Christopher Hitchens and David Allen White discuss the impact of Christianity on Western Civilization
Email to a FriendX
HH: Welcome to a special couple of hours on the Hugh Hewitt Show. This is the second in a series of conversations about the role of God or not God in the modern world. The principal interlocutor on the party of not God is Christopher Hitchens, Vanity Fair columnist, author most recently of the New York Times bestseller, god Is Not Great, frequent contributor to the program, and Professor David Allen White, for more than 25 years, a professor of English literature at the United States Naval Academy, the author of the Encyclopedia of Shakespeare and most recently the Horn of the Unicorn. I describe Professor White as a supporter of the Society of Pius X, a Roman Catholic. Today, these two hours, not theology, but really culture and the Church and culture, and whether or not Western civilization is better off for there having been a robust Christian faith. Welcome to you both, gentlemen. Christopher, welcome back, David Allen White, welcome back, good to have you both.
CH: Thank you.
DAW: Glad to be here, Hugh.
HH: I’d like to start, since we’re taping this on August 8th, which is the feast of St. Dominic, the founder of the Dominicans, the teaching-preaching order, by asking David Allen White, and then Christopher Hitchens, is it a good thing that Dominic lived, and that the Church embraced his tradition?
DAW: Well, being a Catholic, of course, I’m very fond of all the saints. Catholics have special favorite saints, and St. Dominic plays a very special role, again, not just in teaching, but in preserving culture. The establishment of the monasteries and the establishment of the Dominican order, extraordinarily important, I think, in holding onto civilization and advancing civilization, and I do see the two very much as interconnected. I’m not sure there can be one without the other.
HH: Christopher Hitchens?
CH: Well, I say in my book that religion was our first, and for that reason partly our worst, but still our first attempt at philosophy, at understanding the world and our place in it, and that this is obviously attested by the libraries of the monasteries, as it is with the building of the cathedrals and the content of many great art galleries. What I argue is that religion can no longer perform that function, and if you’re going to claim that for it, Professor White can claim today for the Christian Church, but you can’t deny that claim to the rabbis who kept a lot of scrolls going, and spread a great deal of learning and establishing a number of schools, though they teach a ridiculous orthodoxy, nor indeed to the Muslims who at a time of extreme darkness in Christian Europe, have kept alive the ideas of Greek philosophy and retransmitted them to us, to Peter Abelard and other Catholic philosophers. So I elucidate, it doesn’t say anything to the credit of Islam that Muslim societies did that.
HH: Would you deny that legacy to them, Professor White?
DAW: Oh, I’m not claiming exclusivity in that sense. Of course there have been many, many different factions, different visions that have helped keep civilization alive. But I would assign something of a special role to what I call the Christian West. In fact, it’s one of the things that troubles me about god Is Not Great. There is a sense all the way through, and being a Catholic, that’s what I must defend. I can’t defend those things I don’t necessarily believe in. But I of course have a sense of the role they have played in the advancement of civilization. But there is a sense in the book of looking at the dark side and the down side, almost exclusively, there’s a wonderful comment by Dorothy Sayers about people who only read the Inferno, the first part of Dante’s Divine Comedy. And she says it’s a bit like visiting one of the great cities of Europe, say Paris, and only spending your time in the sewers.
DAW: If you come up above into the landscape, you’re going to see not just Notre Dame, but the Louvre filled with paintings, you’re probably going to have a fine French meal as well, which I think is part of that civilization. And the incredible diversity that Catholic culture spread throughout Europe is still fascinating and part of our legacy. Not denying the others played a role, but I would assert there is something special and extraordinarily beautiful in what the Church offered.
HH: Christopher Hitchens, did you go out of your way to avoid elaborating on Christianity’s gifts to civilization?
CH: First, I should just say Professor White, I think he, I suspect in of undue modesty here, that does he not in fact say that the Catholic Church is the one true Church?
DAW: Yes, I do. Absolutely, I do.
CH: So what Mr. Hewitt believes as a Christian is, in a sense, irrelevant to you? I mean, you just think he’s wrong? He’s in the wrong Church? He’s not really a proper Christian at all?
CH: I think we should all…I mean, since my views are probably very well advertised, I think we should understand that I’m not arguing with one of those a la carte Catholics this time. You’re the real thing, aren’t you?
DAW: Well, let’s…I think of myself as a traditional Catholic. Let me put my cards on the table. From about age 17, I was raised very liberal Protestant, and at an early age, about 17, lost any faith at all, so I read your book with a familiarity, because I made many of the same arguments myself at one time. I came into the Church, the Catholic Church at the age of 31, and I must say one of the men you respect, I think, I don’t want to put words in your mouth, one of the men I think you respect, Evelyn Waugh, was very influential in leading me towards the Church.
CH: Indeed, yes.
DAW: But as you well know, Waugh was troubled at the end of his life at what was going on in the Church. As he said at one point, Vatican II knocked the guts out of me. So when I came in, I began trying to get a sense of what was going on, and found what is called the traditional movement. It’s simply those who are maintaining what the Church had always taught over the centuries.
CH: Yeah, well I say in my book that I think it was a great loss to the Church, I rather sympathize with Evelyn Waugh on this point. By the way, I’m not dodging your earlier question, I’m coming straight to it. But the abandonment, particular of the Latin Mass, the so-called Tridentine Mass, was an enormous blow to the morale of the Church, and the subsequent rituals appear to be extremely banal. But does that not give you some difficulty in that that must mean that along with people like Mel Gibson and others, you essentially say that Pope John XXIII was not just not infallible, but deeply in error?
DAW: No, because…
CH: And from the Catholic point of view, isn’t there an element of impossibility in that position?
DAW: No, and fortunately, I don’t have to say that, because the last infallible pronouncement of a pope, as you also mention in your book, was the Doctrine of the Assumption, which came out in 1951. The so-called liturgical changes in the Church were never in any way decreed as doctrine or dogma. Now obviously, it’s troubling, and I do find it very interesting, in fact, I’ve talked on Hugh’s show about this, I’m delighted that the Latin Mass is “back,” although as the Pope himself has admitted, it was never abrogated, never really went away. And I know for a fact that there is a surge going on out there of priests who are now learning the traditional Mass.
