Two Sets of Books

Disclaimer: I submitted this to the New York Times as a response to the article that is mentioned here but I never heard back from them within their specified time frame for publishing, so instead I decided to publish on my site.

I set these words down to address a very particular topic, and a very particular person. It is with a considerable amount of disagreement that I address Larry Taunton regarding his piece entitled “The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist,” and inform him of why his interpretations of private conversations with Hitchens are not only horrible misrepresentations of the man himself, even as lackadaisical musings, but do nothing but use as a crutch his memory and legacy to attempt to cement the supposed inherit lie that all non-religious persons adhere to, on the surface, and secretly pine for salvation in the closet, placating the ego of the pious.

Getting right to the facts, in an article in the New York Times, dated Saturday March 14th, 2016, titled “Famous Atheist’s Non-Faith Is Questioned in Friend’s Book,” an excerpt lays the foundation for Taunton’s story:

“… In September 2010, five months after Mr. Hitchens’s diagnosis of cancer, he and Hitch drove the thirteen hours from Mr. Hitchens’s home in Washington, D.C. to a Fixed Point debate in Birmingham, Ala. The next month, after an event in Billings, Mont., they took a seven-hour trip to, and around, Yellowstone National Park. As Mr. Taunton drove, Mr. Hitchens read aloud from the Gospel of John and mulled over the precise reason Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus. “Where is the grace in the Old Testament?” Hitchens asked at one point, in Mr. Taunton’s telling. “I see it in the New Testament, but God is different in the Old Testament,” Mr. Hitchens observed, leading to a discussion of God’s covenant with Abraham. Based principally on these conversations, Mr. Taunton concluded that Mr. Hitchens was seeking – and that he was, at least, open to – the possibility that Christianity was true. Perhaps, Mr. Taunton writes, Mr. Hitchens “used his position as a journalist as a kind of professional cover for a very personal inquiry” into the faith.”

Later, another excerpt:

“Still, Mr. Taunton laces his book with plenty of winks toward hopeful Christians, who would be understandably glad to see the conversion of an atheist as prominent as Mr. Hitchens. He quotes John le Carre’s George Smiley, who says, in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (the movie, not the book), “The fantastic is always concealing a secret doubt.” He writes that Mr. Hitchens had to keep up the front of an unquestioning atheist because it “was a matter of professional pride for him to play the part for which he had been hired.”

Again, another excerpt quoting Michael Shermer, who had originally written a highly favorable review of the book, later asked for it to be redacted on account of a growing discomfort with Taunton’s near-abuse usage of Hitchen’s phrase “keeping two sets of books”:

“But you mean his wife, his family, his books, every interview he ever gave was all deceitful, but you, you got the real story?” he said, referring to Mr. Taunton. “I don’t think so.””

One last excerpt:

“Mr. Wilson agreed that, whatever the truth about Mr. Hitchens’s dying beliefs, the intrigue makes for a good story. “Christians like the idea of saved in the nick of time,” he said. “They like the idea of a cliffhanger ending.””

Next I would like to bring to light excerpts from Christopher Hitchens himself, from his memoir “Hitch 22.” Specifically the First Trade Edition: June 2011, published by Twelve, which contains a preface authored by Christopher Hitchens dated January 20, 2011. This puts the writing of these words after the time frame which Taunton claims to have had an enlightening experience with Hitchens. The first:

“A continuous theme in Hitch-22 is the requirement, exacted by a life of repeated contradictions, to keep two sets of books. My present condition intensifies this rather than otherwise. I am forced to make simultaneous preparations to die, and to go on living. Lawyers in the morning, as I once put it, and doctors in the afternoon.”

Another:

“Another element of my memoir – the stupendous importance of love, friendship, and solidarity – has been made immensely more vivid to me by recent experience.”

