As we continue through this book, it is becoming more and more apparent that Hitchens’ gods — science and reason — are really starting to let him down.
In the previous chapter, Hitchens said in passing that “the argument from authority’ is the weakest of all arguments” (p. 150). And how do you know that? Well, science has shown, as reported in All Scholars Review . . . I am being facetious here, but the central point is a serious one. Far from being the weakest argument, all human knowledge of any kind whatever is dependent in significant ways upon the voice of authority. Hitchens pretends that this is not so by subsuming examples of his dependence on authority under the heading of “what everyone knows.” Everyone knows the earth goes around the sun, even though neither Hitchens nor I have seen it. We both read it in a book published by the authorities. I am not disputing this, incidentally . . . I have a higher view of arguments from authority than Hitchens does. But he really needs to admit that science is his authority, and not his personal method for finding things out.
But reason is the other god that is failing. This chapter in on religion’s corrupt beginnings, meaning that all religions bear “the stamp of their origin.” I want to ask you to join me as we look at the structure of Hitchens’ argument here. Bear in mind that this is the structure of an argument crafted by a man who believes, really believes, in reason.
Here’s how he goes.
“Thus, if we watch the process of a religion in its formation, we can make some assumptions about the origins of those religions that were put together before most people could read” (p. 155).
Hitchens then picks three examples — South Pacific cargo cults, the antics of a huckster evangelist named Marjoe, and the formation of Mormonism. Now with these three examples I quite agree with Hitchens that the cargo cults are sad, the hucksterism is appalling, and the historical tenets of Mormonism are beyond ridiculous. I also think that the structure of Hitchens’ argument in this chapter is beyond ridiculous.
If his thesis were that there is no such thing as a genuine Federal Reserve Note, and debate arose over it, he could not make his case by saying that all green pieces of paper with currency values on them are counterfeit. “We can verify this by considering three examples of counterfeiters who were recently apprehended.”
He then makes his straw-man approach even more glaring by picking, as examples of counterfeiting, black and white xerox copies of money, the first time attempt by an incompent forger now serving five to ten, and a picture of a twenty dollar bill drawn by his nephew with an orange crayon. If he points to these transparent attempts, he cannot say something like, “what more do you need?” This is not the voice of reason; it is the intrusion of what logicians call informal fallacies.
One other thing. Near the conclusion of this chapter, he sets himself up in a big way when he gets to speculating about the motives of these religious charlatans.
“What interests me and always has is this: Do the preachers and prophets also believe, or do they too just ‘believe in belief’? Do they ever think to themselves, this is too easy. And do they then rationalize the trick by saying that either (a) if these wretches weren’t listening to me they’d be in even worse shape; or (b) that if it doesn’t do them any good then it still can’t be doing them much harm (p. 165)?
There is a third option. Suppose one of them, on holiday from haranging the faithful, met Hitchens at a freethinkers conference. “What are you doing here?” would be the obvious question. “Oh, I don’t believe any of that stuff,” came the cheerful reply. “I don’t believe in God.”
“But, but . . .”
“Look, I read your book, and I took special note of your question on p. 165. There is a third option, beyond your (a) and (b). And here it is — (c) Because these people are morons, they are too stupid to catch me, and because there is no God, I will not be caught in any stinkin’ afterlife. In fact, there is no such thing as ‘catching anybody.’ The money’s good, indoor job, no heavy lifting. You do agree with me that there is no afterlife? Good . . . ho, ho, ho! What a racket, eh? How’s yours going?”
“But reason, science . . . collective good, ethics . . .” Hitchens trails off.
“Look, friend,” our atheist Elmer Gantry says, “you can’t leave Kansas without leaving Wichita too.”