Today is the distinguished Samuel Johnson’s 308th birthday. Born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, England on 18 September 1709, Johnson is described by the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as “arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history”. He is undoubtedly a key figure in the Enlightenment and the development of the modern English language. When I was pondering the remarkable work of Johnson, I recalled a story within an oration by Christopher Hitchens. Addressing the issue of free speech, Hitchens describes a curious exchange shortly after the publication of Johnson’s first dictionary. The following short passage is from a transcript of Hitchens’ speech, made at Toronto’s Hart House Debating Club in November 2006.
When it was complete, Dr. Johnson was waited upon by various delegations of people to congratulate him, of the nobility, of the quality, of the Commons, of the Lords — and also by a delegation of respectable ladies of London, who tended on him at his Fleet Street lodgings, and congratulated him. “Dr. Johnson,” they said, “we are delighted to find that you have not included any indecent or obscene words in your dictionary.” “Ladies,” said Dr. Johnson, “I congratulate you on being able to look them up.”
To be clear, we undoubtedly live in a world in which there is great injustice, hatred and bigotry. But we spend far too much time arguing about trivialities, rather than focusing on what really matters. If you actively seek offence, then you shall surely find it. Aidan
The faithful are playing with reference to a different set of rules when arguing for the merits of religion based on faith alone. Faith, by definition, requires no tangible evidence. But claims from the faithful about human history can be countered by the inquisitive atheist. We all have access to a plethora of terrestrial historical accounts which were not gleaned from divine revelation. In this edition of the podcast, Aidan explores the classic argument of the faithful against atheism when discussing human history. This argument – especially prevalent whenever the issue of violence or hatred is discussed – is that Adolf Hitler was an atheist. The inferred claim is that this godlessness demonstrates the danger of turning away from the moral teachings of the church. Another aspect of the argument which is often thrown in as an addendum is a charge that the Third Reich was a secular movement. How much merit is there in these claims? Did Hitler reject God, and if he did, did this make a difference to human history? And how secular was Hitler’s Nazi regime? Aidan delves into the argument to provide grounded insight and analysis. Indeed, as with the claims of the holy books, the introduction of earthly evidence is crucial when one desires to separate fact from fiction. Selected bibliography: J. Cornwell, Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII A. Hitler (ed. N. Baynes), The Speeches of Adolf Hitler A. Hitler, Mein Kampf C. Hitchens, God Is Not Great G. Orwell, Literature and Totalitarianism
Additional Aidan Project content on related persons:
A scene from the religious satire, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, 1979, directed by Terry Jones.
My latest podcast, Notes on Belief, in which I argue that beliefs matter and are open to reasonable scrutiny.
The phrase, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” was famously offered by Carl Sagan as a response to beliefs formed despite a lack of tangible certification. Christopher Hitchens, likewise, stated that, “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”
These quotes typify my approach to unsubstantiated claims and superstitious beliefs. I released a podcast on June 15, Notes on Belief, which was well-received by the majority of those who heard it (and listened to the argument carefully). As I was so grateful to receive such positive feedback, I have decided – in case you missed them – to point out a selection of other Aidan Project podcasts in which irrational religious beliefs are rightly challenged. I am quite sure that more such episodes will follow, as there are no shortage of theocratic outrages deserving criticism, in the past, in the present and, inevitably, in the future.
It is imperative that society tackles the issues surrounding belief honestly. No free pass for religion, ever. My mission is to speak candidly and to challenge abhorrent ideas.
Liberalism does not mean rolling over for fear of causing offence. Liberalism means standing up for decency and veracity in pursuit of a just world, not apologising for the obscenities of others. I want to do something during my fleeting existence that, even in the most minute way, pushes society towards a brighter future. It is a rather modest, microscopic, contribution amongst such a vast array of discourse, but it is my own.
“Israel is not the biggest problem in the Middle East, by a long shot. But you wouldn’t know that from the disproportionate way in which the UN has treated the country.”
29 December 2016
The dispute between Israel and the Palestinians remains as contentious as ever, but other issues in the Middle East in 2016, principally the conflict in Syria, momentarily sidelined the Palestinian question from the front pages. However, the recent vote of the United Nations Security Council to declare Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories as illegal has again raised the conflict’s media profile. The UNSC decision was only made possible due to then US President, Barack Obama, making the controversial call that the US would not use its veto to counteract the motion. The Israel-Palestine question gained further traction when then President-elect, Donald Trump, said he would reverse Obama’s policy. If we are approaching anything resembling peace, if not order, in Syria, following the truce brokered by Russia and Turkey, it could be that the Middle East’s big story in 2017 will again be this long-running dispute between Israeli and Palestine.