Another:

“The cause of my life has been that of combating superstition, which among other things means confronting the dreads upon which it feeds. For some inexplicable reason, our culture regards it as normal, even creditable, for the godly to admonish those who they believe to be expiring. A whole tawdry edifice – of fabricated “deathbed conversions” and moist devotional literature – has arisen on this highly questionable assumption. Though I could have chosen to take offense (at being silkily invited to jettison my convictions when in extremis: what an insult and what a non-sequitur too) I was actually grateful for the heavy attention I received from the faithful. It gave my atheism, if you like, a new lease on life. It also help me keep open a long debate to which I am proud to have contributed a little.”

Another:

“The irruption of death into my life has enabled me to express a trifle more concretely my contempt for the false consolation of religion, and belief in the centrality of science and reason.”

And finally:

“I wasn’t born to do any of the things I set down here, but I was born to die and this coda must be my attempt to assimilate the narrative to its conclusion.”

A very critical note that Taunton and Wilson (who was referenced briefly in the excerpts above) miss, at this juncture it would have to be inferred that it was blatantly ignored, was that Hitchens, much like the literary titans he surrounded himself with, was pursuant first and foremost toward the passion for literature. Littered throughout “Hitch 22,” and from various recorded speaking engagements, one has very little difficulty in determining this fact. It is not uncommon for an intellectual to be thirsty for knowledge – a thirsty reader will read, a thirsty writer will write, a thirsty painter will paint, etc… Nietzsche lays down this point better than most, while also laying the groundwork for the integrity of the intellectual in “On the Genealogy of Morals”: “… For nothing else befits a philosopher. We have no right to any isolated act whatsoever: to make isolated errors and to discover isolated truths are equally forbidden us. Rather, our thoughts, our values, our yeses and noes and ifs and whethers grow out of us with the same necessity with which a tree bears its fruits – all related and connected to one another and evidence of a single will, a single health, a single earth, a single sun.” This singularity is not a darling toward self-serving pious folks, as you’d have an incredibly hard time pouring over Nietzsche’s work the baptismal waters (the same person who declared himself to be the anti-Christ), but instead a reference to the insatiable thirst for an intellectual to seek knowledge, and that knowledge has no boundaries, and further that an intellectual has a responsibility to knowledge to not be isolated in its pursuit. A headline quote from the same New York Times article reads “An impious author who might have been exploring faith before he died.” – the absurdity oozing from the pores of the words here is astonishing, especially when in the context of Hitchens. – As if making inquiries into faiths, the texts behind them, and the people who are supposed to adhere to them, automatically implies that one is on the steps toward submission and salvation – please. A turn of this sort plays heavily on the intellectual’s due diligence of knowing about what it is they wish to discuss, something of which is the foundation for any serious intellectual. It is not uncommon for an atheist to read the multiple revisions of the Bible, or any other religious text, or study the principles of the religions around the world. This does not make them an active or even impending member of those religions.

As mentioned in the excerpts above, Hitchens makes reference to the “two sets of books” metaphor quite often. Not just from the quotations above, this use can be seen in his other book “god Is Not Great” and in various other recorded speaking events. Michael Shermer above requested that his positive review of Tounton’s book be redacted due to the latter having overused the dualist metaphor to an alarming degree. So what does Hitchens mean when he uses this? Yet two more excerpts from “Hitch 22”, both regarding his time at a school called Camdean:

“… We were all of us compelled to sit through lessons in the sinister fairy tales of Christianity as well, and nature was sometimes enlisted as illustrating god’s design, but I can’t pretend that I hated singing the hymns or learning the psalms, and I enjoyed being in the choir and was honored when asked to read from the lectern on Sundays. In fact, as you have perhaps guessed, I was getting an early training in the idea that life meant keeping two separate and distinct sets of books. If my parents knew what really went on at the school, I used to think (not being the first little boy to imagine that my main job was that of protecting parental innocence), they would faint from the shock. So I would be staunch and defend them from the knowledge.”

