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August 13, 2010 7:56 AM   Subscribe

Roger Ebert on Christopher Hitchens, illness, medicine, religion, and death. [via]
He was in the hands of medicine. He was hopeful but realistic. He will come to feel increasingly like a member of the audience in the theater of his own illness. I've been there. There were times when I seemed to have nothing to do with it. One night, unable to speak, I caught the eye of a nurse through my open door and pointed to the blood leaking from my hospital gown. She pushed a panic button and my bed was surrounded by an emergency team, the duty physician pushing his fingers with great force against my carotid artery to halt the bleeding. I was hoisted on my sheet over to a gurney, and raced to the OR. "Move it, people," he shouted. "We're going to lose this man."
posted by AceRock (85 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite

 
That link be borked for me.
posted by spicynuts at 8:06 AM on August 13, 2010


Cancer and its lingering death are compelling evidence that if God does exist, He's a son of a bitch.
posted by BigLankyBastard at 8:12 AM on August 13, 2010 [20 favorites]


Beautiful. I especially love this part:

I was asked at lunch today who or what I worshipped. The question was asked sincerely, and in the same spirit I responded that I worshipped whatever there might be outside knowledge. I worship the void. The mystery. And the ability of our human minds to perceive an unanswerable mystery. To reduce such a thing to simplistic names is an insult to it, and to our intelligence.
posted by Madamina at 8:12 AM on August 13, 2010 [38 favorites]


"Dying isn't so bad. It's getting sick and dying that's the hard part."

God-damn, Roger.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:15 AM on August 13, 2010 [11 favorites]


Interesting piece. That quote stood out to me as well Halloween Jack. I used to fear life being over until I saw more of life coming to an end and realized whatever lies beyond that experience, no matter what it is, is preferable.
posted by ND¢ at 8:23 AM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Roger Ebert's sprint to the finish is an amazing thing to behold. I'm glad we all get to witness it.
posted by ColdChef at 8:24 AM on August 13, 2010 [23 favorites]


Some years ago when I met him at the Telluride Film Festival, I was unaware of his fairly recent defection from the Left. I told him I read him in the Nation, which he'd by then severed his ties with. His reply was a masterpiece of irony, masked as egotism: "How clever of you."

Two thumbs up Christopher.
posted by three blind mice at 8:32 AM on August 13, 2010


Roger Ebert's sprint to the finish is an amazing thing to behold. I'm glad we all get to witness it.

I mistakenly read that as 'sprit to the finish,' ColdChef, and I still agree with you.
posted by joe lisboa at 8:34 AM on August 13, 2010


er, 'spirit' of course.
posted by joe lisboa at 8:34 AM on August 13, 2010


The question was asked sincerely, and in the same spirit I responded that I worshipped whatever there might be outside knowledge. I worship the void.

So he's Protoss?
posted by delmoi at 8:38 AM on August 13, 2010 [6 favorites]


Roger Ebert may have lost the ability to talk, but god damn, that man can speak.
posted by schmod at 8:41 AM on August 13, 2010 [9 favorites]


Chomsky and Hitchens both on the front page? This calls for a cagematch.
posted by shakespeherian at 8:45 AM on August 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


I've long had a love/hate relationship with Hitchins, but this is a great little piece.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:51 AM on August 13, 2010


Chomsky and Hitchens both on the front page? This calls for a cagematch.

Now we just need an Ebert post on Dawkins.
posted by availablelight at 9:01 AM on August 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


I pretty much just think that Hitchens is an asshole, but this is a great little piece. And Ebert is a much more compassionate and generous person than I am.
posted by craichead at 9:01 AM on August 13, 2010 [6 favorites]


Man, that's meta. A year ago, it seemed like Ebert knew he was dying and was wrapping up loose ends rather like Hitch, but since that Esquire piece about him he's decided that he definitely isn't dying and seems determined to prove it. I think Hitchens will be gone sooner than Ebert, but there were moments in this piece where it felt like Ebert was trying a little too hard to prove he's not dying.
posted by briank at 9:19 AM on August 13, 2010


I don't know about Christopher Hitchens, but Roger Ebert himself can certainly write. Wow. I can't help but think of another absolutely amazing piece he wrote on architecture a while back.

Cancer and its lingering death are compelling evidence that if God does exist, He's a son of a bitch.

Ivan Karamazov's indictment of God. By "God", of course, what is meant is a hybridized hyper-Calvinist/Jansenist Roman Catholic invisible entity, separate from anything perceptible, who is all-powerful, all-loving, and all-micromanaging, predestining everything to a plan that gives him something called "glory". This entity also, despite being all-loving, fervently wishes to hurl the invisible souls of all representatives of Homo sapiens sapiens to an eternity of torture if they do not profess membership in one or another ecclesiastical organization and abide by a set of rules (only the rules about what to do with your body really count - the rules about, say, not killing are easy to set aside when a cause supporting the interests of an established hierarchy of some sort come along). This entity sent a part of itself to earth 2,000 years ago for the sole purpose of suffering horribly and dying so that it could show off its power by raising it from the dead (all of the statements this little part of itself made about "loving enemies" and such are to be ignored, as they are intended only to shame ordinary mortals into realizing they can't live up to that standard - note that this part isn't my crappy satire, but actual positions of John Calvin and Martin Luther in response to those who thought otherwise). This entity micromanages all of life, having known before time began which of its beloved children would suffer eternally and which wouldn't. If you get cancer, it is a direct consequence of the active will of this entity. It may be meant as a test of one's faith, a divine punishment, or something else - but it must always have an easy, direct explanation that can be pointed out without a great deal of empathy by someone more in touch with the deepest desires of that entity than the victim. At death, all offenses will be tallied up - much like a report card, or a criminal record - and this entity, serving much like a traffic court judge, will determine where the offender will spend eternity.

