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I am Albert Einstein, and I heartily approve of this blog, insofar as it seems to believe both in science and the importance of intellectual imagination, uncompromised by out of date emotions such as the impulse toward conventional religious beliefs, national aggression as a part of patriotism, and so on.   As I once remarked, the further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge.   Certainly the application of the impulse toward blind faith in science whereby authority is treated as some kind of church is to be deplored.  As I have also said, the only thing that ever interfered with my learning was my education. I am Freeman Dyson, and I approve of this blog, but would warn the author that life as a heretic is a hard one, since the ignorant and the half informed, let alone those who should know better, will automatically trash their betters who try to enlighten them with independent thinking, as I have found to my sorrow in commenting on "global warming" and its cures.
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Hitchens’ religious impulse

HIV∫AIDS science snookers author of God Is Not Great

Intellectual vulnerability of normally acerbic critic of fond fantasies

dawkinsrichard_lres.gifIt’s been five years since Richard Dawkins appeared at the high tech entertainment conference TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) in Monterey, and told the rich elite of Hollywood and Silicon Valley that he wanted the atheists among them to come out of the closet.

It was time, he said, for people to stand up and stand for their non-belief, given that a few months earlier 19 Allah-inspired lunatics had flown jumbos into the World Trade Center in the belief they would then enjoy seventy four virgins each in Hotel Paradise.

After this plea for sanity he was escorted to lunch by about seven of his most enthusiastic admirers among the audience. One of them turned to this magazine correspondent as we walked along and said, “You won’t mention my name, will you?”

Atheists break out of the closet

Since then, however, progress has been made. Dawkins’ The God Delusion is on the best seller lists, after a wave of respectful coverage of atheists in magazines as mainstream as Wired which kicked off the new era by publishing The Church of the Non-Believers a nicely sympathetic survey of Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett by Gary Wolf, who only wavered toward the end, after allowing the three big New Atheist authors to drive one nail after another into God’s coffin.

Atheists are stepping up to the plate and scoring home runs against the best that the religious minded can pitch at them, and in only a couple of years we have a whole new literature of disbelief, something that anyone like us who treasures reason, evidence and the scientific approach to reality can only applaud.

What is interesting is that much of it has been achieved by Sam Harris, a scientist who has a remarkable talent for diplomacy. We first noticed him on CSpan, talking to an audience in a California synagogue and telling them in effect that the petty superstitions of their Judaic beliefs were, like the dogmas of Christianity and Islam, so much irrational hogwash which only excited tribal conflict between believers, problems ranging from petty difficulties over diet to to mass murder by airplane.

Instead of throwing their skull caps at him, the congregation sat enthralled, asking respectful questions and afterwards asking him to sign their copies of The End of Faith, his initial masterwork in this vein. Sam Harris has a magical reasonableness in his winning style, causing no offense even as he shows people that what they believe in is absurd. Somehow he makes them fellow members of the Club of Common Sense, as comfortable as if they had thought of it themselves.

Now he has written Letter to a Christian Nation, equally devastating to the gobbledegook we all (speaking as a fully paid up member of the Church of England here) subscribed to while growing up. Anyone who likes having unexamined beliefs skewered should rush to order this book.

Exploding with tact

The point is that skepticism on religion has now entered polite conversation at last, thanks partly to the tactful way in which Sam Harris can address believers. This manages to satisfy the widespread convention that we must respect each other’s religious beliefs, however zany. The protocol doesn’t make much sense, if you think about it. Are religious beliefs so vulnerable to close examination?

It would seem so, otherwise why should we be afraid of the challenge, and equate it to blasphemy? Does God need protection from reason, the supposedly God given ability which separates humans from animals? It seems that the confusion is between a man and his belief, as if the two are one, and any undermining of the belief is an ad hominem attack. This confusion is telling, we believe. It suggests that religious belief is rooted deep into the brain and body, far below the level of ratiocination.

The paradox is that Sam Harris is preaching exactly the opposite of this exaggerated politesse, as it happens. He says it is time to stop automatically “respecting” people’s religious nonsense, and do our best to get rid of it once and for all. Do we really have to believe that Mary was a virgin? He doesn’t believe so. Dawkins of course has always urged that religious beliefs shouldn’t be ruled by I’m OK, You’re OK, and the very idea seems to make him a little bad tempered. Tactful or not, both seem to agree that people should be discouraged from finding comfort in fantasies which end up causing tribal conflict.

Hitchens with flamethrower

hitchens470.jpgNow Christopher Hitchens has come on the scene with God Is Not Great, which in the spirit of straightforward contradiction of its title makes no bones about scornfully dismissing the whole pack of lies which make up most religious schemes, established or not. We say bully for him. Hitchens is a class act who brings excellent language to bear on political hypocrisy and scammery on all kinds, and it is time he turned and applied his skills to the grandest target of all.

However, we are saddened to see that his otherwise shining pages are flawed here and there by his unthinking participation in a religion which he may not even be aware exists as such, but may now have a congregation large than any of the established myths he is skewering. This is the scientific religion of HIV∫AIDS, of which the central dogma, as yet without any confirming proof or even evidence which resists objective examination, is that the retrovirus HIV causes AIDS.

We found this for example on pages 48 and 49:

A condom is, quite simply, a necessary but not sufficient condition for avoiding the transmission of AIDS….

We do not know how many people in Africa have died or will die because of the AIDS virus, which was isolated and became treatable, in a great feat of humane scientific research, very soon after it made its lethal appearcne. On the other hand, we do know that having sex with a virgin–one of the more peopular local cures–does not in fact prevent or banish the infection….