CH: Well, and there was always the movement associated with Archbishop Lefebvre, though I mean, I’m nostalgic for the Latin Mass in the aesthetic sense that you were talking about earlier. But I’m, I don’t miss the expression perfidious Jew, which was one part of its ritual, for example.
DAW: Well, it is in the Good Friday service, when we pray for almost everyone. The prayers go on at length, and indeed, that phrase is used, but as you probably know, it means fallen away. It is not in any sense a judgment on them, and of course, one is under the obligation to pray for all souls to come into the Church, because as you said, I do believe it’s the one true Church.
CH: Well now, then…I’m glad we’ve clarified that. Look, on the point of whether one only emphasizes the bad, my book is written as a critique of religion, so I take it for granted that those who believe in the virtues of it already know what those are. Now I couldn’t be without Notre Dame, for example, nor could I be without quite a lot of devotional music. I could actually do without a fair amount of devotional painting, but who cares what my opinion on paintings are? My point would be this. We have no means of absolutely knowing for certain that the people who built and painted and composed those things were themselves believers. What we do know is that it would have been very dangerous for them not to be, extremely dangerous, and that many of them did have to write and perform in fear. We know that because of what happened to Giordano Bruno, to Galileo and to many others, and from many other testimonies. I actually don’t think St. Peter’s in Rome is that wonderful a building. But if you think it is, and if you want to take credit for it, then you have to accept also the responsibility for the fact that it was built on the revenues of the special sale of indulgences.
DAW: Chalk and cheese. Let me just clarify one thing. If you’re speaking about the artists, I think it’s true, it’s very difficult to get at the core of an artist’s intentions. The question of them living in fear I don’t know about, and then the examples you give are two scientists. That to my mind is very much a separate issue. I would say this, it seems to me very difficult to come up with what I think we might agree on, as masterpieces of music, literature, painting, sculpture, if there isn’t some higher vision, if there isn’t something motivating it. I don’t know of many great artists who have created great art solely out of fear.
- – – – -
HH: When we went to break, Christopher Hitchens, the question on the table was without a higher vision, can there ever be great art?
CH: No, I would say there could not. I mean, I think that there’s a big confusion, though, in many people’s minds between the transcendent and the supernatural. I have a special passage in my book trying to speak about this. I think is one wants to consider the awe inspiring and the infinite and the majestic, that actually, there’s more to be found if you study the photographs taken by the Hubble telescope, or examine the extraordinary beauty and implications of the double helix, or read a page of Stephen Hawking on the event horizon than there is in, say, the contemplation, I’m very sorry to say, of St. Dominic, and that the natural world is wonderful enough, and as Einstein says, the miraculous thing about it is they aren’t in miracle, that it works with an impressive, extraordinary underlying regularity. Now Dr. White can’t follow me in this by, it seems to me, by definition, because he’s obliged to believe that the Church has recorded and established Divine interventions that are responsive to prayerful intercessions that changed the natural order in favor of those praying, for example, a belief that I’m sorry to say, I must get out of the way, I think is utterly nonsensical, and actually sinister.
HH: David Allen White?
DAW: A number of things to comment on there. Let me start with a word of praise for the book. I find in it one of the more interesting passages. I wish I could quote it at length, but in the book, Mr. Hitchens talks about indeed those staggering photographs taken by the Hubble telescope, talks about the glorious mystery and the symmetry of the double helix. I wouldn’t disagree that those are remarkable things, and that science at its greatest has allowed us view that. Now obviously, our response to that will be different. But I do have a question, and I would like to get to the other issue about prayer in a moment, but let me put it this way. One of the great events in modern human history was that man stepped off the planet. It was an extraordinary scientific event, it was an extraordinary human event, an engineering feat that in its way was incomparable. I know of only two works inspired from that event. One, Norman Mailer’s Of A Fire On The Moon, which I’m very fond of, even though Mr. Mailer drives me crazy much of the time with things he says, but I think he is a fine writer and an interesting writer.
CH: Well, we agree about that.
DAW: And the other is a minor poem by W. H. Auden. And I’m wondering if it will be possible that great art can indeed be inspired by these events in the same way that for example, St. Francis, that in the book is referred to as a mammal who was said to have preached to birds, has inspired artists from Dante and Giotto, back in the 14th Century, up until our own time when Francis Poulenc has a beautiful setting in the 50’s of the prayers of St. Francis, and Olivier Messiaen’s fascinating new opera from the early 80’s, St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis is still inspiring artists. I admit there are glories to be seen in what science has shown us. I don’t know if they can inspire art, or would do so 600 years in the future.
HH: Mr. Hitchens?
CH: Well, I was just going to say that I agreed with most of that, but wouldn’t…isn’t it a somewhat depressing thought that the ability of religious faith to inspire great painting and music and architecture seems somewhat, though, diminished? The examples you give are not bad, and like you, I’m also a great admirer of W.H. Auden, as well as a critic and admirer of Norman Mailer. But just as the age of miracles and of great religious writers, and people like Aquinas and Augustine seem to be somewhere behind us, because it’s not possible to hold the positions of faith with the same absolutely uncritical devotion as it used to be. I think the same is true of the aesthetic, but again, I repeat, the same claim can be made for Hinduism, for the splendid and barbarous temples of pre…not Hindu, but Buddhist…Cambodia, for example, or Burma, for the grand mosque in Damascus, and for many other things, that at least speak to me at any rate, not at all of the truth or validity or moral standing of the faith that inspired them.
DAW: I would agree with you very much in that there has been a diminishment in the number of these works that have appeared. But again, I would say you can’t have it both ways. You are expressing a kind of, a kind of gratitude, would that be fair, that finally religious faith is diminishing?
CH: Yes, that would be fair.
DAW: But one of the consequences is we are losing the art, the artists, the literature. I’m sure you know this, because you refer to the book often, and I’d love to talk about it maybe sometime during the course of the discussion, one of my favorites, which is the Brothers Karamazov…
DAW: You know the great scene where old Theodore, the father, has two of his sons, Ilyusha and Ivan at the table. And he says to them directly, is there a God? And Ivan says no, there is not God. He asks Ilyusha, the young monk, is there a God? Ilyusha says there is. He follows. Is there immortality? Ivan says no, no immortality, Ilyusha says yes, there is. Now Ivan goes one step further then, and takes the cognac away from his father, and says without God, there will be no cognac, either. There would be no civilization at all if God had not been invented. Now I think that’s your claim, fair enough, that God was an invention?