I don't like that God much either. I've always been more of an Alyosha (& Father Zosima) kind of guy, myself, and maybe even more so lately, given my mom's going-on-three-years-now stay as pretty much a babbling vegetable in a nursing home.

But there's another interesting angle here. Damon Linker's piece in the New Republic makes a pretty compelling point about the basic philosophical assumptions behind Hitchens' position that the Hitchens would make a deathbed conversion would not be him in any meaningful sense of the word. He says it better than I can:

...In their statements, Levi and Hitchens imply that a person’s capacity to determine the truth depends on his or her ability to think calmly, coolly, dispassionately. It depends on the capacity to bracket aspects of one’s subjectivity (like intense emotions, including fear of imminent death) that might distort one’s judgment or obstruct the effort to achieve an unbiased, objective view of the world in itself. This is the outlook of the scientist (Levi was a chemist), the philosopher, the champion of rational enlightenment, the secular intellectual and social critic. From this standpoint, the terrified, irrational effusions of a man facing his own extinction are no more to be trusted than a blind man’s account of a crime scene: each witness lacks the capacity to perceive, make sense of, and accurately judge the essential facts. Far more reliable are the sober, critical reflections of a man in good health, protected from danger, insulated from threats to his well being. That, for Levi and Hitchens, is a man at his best and most capable of determining the truth of things.

Religious believers—including my devoutly religious colleague at First Things—make very different assumptions about the proper path to truth and what constitutes a man at his best. As Rod Dreher noted in a post about Hitchens’ recent statements, a Christian believes that the experience of suffering discloses essential truths that cannot be discovered or known in any other way. What are these truths? That we are fundamentally weak and needy creatures. That we are anxious animals, longing for someone or something to soothe us, to protect us from and relieve us of our worries. That we greedily crave good things for ourselves—many of which (fame, fortune, honor, glory) only the luckiest will ever acquire, and some of which (happiness unmixed with sorrow) no one will ever enjoy within the limits of our finite lives.


For the religious person, human beings are at their best when they accept these truths and live humbly in their light, offering up their existential anguish as prayers, opening themselves up to the possible existence of a providential divinity who will answer those prayers and grant salvation from the horror of obliteration. Human beings are at their worst, by contrast, when they deny the fact of their frailty, deluding themselves into believing in their self-sufficiency. (This is where the critique of pride comes in.)

I think this says something that Ebert grasps but that Hitchens doesn't yet, even though Ebert would come to a very different conclusion than Linker (or I) might about questions of God or God's nature or mystery or "the void": it's an issue of anthropology, of what human beings are. Humans aren't - and can't be - cool, dispassionate intellects, misogynistically "penetrating" Nature (to paraphrase Roger Bacon) and tearing her secrets from her. The Void, the mystery, whatever - it's not the kind of "cop-out" that a certain breed of hardcore metaphysical naturalist accuses agnostics of embracing. It's reality. The hardcore metaphysical naturalists - very close to the same way that the hyper-Calvinists or the EWTN followers of the Magisterium of Holy Mother Church or dozens of other religious packages of ideas do - latch onto holy precepts, systems-with-a-capital-S to explain away and to tame the terrifying Otherness of "Nature", of reality, of that which is outside and beyond the campfire and howling in the darkness. Something to offer epistemic certainty against the chaos, against Tiamat, against the Deep as Catherine Keller would put it. Something to convince ourselves that we are not weak and needy creatures, but that we stand above and apart, whether as lords of Creation or as Randian supermen.

The cool intellect is amazingly beautiful and useful, but it's not the totality of things. There is truth in the uncontrolled, too, even if sometimes we don't like to hear it (there are stories of deathbed "de-conversions", too, of lifelong believers abandoning their convictions as death approaches). Death changes things and throws easy certainties to the wind.

I've gone way, way, way afield, but I'll just say I hope I can be half the person Roger Ebert seems to be.
posted by jhandey at 9:33 AM on August 13, 2010 [26 favorites]


where it felt like Ebert was trying a little too hard to prove he's not dying.

I don't think he is dying. I believe that his cancer is in remission. He'll have to live with a feeding tube, but people can live years with that.

Hitchens though ... I can't imagine he'll be around in 5-7 years.
posted by geoff. at 9:37 AM on August 13, 2010


I worship the void. The mystery. And the ability of our human minds to perceive an unanswerable mystery.

Feeling a sense of mystery about the world doesn't really qualify as "perceiving" anything.
posted by LogicalDash at 9:39 AM on August 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


As an obituary, I don't think Hitchens will get any better.

And Ebert has been writing his own obituary for a while now, and it is a glorious thing to read.
posted by emjaybee at 9:41 AM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


The hardcore metaphysical naturalists - very close to the same way that the hyper-Calvinists or the EWTN followers of the Magisterium of Holy Mother Church or dozens of other religious packages of ideas do - latch onto holy precepts, systems-with-a-capital-S to explain away and to tame the terrifying Otherness of "Nature", of reality, of that which is outside and beyond the campfire and howling in the darkness.