Second:

“Again come the two sets of books: I would escape to the library and lose myself in the adventure stories of John Buchan and “Sapper” and G.A. Hentry and Percy Westerman, and acquaint myself with imperial and military values just as, unknown to me in the England of the late 1950s that lay outside the school’s boundary, these were going straight out of style. Meanwhile and on the other side of the ledger, I would tell myself that I wasn’t really part of the hierarchy of cruelty, either as bully or victim.”

The meaning alone can be discerned from the first but the use of the second is to help ease along what is meant here.

Knowing that he had a distinct distaste for religion, especially a noted one for Christianity, and early on, Hitchens proceeds to say that he in fact did enjoy engaging in singing, reading, and learning. Saying it that way isn’t some coy subtraction of words in an effort to obviously remove them from the equation. It is instead used to point out that when considering the context, one taking part in activities with others, is indeed a reflection of human nature – the very real and truly inert need to be social, surrounded by others, accepted, and to reciprocate these things. The other children around him were doing the same exact things, as if it were all normal; these actions do not require qualification of the numinous to be dignified – a common misconception. The “two sets of books” metaphor holds more closely to the duality, introduced and contained within societies, enjoined on its constituents which in turn makes manifestly clear to the agent that innate desires and the results of them will nearly consistently be in conflict with the scaffolding prescribed to you. Not only does it have intimate ties with who and what we are as humans, which is not a shadow of an arrogant or indifferent god, but also to the attempts to reconcile those differences in accordance with the will to exhibit the love, friendship, and solidarity that is so important. It is not, as the pious would like to have it, and according so dotingly to Mr. Wilson, a good story that plays toward the Christian end-of-life ideal of repentance at the last moment for the dissenters.

Taunton’s assertions that Hitchens was only playing as an atheist because he was “hired” to be is as disingenuous and dishonest to a “friend” as one can be, as there is absolutely no way possible that one could ever entertain the thought that Hitchens had a last glimmer of faith and struggled with himself as to the object of commitment.

Personal Update

“We are unknown to ourselves, we knowers: and with good reason. We have never looked for ourselves, – so how are we ever supposed to find ourselves?” – Friedrich Nietzsche from On the Genealogy of Morals.

It’s absolutely incredible what happens when you divorce your life from the internet. Or, perhaps, it should be phrased the other way around: It’s absolutely incredible what happens when you divorce the internet from your life. Regardless of your ability to admit to it or not, the permeation of this amazing tool can, and has, replaced a lot of the aspects of our lives for either good or bad. Being someone who has chosen technology as not only a career choice, but as a lifestyle, the line between where I begin and end blurs heavily and with a very scary amount of ease.

However, this isn’t some post that ends up being the darling to all those who damn both technology and the internet. Nor does it serve as a treatise on coming-clean from an addictive state regarding either of those. Instead it is simply a testament to an awakening. Not in a spiritual sense, as some like to incorrectly conflate in all invocations, but of a more conscious nature.

The human mind is an astounding piece of evolutionary and biological achievement. The ability that we possess for retaining memory, processing input simultaneously from nearly all areas of our bodies, and reacting to events in real-time rationally is not something to lightly scoff at. Equally, if not more impressive, is our faculty for what we call critical thinking. In this we find that we’re capable of creating some of the most elaborate tools and technologies to help us to sustain both living and communities. Also it can produce some of the finest liberal arts that we know of and have yet to discover. But it is this one piece of our minds, our wonderful and incredible minds, that is constantly being thwarted on a daily basis and the situation is not improving.

Think about it – when you check Facebook, what is it that you’re seeing? You’re certainly paying attention to your stream of updates from “Facebook Friends” but what else is there? Advertisements, trending celebrity news, posts from “Facebook Friends” who are actually businesses or organisations that are treated as single entities, carefully crafted headlines that link back to pages with an article that’s less than five-hundred words or diluted with pagination in order to increase ad revenue and waste more of your time, propagation of questionable “facts” and “truths” from unreliable sources, and, depending upon your usage, a sufficiently cultivated canonical history of your life that, in hindsight, removes the ability of such a user to have a complaint against having their privacy violated in any way whatsoever.

