17 December 2011

I owe Chris Hitchens

Those of you who live under a rock may not have heard: Christopher Hitchens died two days ago (15 Dec).  My writing is far too weak to comment on his life and work as it should be.  I will leave that to others.  Instead I would like to share a few of the moments of my life that were enriched by "Hitch."

It was some years ago that I first heard of Chris Hitchens.  I was driving to work and someone on CBC was interviewing him.  I have no idea when that was, but I do remember the profound effect that his words had on me.  The snapshot memory I have is of him explaining why he thought of himself as anti-theist.

At the time, I was already atheist, but I generally kept this from others, not because of fear of discrimination or of embarrassment but rather because I just didn't see why it mattered to others.

Listening to Hitchens, though, was a lightning bolt to my brain.  His words distilled thoughts that had been jumbled up in my mind for years.  He was so pure, so clear, and so utterly rational in his speech that I was immediately and completely changed.  I knew at that moment that I too was anti-theist and that I would not be able to keep it to myself any longer.

This is not just some kind of intellectual crush, however; it is a deep, intellectual agreement with his arguments on religion and god, which I learned to appreciate more and more over the years as I read more and more of his work.  It matters not one whit to me that it was Hitchens that made those arguments; it is rather that the arguments themselves were made.

In this sense, I owe Hitchens.  His lucidity and intellectual power gave me the means to improve my own thinking substantively.  I hope I can live up to the standards I've set for myself as a result of my exposure to him.

He was honest - brutally so sometimes - and unequivocal.  He had a clarity of speech that made listening to him a joy.  Some people think he was arrogant.  Wouldn't you be too, if you had his education, his knowledge, his skill?  He can easily be forgiven for having human failings because his successes were so much more important.

And I'd also dispute the charge of arrogance.  If one listens to him speak, one will note a fairly common tendency to sound rather humble.  He referred to himself as a jobbing hack; he often professed a single-minded and absolute devotion to his children; his fierce and emotional defence of Stephen Fry (not that Fry is incapable of defending himself very well, thank you very much) at the Intelligence Squared debate - all these things are symptomatic not of arrogance but rather of incredible self-awareness, of having understood exactly what he was, what he wanted to do, and that it was, in the long run, the right thing.

Was Hitchens perfect?  Of course not!  So What?  Neither was Einstein.  Neither was Martin Luther King.  Neither was Orwell, or Steinbeck, or Hemingway.  This in no way diminishes the good that they all did during their lives.  And it's the good we need to remember, to incorporate into our own lives, because that's how we progress.

I'm trying to figure out how to end this entry in a way that Hitchens would approve.  Given everything I know about him, I think I can only say this:

Thanks Hitch.  Bye.

04 December 2011

A disappointing study, disappointingly reported

I'm upset about a recent study at UBC that suggests atheists are distrusted about as much as rapists.  I'm even more upset about the weak journalism that went into reporting it at CTV.

The study is upsetting because it is weak.  They surveyed 351 Americans between the ages of 18 and 82.

Americans?  It's a Canadian study, presumably funded by Canadian research dollars.  Considering how rampant both fundamental religion and ignorance are in the USA, asking an American about atheists would be like asking Anne Frank about Nazis.  There are wild extremes of "opinion" in the USA, ranging from Rick Perry on the irrational end of the spectrum to Sam Harris on the rational end.  A sample size of 351 is probably just large enough to demonstrate how under-sized your sample size really is.

Why Americans?  Was it because der F├╝hrer Stephen Harper - a born-again nut-job himself - has made it clear that this sort of research is unacceptable in Canada?

Also, the age range is troubling.  Polls are clear that they young people are not into religion anywhere near as much as the older generations. (Google can point you at various sources on this.)  So by conflating the age groups - and not being clear on how many in the sample were from specific age sub-groups - there seems to be a distinct possibility that trends found in the data are not representative of the general population.

The study's authors also polled over 400 UBC students.  Oh, so now Canadians are good enough?  Furthermore, what do you expect to find out from students, except the depths of their ignorance and naivety?  Doesn't anyone think that there might be differences between students at UBC and students at some other school?

As if these issues were not troubling, CTV gets its hands on the story and pronounces its headline as if it were a new law of thermodynamics: "Atheists roughly as distrusted as rapists, UBC study finds."  CTV is clearly trying to suggest that the whole world's behaviour can be intuited from 351 Americans and 400+ Canadian students from one university.  Nor does CTV raise any of the issues I have here, thus lending tacit support to the study.

Now, don't get me wrong - discrimination against atheists is sick and disgusting.  But this research, and how it's been reported by CTV, isn't helping at all.

Of course, I may have some or all of this wrong, so I invite corrections.