This doesn't even come close to reflecting my views, and I suspect not even the views of Hitchins. And I was sort of wondering when this sort of thing was going to spoil this post.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:49 AM on August 13, 2010


If nothing else, Ebert will outlive Hitchens.
posted by tommasz at 9:49 AM on August 13, 2010


I don't think he is dying.
Well, look, what does "dying" mean? We're all going to die. Some of us are going to die of things that we already have. Some of us will die of those things next week, and some will die of them in fifteen years. I don't know what Ebert's prognosis is, but it's possible that he will eventually die of his cancer. I think that he's decided not to think of himself as dying, because he wants to focus on using his remaining time productively and as happily as possible. Maybe Hitchens will get to that place, and he's not there yet because his diagnosis is too recent and all he can focus on is that his cancer will never go away. Or maybe Hitchens will think of himself as dying until he dies. I think that people deal with their imminent or semi-imminent mortality in different ways.
posted by craichead at 9:50 AM on August 13, 2010 [5 favorites]


The cool intellect is amazingly beautiful and useful, but it's not the totality of things. There is truth in the uncontrolled, too, even if sometimes we don't like to hear it

jhandey, I agree with so much of what you've said, but if I may link this to a few words from one of my favorite modern philosophers:

Now if it's a manager, that's a different story. Managers know better than to fuck around, so if you get one that's giving you static, he probably thinks he's a real cowboy, so you gotta break that son of a bitch in two. If you wanna know something and he won't tell you, cut off one of his fingers. The little one. Then tell him his thumb's next. After that he'll tell you if he wears ladies underwear. I'm hungry. Let's get a taco.

What's going unspoken here -- and it's why torture as interrogation doesn't work in real life -- is that he'll tell you if he wears ladies underwear if that's what he thinks you want to hear, whether it's true or not. Desperation may push people to extremes, but there's no reason to believe -- and many reasons not to believe -- that it pushes people to a place of greater honesty.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 9:51 AM on August 13, 2010


Feeling a sense of mystery about the world doesn't really qualify as "perceiving" anything.

It could be, though, that the sense of the mystery is a perception. It's a second order question that gets into questions of knowledge, but if in fact one has perceived something, it'll have a particular texture to it, perhaps something like a mystery.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:53 AM on August 13, 2010


And an alternative view is that Hitchins, having voluntarily undergone torture, perhaps understands just how fragile our certainties can be.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:53 AM on August 13, 2010


It's a very nice piece, but there are troublesome (and false) clichés:

"I believe religion in its many forms has been the greatest single inspiration for man's inhumanity to man..."

That's true if "in its many forms" includes just about any sectarian political belief. If not, then it's false.

"To hope we can learn how the universe came about is admirable; one might as well call that hope by any name. Whatever one calls it, it's by definition outside the reach not only of our knowledge, but of knowledge itself."

No, it's not. It's beyond our present knowledge, but it's not beyond our "knowledge itself."
posted by MarshallPoe at 9:57 AM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


If you have not read Hitchen's update on his illness in Vanity Fair do so. It is the most clear eyed yet devasting account of someone staring their own mortality in the face.

For a while now - I have avoided reading anything else about Hitchens. It feels intrusive and the whole debate about whether he will change his views on religion seem moot. There is a very good chance that he is about to step into the undiscovered country, and nobody knows what lies there.

But Ebert's write up is excellent, full of well observed empathy that only who has been down that road himself can make. And the Anderson Cooper interview is remarkably enagaging - and is something I should have watched sooner. At the end of the day Hitchen's will do exactly as he pleases. Something that has made me an admirer of his for a while.
posted by helmutdog at 10:00 AM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


I dislike that anytime a high-profile atheist is dying or has died, suddenly there's some kind of investigation into any kind of deathbed conversion or somesuch. It really shows how fragile so many people's faith is. Its like an admission that the only reason those people believe is because of death. If someone can face death with atheism then that's threatining. I'll probably read a lot more criticism about Hitchens in the next few months than any mainstream talking-head criticize nutters like Falwell, Palin, Bush, etc. Shame really. The clerics and religious are rarely questioned while the heathens always are. It should be the opposite.

No, it's not. It's beyond our present knowledge, but it's not beyond our "knowledge itself."

Yes. I think so many people bank on the agnostic view as a kind of "Well, religion doesn't seem likely but if I keep pretending most things are unknowable then there probably is all sorts of gods, devas, devils, demons, afterlives, etc." At one time we were pretty agnostic about germ theory and viruses but now we have a better hold on these things. How many 16th Eberts were there, telling us that its all unknowable and perhaps part of some divine plan? Comsology will probably turn out like a lot of sciences, and I doubt there will be some bearded 1st century Jew pulling the strings behind the curtain. Its absurd to even think of it as a possibility.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:07 AM on August 13, 2010 [4 favorites]


Some years ago when I met him at the Telluride Film Festival, I was unaware of his fairly recent defection from the Left. I told him I read him in the Nation, which he'd by then severed his ties with. His reply was a masterpiece of irony, masked as egotism: "How clever of you."

>
Two thumbs up Christopher.


Huh. My take on the riposte was, "how typical of a certain kind of shitty Englishman". Weak sarcasm and disdain for his presumed inferiors. And exceedingly unoriginal.

