One nation undivided under God

Up until 2005, Indonesia seemed sure to succumb to a wave of Islamist terror. But, in the post-Suhar

On the morning of 17 July 2009, the Dutch businessman Max Boon arrived at the J W Marriott in Jakarta for a monthly breakfast meeting organised by his consulting firm, Castle Asia. At 7.50am, as Boon and 17 other executives were sitting around a long dining table at the eastern end of the hotel, a man walked in and detonated a bomb strapped to his chest. Five minutes later, a second bomb exploded at the nearby Ritz Carlton. Nine people died and 52 were injured, including the young Dutchman, who had to have both of his legs amputated and suffered burns to 60 per cent of his body.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is said to have wept when, a month after the bombings, he received a letter from Boon, now in a wheelchair, congratulating him on independence day - 17 August. "He may have lost his legs," declared SBY (as the president is universally known), "but not his heart, spirit or mind." Jakarta newspapers later ran photographs on their front pages of Boon being ­embraced by Yudhoyono. "Indonesia is not a dangerous place to live," said the Dutchman, who announced his intention to stay on in the country and to marry his long-term Indonesian girlfriend.

The July 2009 attacks were not the first on symbols of western corporate power and affluence. The Marriott had been hit before, in 2003, as was the Australian embassy the following year, while bombs were set off on the tourist island of Bali in 2002 and 2005. Over 250 people died as a result of these attacks, all believed to have been orchestrated by Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the south-east Asian terrorist group linked to al-Qaeda.

Despite being the fourth most populous country in the world, and the 16th-largest economy, Indonesia seldom features in the British media, except for the wrong reasons. Islamist terrorism. The massacre of Christians in East Timor. The western province of Aceh, on the island of Sumatra, making adultery punishable by stoning to death. Sharia courts handing down barbaric judgments, such as the one on a pregnant, married mother-of-two who was convicted of soliciting in 2006 - the evidence being that she had lipstick and face powder in her handbag as she waited for a bus home after work. The national parliament approving an anti-obscenity law that allows for sentences of up to ten years for "modelling" for pornography and four years for mere possession of pornographic material.

The impression is of a country teetering on the brink of extremism. The anxiety, expressed by the US senator Christopher Bond in his recent book The Next Front: South-East Asia and the Road to Global Peace With Islam, is this:

The region is home to one of the greatest concentrations of Muslims on earth . . . At 250 million, they outnumber the entire Muslim Middle East. The world's most populous Muslim-majority nation is Indonesia, 220 million [now 240 million], three times the largest Arab country, Egypt. But the Muslims of south-east Asia do not register in our mind's eye . . . Moderation is losing the high moral ground . . . Muslims we had considered moderate - or "mainstream" - began to take on the fundamentalist trappings of Arabs . . .

Bond concludes: "We can no longer afford this complacency and the ignorance it breeds." Yet, arriving at Soekarno-Hatta Airport, named after Indonesia's two greatest independence leaders (and retaining the old, Dutch spelling of Sukarno), visitors see little sign of religious affiliation of any kind. Far fewer women cover their head than in neighbouring Malaysia, where only 60 per cent of the population is Muslim, in contrast to Indonesia, with nearly 90 per cent. As you travel east into Jakarta, the city sprawls over a coastal plain of 255 square miles, from the docks in the north by the Java Sea down to the hills in the south. Mosques can be seen from the choked expressways, but the dominant architecture is of concrete, jostling for space with offices, malls and shiny new hotels.

Over coffee at the Pondok Indah Mall, Zuhairi Misrawi of Nahdlatul Ulama, the country's 30 million-strong Muslim organisation, advances a theory of startling moderation. "In NU we believe that the struggle for Indonesia is more meaningful than the struggle for Islam," he says, "because we love our country. It says in the Sunnah that to love your country is to believe in your God."

Zuhairi, who is 33 and trim in his crisp black and silver shirt, is not a member of the political party associated with NU, the National Awakening Party (PKB). Instead, in last year's elections, he stood for the secular, leftist Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), "to support the paradigm of nationalism through Islamic ideas".