CH: Yes, absolutely. It’s a manmade construct. It’s a reification of our peers, and also of our self-centeredness.
DAW: I guess what I am suggesting, and Dostoyevsky said himself in a letter he wrote after the book was finished, that he thinks he made better arguments than the atheists themselves had made. He was an honest man and a brilliant man, and in that taking away of the cognac and saying there can be no more civilization, I think he is absolutely correct in that civilization is connected directly to the religious impulse, and that what we are likely to see is a dissent into mere political power, as Waugh called it in his great novel Helena, power without grace. Maybe we can explore that later.
HH: Christopher Hitchens, you’ve got a minute to the break, so are you destroying civilization by attacking God?
CH: Well, right…Well, Oscar Wilde, who we’d both have to agree was a rather heterodox Catholic, did, I remember once say, that there were religions that invented green chartreuse can never truly die. And like you, I’m a great fan of Evelyn Waugh, but I’m sorry to say that the will to power, which Nietzsche said would be all that was left of that religion, is expressed through religion as well. You don’t get away from the will to power by invoking faith. It’s part of the will to power, and it’s always been used for it. And if you want instances of power without grace, there are many theocracies to which I can point you, sir, as you must know.
DAW: Oh, of course I know, but again, it doesn’t invalidate the notion that grace exists, and power is more dangerous without grace.
- – – –
HH: Professor White, as I went to break, and I said it quite seriously, I wanted to ask you, since it’s the feast of St. Dominic, we’re taping this on…his mission was to the heretics, in many sense. Are you concerned with the soul of Christopher Hitchens, and what happens to him if he stays in the state of atheism that he’s in?
DAW: Well, let me put it this way. As a believing Catholic, I’m concerned for all souls. But I have no business making any pronouncements whatsoever upon what happens to any individual soul at the time of death.
HH: What does the Church teach about a soul that is not convicted?
DAW: Well, this is very interesting. In fact, in the book, there is a fascinating passage. I assume you know the one I refer to, Mr. Hitchens, about Mary McCarthy?
DAW: …who was shocked at learning from a Jesuit preacher that her Protestant grandfather was doomed to eternal punishment because he had been baptized the wrong way. Now I’m not a fan of the art of Mary McCarthy, but she was a bright woman, and she was deeply troubled. Now my own, I do object to a phrase you use. The Mother Superior consulted higher authorities, and you say there was a loophole in the writings of Bishop Athanasius, who held that heretics were only damned if they rejected the true Church with full awareness of what they were doing. That is a Catholic doctrine simply called invincible ignorance. The Church has always said we do not know how God will judge any individual human soul. It is not my place to say anything. It’s my place to have a conversation with Mr. Hitchens to try to convince him. Obviously, there is a great gulf fix between what the two of us believe, but we have certain things in common. We can have a serious discussion about things we have in common, and maybe I can hope to move him one way or another, believing in prayer. I could pray for him. It is I think terribly unfair to make any assumption about what will happen to any soul. As a Catholic, I can’t do that. One other quick comment…
HH: But wait, that undermines a lot of the Hitchens argument about the Church, that the Church is judgmental and condemning.
CH: It would if it were true, but I mean, but what Professor White has to do before he goes any further is to say that he repudiates the decades, generations in which children were told in blood-curdling tones by elderly virgins, that they would go to hell if they played with themselves, even though they were Catholic, and those who weren’t Catholic would go to hell no matter what, if they had turned away from the Church, if they were the wrong kind of Christian, or if they were Jewish, or Muslims. And the whole argument of invincible ignorance is invented to deal with an insuperable problem, which is this. Why did the revelation of Jesus of Nazareth only begin and occur in a small, remote, inaccessible, illiterate part of Palestine? Why are the millions and millions of people who’ve been born and died never hearing of it, why there are still millions and millions of people who never had the chance to be redeemed in the only available way? The Church says extra-ecclesia nulla salus. Am I not correct?
DAW: That’s absolutely correct, yes.
CH: That you can’t be saved without it, but that therefore, what are we going to say to the people who never even had the chance. Now this, I think, simply shows how crudely manmade religion is, not just how manmade and manufactured it is, but how very crudely they suddenly have a thought that if it was allowed to occur properly, would demolish their whole premise.
HH: Professor White, you have a minute to the break.
DAW: Let me answer the first part of that, and may I answer the second when we come back from the break?
DAW: The first part is this. Thank Heavens I don’t have to defend those who are ignorant of the teachings of their own Church. Now admittedly, this suggests of flaws in the hierarchy, flaws in the way in which doctrine has been taught, and certainly misconceptions that have been forced on a number of young people. In any educational system, I hope you would agree with me, very often there is bad teaching. I’ve been a teacher for 37 years. I know it happens. It certainly happens in the Church. That doesn’t, however, change the actual doctrines and dogmas that the Church does hold, and I will answer the second part of that after the break, if I may.
- – – –
HH: When we went to break, we’d gotten around to this issue which is very central to god Is Not Great, that Christianity is a rather crudely made manmade religion, because no one would think up a religion so awful in its consequences for so many people bereft of the even the opportunity to embrace it. David Allen White, you were going to speak to that?
