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Hitchens @ Google
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Guest blogger Philip filling in for Derek while he works on his comprehensive exams. Go, Derek, go!

I work at Google on the main campus in Mountain View, CA. Their "Authors@Google" program brings in guest speakers, usually over the lunch hour. The ones I've attended have been about half an hour of the author speaking, usually promoting a recent publication, followed by another half hour or so of Q&A. They publish videos of the talks at YouTube.

A couple weeks ago James Randi was here, but I missed him. Frustrated that I hadn't been keeping up with these things better, I looked over the list of upcoming speakers, and Christopher Hitchens was coming up. I haven't read any of his books, but I have read some online articles (including his classic iconoclastic attack on Mother Teresa) and watched his debate with Al Sharpton.

Hitchens' talk was yesterday. He spent about a half an hour giving a brief overview of topics covered in the book, God is not Great, focusing mostly on support of the subtitle "How religion poisons everything". I won't go into this since anyone can read a synopsis to get the gist.

The Q&A was fun. Derek has read more Hitchens than me, so I asked him ahead of time what he would ask if he were there, and he provided me this question:

You have said you don't like the term "brights" being promoted by Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, and in your book you say "...we infidels do not need any machinery of reinforcement." My question is, if atheists do share many common values, shouldn't we attempt to organize for two primary reasons: a sense of community and for political purposes (in a democracy, one's needs have a better chance of being met if like-minded citizens organize into blocks)?

His response was pretty much that he didn't feel the personal need for such organizing, and that he and others such as Dawkins and Dennett are making a big difference through their individual efforts (interesting that he mentioned Dawkins in the response, since the original criticism was of Dawkin's "brights"). Which leaves those of us who aren't famous authors running in circles with brilliant intellectuals without much of an answer. He also alluded to a gathering in Washington, D.C., which seems an awful lot like an organization of like-minded people gathering to pool their influence and gain a sense of community, but what do I know?

Other exchanges that stood out to me:

  • Asked how he would respond to arguments such as "studies have shown a correlation between attending Church and low blood pressure", he answered that for every such correlation he could find stronger correlation with negative effects. His examples included suicide bombers and institutional genital manipulation; e.g., "100% of suicide bombers are people of faith".

  • Asked how he manages to discuss his philosophy with people of faith without ruffling feathers, he responded that he is weary of the sentiment that "you hurt my feelings" is a valid argument. He tends to respond with "I'm still waiting for your point." (I'm sure this goes over well.) Mostly I just found this funny, but I also agree with the sentiment that if you're having an intellectual discussion, it's best to focus on the ideas and not the individuals.

  • There was only one female who approached the mike to ask a question, and she referenced this article where Hitchens says, basically, "women are not funny". She also noted that there were so few women at the talk because "we're a tech company" to which he joked, "yeah, I was wondering where you kept all the chicks". I have to admit I mildly laughed at this, though in retrospect I'm not too proud of that. It was a pretty rude response. It's sad that someone so adept at attacking outdated social practices still manages to be sexist.

  • Toward the end of the Q&A - I don't remember the question he was answering or even what the topic of conversation really was - he drew a distinction between spirituality and belief in the supernatural. His definition of spirituality seemed to be anything that gives one a sense of awe or wonder or transcendence, like viewing a beautiful work of art or a magnificent vista. Personally, anything with "spirit" as the root has always struck me as something that is, by definition, not of this world and therefore supernatural. I'd be interested to hear how other interpret the term.

The whole talk was good. You can go to YouTube to see the whole thing (I was impressed, they actually posted it the same day).

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