Puritan Atheist: Laurie Taylor interviews Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens talks to Laurie Taylor about George Orwell, false gods and bogus utopias
Q [Laurie Taylor] Your new book, Orwell's Victory, is a vigorous and very readable introduction to Orwell's enduring beliefs and values. But you are principally concerned with his political ideology your hero's arguments with the Marxists and the unreconstructed left. How about Orwell's religious beliefs? Did he, for example, regard himself a 'humanist'?
A [Christopher Hitchens] He might have thought the term was very slightly insipid, which, I'm afraid, it very slightly is. He would, however, have agreed that the proper study of mankind is man. . . which I think is the more muscular way of making the point. There was a nice bit of English radical history after the War that not many people know about: there was a short-lived magazine called Polemic which was run by Bertrand Russell, Freddie Ayer and George Orwell.
It didn't last for very long. . . same old story with so many of these magazines. . . but it published some excellent essays and took a solid stand against ideological tyranny like Stalinism, as well as those other chains in the mind like religion. We also know from his writing that he thought that British society had become post-Christian. The whole new problem, as he saw it, was to discover what would console people now that we live in a post-Christian age.
Q To what extent did he have to shake off childhood beliefs in order to come to his more secular point of view? Tell me about his religious upbringing.
A I think he must have been very standard C of E, because in the novel Clergyman's Daughter he describes a bullying Anglican priest a thwarted bourgeois who tyrannises his daughter and lords it over his parish. It's a closely observed portrait. And, of course, he was a British colonial policeman, so he would have had to stand around at innumerable services and church parades. If he'd paid attention, he could have learnt a lot of the Bible. That comes in very handy later in life, especially when one is arguing with the religious.
Q Did he ever say he was an atheist? Or would that have risked alienating too many of his potential readers?
A It's very clear from reading him that he had no religious belief he didn't believe in God. It was as natural to him as it is, say, to me. In other words, it seemed to him self-evident that religion was man-made, that Church is made by men, not by God, and God is made by men, not men by God. I think he just thought that was an unanswerable, unarguable position as indeed it is. He wasn't a proselytiser for this view. He just thought it was natural.
Indeed I've always thought one of the great advantages of humanism is precisely that it doesn't need a priesthood, it doesn't need constant reinforcement. People can come to it themselves as a logical conclusion. And many people do. It's one of its strengths. He had a respect for Christian belief but I remember one of the things he said: he said he'd never met a Christian who believed in the existence of heaven and hell as much as they believed in the existence of Australia.
He did have a Church of England funeral in London, I forget the name of the church, where the lesson was from Ecclesiastes. And he's buried in a very nice churchyard in Sutton Courtney in Oxfordshire which I think was part of the grace and favour of the David Astor empire. I think that was a matter of form.
Q One aspect of religious thought is an abiding belief in Good and Evil rather than Right and Wrong. Where did Orwell stand on this issue?
A Well, it's a detail in Animal Farm, but it is an important one. In the early part where the animals are described along with their failure to get any of the fruits of their own labour, there's one of them, Moses the Raven, who keeps saying "no it's all right. I've flown up and seen it. There's a better world beyond this one and one day you'll all get there if you're good." What's interesting is that he flies away when the revolution takes place but he comes back when Napoleon declares supreme power.
It's an exact analogy. Stalin found that he did need the Church to keep people in line. He did make a pact with the Orthodox Church. So I think Orwell understood very well that irrespective of whether or not religion is true morally, or true in its own metaphysical claims, it is certainly used for earthly purposes by earthly powers and with predictable consequences.
Q But even though he may have been critical of the role that religion played, he doesn't seem to have regarded its institutional manifestations in the same critical light as political totalitarianism.
A He certainly regarded it as a system of belief and organisation that was principally responsible for fascism. In his critiques of the fascist ideology in Spain, Italy and Austria, he pointed out the collusion of the church with such forces. At one point he says of a certain proposition he wants to advance this was in the Forties he said "I could no more prove this scientifically than I could prove that the Catholic Church was in favour of fascism in the 1930s. But I know it to be true." He could sense it; he knew their tendency was of that kind.