DAW: Let me just say, and I will submit to a higher authority here. Being a traditional Catholic, my impulse is just to submit to the higher authority. Being a teacher of literature, let me submit to Dante. There is a magnificent scene in Canto 19 of the Paradiso, and by the way, I would disagree with you that no really tempting vision of Heaven’s ever been created. I’d point to Dante’s Paradiso, which T.S. Eliot called the greatest poetry that can be written. But in any case, he is in the sphere of justice, the sphere of Jupiter, and that is the precise question he asks. A man is born along the shoreline of the Indus River, none is there to speak or teach or write of Christ. He as far as human reason sees in all he seeks, and all he does is good. There is no sin within his life or speech. That man dies unbaptized, without faith. Where is this justice then that would condemn him? This is Dante, the Catholic, asking that question when he’s in Heaven. The response of the Eagle of justice is very interesting, in that the first response is take care of your own business first before you start worrying about others who are on the banks of the Indus River. But then the answer comes in a very strange scene in Canto XX. Dante is about to shoot up to the sphere of Saturn, and before he goes, he sees souls in Paradise, including Trajan and the Trojan Ripheus, neither of whom could have been baptized. And he shouts aloud, can such things be? These men have made it into Heaven. It was indeed Pope Benedict XV who said Dante’s the greatest Catholic artist, and his theology is sound, meaning the Church admits there may well be souls in Heaven that we will be surprised to see there, may not understand how they got there. They may not have gone through the usual process we think of. It’s God’s domain, not ours. We should tend to our own knittin’.
HH: What do you make of that, Christopher Hitchens?
CH: Well again, I think it’s a perfectly defensible…well, it’s not defensible, it’s a perfectly reasonably expressed viewpoint. It just isn’t what the Church has been preaching. I mean, just to take a very recent example, I mean, Pope Benedict, the current pope, the very one who’s recently reaffirmed that the Catholic Church is the one true and only Church, upon his visit to Brazil was forced to make some apologetic remarks about the Church’s history of forcible conversions. I mean, in point of fact, these things were not done by aberrant teachers or overzealous missionaries, they were done institutionally by the Church. Now in the…I forget, you’ll probably know, Professor, if it’s in the…or the Nicene Creed, it may be in both, but one is required to say that after being crucified, dead and buried, Jesus descended into hell. And my understanding is that he went down to rescue those who’d been boiling there for eternity before his opportunity for redemption became available. Now that simply to me smacks of squaring the circle.
DAW: If I may respond to that…
DAW: That is indeed in the creed, that he descended into hell. What is interesting again is what we find there is he is freeing those souls that had at last will be released into Heaven. It’s a comment you make in the book as well that I would quarrel with a bit, and that is that they’ve been boiling there. The fact is He goes to limbo, and not only do we meet in limbo those great figures from the Old Testament, but we also meet a number of great pagan philosophers and poets, and you give the impression that they’re all boiling. What Dante sees when he gets there is that they’re living in a rather pleasant place. Their suffering, as he describes it, is that they are giving up sighs from sorrow because they know they’re missing something, but they’re not quite sure what. They’re living in an exalted castle, circled by towering walls, with a fair stream running around it, and they go to a meadow of green flowering plants. If that’s boiling, it’s okay by me. But it is not the fullness of Heaven, so that yes, He goes down, He frees them, but they have not been suffering, although you do make it very clear, and I agree with it, much lower down, we do find a Mohammed who is suffering, and even the Inferno, in the Catholic vision, is hierarchical.
HH: Christopher Hitchens, you’ve got about a minute to our break.
CH: Well, I mean, to be exact, I mean, Mohammed is, the prophet Mohammed, is revoltingly described as being repeatedly disemboweled full of excrement, and then sewn up and disemboweled again. Again, as with all these things, if we’re going to take good bits of Dante, you have to take all of them as well. You have to accept the responsibility for that…I thought I was going to be the one to mention limbo. Am I not correct in saying that that’s what St. Augustine said the souls of unbaptized children went?
DAW: And indeed, Dante…
CH: And that it took until very recently…
DAW: Dante includes those…
CH: Until very recently, the Church has now told us well, you can relax about this, because it turns out there’s no such place as limbo after all. Now doesn’t this again materialize my point? This is a manmade fable, all of it is a manmade fable, and it shows.
DAW: What is very interesting is that that debate is currently going on in Catholic circles, because as you well know, there have been some recent pronouncements about limbo. They have not been definitive, but it is…you may find it crazy that this is being debated right now. I find it actually very interesting.
HH: Well, to both of you…
CH: I find it both. I find it both crazy and interesting.
- – – –
HH: Christopher Hitchens, you argue in god Is Not Great that this has to be manmade, it’s so stupid and cruel, Christianity in particular, but religion generally. And I look at the same field, and I say this has to be Divine, because it’s so infinite, complex and grace-filled. I think whatever you argue, there’s a reverse to it.
CH: Well, when you say, as you were just saying before the break that God wouldn’t make it easy for us, and that there would be enormous complexities, possibly infinite ones, I think you say no more than the truth. That’s why people are, in my opinion, obliged to be atheists, because we say that those who claim to know God’s mind cannot possibly know what they claim to know. We can’t prove that this entity or this force does not exist. We can only say that there’s no evidence that He does, and therefore the hypothesis for that existence has been exploded or abandoned. The other side can’t say that. They can’t say that there’s mysteries we’re not even meant to understand. They say no, we, our pope has the keys of Peter. He’s the vicar of Christ on Earth. He can interpret God’s will, he knows what God wants you to do about, for example, your sex life. Now this is claiming more than any human being can possibly hope to claim to know, and thus, religion falls in my view.
HH: Professor White?
DAW: Well, I’m not sure it would be fair to say that the Church claims to know the mind of God. What the Church claims is that revelations came from God, telling us the things we needed to know to eventually attain salvation. In the simplest terms of the Catechism, the first question of the old Baltimore Catechism, why are we here? To know, love and serve God in this world, and be with Him in the next. There’s no claim that we have the entire picture. We can never as humans fully grasp the mind of God. It’s a great blessing that we’ve been given a glimpse of it as we have, and that He’s spoken to us, and told us what we need to know. But it’s very interesting, you know, in a sense that the debate will rage on. I think eventually, a revelation will come even to those who don’t believe. But a little line from William Blake. He who doubts from what he sees will never believe. Do what you please. There is a kind of entrenchment in positions, I think more now than ever before, because science offers an alternative. And it may be more difficult to believe now than it’s ever been in the past, and I think that may be a sign we’re in, as the Chinese say, interesting times.
HH: Last 30 seconds to you, Christopher Hitchens, of this hour. We’ll be back for hour two?
CH: Can’t do it in 30 seconds.
HH: All right, I’m not surprised. We’ll be right back, America. Don’t go anywhere.
