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Christopher Hitchens - Vicarious Redemption

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Published on Apr 4, 2011

Christopher Eric Hitchens b.1949

English-American author and journalist whose books, essays, and journalistic career span more than four decades. Hitchens is known for his admiration of George Orwell, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson and for his excoriating critiques of, among others, Mother Teresa,[5] Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Henry Kissinger. His confrontational style of debate has made him both a lauded and controversial figure.

[from Letters to a Young Contrarian (2001)]

I have been called arrogant myself in my time, and hope to earn the title again, but to claim that I am privy to the secrets of the universe and its creator — that's beyond my conceit. I therefore have no choice but to find something suspect even in the humblest believer. Even the most humane and compassionate of the monotheisms and polytheisms are complicit in this quiet and irrational authoritarianism: they proclaim us, in Fulke Greville's unforgettable line, "Created sick — Commanded to be well." And there are totalitarian insinuations to back this up if its appeal should fail. Christians, for example, declare me redeemed by a human sacrifice that occurred thousands of years before I was born. I didn't ask for it, and would willingly have foregone it, but there it is: I'm claimed and saved whether I wish it or not. And if I refuse the unsolicited gift? Well, there are still some vague mutterings about an eternity of torment for my ingratitude. That is somewhat worse than a Big Brother state, because there could be no hope of its eventually passing away.
In any case, I find something repulsive about the idea of vicarious redemption. I would not throw my numberless sins onto a scapegoat and expect them to pass from me; we rightly sneer at the barbaric societies that practice this unpleasantness in its literal form. There's no moral value in the vicarious gesture anyway. As Thomas Paine pointed out, you may if you wish take on a another man's debt, or even to take his place in prison. That would be self-sacrificing. But you may not assume his actual crimes as if they were your own; for one thing you did not commit them and might have died rather than do so; for another this impossible action would rob him of individual responsibility. So the whole apparatus of absolution and forgiveness strikes me as positively immoral, while the concept of revealed truth degrades the concept of free intelligence by purportedly relieving us of the hard task of working out the ethical principles for ourselves.

You can see the same immorality or amorality in the Christian view of guilt and punishment. There are only two texts, both of them extreme and mutually contradictory. The Old Testament injunction is the one to exact an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth (it occurs in a passage of perfectly demented detail about the exact rules governing mutual ox-goring; you should look it up in its context.The second is from the Gospels and says that only those without sin should cast the first stone. The first is a moral basis for capital punishment and other barbarities; the second is so relativistic and "nonjudgmental" that it would not allow the prosecution of Charles Manson. Our few notions of justice have had to evolve despite these absurd codes of ultra vindictiveness and ultracompassion.
Judaism has some advantages over Christianity in that, for example, it does not proselytise — except among Jews — and it does not make the cretinous mistake of saying that the Messiah has already made his appearance. However, along with Islam and Christianity, it does insist that some turgid and contradictory and sometimes evil and mad texts, obviously written by fairly unexceptional humans, are in fact the word of god. I think that the indispensable condition of any intellectual liberty is the realisation that there is no such thing.

(on a celestial dictator)

[Religious belief] is a totalitarian belief. It is the wish to be a slave. It is the desire that there be an unalterable, unchallengeable, tyrannical authority who can convict you of thought crime while you are asleep, who can subject you - who must, indeed, subject you - to total surveillance around the clock every waking and sleeping minute of your life - I say, of your life - before you're born and, even worse and where the real fun begins, after you're dead. A celestial North Korea. Who wants this to be true? Who but a slave desires such a ghastly fate? I've been to North Korea. It has a dead man as its president, Kim Jong-Il is only head of the party and head of the army. He's not head of the state. That office belongs to his deceased father, Kim Il-Sung. It's a necrocracy, a thanatocracy. It's one short of a trinity I might add. The son is the reincarnation of the father. It is the most revolting and utter and absolute and heartless tyranny the human species has ever evolved. But at least you can fucking die and leave North Korea!

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