For these people, previously mentioned, Facebook has become a way to run their lives. Thus Facebook is their lives and , as follows, their lives are shaped by it.

But there is more that you can take away from other aspects of what was mentioned. The mass inundation of trite celebrity news and entertainment updates accumulates into a sweltering cesspool of overwhelmingly useless information, serving only to further facilitate this obsessive compulsive mentality in which those prey to it vicariously act out their lives or interests in. This usually results in the complete absenteeism of the individual and does not further press or force uniqueness. “Kim Kardashian poses nude for Paper magasine!” “A new Marvel movie is set to be released soon!” “Photos emerge of Avril Lavigne on her new Instagram account!” – who cares?

We are consistently lowering our expectations of ourselves for reasons which seem, at first, to be purely altruistic, and of that qualification we accept no dissenting perspective. Instead we lash out with public scrutiny, both verbal and in some cases physical and resulting in long-term damages, even if said scrutiny would potentially lead to a more practical, pragmatic or, ironically enough, altruistically sound solution. We’re entirely okay with this though and have accepted it as the supposed utopian goal of our society, thus our models of consumption and retention, regarding information, and scope of vision have been dimmed to the confines of the individual, making the very concept of “individuality” both our greatest asset and our worst enemy. News agencies and media outlets whittle down their articles to the smallest number of words possible, making them void of substance of any kind, to cater to the calculated lessening attention span of the “average” sheep. Because news is now compartmentalised in this way, smaller chunks can be delivered faster and in larger volumes. You don’t actually learn anything, because to learn is to digest, and it is impossible to digest properly what you are choking on. Digestion is an act that requires sufficient time, of which none of us are given. But don’t worry – this is okay. You don’t have to learn and you don’t have to think, that’s all taken care of for you. So you can continue to read, if you can, about the latest crumbling of a celebrity relationship.

Preying on individuality, we slaves to the dollar are subjected to filtered information of the highest magnitude to meet profit margins. Paradoxically, we promote the utmost importance of individuality and altruism yet actively subvert these things for a fiat currency that really, ultimately and truly, doesn’t mean anything. This is what our lives have resulted in: self-imposed slavery. This is what we teach our children, this is what we think is the norm, and this will because of those things, propagate forever until the human race has eradicated itself for the same reasons. Even those who are in control of money are slaves to it. Not necessarily what it manifests as physically but what it represents conceptually, which is far more dangerous than any money: a function of exercising power manipulation over large quantities of people. But how have we coped with this? Not by recognising this fallacy for the horror that it actually is and doing something about it, but by building upon it the foundations for assigning value to a life by quantity and supposed quality of material goods, which can only be attained with money, and from that somehow supposing that it alone is sufficient for judgment of our brothers and sisters, providing an adequate excuse to ignore objective morality (which, by the way, is not God nor any other religion which we have very sadly devoted ourselves to). We are, by nature, gluttons for slavery. We ask not to have absolute responsibility and accountability in our lives. We ask only, instead, that we delegate that to others, be they real or, hilariously, not, so that we can sit at home and feel as if we have done something right for ourselves regardless of other people in the world, or the Earth itself. We then feel entitled to read more celebrity news stories.

We don’t read, we don’t eat, we don’t sleep, and we don’t think. The very sad and horrible truth about life is that today’s society, that we have ourselves shaped, is at its core little more than a mildly civilised form of feudal medieval times. We’re kids with very large guns, uneducated and unprepared to handle them and brandish these weapons with a gusto that makes the most egotistical arrogant pig shudder in horror. We’re fine with Salem Witch Hunts, taking the most ludicrous steps against our brothers and sisters for the crime of critical thinking, and ensuring that we make it known for all, in this generation and the next, that you are to fall in line and never ask why.

This all makes me sick, and my repulsion of the virulence of this decadence gives me reason for great pause. It was for this which I stepped away from all of the things in my life, for just a brief moment, to attempt to make sense of and reconcile, neither of which I feel I have accomplished. I want to remove from me the entombment of myself by both myself and others. To be unafraid to think and speak as such. To structure my life in a way that shows what is possible when you are built not by the mistakes of those before you, but by the intents that you have to make changes now, and act on them.