It is hard to overstate the strength of nationalist feeling in Indonesia. This archipelago of 17,500 islands was united under the repressive rule of the Dutch, who established their first trading post on Java in 1603 but did not conquer the last parts of their East Indies colonies until the 20th century. While the British returned to Malaya and Borneo after the Second World War, the Dutch were not welcomed back in Indonesia. Two days after the Japanese surrender in 1945, Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta declared independence. The Netherlands' armies did not land until months later, and spent much of the following four years in a brutal attempt to reclaim their empire that outraged world opinion. During the chaos, various "independent" states were set up by the Dutch; both a Soviet republic and an Islamic state were briefly announced by other groups. Even after the Dutch finally departed and Sukarno declared a unitary state in 1950, the mainly Christian area of the South Moluccas proclaimed independence and rebellions broke out on the islands of Sumatra and Sulawesi.

Nationalism came to represent a "unity in diversity" - or bhinneka tunggal ika - that was as much an aspiration as an achievement for this multi-ethnic, multi-religious land. The words are the national motto, and are inscribed on the country's coat of arms. Two attempts to insert the Jakarta Charter - calling for sharia law to be made mandatory for all Muslims - into the constitution have failed, first in 1945, and again in 1998, during the transition to democracy after the fall of the Suharto dictatorship.

Faith has always been regarded differently here. "We are totally unlike Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa," Zuhairi tells me. "We even have to import our terrorists." He was referring to the JI leaders Azhari Husin and Noordin Top, both Malaysian, who were shot dead during police raids in 2005 and 2009.

Yet Middle Eastern fundamentalism has made inroads into Indonesian Islam, which is traditionally syncretic. "Before, many people were nominally Muslim, but really they were Hindu or animist," the PDI-P parliamentarian Budiman Sujatmiko says over dinner one evening at the Sultan Hotel, whose towers overlook the huge Gelora Bung Karno, the stadium in which President Obama was expected to have delivered a speech during a visit to Indonesia this year, twice postponed.

The language of fundamentalist Islam, whether being proposed by those who truly believe in it or by those merely using it for electoral advantage, is more widespread. "They are both the problem," Sujatmiko says. "Don't ask me which is better or worse."

The opportunists include the business-based Party of the Functional Groups - Golkar - which dominated the Suharto era. Elections were rigged in Golkar's favour, but the semblance of a vote allowed the dictatorship to claim the country was a democracy. Although its support has collapsed post-Suharto, it still won 14 per cent of the vote in the 2009 elections. Support for the key "fundamentalist" (that is to say, Islamist) Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) grew from 1.4 per cent in 1999 to 8 per cent last year.

For millennia, Hinduism, Buddhism and animism were the religions of the archipelago. Islam had arrived by the 13th century, but it never claimed all of the islands. Bali remains predominantly Hindu, while Christianity, brought first by the Portuguese and then by the Dutch, is widespread in the eastern isles. Even where Islam took hold, it overlay rather than obliterated pre-existing belief systems. President Suharto, who ruled from 1967-98, was a Muslim, but he also consulted a dukun, or soothsayer, and made much of his wife's royal lineage to draw on the mystical authority historically vested in Javanese rulers. One biographer referred to him as "Indonesia's last sultan".

Under Sukarno, who instituted "guided democracy" in 1957 (the last free elections before 1999 were held in 1955), and then Suharto, "the Indonesian state . . . was practically hostile to Islam", wrote Bahtiar Effendy, professor of political science at the State Islamic University, Jakarta. In consequence, Muslims adopted a "docile religious-political stance". The waves of radicalisation that swept through the Muslim world, first in reaction to the perceived failure of the pan-Arabist nationalist experiment in the 1970s and then, in the 1980s, after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, crashed into an impermeable obstacle in Suharto's authoritarian New Order (whose fervent anti-communism gained it such favour in the west that both the US and Australia backed his invasion of East Timor in 1975).

Although most of the population was Muslim, religion was expected to take second place to Pancasila, the five-pillared national ideology that includes belief in "one God" but deliberately does not specify which. Opposition of all kinds was firmly repressed, resulting in either banishment from the country, as in the case of the radical cleric Abu Bakar Ba'asyir (who later emerged as JI's spiritual leader), or internal exile, such as the thousands of suspected communists imprisoned on the penal island of Buru in the far east.

Then the unthinkable happened. The Suhar­to regime finally fell, brought down in the middle of the Asian economic crisis by demonstrations, riots, splits in the armed forces and an emboldened opposition. As the political sphere opened to all comers, a multiplicity of parties emerged: 181 between May and October 1998, 42 of which were specifically Islamic.

“We weren't prepared," says Zulkieflimansyah, chief economic strategist for the PKS. Zul and his progressive-minded allies, who want PKS to be inclusive and moderate, thought Suharto wouldn't step down until 2010. They weren't in place when the dictator fell, and the "seniors" who were - PKS has four cabinet ministers today - weren't so forward-thinking. "They were very influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood. So people said we were Taliban."