- – – –
HH: Welcome back, gentlemen. Christopher Hitchens, in our first conversation in this series, and I hope there will be more, I had you opposite theologian Mark Roberts, and I quoted to you from Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Einstein, in which Einstein said, “Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature, and you will find that behind all the discernible laws and connection, there remains something subtle and tangible and inexplicable, a veneration for this force beyond anything we can comprehend, and that is my religion. To that extent, in fact, I am religious.” Now David Allen White says science destroys religion. It seems to me that Einstein is saying it builds upon it.
CH: Well, I’m saying that if you take religion as being the pantheism of Spinosa, who was in fact Einstein’s favorite philosopher, a man not just excommunicated by his own synagogue, but that excommunication enthusiastically seconded by the Catholic and Protestant authorities of the day. It was a very highly dangerous heresy. Then it amounts to then what I was saying earlier about the Hubble telescope or the double helix. Of course there are things that are awe inspiring that make us feel small, that inspire in us the transcendent. But these have nothing to do with the supernatural. The insistence of Einstein is that there are no miracles, there are no changes in the natural order, God does not intervene in our affairs, there is no such person, in fact, to do so. And his statements about organized religion throughout his life were uniformly contemptuous for that reason.
HH: David Allen White?
DAW: Let me ask a question. I want to clarify one thing. I am not in any way against science. It seems to me fairly obvious that there have been scientific discoveries of the last few centuries that have been absolutely remarkable. I’m in total agreement with that. And everything from the exploration out there, which is fascinating…I mean, the pictures from the Hubble telescope are indeed awe inspiring, as well as going deep inside, the miracles of biology and what we’ve learned about the human body. This is remarkable. There is a role for science, it has to do with nature, it has to do with our understanding of the way things are created, and how they operate. My concern is that there is a corresponding diminution of the inner life. Let me put it this way. I ask my students this often. I ask them to name their five senses, and they can all do it, of course, instantaneously. And those five senses are the means by which we know nature and the outside world. Back in the Middle Ages, there was the notion of the five wits: common sense, fancy imagination, estimation, sometimes call judgment or memory. They have not idea of these. And the fact of the matter is there is an inner life, there are things going on inside us. Now I understand, given the book, that religion is rejected by Christopher Hitchens, but is there not an inner life that is worthy of exploring that can take us to places that the discoveries of science and nature cannot? Let me ask you a specific question. In the book, you refer more than once to the conscience. Would you agree that the conscience is part of what I’m calling the inner life?
CH: Absolutely I would. I believe that’s why I spent a little time discussing Socrates and what he called his daimon, his inner prompting that warned him when he was being dishonest or in an argument, for example, that made him break off from doing so.
DAW: Exactly, so…
CH: We know that there are some people who are born without this. We call them sociopathic, or we know that some people are born positively like flouting such admonition, and we call them psychopaths. C.S. Lewis said that of course, the conscience was in a way the proof, the demonstration of the existence of God, which I don’t think you can claim that it is. But that’s why I began by saying that religion has to be understood as our first and, alas, worst, because first attempt at philosophy, at understanding who we are, why we’re here, what we’re for, and what ultimately our duties are to one another. As all these matters can be just as profoundly addressed in the absence of any belief in the supernatural, or any hope, and this is important, I think, of a Divine reward or a Divine punishment.
DAW: Well, if I may say so, Socrates also believed in that. As you know in the Fido Dialogue, he posits not just an afterlife, he’s talking about the immortality of the soul, but curiously posits a place of judgment. Those who have committed terrible wrongs are thrown into the lake of Tarterus, and never emerge again. And then he talks about those who have done things wrong, but basically curable, who after they spend their time are released, and then those who go immediately to a very pleasant place. I mean, he, through reason, he comes to Dante as well. But let me ask one…
CH: Well, he ought to have a description of what an afterlife could be like if he was lucky, which was endless Socratic dialogues with old and departed friends. But he hastened to add he could be wrong about that. It’s a very old dream that there would be such a thing, but there’s unfortunately no reason at all to believe it. Look, may I just walk back one stage to before the break when you were saying about religion and science? And I think in this case, though generally, you’ve made the Church seem a much more friendly institution than it is or has been, and it is as if it’s one opinion among many, and you can take it or leave it, which isn’t actually how Catholicism was spread. But it was, in fact, a Catholic scientist, a Frenchman who’s name has just for the moment escaped me who came up with the idea of what we call now the big bang, quite a long time ago, too. I mean, nearly a century ago, very impressive. And unlike many Protestant Churches, the Catholic Church has never really bothered to try and forbid the teaching of evolution. It seems to have learned from its mistakes with Galileo and with other scientists. But here’s what makes, I think, religion and science ultimately incompatible, and it’s simply this. We agree, since I’m not arguing with the Protestant who thinks that the Earth is 6,000 years old, that the human species is what, at least 100,000 years old, homo sapiens. Do we agree on that?
DAW: Not necessarily. Not necessarily.
CH: Ah. Well, how many years would you allow then?
DAW: Let me put it this way. I have absolutely no idea.
CH: Ah, very well.
DAW: And it is in no way…
CH: Look, I’m…
DAW: And it is no way necessarily a doctrine.
CH: All right, well then I’ll say if. I’ll have to say supposing.
DAW: But let me do say one thing to get the point clear, I do believe in an original Adam and Eve. That I do believe in…
CH: Do you? How fascinating, so a firm…
DAW: …which I suspect you will find overwhelmingly ignorant on my part.
CH: Well as a matter of fact, I mean, it does seem that at a certain point in the evolution of the species in Africa, we were down to a very few hundred people, and there was panic and dismay, and the threat of extinction, very nearly went extinct, and then gradually left Africa in different directions. So there may be some metaphorical truth to that story. But shall I just say, then, since we’re not going to agree that it seems to me the absolutely unarguable consensus that homo sapiens is approximately, not less than 100,000 years old. Now if that’s the case, I’ll have to say, since you don’t agree necessarily with it, it would have to be believed that Heaven watched the first 98,000 years of this go by, people be born, struggle, strive, die, probably very young or in childbirth, famines, turf wars, plagues, all of this, and only two thousands years ago decided to intervene, and in an intervention that takes the form of a blood sacrifice, a human sacrifice in a very primitive part of the Middle East. Now I would just simply have to say that I could not be brought to believe that under any conditions whatever, and I very much doubt that anyone really seriously does believe it. It’s believed because those who claim to hold the belief, of being able to use it to acquire political power in the only world we have, and the only world that matters, the here and now.
