Are You There, God? It’s Me, Hitchens.

Photo: Nigel Parry

One of the most annoying things about Christopher Hitchens is that, even at his most vitriolic, he makes at least as much sense as the majority of sober journo-intellectuals buzzing around Washington. This despite the fact that he is one of the last defenders of Bush’s Iraq war—a position that has cost the former Nation contributor a multitude of friends and gotten him new ones like Paul Wolfowitz. Hitchens, who started questioning his faith at age 9 (and wrote a polemic against Mother Teresa called The Missionary Position), has finally written the ultimate attack book, God Is Not Great. He spoke to us about his favorite religious stories, Karl Rove (infidel?), and the one time he found himself praying.

You say in your acknowledgments that you’ve been writing this book your whole life. Do you think it’ll mean as much to others as it means to you?
No, it’s one small step for C.H. into one enormous argument dominated by giants in philosophy and theology and science.

So what makes it different from recent atheist screeds by the likes of Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins?
I don’t think Richard Dawkins would mind me saying that he looks at religious people with this sort of incredulity, as if, “How possibly can you be so stupid?” And though we all have moods like that, I think perhaps I don’t quite.

And what if one of your children found God? Would that be a problem?
Not at all. My children, to the extent that they have found religion, have found it from me, in that I insist on at least a modicum of religious education for them. The schools won’t do it anymore. And I even insist, though my wife [who is Jewish] isn’t that thrilled, on having for our daughter a little version of the Seder.

What’s your favorite Bible story?
“Casting the first stone” is a lovely story, even though we’ve found out how much it wasn’t in the Bible to begin with. And the first of the miracles. Jesus changes water into wine. You can’t object to that.

Well, you’ve said plenty about the pleasures of drink before.
But it also shows the persistence of the Hellenic influence in those regions. If the Jews had not made the crucial mistake of rejecting Hellenism and philosophy and submitting themselves, or being reconquered, by the Maccabean ultra-Orthodox, everything would have been better and we’d never have had to endure Christianity and Islam.

So I guess you’re not a fan of Hanukkah.
And they picked it for the worst possible reason, because it happens to be nearest to Christmas! I mean, it’s so tawdry.

You’re an even bigger critic of Islam.
If you ask specifically what is wrong with Islam, it makes the same mistakes as the preceding religions, but it makes another mistake, which is that it’s unalterable. You notice how liberals keep saying, “If only Islam would have a Reformation”—it can’t have one. It says it can’t. It’s extremely dangerous in that way.

Do you think an avowed atheist would ever get elected in the U.S.?
Yes. I do not believe any of the statistical claims that are made about public opinion. I don’t see why anybody does.

Has anyone in the Bush administration confided in you about being an atheist?
Well, I don’t talk that much to them—maybe people think I do. I know something which is known to few but is not a secret. Karl Rove is not a believer, and he doesn’t shout it from the rooftops, but when asked, he answers quite honestly. I think the way he puts it is, “I’m not fortunate enough to be a person of faith.”

What must Bush make of that?
I think it’s false to say that the president acts as if he believes he has God’s instructions. Compared to Jimmy Carter, he’s nowhere. He’s a Methodist, having joined his wife’s church in the end. He also claims that Jesus got him off the demon drink. He doesn’t believe it. His wife said, “If you don’t stop, I’m leaving and I’m taking the kids.” You can say that you got help from Jesus if you want, but that’s just a polite way of putting it in Texas.

Do you consider yourself a hawk?
I used to wish there was a useful term for those of us who thought American power should be used to remove psychopathic dictators.

So one day we’ll all see just how right you all were about Iraq?
No, I don’t think the argument will stop, perhaps forever. But when it does become the property of historians rather than propagandists and journalists, it’ll become plainer than it is to most people now that it was just. Most of what went wrong with it was that it was put off too long. What a lot of people wish is that the thing could have been skipped.

Christopher Hitchens in Iraq, back in 1991.Photo: Ed Kashi/Corbis

Or that Bush hadn’t been in charge. You don’t believe that?
No, I honestly don’t. Iraq was in such terrible shape as a society that it wouldn’t have mattered if Paul Bremer had been Pericles.

Is there anything you don’t have an opinion on?
My bet with Graydon [Carter, Vanity Fair editor-in-chief] is that he can ask me to write about anything at all, unless it’s mathematics or science.

Will you write about Virginia Tech?
I have no interest in it, but if it goes on for a couple of days I will. My heart sinks when yellow-ribbon events occur, if that doesn’t sound too cynical. What one needs in this society is less sentimentality and more stoicism. [He did write a Slate column last week, headlined SUCK IT UP.]

You’ve complained that American discourse is too polite. But a lot of people think you’re too rude.
I used to get told by nice old ladies at bookstores, “It’s so nice to meet you, because I used to think you were very unhappy and just disliked everything, and you seem quite friendly.” And I would think, Oh, God, is that how I seem?

You did write a book called Letters to a Young Contrarian.
I was contrarian enough to say that I thought contrarianism was a stupid title. But the idea that I think How can I enhance my reputation today by thinking of a famous person to trash?—if you thought that about me, I would feel I’d lost somehow. With Mother Teresa, the subject picked me. But I have written books positive about, say, George Orwell and Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine …

But those people are all dead.
Now you’ll have to let me brood on that … I do have a reply—did you think I would completely fail you? Rushdie, Mr. Amis, Mr. McEwan—but it is known that I’m friendly with them, so I get trashed another way: “Oh, well, you’re just sticking up for your pals.”

Have you ever prayed in your life?
I probably once did pray for an erection, but not addressed to anyone in particular. Nor completely addressed to my cock. You’re too polite to ask if the prayer was answered.

Was it?
No. There was an answer, but I don’t think it was the result of the prayer. After all, if one was not a mammal, and could get erections on demand, there’d be no need for prayer in the first place.

Are You There, God? It’s Me, Hitchens.