CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Are we doing this?

LEVEL 5 MAGAZINE: Are you ready? Okay, yeah. Christopher Hitchens: found yourself praying much recently?

CH: Well that’s a good place to begin because in a way I have, yes. The roots of prayer – the observation is banal but perhaps worth making – lie in our arms: all religious impulse stems from human physiology and psychology, not the other way around. It comes from us. In our infancy, when we want something but are helpless to get it for ourselves, a natural bodily instinct has us raise our arms, our hands perhaps held apart or maybe coming to rest upon each other, in a gesture of supplication to those bigger and more able than us. And that’s prayer, it’s an atavism, a leftover from childhood.

L5: So you…

CH: Nonetheless – to answer your question – I do find myself occasionally adopting this gesture, most recently while contemplating the recent protests in Egypt and elsewhere. Now the nature and effectiveness of this wave of dissent is in doubt. It may come to nothing, as in Iran in 2009 the energy may be suppressed, or it may dissipate or be bought off with a few minor concessions, nothing really being altered in the long-term. But assume that what’s happening is bigger than that. Well, the analogy might be not with Iran in 2009, but Iran in 1979: if reactionary Islamist groups take advantage of the unrest, if several of the relatively liberal states of North Africa and the Middle East suddenly find themselves saddled with Ayatollahs, this is a catastrophe! A devastating setback  for the region and for the world, not to mention the citizens of the countries involved, who doubtless believe themselves to be fighting for better lives but who, sad to say, will look back upon the regimes of Mubarak and Ben Ali as golden ages of prosperity!

Then there’s the optimistic scenario: the double-whammy of recent U.S. foreign policy has shown firstly that dictators and theocrats can be toppled and democracy set in their place, and, secondly, that America is no longer interested in doing the heavy-lifting. The people of Egypt and Tunisia and the other nations involved have access to communications technology, they know what saner areas of the world look like, they know there’s no reason why they don’t deserve the same level of freedom and wealth that their brothers and sisters in Europe and North America enjoy. And they can achieve it for themselves, they know the recipe as surely as we do: constitutional democracy, freedom of the press, the emancipation of women, the separation of church and state.

And I cannot divorce myself from the equation, I have a strong vested interest in the outcome of this. Those of us who advocated regime-change in Iraq argued that one consequence ought to be the growth and spread of a grassroots democracy movement in its neighbours: I would consider it – you’ll excuse me – a divine blessing to live to see this argument vindicated. And so I have found myself with my hands clasped together and my eyes closed, whispering fervent entreaties to my struggling comrades, I find myself offering up whatever of my energies may be available to aid them: which is a ridiculous notion, an absurd notion! That I might be able to join in their fight in some metaphysical manner without actually lifting a finger is a silly idea, it’s self-indulgent to the point of solipsism, worse, it can make one feel quite noble and involved when in fact one is neither. This is not a gesture anyone should feel proud of!

L5: Robert Anton Wilson, in his book “Quantum Psychology,” cites a number of instances in which villages affected by a severe drought organised mass “prayer days,” in the immediate aftermath of which it sure enough started raining: and continued raining, and continued, until the villages were flooded and half their population drowned!

CH: [Laughs.] You put your hands together, you recite the incantation, and the big man in the sky rewrites all the laws of nature just for you. It’s stupid.

L5: How have you been recently?

CH: Well… Up and down; I have had one or two frightful days. To the point where I now feel as qualified as anyone to weigh in on the subject of “Near-Death Experiences.”

L5: Okay…

CH: The knowledge was painfully won, and you won’t be too surprised to hear that in those moments when I firmly believed myself to be checking-out I didn’t  discover myself in any incandescent tunnels listening to the voices of deceased loved ones and saints and angels beckoning me onwards. No. As for the cliché about one’s life “flashing before one’s eyes,” there’s a certain truth to that. Obviously, in one’s final moments, or in what one believes to be one’s final moments, a person tends to evaluate: triumphs are recalled, failures regretted; one’s family is very much present in one’s mind, and friends,  important places; events that may have seemed relatively unimportant reveal themselves to have been occupying a much greater place in one’s awareness than one would have expected. My daughter’s hand in mine. I don’t want to get too maudlin about this.

There’s more. Thanks to the efforts of the religious over the centuries, the word “God” has become one of the biggest of all words. There is no denying this; I wouldn’t have spent so much of my energies attacking the concept if it weren’t a worthy adversary. Now, I do possess a certain depth of character, enough to recognise that while I deny the existence of any omniscient being I myself am not omniscient and therefore I could be wrong. I do not believe I am wrong, I do not credit the idea of a deity or an afterlife, but I accept the possibility, in the strict sense of that word. As, I’m sure, do most people, at some level: if the effort of millions of people over thousands of years is to convince you that pigs can fly, some small part of you will be tricked into questioning common sense and the empirical observation that pigs do not fly and never have. During the instance of death, the word “God” and its wretched kin, “Hell” and “Judgement” and the like, blaze before one’s fragmenting awareness with a terrible force, one finds oneself wondering, Was I right or was I wrong? There is a genuine and pressing anxiety, and this must affect the devout believer no less than the atheist, his passage too must be marked with concern: Have I ticked the right boxes, have I passed every test, has my lucky number come up? And this, this is an awful thing! That one’s death may be accompanied by pain and discomfort is, sadly, not unlikely, but fear? Trepidation? The trepidation of a naughty schoolboy being called into the headmaster’s office, and this for a man who’s no sort of schoolboy and he’s not naughty and there is no headmaster! That our final moments, the culmination of all our endeavours, the inevitable disintegration of the animal, should be stained with thoughts such as these is a wicked, a wicked thing, and it’s one more victory those bastards have scored over us, one more stinging insult to our dignity, one more human moment they’ve robbed us of, and so it’s one more reason why we fight: so that if not our grandchildren then our grandchildren’s grandchildren will be free to enjoy the moment of death, to enjoy it.

L5: Go gently. Mr. Hitchens, thank you very much.

CH: Thank you.


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