Monday, November 12, 2007

Christopher Hitchens in Chicago

Tonight I attended an enlightening event at the Spertus Museum of Judaica in downtown Chicago. Brilliant author, scholar and provocateur Christopher Hitchens presented a brief lecture entitled Do Jews Have an Atheist Gene?

First, I must say that Mr. Hitchens is another one of those people who makes me proud to be of Jewish heritage. The man has an amazingly agile intellect; he is intimidatingly well-read and articulate. One must pay attention in his presence and one is well rewarded for doing so. The penalty for not hanging on to every word is being left behind in the dust, wondering what just happened.

I have been reading some of Hitchens' articles from Vanity Fair and Slate online lately, having been something of a fan of his when I had a subscription to The Nation in the 1980's. He famously broke with the Left a few years ago because of his support for the war in Iraq and has publicly sparred with several former comrades, most notably Noam Chomsky and Alexander Cockburn. I've also been watching Hitch on video either giving talks, debating or being interviewed. There's a bunch of good stuff at his website as well as some excellent clips on YouTube.

So it was exciting to be in the same room with this man. I'm not given to the cult of personality, but Hitchens cuts a powerful figure in person. He is witty, charming and very funny. I'll have to break down and buy a copy of his God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. He's the only member of the so-called Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett being the other three) whose book on atheism I have not read.

Hitchens began by making the point that many Jews have not so much repudiated their faith but outgrown it. This resonates with me quite well; I have often thought that one of the problems with Judaism is that it seems so archaic. There's no room in the contemporary world for so many of the quaint yet exacting strictures demanded of practicing Jews. Keeping the Sabbath and the kosher laws spring immediately to mind here. Even before I identified myself among the non-believers I couldn't fathom most of the mumbo-jumbo that passes for devotion in Judaism. Needless to say, we certainly don't have the market cornered on absurd practices and nonsensical rituals.

So just what is it that makes Jews so prevalent among atheists? There is a tradition of skepticism that runs through Judaism; it is the only one of the major world religions that truly encourages intellectual curiosity and revels in dialog and debate. The fact that Spinoza, Freud and Einstein were all Jewish is no accident, according to Hitchens. The Diaspora encouraged Jews to become cosmopolitan, to value education, to become enlightened citizens wherever they landed. It seems that secularism might also be the result of contact with other cultures, languages, races and religions.

It is not surprising, for example, that the majority of well-known American Buddhist and Eastern philosophy teachers began their lives as Jews. I'm thinking here of Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfeld, Steven Levine, Pema Chodron and, of course, Richard Alpert (aka Ram Dass).

Now I wish that I had taken notes during Hitchens' talk and the subsequent Q&A session. I can't recall the other specific points he made on this particular subject. What sticks with me, above all, is Hitchens' fearless intellectual honesty. He is not afraid to commit to an unpopular opinion and he is able to back up his views with solid facts and convincing arguments. While I don't always agree with his conclusions I have tremendous respect for this courageous forthrightness. I aspire to that level of fierce independence and integrity.