Q To be an atheist in his time was likely to attract public censure. Did he at any time run foul of religious believers?
A Sure. Especially among his rivals in the world of the columnists. His own Tribune column was called 'As I Please'. Its rivals on the scene were Beachcomber, a man named Timothy Shy, and G.K. Chesterton. He kept on pointing out that these people were all, in a very surreptitious way, propagandists for extreme conservative Catholicism.
He said that the Chesterton world view was a sort of bogus utopia because it suggested that humanity could only be happy by getting rid of capitalism in favour of feudalism. (laughs)... So Chesterton pretends to be anti-capitalist but actually his whole worldview is utopian in the wrong sense. It is reactionary and idealistic.
Q In your book you stress the manner in which Orwell wanted to be optimistic about how humans could alter their circumstances a proper humanist imperative if you like. But he was very concerned about ever postulating some sort of utopian ideal any heaven on earth.
A He was very suspicious of all such things. He never, however, ceased to say that he was a socialist. That was important to him. You could say he was a protestant atheist and a protestant socialist too because he identifies with the great tradition of radicalism in England. He relates himself to Milton and the puritan revolution, and the Levellers, and Thomas Paine. These are the people he thinks form the tradition. At one point he even identifies the struggle for reason in Europe with the 'protestant centuries', as he calls them. His favourite maxim of justification was a line from Milton: "By the known rules of ancient liberty". That does have a slight utopianism to it because it suggests there was an English past where people were free born and not ruled by the divine right of kings or any such nonsense.
Q How much was that sort of Englishness responsible for the occasional allegations that Orwell was suspicious or hostile to 'foreigners' or 'outsiders' or those that did not fit the bill? There were, for example, claims that he was anti-Semitic
A He suspected himself of it. It was one of the many prejudices that he argued himself out of. You have to remember he was brought up to think of the colonial peoples as inferior, to think of the lower orders in England as the great unwashed, to regard all Jews as versions of Shylock. What makes him so interesting as a radical writer is the sight that he gives us of a man forcing himself, arguing and fighting himself, out of his own upbringing, his own nature. Actually, what he wrote about anti-Semitism was very good. He forced himself to confront it and analyse and anatomise its role in England, and the piece he wrote which ended up being published by the Jewish Chronicle was very admirable.
Q You've talked already about Orwell's reluctance to postulate utopias. But for many people he goes too far in the opposite direction. His warnings about what might happen in the future strike many readers as profoundly pessimistic, as even dismissive of the possibilities of humans, however imperfectly, shaping their own destinies. Was he, in the end, a pessimist about human progress?
A There's a terrible moment in Nineteen-Eighty-Four when Winston Smith is walking along the street. He suddenly hears an explosion of rage and shouting and yelling and breaking glass and he thinks "finally the masses have started to exert themselves and flex their muscles" and he dashes round the corner to see the revolution starting. And all the noise is because a local shop has just had a delivery of incredibly shoddy saucepans, with handles which fly off if you have a tug-of-war. That's all they're fighting about and he thinks damn. Damn. That's pess-optimism, as a friend of mine calls it.
Q Several reviewers have inevitably seen your book on Orwell as an attempt to claim his radical mantle for yourself. How much do you share his pessimism or his pess-optimism? Living in the States must make it rather difficult to feel enthusiastic about either socialist or humanist projects. According to the all the polls I've ever seen, you're surrounded by religious believers.
A I don't believe all the polls. Although there is a great deal of religious stuff in the atmosphere in the States, it is perfectly possible to lead the existence of a secular person. Most people there act as if the promises of religion were false even if they feel the need to go on asserting that they are true. Religion doesn't guide them. I don't see how they could go on living as they do if that were the case. And that's a mark of progress. One hundred years ago both our countries were firmly under the rule of believers.
