“Immanuel Kant was a real pissant who was very rarely stable” Christopher Hitchens intoned carefully, re-assembling the Monty Python Bruces philosophy song line by line. It was the end of the keynote address of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, run by the St James Ethics Centre, with Hitchens in the chair being lightly grilled by Tony Jones.

The talk was in his “Religion Poisons Everything” Line, and Team Python might have been on his mind, because nothing has ever so closely resembled the “preaching” scenes from Life of Brian as that evening.

You know the scenes. Where Brian emerges, having just shagged Judith from the Judaean Peoples’ Front, to be greeted with thousands of people hanging on his every word while his dong hangs out.

“You’ve all got to think for yourselves,” he tells them. “You’re all individuals.”

“YES,” they intone in unison. “WE’RE ALL INDIVIDUALS.”

“You’ve all got to think for yourselves!”

“TELL US HOW.”

Hitchens simpered and mugged through an attack on literal monotheism that the crowd loved, laughing on cue at Old Testament absurdities, applauding a firm stand against the rape of children (dangerous ideas) and so on. The crowd weren’t there to be challenged, they were there to have their highly specific appetites and prejudices flattered.

That belief system might loosely be called Darlinghurst secular-humanism. It believes in left-liberal politics, gay marriage, euthanasia and brunch. It is open to the depth of the aboriginal culture on display in the “welcome to country” — the “oldest living culture on earth” that included its fair-share of child marriage, as did every culture — but happy to giggle at the monotheistic culture it inherited, as ridiculous and oppressive.

Hell it’s an audience of good people, maybe walked across the bridge, campaigned against mandatory detention, wear ribbons of various hue, but its belief in what is a set of given ideas (religion) and what is allegedly an independently-arrived at state of reason (p-mo secular humanism) is, to put it politely, asymmetrical.

Though he subsequently got a few mildly forensic questions from Tony Jones in the Q and A, which were fairly easily deflected (“What about religious people who do good?” “Well if good is good it’s good because it’s good — it doesn’t need religion”) he never really got the central charge that could be made against militant atheists, that of GK Chesterton’s “someone who believes in nothing will sooner or later believe in anything”.

For Hitchens, that relates his atheism back to his vociferous support for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — and his vague hints that “we” should invade other places such as Yemen, where fairly clannish and tribal values still govern gender relations, among other things.

Hitchens, the man who said that the only problem with the attack on Fallujah was that not enough people had been killed, came to his support for the war with a near-religious fervour, not only off the attack on 9.11, but after the period of a long, withdrawing roar of anything that might resemble the Trotskyist left he had been part of for the best part of a decade or longer.

The need for a meaningful struggle to pour one’s life into is pretty obvious in his writings from the time, as is his bizarre and endless attempts to retroactively justify the Iraq attack by finding “new” links to the story of Saddam’s secret yellowcake deals, meetings with Al-Qaeda etc. This urge to meaning caused him to go into alliance with a bunch of nutcake neocons and religious crusaders who belied that ‘their God was bigger than the enemy’s God’ and that was why they would prevail.

The Iraq war was monotheism armed, and any assistance to it did more to advance the causes of the most primitive form of religiosity than a shelf of tracts could undo.

So is Hitchens’s new campaign a mea culpa? An attempt to knock down something inadvertently built up? Is it partly a way of getting back the love and adulation of the liberal-left he was once adored by (although a straw poll of the audience suggested that several didn’t realise he was pro-Iraq-war and were shocked when I told them.

We never found out, even though that argument would tell us more about the way religion works in our lives than the guffawing of an arch Englishman about what people believed in Palestine three thousand years ago. It must also be said that it was an ideal measure of what the conference meant by a ‘dangerous’ idea — by and large a self-congratulatory celebration of the profoundly safe.

Of which more on the blog, as the Hitch recovers in a room or a plane (he was poured into a taxi from Chinatown at about 4am) from a hangover that is about much more than booze. A lovely little thinker but a bugger when he’s …

Peter Fray

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