DAW: Well, let me state something that I find very curious. You say in the book that there is some doubt as to whether Socrates existed.
DAW: You state there is some doubt as to whether or not Christ actually was a figure who walked the Earth. You say there is some doubt as to whether Shakespeare wrote the plays or not. You say it doesn’t really matter to you. You hope it’s not Bacon who wrote them. But you have no doubt that 450 million years ago, the genetic march inaugurated before life left the ocean, or before the evolution of bones. How on Earth can one have doubts about a philosopher whose works have been studies for centuries now, a, I believe, the Son of God who inaugurated this extraordinary religion that I do believe in, I do believe Shakespeare wrote the plays, but you have no doubt of when someone tells you what went on in a mudhole 450 million years ago. That really does puzzle me.
HH: And I want to be fair to you, Christopher. We have 30 seconds to the break.
CH: Well, I can’t do that.
HH: So I want you to hold your response to Professor White. We’ll come right back to you after the break.
- – – –
HH: At the break, Christopher Hitchens, Professor White had asked how could you doubt that Shakespeare wrote the plays and a number of other things, but have no doubts about evolution?
CH: Well, first, I should say what context I say that it’s possible that…we don’t have absolute proof of the existence of Socrates. We have what seems like a pretty good eyewitness account of his life. But it doesn’t matter to me whether he existed or not, because I’m only interested in his ideas, I mean, and in the method that he used to argue. Though it’s one of the early atomists, a Greek, contemporary of Democritus, may not have existed, either. He’s been given a name, but we don’t have any absolute certainty that he existed. As for Shakespeare, I say it matters to me that it’s canonically written by one person, who incidentally was probably a secret Catholic. And I have no reason to doubt that he’s the author of all of those plays, but I have read persuasive stuff, oddly enough, always by right wing Catholics like Tom Bethel and the other name will come to me in a second, Joseph Sobran, who say that it was the Earl of Oxford. This is terribly interesting, but nothing depends on it. I’m not saying that you’ll go to hell if you don’t agree with me, or that…
HH: Actually, David Allen White might think you’re going to hell if you think that it’s the Earl of Oxford.
CH: He might.
DAW: (laughing) No, I am…
CH: I simply don’t like to argue in that way. Of course it has to be doubted that there was, as described, such a person as Jesus of Nazareth. I think the preponderance of evidence is that there was such a person, but the stories of him, even given by his enthusiasts, are so wildly discrepant as well as unbelievable that obviously a large part of it has to be admitted to be myth, as is a great deal of the life of the prophet Mohammed. Now this is not comparing at all to say the theory of evolution by natural selection, of which there are working computer models that can show to an extraordinary degree of accuracy how evolution occurred. I will have to say in passing, I don’t mind conceding that an irony of the modern world is that probably the average person does have to take more on faith than almost ever before. If I…I could not prove to you that the Apollo mission actually got to the Moon. I think that it did. But it’s quite beyond me to prove how that happened. And there are innumerable other discoveries, and they’re multiplying all the time, where one feels rather like a peasant in the Middle Ages, simply having to take on faith extraordinary claims. But I am able to read the books of Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins, and Steven Weinberg and others, and make some kind of sense of them, and there’s absolutely no motive at all, there’s no will to power in the fabrication, if there had been one.
DAW: But I am very pleased to hear you say that it is making an act of faith. And let me tell you why I’m an agnostic when it comes to computer models. I teach Shakespeare. There was a buzz about six, seven, eight years ago, time goes too swiftly, I could be wrong there, that a new Shakespeare poem had been discovered, an elegy for a young man who had died. And one of the proofs given was they ran it though the computer, and it worked. It was consistent with his other works. Well, anyone who knew Shakespeare could read about six lines and realize this was not written by the man who wrote the plays or the other poems. But the computer had proven it. And I am very doubtful about computer models.
CH: So am I when they’re applied to literature, but not when they’re applied, for example, the evolution of eyes since the age of sightless bacteria. There, I think it’s just, there isn’t any longer an argument. We can show how the eye evolved, and he can do it very minutely. You don’t have to take it on faith. It just repays a little study. It takes quite a lot of work. And I don’t think a computer can hope to do that with a sonnet or a symphony.
DAW: But it is very clear that it is the computer model that is giving the, if you will, hard evidence that you claim is hard evidence. Let me say one other thing about computers that troubles me greatly. I’m back to the whole notion of the inner life. I see my students sitting in front of screens day in, day out, from the time they come into the world, the television screen, the computer screen, the video game screen, it goes on and on and on. And what I fear is being lost again is any sense of that inner life that can even begin to lead to a conscience. If I may make the following point, before we can get to conscience, if you would agree or disagree with this, there are a couple of preliminary steps, one of them is consciousness itself. It is reflected most brilliantly, I think, in Hamlet, where we have the mind conscious of itself. Would you admit that self-consciousness is something that science has not yet unlocked?
CH: I think I’d have to agree with you there, yes.
DAW: Would it be fair to say that we cannot have consciousness of the self if there wasn’t something mysterious in us that has to do with language itself? That is, could we think about ourselves if we didn’t have language?
CH: No, I’m sure not, but I think there are non-linguistic intuitions that one can have.
DAW: Oh, absolutely. Certainly, there could be intuitions, but let me put it this way. Could we have a Hamlet without the words? And I don’t think we could. What troubles me…
CH: And now you’re going to say that in the beginning was the Word?
DAW: Well, I would say that. I wasn’t going to, but I thank you for adding it, because I do believe that absolutely. And I do think the mystery of when language became part of however you want to take it, the human experience, is absolutely significant, and that language is unlike anything else. Self consciousness, language, lead to conscience. It’s all part of that inner life that I’m talking about, and science cannot crack the mystery of language. It is very peculiar, we are peculiar creatures as a result, and even with the glories of the computer, and it can do extraordinary things, beating the greatest chess master, for example, man is still superior, because the computer will never know it won, and the greatest chess master can throw chairs and demand a bottle of vodka to ease his pain, because of his self-consciousness that he lost the match. We are mysterious creatures at our core.