The nation of Israel itself was created in 1948, when the United Kingdom ended its mandate of Palestine, which it had held since 1917 following the Balfour Declaration. The Declaration had installed Palestine as a home for Jews. The key rationale for Britain handing Palestine back to the United Nations was essentially to focus on domestic matters, the Empire having been ravaged by war. Britain could no longer hold on to Palestine; attacks on British soldiers by Zionist terrorists certainly helped foster a feeling that this was a territory no longer worth holding. Of course, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. I would have no hesitation in calling a Palestinian who blows himself to pieces on a crowded bus in Tel Aviv a terrorist, but I would also freely refer to the 1946 attack on the King David hotel by Irgun (The National Military Organization in the Land of Israel) as an act of terrorism. On July 22 1946, 91 people of various nationalities were killed, and 46 injured, following the bombing by this right-wing Zionist group.
This example is not given to be provocative, but to illustrate that perspective is everything. In both cases, I feel acts of terrorism were committed. Others may feel one of these examples to be completely justifiable (according to their religious, nationalist or political persuasions), whilst labelling the other example as unjust. To each their own.
Since the political existence of Israel as a nation state, it has been attacked on numerous occasions by its Arab neighbours, and has been the victim of countless terrorist attacks. Ironically, the results of these wars have generally been victories and additional territory acqusitions for Israel. You will often hear the term “1967 borders”, which refers to the Six Day War in which Israel captured the Gaza Strip, Sinai, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights, soundly defeating a coalition of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. You mess with the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) at your peril. Not only do you get a beating, but you leave with less than you started with.
The territory of Israel comprises some of the most holy lands in existence for Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. Depending on your interpretation of history and how far you wish to go back in time, there are numerous claims to the land, and most crucially, that of Jerusalem itself. Despite a long-term peace process and the general reconciliation of Israel with Egypt and Jordan, Israelis and Palestinians have failed to reach a final peace agreement. Indeed, it has been complicated from the very beginning of Israel’s statehood. There were factions within the Jewish faith that were opposed to Jews returning to what is now Israel at the time of the Balfour Declaration due to religious objections. Literalists believe that Jews should only return to the Holy Land once God has given a clear signal that it was time to do so.
Once again, religion, as with so many conflicts, plays the most significant part of this age-old struggle, as it does with Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, Muslims and Hindus in Kashmir, as it did with Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Muslims in the former Yugoslavia, to name but a few of many depressing examples. The primary issue dividing Israelis and Palestinians, from a non-secular perspective at least, is that of the Holy Land. There is no question that history will not judge such a petty dispute favourably, but it is a problem endemic within religious faith. It is quite clear that if faith were not an issue, there would not even be a territorial dispute to speak of, because the Zionist movement for a home in the holy lands would never have occurred. It all appears so obscene to this non-theist, but had I been born in Ramallah or Jerusalem, I accept that I may very well feel differently. However, this says far more about the mindless indoctrination of innoncent children than about my particular gullibility.
After 1993, with the ambitious Oslo peace process, Israel recognized the Palestinian Liberation Organisation as the representative of the Palestinian people, though, rather importantly, Israel does not recognize the State of Palestine. In return for the concession of recognising the PLO, it was agreed that Palestinians would promote peaceful co-existence, renounce violence and promote recognition of Israel among their own people. However, despite Yasser Arafat’s official renunciation of terrorism and the recognition of Israel, some Palestinian groups continue to practice and advocate violence against civilians and do not recognize Israel as a legitimate political entity. Two years after his efforts in Oslo, Israel’s Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated by a domestic assailant as a curt thank you for his attempts to seek peace with the Palestinians.
Since 2006, the Palestinian side has been fractured by conflict between the two major factions: Fatah, the traditionally dominant party, and its later electoral challenger, Hamas. Indeed, in the important eyes of the West, much harm has been done to the Palestinian cause by the rise of Hamas. The latest round of peace negotiations began in July 2013 but were quickly suspended without a hint of progress. Many attempts have been made to broker a two-state solution, which would officially sanction the birth of an independent Palestinian state. In polls conducted around a decade ago, the majority of both Israelis and Palestinians preferred the two-state solution over any other as a means of resolving the conflict. Moreover, a majority of Jews saw the Palestinian demand for an independent state as just. Regardless, a lack of trust and no shortage of disagreements have prevented meaningful progress.
Counter-radicalisation expert, Maajid Nawaz, wrote a much shared article for the Daily Beast in December 2016. Nawaz, a former extremist, but now deeply involved in steering others from this deadly path, wrote a thought-provoking piece, which noted, correctly in my view, a degree of hypocrisy in the way in which Israel is handled by the wider world, and how the Palestinians are not given enough intellectual credit.
Nawaz wrote: “Israel is not the biggest problem in the Middle East, by a long shot. But you wouldn’t know that from the disproportionate way in which the UN has treated the country.”
Referring to the Jewish presence of 500,000 settlers in any future Palestinian state being deemed an obstacle to the two state solution, Nawaz asked a pointed question: are Palestinians not capable of building a multiethnic state just like Israelis? Nawaz reflected, “Is this how low the standard is to which Western leftists hold Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims?” Nawaz continued, “We who have been pro-Palestine have become our own worst enemies. When new thinking on any issue is instantly labeled treacherous, only inward looking violently inbred and dogmatic ideologies such as jihadism can thrive.”