That said, his is one byline that I will (usually) flag as interesting.
posted by IndigoJones at 10:14 AM on August 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


damn dirty ape: And yet, cosmology currently openly flirts with the idea that our current knowledge of the universe is accidentally privileged information as the CBE and distant quasars become red-shifted out of view. We might be reaching a point where the energies required to test certain hypotheses are physically impossible within the constraints of a solar system, and there's the long-running problem of information and singularities.

The idea that we can't know everything isn't exactly a radical idea, nor is it metaphysical woo.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:15 AM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Actually, kittens for breakfast, that quote is not meant to convey the moral you indicate. It is meant to say the opposite. But taking from the same source, your moral is expressed in this:

"If you fucking beat this prick long enough, he'll tell you he started the goddamn Chicago fire, now that don't necessarily make it fucking so!"
posted by VikingSword at 10:16 AM on August 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


For some reason I'm surprised people are big enough assholes to hear that someone has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and their response to the news is, "Well, what about your [cherished belief] and [long-held conviction], now, eh?"
posted by ServSci at 10:17 AM on August 13, 2010 [7 favorites]


The idea that we can't know everything isn't exactly a radical idea, nor is it metaphysical woo.

Yes, you can't know "everything" but you can develop a fair level of certitude that destroys any religious-based explanation. The unknowable argument really has been twisted as a defense of religion and its pretty ridiculous on its face. From what I can tell this is exactly how Ebert is using it. How some people get from "Parts of this theory are untestable" to "God is probably real" is the problem.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:18 AM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


For some reason I'm surprised people are big enough assholes to hear that someone has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and their response to the news is, "Well, what about your [cherished belief] and [long-held conviction], now, eh?"

Yet it only seems to happen to atheists. When a religious person is dying, the media don't get together and barrage them with questions like "Where is your god now?" "Are you going to convert to atheism?"

One position is more socially acceptable than the other and its completely backwards.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:20 AM on August 13, 2010 [16 favorites]


Yes, you can't know "everything" but you can develop a fair level of certitude that destroys any religious-based explanation.

This strikes me as naive. There will never be enough certitude on any subject in the world, evidence based or not, to destroy any religious-based explanation to the satisfaction of someone who prefers religious-based explanations. To think otherwise is to think unscientifically, because there is no evidence of such certitude having ever been attainable to-date.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:25 AM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


We're all dying. The important question is this: what are you doing about it?
posted by seanmpuckett at 10:25 AM on August 13, 2010


I feel a great deal of respect for Hitchens, after watching his interview with Anderson Cooper. Not many can stare death in the face and keep their stoicism and wit intact.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:30 AM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


As to the question of whether or not there will be a giant, bearded sky-papa waiting for me on the other side of the signal-to-noise ratio, I have only the evidence of my senses: sunsets, kitten whiskers, dewy grass, a 65-piece orchestra, the smell at the nape of the neck of my wife, the tang of salt-spray on the Turkey Point quay, burned rubber, ham sandwiches and beer after a day of yard work, that fucking itch on my back that I can't scratch myself and that brief feeling of nothingness before the hammer I dropped on my toe really starts to hurt like a motherfucker.
posted by seanmpuckett at 10:33 AM on August 13, 2010 [15 favorites]


We're all dying. The important question is this: what are you doing about it?

I'm currently in the middle of a life long wake.
posted by InfidelZombie at 10:49 AM on August 13, 2010 [6 favorites]


"For the religious person, human beings are at their best when they accept these truths and live humbly in their light, offering up their existential anguish as prayers, opening themselves up to the possible existence of a providential divinity who will answer those prayers and grant salvation from the horror of obliteration."

I think this says something that Ebert grasps but that Hitchens doesn't yet

posted by jhandey at 5:33 PM on August 13


Or, perhaps it says that Hitchens thinks it's basically craven, irrational nonsense that seeks to dignify cowardice and weakness borne of fear. As I and many others do.
posted by Decani at 10:53 AM on August 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


Here's the piece in Vanity Fair that helmutdog mentioned.

Here's video of a recent Hitchens interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, and here's the Anderson Cooper interview.
posted by joedan at 11:02 AM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Actually, kittens for breakfast, that quote is not meant to convey the moral you indicate. It is meant to say the opposite. But taking from the same source, your moral is expressed in this:

"If you fucking beat this prick long enough, he'll tell you he started the goddamn Chicago fire, now that don't necessarily make it fucking so!"


Heh! Yeah, I knew there was something else I was looking for; my thinking, though, that the moral was authorial, not one unvoiced by the character. But yeah, not the cite I should have grabbed.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 11:06 AM on August 13, 2010


From what I can tell this is exactly how Ebert is using it.

I don't read it that way, but I could be wrong.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:11 AM on August 13, 2010


Well, kittens for breakfast, I'm always happy to see quotes from RD, which coincidentally I just watched four times in the past two weeks, so any quote from it is liable to jump out at me. Love that movie. Also (trying to make this vaguely relevant to the thread) Ebert was quite taken with RD. And RIP Chris Penn.
posted by VikingSword at 11:24 AM on August 13, 2010


damn dirty ape: The unknowable argument really has been twisted as a defense of religion and its pretty ridiculous on its face. From what I can tell this is exactly how Ebert is using it. How some people get from "Parts of this theory are untestable" to "God is probably real" is the problem.

I don't think that's what Ebert meant at all. Just because we don't know something doesn't mean we should to plug the gap with some random BS somebody made up. I understand his response to 'who or what do you worship?' as embracing uncertainty or mystery and refusing to fill it with something made-up.

