Let me ask a little more philosophical question. I’d really like to hear both brothers respond to what might be called the challenge of Friedrich Nietzsche, which assumes a large place in Christian apologetics, which is the idea that in the absence of transcendence, all you’re left with is a ferocious human will. So I just would love to hear the perspective of whether he was a crank or a prophet in these areas from both brothers.
Christopher Hitchens: I can rephrase the question in addressing it.
Nietzsche famously said that in the absence of the divine, all that there is, is the human will to power. That would be all you were left with. That’s why Nietzscheism is so often used as almost a substitute among some people I know for the work of Ayn Rand, for example. And implied in that is also that that can be admirable. I must just tell you that I was once asked by an evangelical radio station a lot of very, very polite questions about my book against God. Then at the end, they asked, was I an admirer of Friedrich Nietzsche? I said, actually, I wasn’t really much of one at all.
They were clearly disappointed with this, but they went on and said, well, did I know that he’d written most of his antireligious books in a state of syphilitic paralysis? And I said, yes, I was aware of that, or certainly had heard it plausibly alleged. They said they just wondered if that would explain my own — (laughter) — more recent work — I thought, well, no, but thanks for the compassion.
Look, it might be that all of these questions are replacement questions. Is it not equally true to say that the religious impulse is an expression of the will to power? Who could deny it? Someone who says, I not only know how you should live, but I have a divine warrant here revealed to me, in some cases exclusively, that gives me permission to do so. What is that but the will to power, may I inquire? I think it’s a very, very strong instance of it.
If I don’t get asked the Nietzsche question, which I quite often do, if it isn’t that, it’s usually The Brothers Karamazov issue instead. I forget which brother it is, maybe it’s Smerdyakov. It doesn’t matter. He says, if there’s no God, then surely everything is possible — thinkable.
Everyone understands the question when it’s put like that. But is it not also the case that with God, or with the belief in it, permission can be given by anyone to do anything to anybody and has been and still is? Unfortunately, these questions are not decidable according to your attitude toward the supernatural. These are problems of human society and the human psyche — you might say, soul — whatever attitude we take to humanness or the transcendent.
Peter Hitchens: First of all, just a small objection to that.
It seems to me that the Christian Gospels are read any way you like, and especially the final few days are one of the most powerful denunciations of the exercise of power, of the behavior of mobs, of show trials, all the many activities of which governments and politicians get up to.
There is even in the jibe against Judas — “the poor ye have always with you” — the first skeptical remark about socialist idealism ever made in human history. So I think that you would be hard put to claim that the Christian Gospels gave you a license to order people about. And it seems odd that the center of Christian worship is someone who is indeed tortured to death by the powerful.
But leaving that one aside, I think atheists should pay more attention to Nietzsche because I think that he does actually encapsulate quite a lot of what they very, very seldom say they desire. Now, in my book I quote at length from a passage in Somerset Maugham’s book, Of Human Bondage, in which the hero decides — and this is an Edwardian person brought up in detail in the Christian faith in an English vicarage — decides that he no longer believes in God and says quite clearly, “This is a moment of enormous liberation. I no longer need to worry about things which worried me before, and I am no longer tied by obligations which used to tie me down. I’m free.”
What else is the point of being an atheist? But yet, when you actually put this to atheists, they tend to say, oh no, no, not me. I’m just as capable of following moral rules as you are, even if they are Christian moral rules. This constantly comes up and immediately swirls down the circle of the atheists’ refusal to accept that there is actually no absolute right and wrong if there is no God and that therefore, they are liberated.
Why aren’t they more pleased they’re liberated and why don’t they exult more about it? Perhaps because they don’t want to spread the idea too widely and have too many people joining in.
From the Pew Forum’s roundtable conversation with brothers Christopher and Peter Hitchens, on the question of Can Civilization Survive Without God?.
Mark Twain claimed that the test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at once, and still retain the ability to function. That said, I think both Hitchens brothers are right on this point.
This entire Pew transcript is worth reading. So often in discussions like this, the prompts do nothing to constrain interlocutors’ answers, serving instead as runways for flights into digression or monologue. The questioner cited above could have simply asked, “Do we need faith to moderate human will?” But that wouldn’t have been as restrictive. Instead, by citing Nietzsche (and thus inviting further reference to his work), and locating him within the context of a broader philosophy, the question takes on color and context.
The Pew roundtable is great for that reason; all the questions are similarly sharp and provocative. One of my bosses, Michael Barone, also asks a question further into the discussion.
Watch a preview of these two titans in conversation below.