But there's still a great deal of deference to religion. For example, when Vice President Gore was campaigning in the South and got challenged about the teaching of Darwin he said he would prefer to regard it "as an open questio"'. And this is the Vice President who had written a book on climate and science. But this is partly to do with the vast pluralism of America. That's the great upside: the downside of such pluralism is that all views have to be regarded as equally valid or equally worthy of consideration. So multiculturalism has been perverted in a bizarre way so as to make it impossible to criticise religion, because if you do so you are not seen as attacking the church or the beliefs of its followers, but the community. The community. The Catholic community will be hurt if I write about Mother Theresa. The Protestant community will be hurt if I say that Billy Graham's theology is the same as Osama Bin Laden's, which, of course, it is. At the National Cathedral in the presence of the President and the diplomatic Corps, a few days after September 11th, Billy Graham said that the dead of New York and Pennsylvania and Washington were already in heaven and wouldn't come back to earth even if they could. Now to be able to claim that you know that is to make the very claim that was ridiculed when it was made by Bin Laden.
Q So you would say that America is becoming more secular that its subscription to religious beliefs is becoming less fervent?
A Yes. But then here comes my pessimism. You still can't ignore the persistence over time of some forms of false belief, of superstition, of credulity. It seems to me Freud was right about this. It's not a conquerable illusion. It's ineradicable. Which means it must in some way be innate to us. That's the pessimistic conclusion. We're only mammals after all. Yes, we are partly rational we do have the capacity to reason but our pre-frontal lobes are slightly too small, our adrenaline glands are slightly too big, our opposable thumbs aren't as great as we think. . . you know. . . we're an animal species.
Q A last question: You talked before about Orwell's lifelong readiness to describe himself as a socialist, if not as a humanist. How do you describe yourself in the States? Neither term is very endearing over there.
A Conor Cruise O'Brien has a story from the '50s when he worked for the Irish Foreign Ministry and was responsible for explaining the evils of partition to overseas visitors. He would take them to Northern Ireland and show them such things as the gerrymandering of the borders. One day, an English Jesuit he was showing round asked him they were in Derry I think "tell me are there any Protestants who are Republicans or any Unionists who are Catholics?" O'Brien thought for a moment. "No there aren't," he said. "There is one protestant fellow who teaches at the local college who is for a United Ireland but he prefers to be called a Communist." (laughs). Well, I no longer identify myself politically. If I'm asked if I'm a socialist I try and avoid the question. I don't like saying no, but I . . . I no longer say yes. That's happened over the last four or five years. It's just somehow as though the mainspring ran down or broke. It feels like a missing limb but there it is. But I'm often described on American chat shows as a Marxist. And that's okay. I do still think like a Marxist. And it's easier to say you're a Marxist on American television than say that you're an atheist. That's an insult in itself. You won't be able to transcribe this but (American accent) "it's offensiv"' (laughs) to say that. You wound people really where they live. And as a result, for example, the Mother Theresa programme that I made has been shown twice on Channel 4 here, but there is NO WAY it could ever appear on American television. Out of the question.
Q I remember reading about a television occasion when your atheism was challenged. Do you remember your encounter with chat show host, Dennis Prager and his 'test question' for atheists? "Suppose you're lost in a strange town and it's late at night and you see a group of men coming towards you. Do you feel more safe or less safe on knowing they've just come from a prayer meeting?"
A Oh yes. Mr Prager is quite a figure in conservative circles. I said well, without leaving the letter B, let me say that I have been in Belfast, I have been in Belgrade and I have been in Beirut. And I have been lost and cut off in all those three places and had the experience of wondering what that group of guys on the other side of the street were thinking. And it would have been no reassurance to me at all to find that they'd just been to the Mr Paisley's Martyrs Memorial church in Belfast or a Party of God soiree in Beirut or to the Greater Serbia Church in downtown Belgrade. That quietened Mr Prager down.
Orwell's Victory by Christopher Hitchens is published by Penguin