I think you totally missed this bit:

To reduce such a thing to simplistic names is an insult to it, and to our intelligence.

(We had another discussion about this on MetaFilter recently.)
posted by nangar at 11:31 AM on August 13, 2010


See, this is why obituaries should be written during the subject's life.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 11:53 AM on August 13, 2010


(We had another discussion about this on MetaFilter recently.)

Which, unfortunately, some participants chose to read not as "Bridging the Chasm Between Two Cultures" but rather "Bridging the Chasm Between My Ass and the Mouth of Everyone Who Disagrees with Me," but there's some interesting stuff in there despite a few best efforts.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 12:21 PM on August 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


(I'm a little bitter about that FPP as it seems to have cost us at least one person who's pretty cool. It's never the right people who leave after shit like that. But yeah, mostly good thread.)
posted by kittens for breakfast at 12:27 PM on August 13, 2010


Damn, seanmpuckett, can I plagiarize this? It's lovely.
posted by infinitywaltz at 12:30 PM on August 13, 2010


(I'm a little bitter about that FPP as it seems to have cost us at least one person who's pretty cool. It's never the right people who leave after shit like that. But yeah, mostly good thread.)

Very much agreed. On both points.
posted by nangar at 12:37 PM on August 13, 2010


As Rod Dreher noted in a post about Hitchens’ recent statements, a Christian believes that the experience of suffering discloses essential truths that cannot be discovered or known in any other way. What are these truths? That we are fundamentally weak and needy creatures. That we are anxious animals, longing for someone or something to soothe us, to protect us from and relieve us of our worries. That we greedily crave good things for ourselves—many of which (fame, fortune, honor, glory) only the luckiest will ever acquire, and some of which (happiness unmixed with sorrow) no one will ever enjoy within the limits of our finite lives.

If these were the only "truths" revealed by suffering, humans could and would never climb mountains or sail the seas, much less go to war. Yet they do, and thousands of them stand right in the middle of a hurricane of steel and do more-or-less what they will themselves to do, until they win or fall. The same goes for disaster, death, and times of terrible (or wonderful) life-change -- there are millions of years worth of evidence that humans are not fundamentally weak and needy creatures, especially not when the chips are down. The words of many who've been to the edge of human capability and back suggest that we can and often do "think calmly, coolly, dispassionately" when confronted with impending death.

Now, this doesn't always happen -- for every five soldiers who held the line, there's one who fell down in the mud and shit his pants -- but it happens more than often enough to reject the idea that humans are intrinsically helpless. Which should be obvious, really. We're animals, and as anybody who's ever tried to kill a mouse the up-close-and-personal way knows, animals aren't helpless. They don't "accept these truths and live humbly in their light, offering up their existential anguish as prayers, opening themselves up to the possible existence of a providential divinity who will answer those prayers and grant salvation from the horror of obliteration". No, they fucking bite, and they go far past the point of "denying the fact of their frailty, deluding themselves into believing in their self-sufficiency"... until they either perish or escape the cat.

As far as I'm concerned, that's pretty much the choice we have: we can accept our limitations and then strive to surpass them regardless, or we can make up excuses as to why we're too "frail" and "humble" for that, and die hoping someone will give us a do-over.

In short: one doesn't have to be a "Randian superman" to reject the Christian assumption that weakness and humility are the highest possible ideals; one simply has to have perspective. Sure, our lives are worth less than nothing on the galactic scale... but on the local scale, we really can be "lords of Creation", for ourselves and for others. We can forge our own values, our own societies, and our own families; we can write our own stories and sing our own songs. This has been the case for millions of years -- it's "an issue of anthropology, of what human beings are" -- and it's all we need to put the lie to the idea that we must think of ourselves as weak and needy creatures.
posted by vorfeed at 12:47 PM on August 13, 2010 [6 favorites]


Man, the minute I saw that "if I have a last minute conversion, it's not really me" bullshit I just saw red. Really, Chris? How do we know this is you NOW? How can we ever know who's speaking? Maybe it's just been the booze and cigarettes talking all along.

Thing is, I think he knows that a belief in a higher power can soothe wounds no other salve can hope to, but it doesn't sell many books to admit that religion may just have an evolutionary basis. Maybe it helps people get on with life, reproduce, travel, learn, etc when your other best option is to just kill yourself.

My grandfather was converted to Christianity the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked, and he watched several of his friends melt and die horribly in the bombardment. What followed was a lifetime of pious service to others, and a deep dignity I've rarely seen the likes of.

Hitchens would have us believe that my grandfather never really found God, it's just the fireballs and carnage talking.

Militant atheism is just as ridiculous as militant anything-else-ism. But again, just throwing up your hands and saying "I have no idea." doesn't get you on any best seller lists.
posted by chronkite at 1:28 PM on August 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


Thanks for posting this, AceRock.

If you have not read Hitchen's update on his illness in Vanity Fair do so. It is the most clear eyed yet devasting account of someone staring their own mortality in the face.

Previously discussed here.
posted by homunculus at 1:29 PM on August 13, 2010


My grandfather was converted to Christianity the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked, and he watched several of his friends melt and die horribly in the bombardment. What followed was a lifetime of pious service to others, and a deep dignity I've rarely seen the likes of.

Hitchens would have us believe that my grandfather never really found God, it's just the fireballs and carnage talking.