(At least two major and established religions) also harbor the belief that the AIDS plague is in some sense a verdict from heaven upon sexual deviance

The major generals of AIDS

The high priests of the HIV∫AIDS faith now include President William Clinton, who will accept an award and give a speech at the gathering of the Global Business Coalition Against AIDS at the American Natural History Musuem tonight, and who earlier this year garnered another award from business for his HIV∫AIDS drug enabling at the TED Conference in Monterey; Anthony Fauci, the smooth suited leader of NIAID at the NIH, Jeffrey Sachs, of Columbia University, Bono, Bill Gates, and now it appears Richard ‘Virgin Airlines’ Branson, the balloon flying impresario with the alchemic touch who is also appearing at the AMNH tonight.

While Hitchens would not normally take what such eminent and distinguished leaders of the business community say for gospel, it appears that the difficulty is that in this case, we are talking about science, and science does not come within the expertise or understanding of literary giants even of the stature of the talkative, chain smoking “Never call me Chris” Christopher, a friend of Martin Amis and a columnist in Vanity Fair who teaches a course in liberal studies at the New School in Manhattan.

Hitchen’s scientific paralysis

When we informed him a few years ago at the Columbia Faculty Club that HIV∫AIDS was a scientific religion rather than a proven hypothesis, and appeared to have almost everything against it as far as reason and evidence were concerned, he could only plead that he was unable to question science, since he was totally unable to read its literature.

More recently, Celia Farber got on the phone with him and tried to enlighten him as to what was going on, but again, he could only say that in effect his hands were tied by lack of understanding of science and he was forced to accept whatever he was told.

This is a familiar keynote of writers about politics, we find, even when they write about the politics of AIDS. We have mentioned before in this blog that a young author of a doomsaying book about AIDS told us the same thing about the science of the matter – “I just accept what the scientists tell me.”

We wonder how many members of the general public realize how far beyond critical examination HIV∫AIDS science is, even when its politics are discussed in the media. It is not just the censorship exerted upon science writers by the NIAID strategy of repressing any enquiry as to the rights and wrongs on the paradigm. It is that liberals in general suffer from mental paralysis if they so much as glimpse a page of scientific discussion.

Literati need to be less naive

Perhaps it would all change if literary critics and creators would understand the simple proposition that a scientific belief, like any academic ruling conventional wisdom which serves as a paradigm in a field off which its people live and flourish, can turn into a religion, a sacrosanct dogma which cannot be examined without the questioner being rejected and reviled as a heretic beyond the tribal pale, even when he or she may be an elite member of the science’s most exclusive club, its priesthood.

Luc Montagnier, the discovered of HIV, found that out years ago when he had the temerity to arrive at the San Francisco AIDS Conference with the news that a mycoplasma was the sine qua non of HIV∫AIDS. Gallo and Fauci et al would not allow him on the premises. Poor Montagnier, more of a gentleman than any of them, had to give his press conference in a hotel, and fly straight back to Paris afterwards.

That is why we are glad that religion in general is getting its comeuppance from the New Atheists these days, even extending to a nice ABC 20/20 examination over two hours a month or two ago. Their debunking was gently done, but often made faith look foolish, especially when the rather comely new female head of the atheists’ organization spoke.

Mormon madhouse

A similar effect was won on PBS by the recent saga of the history of the Mormons and their founder Joseph Smith, with his silly tale of finding tablets in a field out back of his farmhouse, who were made to look farcical with their claims of native Americans being descendants of Israelites shipped to the Americas before Columbus, despite lack of DNA or archaeological evidence. Perhaps Governor Romney will be able to explain all this better during his run for the Presidency.

Defenders used the word “intellectualism” to label the reasonable objections brought against this twaddle, but we say, if Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, Hitchens and other preachers like to pull all the stops out against the religious impulse running away with rationality and common sense, let them. Then perhaps people will realise better what can happen or is happening in fields like HIV∫AIDS, which currently all the evidence indicates is the Worldcom and Enron of science rolled into one, competing with Christianity and Islam for the title of the world greatest religion.

Religion in science

There really is a great danger is not recognizing the power of the religious impulse and its tendency to spread in any field of human endeavor. In the coverage of the Mormons on PBS recently, for example, their young missionaries made it clear that they were so far gone in their fervor while on their obligatory mission in foreign countries that they would have willingly strapped on bombs if so ordered.

Jonathan Miller spoke at the New School some time ago in a panel, and we went to hear him out of admiration for his style as director and host of interesting scientific coverage on PBS. But when we told him that scientists like any other humans could suffer from the religious impulse he denied it vociferously.

We understand why, but it is this kind of exaggerated faith in good science and the way it is done at the top which is the dangerous naivete which good people such as Miller must be educated out of.

Especially such important and sanitizing critics as Christopher Hitchens.

One Response to “Hitchens’ religious impulse”

  1. MartinDKessler Says:

    It’s an interesting analogy to have the major atheist writers like Hitchens, Harris, or Dawkins who have scrutinized religious beliefs to also have then look at the religion of AIDS. Too bad that they “believing” that AIDS is a scientific/medical subject and is therefore outside the pervue of their skepticism. As I have read books and articles by both lay and scientific people on AIDS Rethinking, having the so-called necessary scientific credentials is really not that important. (Although the better equipped one is in related scientific disciplines, the less one will be bamboozled by those who would pull the wool over one’s eyes.) What is necessary is courage to look beneath the surface and a logical common-sense attitude. That’s usually lacking in many academics. Also I think the ability to “connect the dots” comes in real handy.

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