippers in a van. At one point, Robinson held up a copy of the Qu’ran (in fairness, he did give the impression that he had actually read some of it) and stated that the book had caused a myriad of problems in the UK. He was then admonished by Piers Morgan and told to put the book down and “show some respect”.

Read that last sentence back. Sounds like the kind of thing a religious fundamentalist would say does it not – “put that book down you heathen blasphemer!!”

Now, I have no time for Tommy Robinson. If I actually believed that he was merely critiquing the doctrine of Islam and not Muslims as people (as he always claims), then I’d have little issue. But I don’t believe that. His actions over the last few years totally undermine his claims here. However, the fact remains that although the timing of his interview was poor to say the least (mere days after the attack), he is nevertheless entitled to voice the issues that he raised. I didn’t especially agree, but that is entirely by the by for reasons I have explained already.

So Piers Morgan here assumed the role of the community leader, sticking up for liberal and tolerant Britons everywhere. And he did this by coming across just as illiberal and intolerant as he accused Tommy Robinson of.

The illiberal left appears now to delight in identity politics every bit as much as the right. Any perceived injustice is met with a victim narrative and as a result, the actual issue is never dealt with properly. Criticism of Islam as a set of ideas is automatically racist (despite Islam not being a race); The gender pay gap is evidence of a global patriarchy hell bent on the utter obliteration of womankind. The list goes on.

To further illustrate my point, I am now going to go on record for the first time and say that I have issues with the Black Lives Matter movement. Yes, yes, before you all start gasping at what a terrible racist I am, let me clarify that I have issues with the methodology of the movement and not the ideology behind it. Clearly the issue of police violence towards black citizens is something that needs to be taken very seriously; however I do not see this being dealt with in a nuanced way. The message I’m getting as a result of Black Lives Matter’s activism is that any shooting of black citizen by police is automatically racially motivated. There is little consideration of the possibility that there were other reasons for the shooting and that the person’s race was incidental. Perhaps that is not the message they were trying to convey, but shouting “What do we want? Dead cops!” during rallies is not helping the cause. It only mobilises right wing nut-jobs to react in kind with disingenuous catchphrases like “All Lives Matter”.

However problematic things may be, the fact of the matter is this: in many ways, things are exponentially better than they once were. Racism may never go away, but slavery will certainly never return; gay marriage is legal in the UK and in much of the US; misogyny is still a thing, but women by and large have far greater rights than in previous generations. There is much work to be done, but the illiberal left are now privileged and entitled enough to entirely ignore the vast amount of work that has already been done.

As things stand, the left is fast becoming irredeemable. I’d like to say that this post is the only time I’ll be commenting on this issue, but it is unlikely given how toxic things are. But hey, if I can start a post by defending Piers Morgan, then maybe there’s hope yet.

In the meantime, consider this wonderful quote by Maajid Nawaz:

No idea is above scrutiny, just as no human being is below dignity

Amen brother.

Til next time,

D.T

(PS: Yes I do watch Everybody Loves Raymond. What of it…?)

‘Not about religion…’ ???

I recently finished watching the four part drama The State, which aired on Channel 4 in the UK. The State follows four British Muslims who head off to Syria to join Islamic State, with, needless to say, less than hilarious results.

I am not going to review the programme; apart from anything I don’t want to give away plot details to anyone who wishes to watch it. I will however say that whilst I found the drama gripping, I was ultimately left wanting much more. Four episodes is no way near enough to get down into the reasons why individuals would choose to join a nihilistic death cult. I was more interested in that aspect rather than simply a 24 style drama and this was glossed over too much for my liking. It’s worth checking out though as it certainly wasn’t boring to watch.

I also saw an interview with the writer/ director Peter Kosminsky and picked up on something he said which I found somewhat problematic.

Kosminsky said that whilst researching The State, it became apparent that those who chose to travel to Syria to join ISIS could not be neatly placed into any neat category; for example, recruits came from impoverished families and rich families; some came from broken homes, others from stable homes and so on.

Kosminsky goes on to say that the one commonality found amongst budding jihadists was “shallow association” with their faith – they had either converted to Islam from another religion, or had been brought up Muslim but later on became “born again”. This apparently suggests that the more one studies Islam, the “less likely [one is] to travel”. I certainly find this to be an eloquent and highly persuasive analysis; however, I am somewhat less enamoured with the conclusion that Kosminsky draws from his research:

“What [the research] suggests to me is that although [radicalisation] purports to be about religion, it’s actually not about religion…”

Whilst I agree that new recruits to ISIS probably do not have a particularly in depth knowledge of Islam, I do not agree with the assertion that religious doctrine does not play a role in the decision to sign up. In fact, I feel that this assertion is almost as problematic as saying that ISIS represents Islam and Muslims as a whole (a sentiment which I find highly distasteful, in case there was any doubt).

Radicalisation is not all about religion, but it is something to do with it.

I urge everybody to read the autobiography of former radical Maajid Nawaz, a British born former extremist who has since formed Quilliam, the world’s first counter extremism think-tank. There are also a number of clips of him speaking about countering extremism on YouTube and these are also well worth checking out.

Nawaz distinguishes between ‘mainstream’ Islam on the one hand (as practised privately by the majority of the Muslim world) and Islamism/ Jihadism, which advocates the imposition of Islamic doctrine throughout the world via preaching or violent means. The issue of Islamism is one which I find particularly interesting and I will expand on this in a later post.