Becoming Atheist

Some nights ago, at the time of writing, I was involved in a conversation in which the topic of religion came up. These days when I’m involved in such conversations the other participants typically recoil in shock, horror or disbelief regarding my views and rationale. However in a rather interesting turn I was given the question of “When did you know that you were an atheist?” to which is a point that I would like to elaborate on a bit further than the confines of that conversation.

Reflecting on the past, I can say with certainty that I was one of the fortunate few handful of children who grew up not having to suffer the indoctrination of the inherited subscription domain or having to be subject to the rather overt and horrifying recitations of scripture from either the aforementioned or any other subscription domain. Despite the fact that my mother, who descended from a largely Christian-based family, was evidently agnostic, she was far more pragmatic in the sense that she found it more reasonably sane to permit me to come to terms with these things in my own way. On that account it should be said that no one rational person could or should criticise her since the alternative would be reprehensible in the context of humanism. The interesting result of that though was that until the age of twenty, any thoughts I had regarding these matters essentially culminated in a vacuum i.e. there were no direct external influences on the thought processes. It wasn’t until then that any considerable effort was put into research and study of this.

Digressing, there is no way I could ever claim that I was spiritual or religious in any sense as a teen and young adult with that type of flexibility permitted. Interestingly enough, when I elected to start attending a local church every Sunday and then to take it to the lengths of participating in a Bible Study programme on Wednesday evenings when school was rearing its head the following morning (this went on for a year), there was never any blowback from my family for that. My grandmother may have been mildly pleased to see this but part of me thinks that she subconsciously believed that I was passively Christian and never addressed the issue with me. Even during that time, there was no epiphanous moment where all teachings, be they either direct (dogmatic, if you like) or translated via lateral interpretations, momentously forked my life onto the path of permanent subjugation and blind humility. In fact it was quite the opposite as it did little more than fuel the fire for questioning everything. Regardless, it never pushed me consciously to the point where the true realisation of my thoughts came to fruition.

Potentially ironically, for readers who are of the religious vantage point, and I should think it may be a fair portion of all available ones to choose from (religions and not readers), the climactic point was when my mother died.

To illustrate the backdrop to this a little more clearly, my mother was a recovering heroin addict. To this day the exact cause of her death can be associated with one of two possibilities: strictly an overdose due to relapse or an adverse reaction between medication she had been taking at the time and the relapse (the relapse was the constant). At the time of her death, she was a 39-year old single mother of three who had given up everything she had to raise her children to the best of her ability and also to take care of her mother who had fallen victim to emphysema and a myriad of ridiculously prolonged coalescing systemic failures, both physically and mentally, and clearly had battled with personal issues herself. During the funeral service, my grandmother was sitting forefront with the casket in plain sight bawling more than one would think possible for any person capable of doing so. As the pastor crossed her way, she agonisingly mustered the will, in between all of the tattered breathing and incoherent slewing of words it caused, to ask him verbatim: “Why did God take her? Why didn’t he take me instead?” In as cool, calm and collected a fashion as one can respond, without the slightest hint of hesitation that would indicate a momentary doubt in self-assurance, with all the conviction he could pour into a single statement, he knelt down to meet her gaze and looked her directly in the eyes and uttered the words “Because God decided it was time to call her back.”

Note that going forward, I’ll be referring to “God” in lieu of generalisations that I’ve used to this point.

Possibly because of the situation at the time, all I could feel was rage and anger toward this man. If any lines of condolence are to be offered, even for those within the context of the subscription, rationale like that is really the least kind and efficacious thing to say. What I had come to realise not long after though was that the man himself was not to be held accountable for such grievance, instead the principle of the religion to which he subscribed to deserved the vitriol. However there were several other things that became overtly apparent to me after her death that are detailed in following.

