On Hitchens and the defense of reason

As submitted to The Daily Maverick.

On hearing that Christopher Hitchens had been diagnosed with oesophageal cancer, one response from a self-proclaimed man of god was the following post on Twitter: “God 1, Hitchens 0”. The motivation for such a callous response to a usually fatal disease (fewer than 5% of sufferers are alive after 5 years) is easy enough to trace: Hitchens, along with Dennett, Dawkins and Sam Harris, is one of the “4 Horsemen” of a groundswell of resistance to the unreason that is exemplified by religious faith, and he is thus a direct threat to the mysterious legitimacy that faith-based claims enjoy.

What our divine scorekeeper does not (of course) dwell on is the fact that according to his beliefs, all deaths are attributable to god, and that he could therefore just as well add another notch to this metaphysical bedpost if his mother, for example, were to die an equally unpleasant death. God’s victory is inevitable, as either she takes a believer “home”, or she smites down an unbeliever. Either way, a civilised response to human trauma is sympathy, rather than gloating.

Of course, this horrible man (the Tweeter, rather than the Hitch) is not representative of how most believers might feel. Yet I’d suggest that his is the sort of response that it is only imaginable for those who think that the moral calculus extends beyond our mortal existence, to be resolved in the hereafter rather than to the present. The reason they can contemplate saying such things is that there is a fundamental disconnect between the world that they actually live in, and a world in which elves and fairies might as well be prancing about – such is the absurdity of many of their foundational beliefs.

For some, it is of course plausible that fairies do in fact prance about – or at least watch over you from afar. For others, it remains plausible that arbitrarily defined constellations from the time of your birth affect your personality. (This belief is apparently not at all complicated by trivia such as the 3 major planets discovered since Ptolemy wrote the 1900 year-old textbook of this pseudoscience.)

I can understand how these collections of primitive fable and myth give some people comfort. What I cannot understand is why so many of us – speaking here of those who don’t endorse these insanities – so readily allow others to continue infantilising themselves, their children, and whomever else is unlucky enough to be in their sphere of influence. These delusions are not restricted to the illiterate or otherwise unfortunate. A respected South African weekly carries content from an author who endorses Deepak Chopra, and those of us who listen to talk radio are quite familiar with the babblings of Rod Suskind and his ilk.

Some might ask: “Where’s the harm?” Ask Kara, the Wisconsin child who died on the floor of her family home last year from a treatable illness, while her family stood around her and prayed. Or ask the Australian child who was also killed by her parents last year, because they insisted on administering homeopathic remedies (water, in other words) where regular medicine would have saved the child’s life.

Closer to home, you could speak to Leo Igwe, a Nigerian who is regularly imprisoned and harassed by police (along with his 77 year-old diabetic father, and other members of his family) for “crimes” such as campaigning against Helen Ukpabio, who makes a living from victimising children that she identifies as “witches”. Or, perhaps, to the Somalians in Du Noon who (amongst others) are also victims of a similar disconnect between reason and unthinking grand narratives, here manifesting in the belief that “we” are more entitled to live and trade in a certain area than “they” are.

All of these issues have at least two things in common: one, that they are premised on the absence of reason, and two, that they involve harms. In the particular case of religion, and superstition more generally, the problem for those of us who aren’t ourselves victims of these irrationalities is that the question of where the harm lies begins, and thrives, in the privileged space in which mysticism and quackery thrive.

There are no warning labels on the quackery you can buy at the pharmacy, even though the sugar pills and expensive water bought as homeopathic remedies can kill, if only through the complacent neglect that they allow for. Used responsibly (it is unclear what that might even mean), they would of course not kill, but the same can be said of motor vehicles and alcohol, which do carry warning labels. If the astrologer’s tepee was made to carry a sign saying “for entertainment purposes only”, or the homeopathic remedy to be labelled “only effective as part of a normal and sane existence”, I’d be less concerned.

But they don’t. And even those of us who dismiss these quaint follies when it comes to our own lives know someone who takes these things seriously, and we allow them to, because we think they do no harm. And they might not do harm to the Sandton socialite, no – but when someone who isn’t that privileged starts looking around for a remedy for their daughter’s illness, and sees just how well these “remedies” do in the marketplace, and reads the endorsements from those she perhaps aspires to be, is it not plausible that we become complicit in genuine harms?

As Sam Harris has persuasively argued in “The End of Faith”, the same could be true for religious belief, in that when violent extremists see that hundreds of thousands of regular folk believe the same things they do (albeit less fervently), how can that not provide encouragement to those prepared to actually invest their welfare – or their lives – in defending their beliefs?

Hitchens closes his memoir Hitch-22 with this: “To be an unbeliever is not to be merely ‘open-minded’. It is, rather, a decisive admission of uncertainty that is dialectically connected to the repudiation of the totalitarian principle, in the mind as well as in politics.” And this gets it just right, in that it is certainty, of some form or another, that allows us to feel justified when we enforce our will – despite incomplete or nonexistent evidence – on others who might not believe in the same things we do.

The safest course is undoubtedly this: to admit to uncertainty in cases where we can’t be sure (which is pretty much equivalent to “all the time”), and to in the meanwhile proceed in ways that are best justified by what we think we can, and do, know. Amongst the things we probably know is that (to quote Hitchens again) “the defense of science and reason is the great imperative of our time”. And the enemies of science and reason are not always somewhere else – they are sometimes next door to you, or even sharing your bed.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.