Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Questions at Hay

The Grauniad offered authors at the Hay Festival the opportunity to ask one another tricky questions in front of reporters. Easy copy? Tick. Entertaining? I read it all the way through.

There's something in there for everyone. The Bishop of New Hampshire asked President Carter about the potential impact of Barack Obama's election on the world's perception of the U.S. Will Self posed a bizarre question about the aurochs to Deborah, the last surviving Mitford sister. (It demonstrated that one of the pair knew more about extinct wild cattle than the other. Perhaps that wasn't the purpose of the question.) But the prize goes to this response from Christopher Hitchens.

    Julia Neuberger, rabbi and Lib Dem peer asks Christopher Hitchens, journalist, critic and author

    Q Why are you so angry about religion? Don't you think your very fervour — and certainty — make you just like the religious extremists you profess to despise. And where's the room for doubt in your analysis?

    A Oh Christ, not this one again. Anthony Grayling puts it definitively out of its misery in Against All Gods, reprinted as his contribution to The Portable Atheist (ed. C Hitchens) entitled Can an Atheist be a Fundamentalist?

    If I may, I will borrow his conclusion: "Any view of the world which does not premise the existence of something supernatural is a philosophy, or a theory or, at worst, an ideology. If it is either of the first two, at its best it proportions what it accepts to the evidence for accepting it, knows what would refute it, and stands ready to revise itself in the light of new evidence. This is the essence of science. It comes as no surprise that no wars have been fought, pogroms carried out or burnings conducted at the stake over rival theories in biology or astrophysics."

    Clear? It's not a matter of "room" for doubt. The whole analytical method of humanist materialism is based on scepticism. We take nothing on faith. Imagine what a fortune could be made by a palaeontologist who unearthed human bones and dinosaur bones in the same layer of sediment. I will bet my house that this discovery will not be made, but my bet is not entirely, or at all, an article of belief. It is, rather, a conviction based on the study of evidence.

    As to the manner in which I express myself, it rather depends on the antagonist. I'm normally renowned for my patience and good humour, but I admit to being easily bored and, when I come up against, say, a self-righteous rabbi, can be tempted to succumb to sarcasm. I think that may be where your confusion arises. Oh, and I do not "profess" to despise religious extremists. I really do despise them.


Dave Coulter said...

I'd checked out Hitchen's "Portable Athiest" from my library. Quite good. The essay by Carl Sagan is worth tracking it down all by itself!

Snail said...

You can rely on Hitchens for some perceptive comments and acerbic wit.