De-constructing Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens (now deceased) has written God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. I have not read the book. I need to clear some stuff off my plate before I can take on another review. However, others have read it, and some of the remarks are interesting. Some even object.

Superfluous title

One of those complaining is Curtis White, of all people.

Curtis White is an American essayist and author. He serves as professor of English at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois, and as President of the board of directors of the Center for Book Culture. Most of his career has been spent writing experimental fiction, but he has turned recently to writing books of social criticism.

[Some links deleted]

Here is what Curtis White had to say about the Hitchens book, among other things:

While a scientist like Richard Dawkins might be forgiven for not having his philosophic/aesthetic house in order, no such tolerance should be allowed for his notorious comrade-in-arms Christopher Hitchens. In spite of the fact that Hitchens regularly invokes the authority of empiricism and reason—he condemns anything that “contradicts science or outrages reason,” and he concedes something that no poet would: that “proteins and acids … constitute our nature”—he was not a scientist but a literary critic, a journalist, and a public intellectual. So, you would think that the perspective of the arts, literature, and philosophy would find a prominent place in his thought. But that is not the case. He proposes to clear away religion in the name of science and reason. Literature’s function in this brave new world is to depose the Bible and provide an opportunity to study the “eternal ethical questions.”

White posted this on Salon, and it’s an excerpt from his book The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a a Culture of Easy Answers.

One of our most brilliant social critics—and the author of the bestselling The Middle Mind—presents a scathing critique of the delusions of science alongside a rousing defense of the role of art and philosophy in our culture.

The so-called new atheists, most famously Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, made a splash in the new millennium, telling the evangelical and the liberal believer that they must give up religion and submit to science. More recently, neuroscientists and their fans in the media have delivered a variation on this message: the mapping of the human brain will soon be completed, and we will know what we are and how we should act. The message is nearly the same as that of the new atheists: submit to science.

With the growing acceptance of these arguments, argues Curtis White, the rich philosophical debates of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are being abandoned. Though an atheist himself, White fears what this new turn toward “scientism” will do to our culture if allowed to flourish without challenge.

In this brilliant multipart critique, White aims at a TED talk by a distinguished neuroscientist in which we are told that human thought is merely the product of our “connectome”—neural connections in the brain that are yet to be fully understood . . . he examines the ideas of a widely respected physicist who argues that a new understanding of the origins of the universe trumps all religious and philosophical inquiry . . . and ends with an eloquent defense of the poetry and philosophy of Romanticism, which White believes our technology- and science-obsessed world desperately needs to rediscover. It’s the only way, he argues, that we can see our world clearly . . . and change it.

The foregoing review of the White book casts a queer perspective. It’s jarring when juxtaposed against reality. “[T]elling the evangelical and the liberal believer that they must give up religion and submit to science?” I recently critiqued an interview of Richard Dawkins by creationist Ben Stein, and the issue of giving up religion, even abolishing it, came up. Dawkins was blunt with his notion that people who favored religion should be allowed to keep it. They should in no way imagine that religious beliefs reflect fact, but they should hold it close to them if it makes them comfortable.


Anyhow, that’s just a review of a review of Hitchens’ book. Since I have yet to read either book I’m going to have to give this topic superficial treatment and get serious with another post on down the road. But back to White’s Salon piece. I will just quote a complete sentence:

In spite of the fact that Hitchens regularly invokes the authority of empiricism and reason—he condemns anything that “contradicts science or outrages reason,” and he concedes something that no poet would: that “proteins and acids … constitute our nature”—he was not a scientist but a literary critic, a journalist, and a public intellectual.

That’s saying a lot of things. I do not know what a “public intellectual” is, so I will have to just let that pass. However I could not help noticing that White seems to challenge that “Hitchens regularly invokes the authority of empiricism and reason.” Unless I have grossly misinterpreted the Universe, empiricism and reason are the tools by which people are able to manage the real world. Bankers know empirically that people who do not pay their bills are poor credit risks. They keep their stock holders’ assets safe by reverting to empiricism instead of peering into a crystal ball. And reason? That monster of the human mind raises its ugly head again. Great at designing bridges and rocket ships, but utterly worthless in a poetic couplet. And White takes issue with “proteins and acids … constitute our nature.” Unfortunately for White, proteins and acids and such do constitute our nature at its base. That it’s difficult to infer human nature from this base does not make this fact less true. Hopefully it is truth we are talking about. If we’re not discussing truth, then I am done here. There is no point continuing.

