I'll start by saying that I tend to like Christopher Hitchens. Though he's politically liberal, there are quite a few features of his foreign policy opinions with which I would agree. He has become a regular guest on the Hugh Hewitt radio show (my favorite political talk radio show), as a matter of fact. Hitchens is almost as funny as fellow Hewitt guest Mark Steyn, and his talk on atheism reflected his keen sense of humor. His audience was probably chiefly Episcopalians, but nevertheless he garnered a fair share of chuckles during his talk.
Hitchens chose to emphasize two main points.
The first was an argument against the possibility of god (which might charitably be interpreted as an argument against the possibility of knowing about god).
The pluralism of religion is attributable to the fact that man created god and not the other way around. If you accept the postulate that man makes gods, there is no mystery in the proliferation of gods and religion that has always existed in human society. If you, on the other hand, accept the idea that god made man, such a phenomenon is inexplicable--especially if you add (as so many do) that god made man in his own image. In other words, he must have made an image of someone extremely schismatic if not schizophrenic. [scattered laughter]
The only ones in this argument, therefore, who have to be wrong, who must be wrong--for whom there's no help and no excuse--are those humans ... mammals ... fellow humans like ourselves who claim that they do know the mind of god and his intentions and indeed his minutest instructions on private and public behavior.
This sums up Hitchens' argument against belief in god--and I must say I wasn't impressed.
The multitude of religions is quite simply no more intelligible to an atheist than to a theist, granting anything from multiple beings who might pass themselves off as gods (as might angels or demons or the like), or even simply granting that the perception of the spiritual is less perfectly achieved by the data of the senses. It's just a bad argument, though Hitchens plays it well, particularly when he appeals to the type of skepticism that most--including theists--bring to the types of claims made by many televangelists.
One could lobby for his approach on the basis of Occam's razor, but the razor is more a pragmatic tool than a literal determination of validity.
Given the title and subject of the lecture, Hitchens was very deliberate in paving the way for his thesis. Though his goal was set forth clearly, his attempt to make his second point was another disappointment. His case for the necessity of atheism rests on his objection to God's knowledge and moral authority. If it were granted that god existed, Hitchens would call the result repugnant.
It would mean of regime of permanent supervision and surveillance over our lives and our personalities that never stopped--that began before we were born, went through ever moment of our earthly life, and continued after our deaths; an inescapable authoritarian surveillance, control and supervision. It would be like living in a celestial North Korea. [scattered laughter]
This argument amounts to an appeal to outrage. If Hitchens were able to build sufficient emotional appeal through his approach then his argument might prove effective. The argument has a huge problem, however. Hitchens establishes no moral basis on which to object to the authority against which would rail. Later in the lecture, Hitchens lauds the impact of philosopher/author Ayn Rand, thus we might suppose an appeal to Rand's Objectivism as his moral basis. Objectivism is the ethical equivalent of the Indian Rope Trick, however, playing at crossing the is/ought divide by using a hidden ought.
In fact, Hitchens' approach is vulnerable to reduction to absurdity. If the knowledge that one's actions are known and judged at every moment is morally untenable, can Hitchens live with his own moral judgments? In other words, could Hitchens always do what he thought was right, or would that be too great an imposition on his freedom?
This problem in Hitchens' thinking may not be wholly clear from the material I've quoted. Later in the lecture, Hitchens illustrates using Milton's treatment of Lucifer in Paradise Lost. Hitchens finds the rebellion noble, apparently even if it's wrong.
It ends up very unclear where Hitchens would go to seek refuge from moral relativism, and that's not a good spot from which to condemn religious belief on moral grounds (if consistency is important, anyway).
Jumping off from the comparison to North Korea, Hitchens averred that the benevolent dictatorship is worse than the overtly oppressive type.
***I discovered the lecture at this blog. Those who are interested in giving it a listen may go directly here.
The latter half of the approximately two-hour talk is taken up with a question-and-answer period that is no less entertaining than the monologue. Hitchens touched on some other arguments in that latter portion. If there's a reader who wonders about any of those arguments, bring it up in the commentary section and I'll be delighted to render a treatment of the issue.