CH: Well, look, you’re on my wavelength very much, as, by the way, we seem to have similarly old-fashioned attitudes towards the teaching of literature. And apparently we both admire this elegy for William Butler Yeats. Auden says that time, which is intolerant of the brave and innocent, and indifferent in a week to a beautiful physique, worships language…
DAW: Absolutely, absolutely.
CH: …and everyone by whom it lives. And since language, and there’s also linguistics, in the field of linguistics, there have been tremendous breakthroughs made which do suggest an underlying in common, heritable, generative grammar. We owe a lot to Professor Chomsky in this field, if not in all others, and I myself have experienced seeing two of my children grow up speaking two languages without realizing that they’re separate, English and Greek, and mastering them in a way that no adult could possibly hope to do, quite extraordinary. But it doesn’t suggest anything supernatural to me at all.
- – – –
HH: Professor White, I go back to you with two questions. A quick one, ought we to virtually burn the heretics, Bethel and Sobran about their Shakespeare identity, just because we left it hanging, and why does the development of language support the supernatural, to return to the conversation?
DAW: Fair enough. I am so weary of the Shakespeare authorship question. All I can say is the man wrote the plays, and let’s give him credit for them. I’ll let it go at that.
HH: All right.
DAW: If I can state something of how I view the mystery of language, and I think it is very mysterious…by the way, I do agree with you, I took an interesting course once on the whole notion of generative grammar and substructure, linguistics. It is quite interesting. I’m not totally convinced. It’s obviously worth the study. But what I’m talking about is something even more mysterious. Example, I was once sitting at the dinner table with a Godson who had not spoken much, and suddenly looked up from the table and said I want more peas. The parents jumped up, ran to the phone, called the grandparents, there was a big to-do, he’d spoken his first sentence, and the kid sat there mystified, because he didn’t get his peas. Now it’s a very simple example, but the fact that something happened in the brain of the child that those little round green vegetables were called by the signifier peas, and he had to use the word to get the thing, and he made the connection, and uttered it forth, is unlike anything else in the world, and certainly not like nature in that, I think you would agree with me, everything in science and nature basically we understand by cause and effect. Fair enough?
CH: Yes, that’s why I say the natural world is wonderful enough.
DAW: But that cannot explain this mysterious and I defer to an American philosopher named Charles Pierce, who states that the mystery of what happens when a child looks at a furry beast and says cat, or round green vegetables and says peas, is not cause and effect, but he uses the word triadic, because you need the brain of the child, you need the furry animal, and you need the signifier cat, and we suddenly have something that’s three way, not cause and effect. Now you can probably guess where I’m going. You certainly wouldn’t agree with me, but in the beginning was the Word, let there be light, and suddenly we have in man something that I would say in the inner life goes beyond what can be explained by science in the world of nature. That is for me the beginning…
CH: All right, well first, since known to my family there was a little boy who just didn’t speak for a long time, and then finally did utter a not bad sentence, and he was asked by his astounded parents you know, what had taken him so long, and he said he hadn’t been able to think of anything worth saying.
CH: We know that some of what you say is self-evidently true, because for example, children say mouses instead of mice.
CH: You don’t hear adults say mouses. So they see a mouse, then they see two, and they say mouses. They’re clearly using something that isn’t taught them.
DAW: Well, it’s true.
CH: It’s innate.
DAW: But what I’m saying…
CH: But I mean, much, much, much, much more impressive than the opening passage of the Gospel of St. John is the realization that at a certain point, not very far back in the midst of evolutionary time, we split off from our cousins, and developed a pre-frontal lobe, and the ability to master language, and acquire memory.
DAW: But where did it come from?
CH: We are not absolutely clear exactly how this happened, but we’re a lot, a lot clearer than we were even, say, two or three years ago. And I make no doubt that it will soon be very apparent how this happened. All the intervening steps will be known.
HH: And will be know, Christopher Hitchens…
CH: All the evidence is on my side then.
HH: Will we know, Christopher Hitchens, where the big bang came from in the relatively near future?
CH: No, I think quite possibly not, though if you read the work of Professor Steven Weinberg, a book called Looking Upward is I think it’s title, I’m sure that’s it, there are some incredibly marvelous and suggestive essays about that. The work of our great physicists is already making Einstein seem dated.
HH: And you think we already know, David Allen White?
DAW: I think we know and we’ve been told, but again, I hear this as another act of faith, that in the future, the revelation will be given to us, and then we will understand.
CH: No, no, no.
DAW: So…well, the revelation will come…
CH: It’s not. Excuse me, sir…
DAW: …through exploration through computer models…
CH: Now you let yourself down. You let yourself down. What I just said was nothing like a prophecy. It’s an exponential projection of extraordinary accumulations of scientific work that have already been brought about.
- – – –
HH: Professor White, right before we went to break, Mr. Hitchens said that his confidence in the explanation for unknown mysteries about the person and science is “the exponential projection of accumulated experience with fact.” If you take that standard and apply it to the exponential projection of accumulated experience with the unknown, beginning with Socrates and extending through Walker Percy, doesn’t that point us overwhelmingly to a belief in God, contrary to Mr. Hitchens’ most recent book?
DAW: Well you see, that is precisely what brought me back to questions of faith, and eventually brought me into the Church. To quote my…well, if I may, one of our favorite writers, Evelyn Waugh, the Church is there, and it is a coherent philosophical system that Waugh says make intransigent historical claims. It’s difficult to ignore. Let me just put it that way. But in any case, I do see at the center of things a mystery. But that mystery and the acknowledgement of that mystery allows us to go exploring. My worry is that science is turning into scientism as such, and too many people are taking it exclusively, and as they do so, the mystery of man himself is disappearing. You quote this line in the book, and it’s appropriate, Hamlet saying to Horatio there are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. By the end of the play, there’s the astonishing moment at the death of Hamlet when Horatio, the skeptic and the agnostic, in his farewell, says goodnight sweet prince and flights of angels, sing thee to they rest. I find it overwhelmingly beautiful, and a great mystery that Horatio has learned there is more than he believed of in that universe. I find the mystery, the emotion, the beauty of it overwhelming, and I don’t think it was based on something false or phony. I believe it has a very real base that is different from science, because we are half dust, and we explore the dust through nature, and we’re have divinity, and the language the mystery of the internal life, and our spiritual yearning, which I think you now put into the world of science, draw us in that direction.
