Friday, November 16, 2012

Book Review: 'Mortality' by Christopher Hitchens

I had almost six hours of flight time to spend and the flip cover of the book struck me as much as its title. It was about a man who had refused to take refuge in religion even in the most challenging of his times - in his fight against cancer, a fight which he ultimately lost. But what he did not lose was his conviction in his “anti-theism” – the phrase he coined to distinguish himself from atheists who "wish that belief in God were correct".

 The book which Christopher Hitchens scribbled as notes through his last eighteen months, talks of his annoyance at being exhorted by religious conservatives both from the Catholic and Protestant side, to embrace belief in God. Many of them saw in his esophageal cancer, a divinely ordained punishment for his blasphemy against God and religion. It did bewilder him, but not as much as the idea of embracing religion itself, for when he wrote “As a terrified, half aware imbecile, I might even scream for a priest at the close of business, though I hereby state while I am still lucid that the entity thus humiliating itself would not in fact be “me.””

 In this book, Hitchens presents a brief yet logical refutation of the basis and the utility of aspects of religion such as faith, revelation and prayer, interspersed in between his own moments of hope, anxiety, despair and pain. Although in this book, his criticism is mostly directed only towards Abrahamic religions, I read that he has written about Eastern religions too, which I would be glad to read sometime. But as I skimmed through some of his other writings, I do get an impression that his arguments lead to ‘concept stretching’. His basic understanding of what religion constitutes, is based on Abrahamic religions, which he directly and indirectly interpolates on other traditions.

 Consider this from one of his blog debates. He asserts that no known “religion” has made any allowance for the different deities that have existed through the human story and that religion insists on believing that the “essential problem was solved about two-to-three thousand years ago, by various serial appearances of divine intervention and guidance in … the Middle East.”. I can point two problems in this assertion right away. Firstly, he is either excluding Hinduism from the category of “known religions” (which if he were to be doing consciously, is epistemologically correct) or he has not considered the numerous village and tribal deities that form the 30 million Gods of Hinduism. Secondly, notice that he uses the word ‘religion’ but is essentially talking of Abrahamic religions alone. For starters, none of Eastern traditions like Buddhism or Hinduism or the pagan traditions of Americas or Europe believe in these serial appearances or have anything to do with the middle east, or for that matter anything to do with prophethood or revelations. I do not deny that many of his criticisms do apply to Eastern “religions” as well – at-least the way they are practiced. But ‘concept stretching’ may not be the best way to critique them. Especially when many of these traditions are phenomenologically different from what is understood as “religion” in the Judeo-Christian context.

Now consider this question from his writings which he puts forth to assert the futility of religion : “The great cultural question before us is therefore this: can we manage to preserve what is numinous and transcendent and ecstatic without giving any more room to the superstitious and the supernatural”. If his “anti-theism”, is indeed about “preserving the numinous and transcendent” while questioning “superstitions and supernatural”, a lot of practicing Hindus, like me, would find it supplementary to their spiritual ideas than find it contradictory to them. I would go a step ahead and ask: should that not be the essential goal of spirituality? It would be worth noting that scholars like Kapila, Jabali and Kanada and many others who can be termed as “agnostic” and “atheistic” in today’s sense, were not just revered as Rishis in India but their ideas were celebrated as inseparable part of Hindu spirituality. Patanjali, one of the foremost teachers of Yoga, never mandated 'belief in God' as a requirement for the practice of spirituality in his Yoga Sutras. Belief, for him, as to most Hindus, was just an aid at best. Swami Vivekananda in his message of Vedanta went a step further, to say that ‘mystical things “are generally signs of a weak mind” and that “as soon as they are becoming prominent in our minds, we should see a physician, take good food and rest.”

 Just a year before Hitchens was diagnosed with his fatal condition, he wrote about the role of objectivity and skepticism and about the “small progress” that has been made in the “basic realization that diseases are not punishments”. Ironically, in his last days he would hear the very rant of the people whose religion had blinded them from achieving even this “small progress”. In that sense, his view on religion was indeed vindicated.

Through the days that he had come to realize were his last, he celebrated through his wit, the fact that cancer, which had already taken away his voice, was not able to take away his convictions. One of his last scribble was “If I convert it’s because it’s better that a believer dies than that an atheist does.”


  1. स्वगुरोः रामकृष्णस्य विषये ऽपि किमेवम् अवदिष्यत् विवेकानन्दः?

  2. Nice post.. As indicated in the post, among the six schools of indian philosophy only two believed in existence of god, mimamsa and vedanta. Surely there was acceptance for atheiest philosophies in Hinduism.


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