Christopher Hitchens: It is the height of immorality to lie to people about what you really know about death

That is, nothing.

I agree with Christopher Hitchens that religion is shameless in its manipulations of death fears via the carrot and stick of heaven and hell: it really is a moral outrage. One should never claim more about death—or anything, for that matter—than you really can know. But I think that Hitchens then claims more than he really can know.

I’m forgiving of Hitchens, however. Obviously his motive is to offer a salve to the psychologically oppressed: a blessed assurance—via Epicurus—that hell is not in the offing, but only a dreamless sleep.  But he doesn’t know. Hamlet was more cautious (and rightly confused):

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to Christopher Hitchens: It is the height of immorality to lie to people about what you really know about death

  1. Good point about Hitchens doing the very thing that he criticizes in others. I consider myself an agnostic about life after death, and in my opinion religion should be about how we can live the religious life in the here and now rather than basing everything on an uncertain and unknown future after we die. It is fair game to criticize religions that focus on an afterlife, but to criticize them for making unknowable claims about the afterlife and then in the next breath to make bold assertions of one’s own about the same topic–well, Hitchens certainly embodies chutzpah, if nothing else.

  2. We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

    — Richard Dawkins, excerpt from Chapter I, “The Anaesthetic of Familiarity,” of Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder (1998)

  3. Gunlord says:

    Well, to be fair, it’s an open question as to how little the religions know about death. I mean, you have near-death experiences, visions of the afterlife, that sort of thing–I know I’ve heard a few folks say they’ve seen Heaven, and a couple say they’ve seen terrifying visions of Hell.

    Now, granted, these could just be delusions, or made up, or whatever, but I’d say there are at least a few people who sincerely believe they really do know something of the afterlife, whether they’ve had one of those NDEs and caught a glimpse of what lay beyond the light at the end of the tunnel, or whatever. Again, they could be mistaken, but in that case, it’s an honest mistake, not just outright immorality.

    Also, I applaud Gato for posting a quote from Unweaving the Rainbow. I almost never fail to crack a smile whenever I see something from that book, honestly it was one of the more amusingly pathetic things written by a scientist I’ve ever come across. Have you ever read it, Santi? There’s an electronic copy somebody scanned and posted on the Internet that you can get for free, though the legality is pretty dubious. If a local library doesn’t have a physical copy of the book, though, it might be worth doing a Google search for.

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