Um.... no. Yes, your grandfather converted after witnessing horrible things, but he continued to live, and embodied the best parts of the belief system he had taken on. That's a VAST difference from people who convert while on their deathbed, knowing their time will end in a week or two (at most). That's what Hitchens is speaking against -- people who, out of fear over their own IMMEDIATE mortality and inability to come to terms with that, seek to suddenly hedge their bets in case they turn out to be wrong after all.
posted by hippybear at 1:37 PM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


I get tired of having my own life, experiences, and beliefs repeatedly dictated to me as part of an effort to make a purely rhetorical point about atheism and religion. Generally that comes in two different flavors:

* If theists are x, atheists must be !x.
* Atheists are essentially another flavor of religious extremist.

Damon Linker appears at first to be advancing his career around something nicely called out by xkcd. "Middle-ground" advocates appear to be engaged in their own polemics and bad-faith arguments. Throwing up your hands and saying "I have no idea" apparently does sell books if you're willing to argue how everyone else is doing it wrong.

Linker cherry-picks an interview and an anecdote to come out at the end with a nice little theory. Atheists are from Mars and theists are from Venus! My experience of projectile vomiting followed by a week of fasting in the hospital to discover whether I had a temporary or fatal condition has no place in this theory. It's a nice and cute theory, that fails to account for humble atheists and religious egoists.

jhandey does a bit of both. Atheists deny mystery! (Oh that never gets old.) Just like religious extremists, they cling to a dogma! Atheists worship science and deny uncertainty! (That one also is evergreen.)

So I get frustrated because the things that are important to me as an atheist get defined out of existence by people who have a political axe to grind about different cultures or ways of looking at things. We're not a hive mind.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:32 PM on August 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


he continued to live

Well, he did, but he wasn't guaranteed to. He headed into the South Pacific to witness even worse shit, and death was a possibility at any time.

I agree with Hitchens if his point is that any death bed conversion smacks of "hedging bets", my issue is that he said "If *I* do it, it's just the cancer talking."
posted by chronkite at 2:33 PM on August 13, 2010


I hope this doesn't come across as a derail. That's not my intent. I read this Hitchens quote from the Ebert article:
Hitchens' remarks on the passing of Jerry Falwell were on the mark. Interviewed during a CNN obituary of Falwell, Hitchens brought a sharp turn in the program's tone: "The empty life of this ugly little charlatan proves only one thing, that you can get away with the most extraordinary offenses to morality and to truth in this country if you will just get yourself called reverend. Who would, even at your network, have invited on such a little toad to tell us that the attacks of September the 11th were the result of our sinfulness and were God's punishmen -- if they hadn't got some kind of clerical qualification?"
It resonated with me today because I've been reflecting on H.L. Mencken's Aftermath, his final Baltimore Sun piece on the Scopes Monkey Trial, specifically these bits:
True enough, even a superstitious man has certain inalienable rights. He has a right to harbor and indulge his imbecilities as long as he pleases, provided only he does not try to inflict them upon other men by force. He has a right to argue for them as eloquently as he can, in season and out of season. He has a right to teach them to his children. But certainly he has no right to be protected against the free criticism of those who do not hold them. He has no right to demand that they be treated as sacred. He has no right to preach them without challenge.

The meaning of religious freedom, I fear, is sometimes greatly misapprehended. It is taken to be a sort of immunity, not merely from governmental control but also from public opinion. A dunderhead gets himself a long-tailed coat, rises behind the sacred desk, and emits such bilge as would gag a Hottentot. Is it to pass unchallenged? If so, then what we have is not religious freedom at all, but the most intolerable and outrageous variety of religious despotism. Any fool, once he is admitted to holy orders, becomes infallible. Any half-wit, by the simple device of ascribing his delusions to revelation, takes on an authority that is denied to all the rest of us.

I do not know how many Americans entertain the ideas defended so ineptly by poor Bryan, but probably the number is very large. They are preached once a week in at least a hundred thousand rural churches, and they are heard too in the meaner quarters of the great cities. Nevertheless, though they are thus held to be sound by millions, these ideas remain mere rubbish. Not only are they not supported by the known facts; they are in direct contravention of the known facts. No man whose information is sound and whose mind functions normally can conceivably credit them. They are the products of ignorance and stupidity, either or both.
If I may tie the Chomsky article posted earlier today and this Ebert article together, I think, perhaps, those of us who are athiests, leftists, or just rational thinkers would do well to embrace those who forcefully and intelligently defend our positions without fear of offending. Sometimes we are so afraid of coming across as "intellectually elite" that we forget that being intelligent and having a rational basis for your positions is actually a good thing.
posted by Joey Michaels at 2:43 PM on August 13, 2010 [11 favorites]


I agree with Hitchens if his point is that any death bed conversion smacks of "hedging bets", my issue is that he said "If *I* do it, it's just the cancer talking."

And you know what? Many religions would fully agree with Christopher Hitchins on this point, which is why they don't accept spur-of-the-moment conversions.

But ultimately, it's his sickness, his deathbed, and his right to say it. My grandfather also had anxieties about what his age was doing to his identity, and Terry Pratchett is on the record of not wanting to get to a state where that even could be called into question. Getting pissed off over this minor bit of reasonable doubt strikes me as kicking a man while he's down.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:47 PM on August 13, 2010


It's a nice and cute theory, that fails to account for humble atheists and religious egoists.

