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Hitchens Was Right

Lee Phillips
April 10th, 2014

Christopher Hitchens was one of the most gifted orators, essayists, and debaters in the recent history of the English speaking peoples. And that may be true even if your conception of recency involves spans of centuries, rather than mere decades. But his obvious strengths lay more in polemic than in scholarship, so certain favorite assertions of his, although having the ring of truth and, one liked to think, supported by the vast storehouse of knowledge at his command (“instantly, neurologically available,” in the widely quoted formulation of Ian McEwan), he never bothered to support with evidence.

One of these assertions, sometimes presented as a confident guess, was routinely offered by Professor Hitchens when an interviewer or debate partner, attempting to counter an observation pointing out the growing numbers of atheists or religiously unaffiliated in America, claimed that surveys indicated a massive amount of weekly church attendance. The notorious anti-theist would reply simply that people lie on surveys of this sort, and point out that all this churchgoing could not actually be taking place, because there simply were not enough churches.

Today, National Public Radio broadcast an interview with the social scientist Shankar Vedantam about “Why People Exaggerate Religious Behavior.” It turns out that folks, both in the Muslim and Christian worlds, routinely lie on surveys about all sorts of religious behavior, including the frequency of churchgoing. It is part of an interesting psychological phenomenon, where people tend to claim that they behave in a way that would reflect the kind of person they want to be, instead of describing what they actually do. So if you were raised in a religious household you will have a tendency to claim, when surveyed, that you go to church every Sunday, even if last year you only attended on Christmas, Easter and your sister’s wedding.

So if Christopher Hitchens was wrong about everything (else) and he is enjoying his Scotch in his vast private library in Heaven, then he might feel entitled about now to mutter a “What did I tell you?”

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