A complete surprise, huh?
It’s a clever line. When Christopher Hitchens used to slam Christianity he did it with style. “If we lost all our hard-won knowledge and all our archives, and all our ethics and all our morals…and had to reconstruct everything essential from scratch, it is difficult to imagine at that point we would need to remind or reassure ourselves that Jesus was born of a virgin.”And I sit here wishing Jerry had done his homework and not set up a straw man argument.
The line employs a sharp edged bathos: End of civilization drama counterpoised with a sneer at that most-despised bit of pre-modern Christian dogma – the virgin birth. Religious people gasped, and aggressive atheists snickered, but I just sat there wishing that Christopher Hitchens knew more history.
Here's what Hitchens actually wrote (Jerry, it's on page 96 of Hitchens' book, God Is Not Great. If you don't have a copy, I can lend you mine):
Thus, though I dislike to differ with such a great man, Voltaire was simply ludicrous when he said that if god did not exist it would be necessary to invent him. The human invention of god is the problem to begin with. Our evolution has been examined "backward," with life temporarily outpacing extinction, and knowledge now at last capable of reviewing and explaining ignorance. Religion, it is true, still possesses the huge if cumbersome and unwieldy advantage of having come "first." But as Sam Harris states rather pointedly in The End of Faith, if we lost all our hard-won knowledge and all our archives, and all our ethics and morals, in some Marquez-like fit of collective amnesia, and had to reconstruct everything essential from scratch, it is difficult to imagine at what point we would need to remind or reassure ourselves that Jesus was born of a virgin.A careful writer would have pointed out that the thought experiment is actually from Sam Harris, not Christopher Hitchens (though I am sure the latter agreed with it wholeheartedly). Here's Harris from page 23 of The End of Faith:
What if all our knowledge about the world were suddenly to disappear? Imagine that six billion of us wake up tomorrow morning in a state of utter ignorance and confusion. Our books and computers are still here, but we can’t make heads or tails of their contents. We have even forgotten how to drive our cars and brush our teeth. What knowledge would we want to reclaim first? Well, there’s that business about growing food and building shelter that we would want to get reacquainted with. We would want to relearn how to use and repair many of our machines. Learning to understand spoken and written language would also be a top priority, given that these skills are necessary for acquiring most others. When in this process of reclaiming our humanity will it be important to know that Jesus was born of a virgin? Or that he was resurrected? And how would we relearn these truths, if they are indeed true? By reading the Bible? Our tour of the shelves will deliver similar pearls from antiquity— like the “fact” that Isis, the goddess of fertility, sports an impressive pair of cow horns. Reading further, we will learn that Thor carries a hammer and that Marduk’s sacred animals are horses, dogs, and a dragon with a forked tongue. Whom shall we give top billing in our resurrected world? Yahweh or Shiva? And when will we want to relearn that premarital sex is a sin? Or that adulteresses should be stoned to death? Or that the soul enters the zygote at the moment of conception? And what will we think of those curious people who begin proclaiming that one of our books is distinct from all others in that it was actually written by the Creator of the universe?See? It's all there, Jerry. Which leads us to the next point. A careful writer would not have omitted the Marquez reference. Though in doing so it makes it possible for the rest of Jerry's piece to be about the necessity of hope at "the end of civilization" and not some solid epistemology after a "collective amnesia":
When our civilization did indeed collapse – when the Goths tore the gates of Rome from its hinges and mobs of tattooed warriors raped and pillaged their way across what had formerly been the civilized world...And so on. How convenient.
Indeed the rest of Harris paragraph is about knowledge - what knowledge we'd need and how to separate Yahweh from Shiva. How would we "know" which one is "correct"? No way for us to tell. And for the purpose of humanity's survival in that hypothetical, unnecessary.
Which brings me back to Hitchen's use of Harris' hypothetical. It's in the chapter of God is not Great devoted to the "argument by design" explanation of the existence of God. Hitchens is making the point that when taking an honest look at science:
...all this will be further clarified if we are modest and patient enough to understand the building blocks of nature and the lowly stamp of our origins. No divine plan, let alone angelic intervention, is required. Everything works without that assumption.[Italics in original.]And yet Jerry misuses it to muse on about the "truth" of Mary's virgin birth. Had he done his homework and wanted to challenge Hitchens on the "truth" of Mary's virgin birth Jerry Bowyer could have done after this paragraph in God is Not Great (page 23, for those of you keeping score):
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was in this wise. When his mother, Mary, was espoused to Joseph, before they came together she was found with child of the Holy Ghost." Yes, and the Greek demigod Perseus was born when the god Jupiter visited the virgin Danaë as a shower of gold and got her with child. The god Buddha was born through an opening in his mother's flank. Catlicus the serpent-skirted caught a little ball of feathers from the sky and hid it in her bosom, and the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli was thus conceived. The virgin Nana took a pomegranate from the tree watered by the blood of the slain Agdestris, and laid it in her bosom, and gave birth to the god Attis. The virgin daughter of a Mongol king awoke one night and found herself bathed in a great light, which caused her to give birth to Genghis Khan. Krishna was born of the virgin Devaka. Horus was born of the virgin Isis. Mercury was born of the virgin Maia. Romulus was born of the virgin Rhea Sylvia. For some reason, many religions force themselves to think of the birth canal as a one-way street, and even the Koran treats the Virgin Mary with reverence. However, this made no difference during the Crusades, when a papal army set out to recapture Bethlehem and Jerusalem from the Muslims, incidentally destroying many Jewish communities and sacking heretical Christian Byzantium along the way, and inflicted a massacre in the narrow streets of Jerusalem, where, according to the hysterical and gleeful chroniclers, the spilled blood reached up to the bridles of the horses.Compare that to Jerry's argument about the status of women in Western Civlization:
If Jesus was God and Mary bore Jesus, then Mary must be the ‘theotokos’, the God-bearer. Thus began something that changed the view of women in the Western world, elevating them to previously unheard heights. First Mary, and then by extension all virtuous women. A thousand years after Mary bore Jesus into Palestine, she bore Chivalry into Europe.That would be the same Chivalrous Europe that destroyed many Jewish communities and sacked Christian Byzantium during the Crusades.