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Honouring Christopher Hitchens

[Update 7-Nov]thanks to Malgorzata - Polish translation

Richard's award speech at the award banquet (mp4)

A link to purchase the set of DVD's for the conference will be posted when it's available

Text of speech presenting the Richard Dawkins Award on behalf of Atheist Alliance of America, Houston, 8th October 2011

Today I am called upon to honour a man whose name will be joined, in the history of our movement, with those of Bertrand Russell, Robert Ingersoll, Thomas Paine, David Hume.

He is a writer and an orator with a matchless style, commanding a vocabulary and a range of literary and historical allusion far wider than anybody I know. And I live in Oxford, his alma mater and mine.

He is a reader, whose breadth of reading is simultaneously so deep and comprehensive as to deserve the slightly stuffy word ‘learned’ – except that Christopher is the least stuffy learned person you will ever meet.

He is a debater, who will kick the stuffing out of a hapless victim, yet he does it with a grace that disarms his opponent while simultaneously eviscerating him. He is emphatically not of the (all too common) school that thinks the winner of a debate is he who shouts loudest. His opponents may shout and shriek. Indeed they do. But Hitch doesn’t need to shout. His words, his polymathic store of facts and allusions, his commanding generalship of the field of discourse, the fork lightning of his wit . . . I tried to sum it up in my review of God is not great in the Times of London:

There is much fluttering in the dovecots of the deluded, and Christopher Hitchens is one of those responsible. Another is the philosopher A. C. Grayling. I recently shared a platform with both. We were to debate against a trio of, as it turned out, rather half-hearted religious apologists ("Of course I don't believe in a God with a long white beard, but . . ."). I hadn't met Hitchens before, but I got an idea of what to expect when Grayling emailed me to discuss tactics. After proposing a couple of lines for himself and me, he concluded, ". . . and Hitch will spray AK47 ammo at the enemy in characteristic style".

Grayling's engaging caricature misses Hitchens's ability to temper his pugnacity with old-fashioned courtesy. And "spray" suggests a scattershot fusillade, which underestimates the deadly accuracy of his marksmanship. If you are a religious apologist invited to debate with Christopher Hitchens, decline. His witty repartee, his ready-access store of historical quotations, his bookish eloquence, his effortless flow of well-formed and beautifully spoken words, would threaten your arguments even if you had good ones to deploy. A string of reverends and "theologians" ruefully discovered this during Hitchens's barnstorming book tour around the United States.

With characteristic effrontery, he took his tour through the Bible Belt states — the reptilian brain of southern and middle America, rather than the easier pickings of the country's cerebral cortex to the north and down the coasts. The plaudits he received were all the more gratifying. Something is stirring in that great country.

Christopher Hitchens is known as a man of the left. Except that he is too complex a thinker to be placed on a single left-right dimension. Parenthetically, I have long been surprised that the very idea of a single left-right political spectrum works at all. Psychologists need many mathematical dimensions in order to locate human personality, and why should political opinion be any different? With most people, it is surprising how much of the variance is explained by the single dimension we call left-right. If you know somebody’s opinion on, say, the death penalty, you can usually guess their opinion on taxation or public health.

But Christopher is a one-off. He is unclassifiable. He might be described as a contrarian except that he has specifically and correctly disavowed the title. He is uniquely placed in his own multidimensional space. You don’t know what he will say about anything until you hear him say it, and when he does he will say it so well, and back it up so fully, that if you want to argue against him you’d better be on your guard.

He is known throughout the world as one of the leading public intellectuals anywhere. He has written many books and countless articles. He is an intrepid traveller and a war reporter of signal valour.

But of course he has a special place in our affections here as the leading intellect and scholar of our atheist / secular movement. A formidable adversary to the pretentious, the woolly-minded or the intellectually dishonest, he is a gently encouraging friend to the young, to the diffident, to those tentatively feeling their way into the life of the freethinker and not certain where it will take them.

We treasure his bon mots and I’ll just quote a few of my favourites.

From the penetratingly logical . . .

“That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”

To the cuttingly witty:

“Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases that's where it should stay.”

To the courageously unconventional:

“[Mother Teresa] was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.”

The following is vintage Hitch:

“I suppose that one reason I have always detested religion is its sly tendency to insinuate the idea that the universe is designed with 'you' in mind or, even worse, that there is a divine plan into which one fits whether one knows it or not. This kind of modesty is too arrogant for me.”

And what about this:

“Organised religion is violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.”

And this:

“Everything about Christianity is contained in the pathetic image of 'the flock’.”

His respect for women and their rights shines forth:

“Who are your favorite heroines in real life? The women of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran who risk their lives and their beauty to defy the foulness of theocracy.”

Though not a scientist and with no pretensions in that direction, he understands the importance of science in the advancement of our species and the destruction of religion and superstition:

““One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody – not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms – had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance and other infantile needs). Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion . . .”

He has inspired and energised and encouraged us. He has us cheering him on almost daily. He's even begotten a new word – the hitchslap. We don't just admire his intellect, we admire his pugnacity, his spirit, his refusal to countenance ignoble compromise, his forthrightness, his indomitable spirit, his brutal honesty.

And in the very way he is looking his illness in the eye, he is embodying one part of the case against religion. Leave it to the religious to mewl and whimper at the feet of an imaginary deity in their fear of death; leave it to them to spend their lives in denial of its reality. Hitch is looking it squarely in the eye: not denying it, not giving in to it, but facing up to it squarely and honestly and with a courage that inspires us all.

Before his illness, it was as an erudite author and essayist, a sparkling, devastating speaker that this valiant horseman led the charge against the follies and lies of religion. Since his illness he has added another weapon to his armoury and ours – perhaps the most formidable and powerful weapon of all: his very character has become an outstanding and unmistakable symbol of the honesty and dignity of atheism, as well as of the worth and dignity of the human being when not debased by the infantile babblings of religion.

Every day he is demonstrating the falsehood of that most squalid of Christian lies: that there are no atheists in foxholes. Hitch is in a foxhole, and he is dealing with it with a courage, an honesty and a dignity that any of us would be, and should be, proud to be able to muster. And in the process, he is showing himself to be even more deserving of our admiration, respect, and love.

I was asked to honour Christopher Hitchens today. I need hardly say that he does me the far greater honour, by accepting this award in my name. Ladies and gentlemen, comrades, I give you Christopher Hitchens.



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