Right from the start, it should be obvious to any reader, I would hope, that arguing over the source of the reason he had given to her is essentially moot. Debate can be carried on over if this was the intent of God or not or if the recited line came from the scripture in either a literal or lateral interpretation, the former more plausible, but it ultimately deters from what really happened there and is largely irrelevant. Why? Consider the possibility of the situation whereby this man who uttered this line to her had been either (A) a man who subscribed to a different religion or (B) a man subscribed to no religion at all. It’s very plausible that had my grandmother asked this A or B man the same question, his response arguably would have been different in the sense that it may have lacked confinement within the context of religion or could have been more empathic. While it is also possible to suggest that the man as he were was simply caught in the moment and incapable of coming up with anything remotely sound at the time of being asked, keep in mind that he responded back to her without the slightest hint of hesitation. He was well prepared for that which speaks more toward his well-groundedness in the doctrines of his faith, and possibly even to an extent a resultant detachment from the human condition, than in the well-being of his fellow persons. Which, again, is not his fault explicitly.

Instead if you look at the phrase itself and think about its implications through invocation, things start to get a fair bit muddy. By any clear perspective it implies that even though God created all things, it is perfectly content with violating its own rules, ad arbitrium, regardless of the collateral cost. The key focus here is on two points: violating its own rules and disregard for collateral cost where both are very obvious violations of the ad nauseam human-centric agenda it is purported to exhibit. Projecting this onto the situation at hand, you then should be able to rationalise the statement as to mean that God cares about my mother and so decided, executively, that she had to die to come back to Heaven. Bear in mind here that her behaviour clearly didn’t warrant this type of reward if weighed against the faith but according to this emissary that’s certainly where she’s at. But God is also supposed to care about my grandmother who was forced to sit and stare at her daughter’s corpse and be told that she simply was instructed to return from whence she came. That then implies that God’s care is revealed to her in the form of anguish, misery and further declining health and this is supposed to forge her into a stronger person because of it? God is supposed to care about her three children in a similar fashion? It should be a clear cut case that provides evidence for the following statements:

  • God is immoral
  • God is one of the worst introverts ever conceived
  • God’s behaviour is more akin to that of a prepubescent child
  • God is incapable of being a solution, or shim solution, for the question of death as it pertains to living persons

Having read that, please take care to understand that I understand wholly that the summation of my rationale here has been well beaten and run through the philosophical ringer on more occasions than I even care to count. However as a moral agent it is absolutely impossible for myself to either outright or conditionally grant impunity to this God, as it were, simply on account of any of its other supposed omniscient, omnipotent or whatever other meta-man qualities it is purported to have. Any other of my fellow moral agents would be remiss to not see this instance for what it is and put to it the same scrutiny that we would to any other construct of our fellows on this planet.

I also want to take heed to mention that the idea of apostatizing had never occurred to me. Mostly because I wasn’t a subscriber to begin with but when I use that word here it’s to coyly describe the idea that I look for answers outside of the God that was invoked here, which the act alone seemed ludicrous when the answers were essentially obvious. What difference would it have made if by chance some other God had answers that this one couldn’t provide? If another had a different cosmic plan or a different set of ideas about our providence regarding the afterlife or how we get there or how we’re supposed to behave toward each other or in the name of (the agony), the fundamental flaws would always be the same and, by nature, derivative. The rather disgusting paradox where multiple religions exist proves, well enough I should think, that not only are deities/Gods constructs resultant of ourselves but also that they can provide no answers for any questions which we ourselves are incapable of answering by any functional means. While many have tried to capture the essence of “the answer for both life and the afterlife,” no one person, be they, humourously, either simply men or Gods, has been able to provide an account sufficient enough to subjugate our minds completely to. Actually, the phrase “the answer for both life and the afterlife” presupposes that there was a question to begin with.

The rest, as they say, is history. I could further present arguments to debate the existence of such a being or the implications of religion as a whole on our society but I wanted this essay strictly to be a brief account on the foundation for my religious divorce since most people ask.