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Christopher Hitchens: A Conference Controversy

Christopher Hitchens
At the Freedom From Religion Foundation's 2007 conference in Madison, WI, Christopher Hitchens was awarded the group's "The Emperor Has No Clothes" award. Since 1999, this award has been given annually to celebrate a public figure's "plain speaking" on the shortcomings of religion. Well known for his atheism and antitheism, and currently on tour for his most recent book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Hitchens is a well-deserving candidate for the award.

Someone unfamiliar with his work (or reputation) might have been surprised with the vehemence with which he laid down his opinions. There was no compassion for those whose beliefs he was condemning, nor for the innocents in the countries he suggests the U.S. attack, specifically Iran. He was equally ruthless when answering audience questions, at once point he even informed an audience member that he "could have asked that question fifty times better."

In the end, many audience members were left wondering if he deserved the opportunity to speak, and some even questioned the award itself. While he gave many good examples of precisely how religion poisons things, he did so in a manner that left conference-goers discussing his attitude as much as, if not more than his arguments.

Matthew LaClairMatthew LaClair, another FFRF award recipient and conference speaker, questioned the wisdom of holding someone like Hitchens up as a public frontman for the entire secular movement. "It's kind of a disaster for the entire group," he argues. "If he's going to be the spokesman for the entire idea of atheism, agnosticism and freethinking groups, that's really damaging for the image that we have."

Hitchens is well known for his initial and continued support of the war in Iraq, and audience questions quickly turned the discussion to that topic. However, his policy of continuing the war against the religious jihad and mounting their losses to the point where they are unwilling to continue the fight. He also is adamant that we press Iran as well, destroying that country before it can develop nuclear technology.

One "concerned FFRF member" was so outraged by Hitchens support from the war that he took the sightseeing break after Hitchens speech to write up an open letter, which he distributed to conferencegoers before and after the evening's events. "Hitchens' fine arguments against religion are vastly outweighed by his truly nutsy continued support for the Iraq war and his drumbeats for expanding it to Iran," the letter states. The concerned member goes so far as to say that it was a "serious mistake for the FFRF to invite Hitchens to speakā€¦and give him an award."
Amanda Metskas, executive director of Camp Quest and a PhD candidate in political science, had her own reaction to Hitchens' policy suggestions.
Amanda MetskasI think Hitchens did a good job identifying the problems posed by Islamic extremism, but he did a poor job providing a solution to those problems. He didn't provide a convincing justification for why continuing our current policy in Iraq and using a similar policy towards Iran will lead to better results in the future than we are seeing in Iraq right now. The evidence that we are seeing coming back from Iraq suggests that our current policy is producing more radicalized Islamic militants, not fewer. Hitchens' glib response during the Q&A was that bombing militants kills them, and so bombing means there are fewer of them. That response ignores the fact that the vast majority of the Iraqi people are not militants, but it is impossible for American military operations to perfectly differentiate the militants from the ordinary civilians. The increasing numbers of civilian casualties in Iraq due to 'collateral damage' from U.S. military operations and the inability of the military to provide adequate security for Iraqi civilians leads to more Iraqi people becoming radicalized and joining militant groups, and creates the spiral we are seeing of increasing violence and instability.

Yet, there is some silver lining to the controversy. August Brunsman, executive director for the Secular Student Alliance, has this to say about Hitchens' presentation.

August BrunsmanIt is my day job to encourage people to engage in critical and scientific dialog. Part of the deal is the marketplace of ideas and allowing different points of view to be powerfully and reasonably argued. Yet at atheist and humanist conferences we can spend a lot of time talking about how much we agree with each other. It can get a little old to keep talking about how much "those other folks" need to get their act together and start thinking like we do. If we freethinkers do argue, it's typically about what we want to call ourselves - an interesting tactical question, but not really all that consequential to the world outside of our conferences.

Christopher Hitchens (both at this conference and at the Atheist Alliance International gathering two weeks earlier in Washington, D.C.) said a lot of things of serious consequence that much of the audience disagreed with him about. While I personally disagreed with a good chunk of what he said, it was refreshing to hear some ideas at our events that jarred my ears and caused me to reconsider conclusions with which I'd long been comfortable. I'd personally like to hear more that I disagree with at freethought events - as long as it is well reasoned and evidenced.

Elizabeth R.A. Liddell, Editor-in-ChiefElizabeth R.A. Liddell is the Editor-in-Chief of the SSA eMpirical. When she's not volunteering for the SSA, she might be found working at a well-loved coffee shop, writing, editing other projects, playing a wide variety of instruments, or (seeing as it's October) making apple pies.

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