Whilst Islamism and its violent counterpart, jihadism, may often involve political grievances, it also seems absurd to me when some commentators deny any link between the actions of jihadist organisations and some Islamic doctrines, as contained in the Qu’ran and the hadiths. The doctrines of martyrdom and punishment for apostasy, for instance, are front and centre for groups such as ISIS and inspiration for both can be derived from Islamic doctrine (Qu’ran chapter 3 verse 129-130;  Sahih al-Bukhari, 4:52:260 )

Clearly, all religious texts can and must be contextualised; common sense must prevail and passages which are obsolete in modern times should be dismissed. Inconsistencies abound in all religions and most people cherry pick the good stuff (for want of a better phrase).

However, it cannot be denied that not everybody chooses to contextualise religious texts benignly. Islam is no exception here and highlighting this for the purposes of debate should not automatically amount to racism, bigotry, or Islamophobia.

There is a world of difference between debating the validity of human beings and debating the validity of a set of ideas. It cannot be denied for example, that certain passages of the Bible can be invoked as a justification for homophobia – we will all have heard the phrase “it’s in the Bible” at some point in our lives. It of course does not mean that one who identifies as Christian automatically subscribes to a homophobic mind-set, but it also does not mean that the doctrine itself does not exist.

Fortunately, most of us will have no problems in calling out racism or homophobia, even if religion is invoked as a justification. Yet there seems to be more of a reluctance to challenge the promotion of fundamentalist doctrines within Islam, for fear of being labelled Islamophobic or racist.

After the Charlie Hebdo killings took place in 2015, I was appalled to find examples of victim blaming, with criticism being levelled at the cartoonists’ decision to satirise the Prophet – “it’s terrible that these cartoonists were murdered BUT… those cartoons…”

There is no “But” when the end result of printing cartoons is the loss of life. Whilst anybody is entitled to take offence at anything, such individuals lose the moral high ground if they resort to violence, or indeed, if they become apologists for such acts.

Anders Breivik, the Finsbury Park mosque attacks, Charlottesville – all these have been called out for what they are – acts of white supremacist terrorism. The link to an ideology has not been denied, nor should it ever be. However this principle must be applied across the board – Radical Islam cannot get a free pass here.

Individuals have a choice about whether to be religious and how far they wish to take their beliefs. We must be respectful of this if, to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, it neither breaks our legs nor picks our pocket.

Nevertheless, it is not bigoted to denounce bad ideas, or to denounce those who seek to impose or promote them.

ISIS is no doubt operating with a political agenda and this is evident in their actions. However, this agenda is clearly underpinned by religion. To deny this is, for me,  cultural relativism at its absolute worst.

Til next time, be well,

D.T

Moderate doubt is the beacon of the wise…

Dear Reader,

Welcome to my blog. At this point the only reason you are reading is because I have specifically asked you to, in which case, I thank you most sincerely for your kindness and your willingness to placate me.

It should be fairly obvious that Doubting Tom is a pseudonym. Even the ‘Tom’ part. I thought I would use my inaugural blog post to explain why I picked this name, which in turn will lead nicely on to the reasons for the blog.

The phrase “Doubting Thomas” derives its inspiration from the Gospel According to John (20: 24-29 King James version). In these passages, Thomas the apostle refuses to believe that Jesus had been resurrected until he could see and touch Him for himself.

I interpret these passages as an endorsement of belief over evidence, particularly in light of verse 29:

Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed. Blessed [are] they that have not seen, and [yet] have believed…

Though there is much to admire in the teachings of Jesus, I do not deem his words to be beyond criticism and the above passage is no exception. 

Thomas is not being commended for his doubt. Going by His words, Jesus is implying that Thomas is not blessed because he refused to take the words of his fellow apostles at face value. Personally, I do not see this as a failing. There can be little doubt that Thomas would have wanted the resurrection of his master to be true more than anything. His desire to see for himself before believing took strength; it would have been far easier for him to simply take the word of the other disciples without questioning further.

Up until about a year ago, I was always happy to describe myself as a religious individual. Nevertheless, there were always aspects of all religions, including my own, that did not seem to ring true. That did not seem to make sense when analysed more rationally. Despite this, I rarely analysed things further and was content to simply disregard the bits that didn’t make sense, whilst simply remaining a believer. During the past 12 months however, I have realised that this approach no longer sits well with me and decided to further analyse what it is I truly believed in.

I decided that I must now not just simply declare that I have doubts and move on. I must attempt to reconcile them or be prepared to change my whole outlook. Much as I dislike the cliché, there is no other way to say it:

I am on a journey. A journey which is not going to end any time soon, if at all.

Despite this opening post focusing almost exclusively on religion, this is unlikely to be the only thing I write about in my posts. I have realised that everything is linked. Overlap can be found anywhere and everywhere. I have not only decided to confront my views on religion, but also on politics, relationships, ethics; indeed, on the very nature of the human condition itself.

I hope that this blog will serve as a way of keeping track of this process. I confess that I have been plagued with doubts – I am not a scientist, a theologian or an accomplished writer. I am under no illusions as to the profundity of anything that I write within these posts. Everything I write here will have been said by others and far more articulately. However, I invite you dear reader to join me in this journey as I attempt to make sense of the craziness that is all around. Doubt plagues us all. So let us be like Thomas. Let us not be content to simply believe things because it’s easier.

Oh… and in case you’re wondering who declared that “Modest doubt is the beacon of the wise”…? William Shakespeare. You have to hand it to him.

Until next time, be well

D.T