HH: Christopher Hitchens?
CH: Yeah, well I don’t think Hamlet saw the ghost, either, though it’s very…you can’t have the play without it. But you see, you’re trying to force me to sound like an absolutely dry and arid materialist.
DAW: No, you’re not, and…
CH: I mean…
DAW: Let me…no, no, let me be fair…
CH: The fact that Democritus and Epicurus and Lucretius worked out, I have no idea how they managed to do this, that all matter was made of atoms. I daresay you don’t contest that?
DAW: Matter, I would certainly say that matter is made of atoms…
CH: Well, for a long, long time, the atomist theory was viciously persecuted by the Church, and the works of Lucretius were nearly, were by the way, very beautiful poetry, were very nearly completely destroyed. Only one copy survived the Dark Ages.
DAW: Well, let me put it this way. The problem is when it becomes…
CH: It doesn’t…The fact that I’m made of the same constituent matter as other animals and vegetable and mineral doesn’t depress me. I’m sorry, it just doesn’t. I find it rather a wonderful thought, if anything. But here’s the thing, it doesn’t matter subjectively whether it depresses me or not. The question is, is it or is it not the case? And you seem to be almost to be saying, which I think is, by the way, almost inseparable from the concept of faith, that we would be happier if we believed this kind of thing, not that it’s true or that it’s morally valid, but that it’s consoling. Now again, I cannot make my mind work like that.
DAW: Let me give an example, Would you say that an Alexander Solzhenitsyn going into the gulag as an atheist, and coming out of the gulag as a believer, and indeed an orthodox Christian, was simply seeking some kind of comfort, a security blanket because of the horrors he was exposed to?
CH: Well, I don’t think your example’s a particularly fortunate one, because the brand of Russian orthodox Christianity that is actually advanced out of Alexander Solzhenitsyn is a very deeply chauvinist, xenophobic, traditionalist, nationalist one to which I’m not surprised there’s a number of Russians would have resorted under the pressure of Stalinism, but doesn’t make it any more agreeable. If you’re going to take a conversion experience of that kind, then you have to them all. More Jews gave up religion because of the Holocaust than adopted it, and it’s so very, very easy to see why, in my opinion, unless you take the view that is taken by some rabbis, that the final solution was a punishment for the exile.
DAW: Well, again…
CH: Where the very teaching, in fact, that made many people pick up and leave the synagogue, and rightly so, that didn’t believe that God would organize the burning alive of children in furnaces. So I don’t know why they wouldn’t believe that, since I think actions of that kind are actually very strongly recommended throughout the New Testament.
DAW: Oh, well, you know, that’s another show right there. Don’t have time to pursue that.
CH: I’m sorry to hear it.
DAW: Would you say that a Solzhenitsyn who came to faith under those circumstances was doing it out of a kind of cowardice?
CH: No, I certainly wouldn’t say that, no.
DAW: But you would believe he was misguided?
CH: I think Russian Orthodoxy is a terrible belief held by a ghastly Church, with a hideous history. These are the people who brought us the protocols of the elders of Zion, among other things, and who said the czar was the holy father, a blasphemous thing to say, I would have thought from a Christian point of view, not that I should perhaps arrogate that position to myself.
DAW: You know, my other…
CH: There are many, many people whose experience of persecution and suffering have led them to doubt the existence of God, as you must know.
DAW: My worry, and it happens continuously now, is that the modern mind, and I think it’s the modern mind that is absorbed in science, immediately goes to abstractions that will cover all cases, as opposed to the individual case, that is love thy neighbor as thyself, one on one, and that the individual soul, which is what I believe in an individual relationship with God the Creator and Christ the Redeemer of mankind, is quite literally responsible for choices and decisions on an individual basis. I am responsible for my actions. And to somehow make a large group or even an institution responsible is incredibly unfair, particularly the Catholic Church that puts the burden on me as an individual soul with the duty to save itself.
- – – –
HH: It’s been fascinating. I want to thank both Christopher Hitchens and David Allen White for this conversation on faith, science and culture. Christopher Hitchens, I want to give you the opening of the closing statements. Your reaction to the conversation of the last couple of hours?
CH: Well, can I just take up very directly the point about responsibility?
CH: That Professor White just made? One of my most deeply rooted objections to Christianity is the idea of vicarious redemption, the idea that by human sacrifice of someone claiming to be, or claimed to his supporters to be the Son of God, that you can throw your sins on him and be, and have them washed away. I regard that as frankly a flat-out immoral doctrine, because vicarious redemption precisely robs you your personal responsibility. I think that the responsibilities we have to ourselves and others are inevitable and social, and come from our existence as a social species. When I give blood to somebody, I get satisfaction from doing it. I don’t…double satisfaction, in point of fact. I don’t lose a pint of blood, because I easily regenerate it, someone else gets one. That pleases me very much. I also feel I’ve done a good thing, and I also have a rare blood group, and I may one day need a transfusion myself, so I hope other people are doing the same thing and thinking in the same way. There’s absolutely no need at all for a supernatural or Divine permission for this kind of thing, and if we didn’t have it, we would have died out, and as we yet may.
HH: David Allen White, the conclusion goes you.
DAW: Well, I am a human being stumbling through this world, a pilgrim on a pilgrimage, often a poor sinner. I’m very grateful that God is there, and sent Christ to redeem us, and I’m grateful he founded a Church, and I’m particularly grateful for the Mass and the Sacrament of Confession that may help me on the road there. The argument will continue, and we’ll find out at some point, one way or t’other.
HH: And since the two of you live all of ten minutes apart, though David Allen White is over the Potomac, and Christopher Hitchens on the Maryland side of it, perhaps you can meet at some point and discuss it in person. Once again, thank you, Christopher Hitchens, thank you, David Allen White, fascinating conversation.
CH: Pleasure, thank you.
End of interview.