Well that's the problem with being humble, isn't it? - you don't get into fights all the time so people forget you're there. Whereas religious egoists have the opposite thing going on – they're so prominent that "middle-ground" advocates pretty much take their presence for granted, while atheist egoists are rare enough for their existence to be novel.
posted by furiousthought at 2:51 PM on August 13, 2010


Metafilter: Emits such bilge as would gag a Hottentot.
posted by infinitywaltz at 2:58 PM on August 13, 2010


I just turned on "Fresh Air", heard Ebert, and thought "Oh shit, he must have died." Thankfully, the show just marks the final episode of "At the Movies" this weekend. Worth listening to, in any case.
posted by msalt at 3:01 PM on August 13, 2010


I agree with Hitchens if his point is that any death bed conversion smacks of "hedging bets", my issue is that he said "If *I* do it, it's just the cancer talking."

Well, frankly, unless Hitchens is specifically naming your grandfather as an object of ridicule... I don't see where there is anything which he said which in any way detracts from the life your grandfather lived and the effect he had on the world around him.
posted by hippybear at 3:49 PM on August 13, 2010


It isn't the sad people in movies who make me cry, it's the good ones.

This, Roger. This.
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:52 PM on August 13, 2010


Surely Ebert knows that several of the original neo-conservatives, including Irving Kristol, were former Trotskyists.
posted by raysmj at 4:34 PM on August 13, 2010


unless Hitchens is specifically naming your grandfather as an object of ridicule

For years he's been drunkenly, swaggeringly, angrily mocking religion and religious people, all of them, everywhere. I only brought up gramps as an example of someone who was helped by religion, at a potential breaking point in his life.

I think there are many people who come to religion this way, and again, my main beef is the hypocrisy of saying "oh, well if I say I found God it won't really be me saying it, since I'll be in the throes of personal tragedy".

Basically that's what "born again" means. Cast in the new awe and light of God's presence (as you witness it), you're a new person entirely. Maybe when you get close to death God DOES communicate with you. How should I know? How should any of us know unless it happens to us?

We're all agnostics, whether we know it or not. We don't know anything until we experience it. Maybe there are perspectives out there so wide and magnificent it would turn our brain to mush and the only word we could coherently babble upon witnessing it is "God", and maybe these perspectives are only possible under whatever unique personal conditions you have, whether that's near-death, Salvia Divinorum, great loss, or whatever.
posted by chronkite at 6:43 PM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


chronkite, one thing we can observe is that our experiences can lie. I'm sure Hitchens could have the exact same experience your grandfather did and shrug it off as an obvious sign of encroaching dementia. One can make an interesting argument as to who would be better off, your gramps or Hitchens, and come down on gramps as having a more profitable response. But Hitchens is nothing if not consistent -- he may be drunk, angry, and swaggering, but even his most fervent critics will generally admit he's a genius and extremely rigorous in what he allows himself to believe.

Our senses and perceptions lie; that has been an important observation in philosophy since Immanuel Kant. This means it is not enough to experience something to accept it as true; you must question your experiences and make sure they add up to a consistent framework that makes some kind of sense. Hitchens would probably say that suddenly getting a memo from God after a lifetime of silence is a great clue that you're having a delusional episode you should ignore.

Your gramps took the Memo from God at face value and it benefitted him; that's great for him. Other people find great meaning in Tarot cards and scheduled rituals. That's great for them too. And I'm not completely out of some of that myself, but Hitchens has made his territory plain for many, many years and it seems to me that you're doing to him exactly what you accuse him of doing to your gramps, saying that he cannot possibly mean what he says. Except that he didn't say that about your gramps. But you are saying it about him.

And we most definitely aren't "all agnostics whether we know it or not." People are capable of having the most dogmatic views about far stupider and easily disproven crap than this. True agnostics are actually the rarest of ava, because the really hard thing is not fetching up against some shattering event or blissful state and allowing it to form a belief that will stick with you far past its usefulness.
posted by localroger at 7:11 PM on August 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


And agnosticism is not mutually exclusive with faith or skepticism.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:35 PM on August 13, 2010


The "we're all agnostics" thing is insipid. We're not "all agnostic" with respect to Russel's teapot, or Odin and his Aesir, or leprechauns, or Scientology. There are plenty of things we've no proof for or against, yet don't remain the least bit agnostic toward; the idea that this has to change when the question comes around to the Christian God (or the Void, or the After Death Experience, or whatever you want to call it) is much too convenient to be convincing.
posted by vorfeed at 7:48 PM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm totally hedging my bets on the Aesir. I wanna climb Yggdrasil and feed Ratatosk!
posted by kmz at 8:16 PM on August 13, 2010


chronkite: if you're determined to take Hitchen's words as a personal attack, then you're welcome to. But as you point out, he's long been on record about his world view. You can choose outrage and froth in a thread about him and Ebert's thoughts on his cancer, but I'm not sure it's really the right target or the right place. I've had my own encounters with the numinous, and I know what I think about the matter, and even have reached a happy sense of dual mind about a lot of it. But I don't take anyone else's belief system personally unless they're directly confronting me about it. That seems, for me, to be the path of wisdom and peace.
posted by hippybear at 8:25 PM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


But Hitchens is nothing if not consistent -- he may be drunk, angry, and swaggering, but even his most fervent critics will generally admit he's a genius

Seriously?
posted by kittens for breakfast at 8:55 PM on August 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yes, seriously. Amateur intellectualism on Metafilter aside, Hitchens is pretty fucking smart.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:03 PM on August 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


Agreed. He has used his intellect to come to the occasional insipid conclusion (I refer, of course, to things like this), but genius sometimes means evil genius.

