christopher hitchens

Taking the Lord's name in vain

I posted this recently on a private forum for secularists, heathens and infidels. The conversation it sparked was interesting, but that was for a slightly different crowd of like minded people. As a bit of personal background, the areas where I have the most training are magic and mathematics. Both are disciplines where the language where ideas are expressed are extremely important. A few words difference can have a huge impact and so I often waste a lot of energy trying to pick exactly the right words to use.

"In my experience, if you cannot say what you mean, you can never mean what you say. The details are everything."

-J.M. Straczynski

Do you make an effort to change the way you speak because you’re gay and/or an atheist.

I’m thinking of things like how whenever Michael Shermer mentions god, he often refers to ‘she’ or ‘her’ and it’s always followed by this little giggle as people are confused and amused by the incongruity.

I’m also thinking of swear words. There are three levels. At the highest are the insulting racial slurs (N-word and the like), followed by the sexual/scatological (asshole, shithead, cocksucker, fuck, cunt, these lists are fun to make) and at the lowest end are the religious ones (god damn, what in god’s name, oh god, oh hell, etc).

Pretty much no one uses the first kind, and the second kind is still hard to get away with in most settings. So in mixed company, the religious ones are the closest thing you can get to a good curse word.

So my question to all of you is, since you don’t believe in god hell or damnation, what do you use for a good swear word in mixed company?

I worry sometimes that if you use the words, you’re tacitly endorsing their validity. Stephen Hawking (happy birthday) and Albert Einstein both used phrases involving god and it has come back to bite them as people have tried to quote it out of context to imply that they must believe in god. Hitchens used to say he used the phrase “god knows” to mean “nobody knows” but who knows what percentage of his audience actually knew that.

When I was in my late teens, I used to run a kids day camp, so I was really, really good at avoiding all, except for maybe the odd “hell” or “damn”. For my own amusement I tried the Bugs Bunny type ones for a while (fiddlesticks, suffering succotash) and the one from Phil the Prince of Insufficient Light (“I Darn you to Heck”). Then when I got a little older, I tried to replace religious curses with scientific ones (“what in Feynman’s name”, “for the love of Darwin”) which I still do from time to time.

Depending on how confident I feel, I might even interject when someone uses one of the little religious curses, “who is this god person you’re talking about?” My favourite is if someone says cocksucker, to add “excuse me, some people do that for fun.”

There are lots of other little places where religious phrases sneak into language, like saying ‘bless you’ when someone sneezes. Wondering, if anyone else notices or cares or what you try to do about it.

I Believe In Atheists

In the same space at the Scotiabank Studio Theatre, at Summerworks, we shared our space with several other productions. One particularly interesting one, which I couldn't wait to see was I Believe in Atheists. The play deals with the question of what happens to unbelievers when they die. The premise: all of the world's religions are true (just go with it for a moment) and you receive the afterlife that matches your beliefs. The downside is that unbelievers must therefore be snuffed out of existence permanently.

Now I really liked the play and appreciate it as a piece of fiction. But the atheist buzz-kill deep inside of me feels the need to address some things it got wrong.

There is a (I think I'm forced to use this word) belief that what we believe somehow influences what's true. It seems to be a combination of the silly position that "everyone is entitled to their own opinion" along with the usual way people confuse correlation with causation.

True many people believe that the earth revolves around the sun (and not the other way around as was once thought) and in probabilistic sense that does make this fact very likely to be true. But it was still true even when no one believed it. The fact exists independently of belief. It's not true because people believe it; it's true and people believe it. That very big difference often gets lost in the course of clumsy human discourse.

There is an oft-invoked argument for god(s); the "so many people can't be wrong" argument. Which is not a valid argument regardless of how persuasive it feels.

One of the things that magic has taught me is that people don't make decisions based on facts; we make decisions based on beliefs. Whether a fact is true doesn't matter nearly as much as whether or not we believe it's true.

Unfortunately, magic has taught me how incredibly easy it is to cause people to believe untrue things. This realization morphed into one of the opening lines for my show:

... where we explore how things which are not real can still shape reality.

It's been a long time since I've been forced to evaluate my own views on death. It's been ten years since my father past away and since we were estranged, it was not a difficult thing to cope with.

Certainly all the evidence that I'm familiar with, from biology to physics, suggests that there should be nothing that could be called an after-life. There is no sense in which consciousness continues once the brain stops functioning. No chance to look down on the rest of the world after the fact. No place where we can be reunited with people who are no longer here. No possibility of coming back in another form.

At first glance it seems awfully depressing. It seems obvious that a great deal of religious belief originated as wishful thinking designed to make it easier to cope with the loss of loved ones. The ability to say "don't worry, he's in a better place" seems useful even if it's not true. To have to go through loss like that without those platitudes and false consolations is incredibly difficult.

I've heard the argument that "energy cannot be created or destroyed so surely we must go on somehow." That sounds like wonderful physics, but the truths of physics don't bear that out.

But physics offers some consolation, in something called the "Minus First Law of Thermodynamics" [1] which states that "information" cannot be lost. Information is used in a rather unusual sense, but it translates as follows: On small scales, all of the laws of physics are reversible in time. That is, if you look at a large scale video (say of a teacup falling off the edge of a table) and they play the video backwards, there's a visible difference and you can tell forward in time from backward in time. Unusually if you look at a very small scale (if you could see the individual atoms in the cup and the tea), there would be no way to tell the difference between forward and backward.

This means that given enough "information", you can work out the past and future states of a system to arbitrary detail. (This was the theory governing Douglas Adams' "Total Perspective Vortex" where you could create a picture of the entire universe by observing a single piece of fairy cake.) So in this sense, the influence that a person has while alive on the world and the people in it, continues on forever into the future.

When you add to that the concept of a meme (a term coined by Richard Dawkins many years ago in The Selfish Gene). While alive, we can create ideas (write them down even) and those ideas can spread like a cat photo on the internet and survive us. Just look at Shakespeare, who lives on even though the individual has long since turned to dust. So all is not lost.

But that leaves the fact that when we're gone, we're gone. And no amount of false consolation will change that. I think one of the great challenges that lie ahead of us in the twenty-first century will be to find a way to deal with death, and talk about death without having to resort to lies and fairy tales.

[1] Harvey R. Brown et al. "The Origins of Time-asymetry in Thermodynamics: The Minus First Law"

[Updated July 2013]