White’s Salon title is “Christopher Hitchens’ lies do atheism no favors.” White notes that he, himself, is an atheist, but he considers Hitchen’s approach dishonest. Like where? White quotes William J. Hamblin:

In discussing the exodus, Hitchens dogmatically asserts: “There was no flight from Egypt, no wandering in the desert . . . , and no dramatic conquest of the Promised Land. It was all, quite simply and very ineptly, made up at a much later date. No Egyptian chronicle mentions this episode either, even in passing. . . . All the Mosaic myths can be safely and easily discarded.” These narratives can be “easily discarded” by Hitchens only because he has failed to do even a superficial survey of the evidence in favor of the historicity of the biblical traditions. Might we suggest that Hitchens begin with Hoffmeier’s Israel in Egypt and Ancient Israel in Sinai? It should be noted that Hoffmeier’s books were not published by some small evangelical theological press but by Oxford University—hardly a bastion of regressive fundamentalist apologetics. Hitchens’s claim that “no Egyptian chronicle mentions this episode [of Moses and the Israelites] either, even in passing” is simply polemical balderdash.

Dogmatically? This is a reverse. Yesterday dogma was the assertion in the face of known facts that the ancient Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt and that Moses was a real person. Today’s dogma is that there is no archaeological evidence of a Hebrew flight from Egypt, the Pharaoh’s army being swallowed up by the Red Sea and the Hebrew entry into the Promised Land.

Twelve years ago James Cunliffe presented a program for The North Texas Skeptics on biblical historicity. He drew heavily on an item False Testament published in the in the March 2002 issue of Harpers by Daniel Lazare. At the time a number of points came out:

But it ain’t necessarily so. Here are a few of the points of contention raised by recent archeological studies:

  • Use of camels. Abraham sent out a servant with camels to find a wife for his son, Isaac. This was about 2100 to 1800 BCE Actually, camels were not much used for transport in this area until after 1000 BCE
  • Isaac and Abimelech. Abimelech was king of the Philistines, and Isaac sought help from him, which could not be much later than 1800 BCE Problem is, there were no Philistines present until after 1200 BCE
  • Heshbon and Edom. Hebrews fought King Sihon at Heshbon and also the king of Edom. But these two cities did not exist at the time of the supposed battles.
  • Forty years in the Sinai. Archeologists cannot find any trace of such a large number of people living in the Sinai during the time the Jews were supposed to be wandering or camped there.
  • Invasion of Canaan. There is no indication of an invasion. It appears “a distinctive Israelite culture arose locally around 1200 BCE as nomadic shepherds and goatherds ceased their wanderings and began settling down in the nearby uplands” according to Lazare. The Israelites were there all along and were much like other cultures in the area at that time. They differentiated themselves from the others by abstaining from pork, as evidenced by a lack of pig bones in the archeological digs.
  • Envy of the hillbillies. Supposedly David and Solomon of Judah built a great civilization and lived lavishly during the time 1005 to 931 BCE and also ruled over the kingdom of Israel to their north. Archeological evidence does not indicate the southern mountain tribes were all that prosperous. Evidence does exist for a prosperous and worldly tribe of Israel, and there is no indication the two nations were ever joined.

Hamblin faults Hitchens for failing to “survey of the evidence in favor of the historicity of the biblical traditions.” Here first, let me give thanks for calling these “traditions” and not facts. Second, let me note what Hamblin could have cited in favor of the historicity of the biblical traditions:

  • Egyptian writings that mention the enslavement of the Hebrews or even their mere presence in great numbers.
  • Evidence of the destruction of the Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea.
  • Evidence that 30,000 people spent 40 years in the wilderness (in or around the Sinai Peninsula).
  • Evidence that a new people with a different language and different ways of doing things moved into sites on two hill tops in what was then Palestine at the time outlined in the Bible.
  • Evidence that camels were used for transportation in the region about the time Abraham sent out a servant in search of a wife for his son.
  • Evidence of Philistines in the area about 1800 BCE.

He could have cited these “facts” if they existed. He did not, because they do not.

In response to White’s Salon piece and my need to follow up, I purchased Kindle editions of both books. I notice the jacket of the hard copy has a note by Molly Ivins, “Splendidly Cranky,” which may be an apt take on White’s approach.


White faults Hitchens for dishonesty, apparently for dismissing the cultural value of religious belief. Just out of his view stands the monumental dishonesty of reincarnation, miraculous creation, life after death and historical deceit.

2 thoughts on “De-constructing Hitchens

  1. Pingback: The Curtis White Delusion | Skeptical Analysis

  2. Pingback: Plato Revisited | Skeptical Analysis

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