On the other hand, there was this which made me sort of grudgingly love him.
posted by Joey Michaels at 11:33 PM on August 13, 2010


BP, I'm not questioning whether his admirers think he's smart; I'm questioning whether his detractors thinks he is a for real genius. I've read Hitchens for some time on Slate, and while I think he's sometimes very witty, if an asshole for the most part, I have never, ever walked away from an article of his convinced that he was a genius. I have walked away from a few convinced that he's convinced that he's a genius.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 5:32 AM on August 14, 2010


And as is inevitable whenever anyone questions the intelligence of any other person on the internet, typos betray. "Detractors thinks." Oh, my. Drinking my first cup of coffee right now, so don't you judge me, y'all. Don't you judge me!
posted by kittens for breakfast at 5:35 AM on August 14, 2010


Well Kittens I've read many comments about him to that effect over the years. You've got to remember that Hitchens is consistent only to himself, so there are lots of people who find him spot-on in one sense but horribly offended in others, and yes, they generally admit to the man's brilliance while insisting he's off rails in the matters where they disagree with him.

An example, This Salon article by someone who is clearly not a fan even if she is lauding the OP Vanity Fair piece, contains the line: "He remains a big, fat jerk and a goddamn genius..." I think that sums it up for a lot of people.
posted by localroger at 5:55 AM on August 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


the idea that this has to change when the question comes around to the Christian God (or the Void, or the After Death Experience, or whatever you want to call it) is much too convenient to be convincing.

I may be reading him wrong, but I don't think Ebert is using Void as a synonym for the Christian God. In fact, the difference there is kind of the point.
posted by msalt at 10:43 AM on August 14, 2010




I may be reading him wrong, but I don't think Ebert is using Void as a synonym for the Christian God. In fact, the difference there is kind of the point.

I was responding to chronkite, not Ebert. He didn't use the word "Void", either, but it's a lot shorter than "perspectives out there so wide and magnificent it would turn our brain to mush and the only word we could coherently babble upon witnessing it is 'God'".
posted by vorfeed at 11:02 AM on August 14, 2010


I wouldn't call Hitchens a genius. I think he's a smart enough guy with great verbal facility and a certain biting wit who was very savvy when he decided to build his career in the US, where people assign you 30 extra IQ points if you have an English accent. I've also never seen any evidence that he has an ounce of compassion or empathy, and he seems to be much more inspired by the pleasure he takes in slashing away at people he thinks of as powerful and corrupt than by getting justice for the ordinary joes who are their victims. And that, I think, is why his identification with Orwell is misplaced. Orwell was interested in the people on the bottom and in how corruption and power mangled their lives. Homage to Catalonia was not told from the point of view of leaders or generals. The Road to Wigan Pier was not about naming and shaming individual wealthy industrialists and politicians. Hitchens is interested in the people at the top: he's an Orwell for a generation that is obsessed with celebrities. He's more interested in Mother Theresa than in poor, sick people in Calcutta. He's more interested in Henry Kissinger than in any Vietnamese villager. Orwell would have tried to explain religious belief: Hitchens just wants to use his razor wit to slash at believers and leave them moaning in a pool of their own blood, while he and the other smart people laugh and laugh and laugh. Maybe he is brilliant, but if so, he's a cruel genius who is obsessed with the famous and powerful and who doesn't evidence a lot of concern about anyone else. And personally, I prefer the insights of non-geniuses who give a damn about their fellow man. Maybe that's just me.

I'm sorry that the man is sick. But I still think he's an asshole.
posted by craichead at 11:53 AM on August 14, 2010 [5 favorites]


And personally, I prefer the insights of non-geniuses who give a damn about their fellow man.

There are plenty of those kind of people around, particularly around here. Sometimes, though, I want to hear from geniuses who question the status quo and the foundation of Western society and democracies and do tear down so-called saints, just to see what might be lurking underneath. Doesn't mean I always agree with them. Doesn't mean I don't think Hitchens can be a giant arsehole some of the time. But don't dismiss genius out of some concern that there's not enough non-geniuses with compassion who aren't being listened to.
posted by crossoverman at 5:44 AM on August 15, 2010


There are a lot of issues on which Hitchins is, without question, an asshole. Questioning what might become of his mental health as he faces an unimaginably painful and torturous illness is one of the few times I'm sympathetic to him.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:16 AM on August 15, 2010


It also feels that there's a bit of a double-standard and catch-22 at work here. At least the Christianity in which I was raised treated doubt as a part of humanity's relationship with God and can point to Psalms, Job, and the Passion of Christ to support the belief that momentary doubts in times of trouble are reasonably expected. If Jesus can have his "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" so can Christians.

But as an atheist, we're arrogant if we don't have doubt. While if we do express doubt, that's a "gotcha" that we do have some native religious sentiment.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:43 PM on August 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


When I go to Ebert's blog to read his excellent writings, I often find the Sun-Times' layout to be a bit visually distracting from his writing. Last night, I finally grew sick enough of it to write a userstyle to allow me just to concentrate on his writing. I hope it's of use to some of you.
posted by WCityMike at 9:22 AM on August 21, 2010


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