Away from the political talks, humanitarian considerations or social challenges, only God knows how to solve this mess. After all, he created the problem. Or rather, mankind created God, and then man created the problem in his image. It is near impossible to reason with anyone, Jewish, Muslim… Scientologist; with anyone whose worldview is based on blind dogmatic faith. Mankind needs to wake-up to what is real and what is simply make-believe. We need to stop forcing this nonsense on children. As Christopher Hitchens said, “Religion poisons everything.”
If you enjoyed this podcast companion, please let me know and I will look at producing more of these. ***
In this episode, The Art of Terror, I will be looking at the War on Terror, in addition to Edmund Clark’s thought-provoking exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, London, entitled War *of* Terror. This adapted name is quite deliberate, as will become clear within this episode. The artist-photographer, Clark, has visited Guantanamo Bay, along with the homes of persons who have been held under house arrest here in the United Kingdom. In a world in which ISIS and other groups sympathetic to the Jihadist cause are committing regular atrocities in the Middle East and, indeed, much closer to ‘home’, Western-speaking, we must surely offer strong support for robust governmental action to tackle terrorism. But – and this is the key – it needs to be effective and proportionate. Is it really a case of no pain, no gain? Is torture ever morally acceptable? Indeed, can the War on Terror ever be fought with our morals intact? This episode also looks at the West’s best options for tackling extremism; options which, frustratingly, are being suffocated by the ‘regressive left’. Furthermore, and very much linked to the work of would-be reformers, the power of belief in the supernatural is a significant factor in the War on Terror, which this episode explores in detail. Did George W. Bush’s belief in God lead to the invasion of Iraq? Thank you for tuning in. You can follow my work on Twitter @theaidanproject.
What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.
The world desperately misses Christopher Hitchens. I certainly know that I do. Whilst I never met the man, somehow, in a way that is beyond me to explain, I feel like I did. I certainly wish that I had.
Hitchens possessed a beautifully eloquent, unparalleled ability to speak thought-provoking common sense without any undue reverence to his opponent. The United Kingdom’s embarrassing exit from Europe, and Donald Trump’s evisceration of decency at the highest level would have been meat and drink to Hitchens. Moreover, I am quite certain that Hitchens would have had little patience for the internecine conflict within the left and its ceaseless self-strangulation. This illogical balancing act of many well-intentioned liberals has a lot to answer for, including, I would argue, those two 2016 blockbusters previously mentioned. Hitchens saw himself as a liberal, broadly defined. But he would not tie himself down to ideology. He was in favour of the Iraq War. He spoke favourably of Margaret Thatcher. And he absolutely loathed Bill Clinton. And I mean really loathed. The latter point would have made Hitchens’ articulate foray into the vacuum of honesty that was the Presidential race all the more fascinating. Although I am quite sure that Hitchens would have abhorred Trump, he would not have taken kindly to Hillary, either, on whose husband he wrote the scathing book, No One Left To Lie To,in 1999. Hitchens, who was born in England but would later become an American citizen, died of cancer in 2011 at the premature age of 62. Premature not simply for him, but for a world which needs his unique qualities now more than ever. I assume that it is because of this sense of loss, selfish as it is, that I have found myself referring back to so much of his voluminous work in recent months. Reading Hitchens’ polemics or watching him on the debate podium is something of a temporary antidote to the stupidity, ignorance and lies that have blighted 2016. Hitchens versus Nigel Farage? First round knockout for Hitch. If, somehow, the battle made it out of the first round, there would no doubt be a blood stoppage from the referee to save Farage from life-altering injuries. Hitchens could go the distance, but he seldom had to. He was the Muhammad Ali of rational argument. He had swagger, for sure, but his ability to propel his arguments with energy and panache was unmatched. He floated like a liberal, but he stung like a bee. Nobody had a quip like Christopher Hitchens. He had a return volley for everything. Speaking during one of his countless debates with committed theists, Hitchens said, “We’re half a chromosome away from chimpanzees and it shows. It especially shows in the number of religions we invent to console ourselves or to give us things to quarrel with other primates about.” Hitchens was not afraid to cause offence in the process of putting across his argument, yet he was so gifted an orator, the most offensive aspect about him was simply how damn intelligent he was. A side of Hitchens that all too many have perhaps not seen, as he is often regarded, unfairly, as simply an angry, atheist intellectual, was his incredible wit. An example of this comedic intelligence is a word game which is featured in his memoirs. The basis of the game is to replace a word within a well-known book title with a similar, but rather less effective one. The results are non-bestselling titles such as Mister Zhivago, For Whom The Bell Rings, and the unsurpassable Good Expectations.
Back to reality and, indeed, this time of madness, complete as it is with much burying of heads in the sand, I certainly have low expectations. However, if we can be serious about waking up from our collective coma of confusion, then perhaps, inspired by the unapologetic rationality of Hitchens, our expectations can indeed be great. To be sure, he was the greatest. Aidan
The Aidan Project wants to be heard! Please take a moment to share this content. Thank you.