This impression was not helped by PKS's involvement in the passing of the very broadly defined anti-pornography law in October 2008, which was deemed a threat to the erotic dance cultures of Bali and Java and an attempt to impose Islamic values on the non-Muslim east. "Anything that supposedly raises the libido could be prosecutable," complained one protester at the time.

The Salihara arts complex, in the narrow, winding, low-rise streets of south Jakarta, is one place where the effects of the bill were feared - but never realised. Goenawan Mohamad, a renowned poet and founder-editor of Tempo magazine, says: "The trend to conservatism is unmistakable, more and more women wearing hijabs and so on. What's most worrying is the Islamic militants who might attack your theatre, or seize your books."

Tempo was twice closed down during the New Order. Goenawan's friends were jailed and one was kidnapped, never to be seen again. It must be unnerving to receive death threats. "The first time, yes," he says. "But after that, if I say something blasphemous, people go, 'He's not a famous Muslim intellectual, so what?'"

Goenawan, who is 69, mentions people's attachment to the Pancasila ideology and the strength it gives to those who oppose any attempt to curtail pluralism or free expression. It reaches back into a much older Javanese culture, which has always been very sensual. "It goes far deeper than Wahhabism," he says. "When we say 'unity in diversity', the Muslims can't say anything. We are an archipelagic culture. We have a lot of shores that have always been open to strangers."

Although Pancasila was used partly as an instrument of oppression under Suharto, it also exists to protect liberties.

The day I arrived in Jakarta, anti-government protesters paraded a buffalo named SiBuYa through the streets. The closeness to the president's initials, SBY, was not coincidental. "Under Suharto they would have been shot," Goenawan says.

Confidence may be widespread among Indonesians that their gentle tradition of Islam will endure. The outside world, however, worries. It is little more than a year since the bombs went off in Jakarta; today, hotels and shopping centres insist visitors pass through security scanners before entering. The early release of Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, jailed in 2005 in connection with JI terrorist attacks, infuriated Australia and the US. Detachment 88, the country's elite special force unit named in honour of the number of Australians who died in the first Bali bombings of 2002, has had great success in rounding up JI members. What was Indonesia doing releasing the group's spiritual leader so soon?

Goenawan says that criticism was mistaken. "It's good that he's out. Otherwise he would be a hero. Instead, he's a grumpy old man, a joke. Freedom helps. The Muslim Brotherhood flourished under Anwar al-Sadat because Egypt had no democracy. Only a small minority have ever voted for parties here that want an Islamic state. Democracy has the means to quell this."

Through pluralism and confidence in its own traditions, Indonesia, this nation state of 240 million people, offers a different model to the world of what it means to be a democratic, Muslim-majority country. There is unanimity that pursuing the goals of justice and alleviating poverty will ensure that the country's moderation is preserved.

The links with the Middle East will always persist, particularly through al-Azhar University in Cairo and the hajj to Mecca. Al-Azhar is generally considered the oldest university in the world and was historically the greatest centre of Sunni scholarship - so Muslims from Indonesia will always travel there to be educated in theology.

Indonesia has its own centres of Islamic scholarship and moderate networks of pesantren, or Muslim boarding schools. Saudis may fund mosques, it is argued, but the extremist ideology they hope to export along with the buildings fails to take root in a soil too rich and varied for dry, husky seeds from Arabia.

The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, for one, is optimistic. "As I travel around the world," she said during a visit to Jakarta in February last year, "I will be saying to people, if you want to know whether Islam, democracy, modernity and women's rights can coexist, go to Indonesia."

Zulkieflimansyah makes an even greater prediction. "If we can show that Islam and democratic values are compatible, we are confident the future of Islam can be written here in Indonesia," he says. "Otherwise there is no hope."

Sholto Byrnes is a contributing editor of the New Statesman.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 09 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The first 100 days

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“Never be afraid of stridency”: Richard Dawkins’ interview with Christopher Hitchens

Is America heading for theocracy? How worrying is the rise of the Tea Party? Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins discuss God and US politics.

The 2011 Christmas issue of the New Statesman was guest edited by Richard Dawkins. This is his interview with Christopher Hitchens from that issue. It was to be Hitchens' final interview; he died as it was published. A sensation at the time, it is now available to read online for the first time.

Richard Dawkins (left) and Christopher Hitchens in conversation

Richard Dawkins Do you have any memories of life at the New Statesman?

Christopher Hitchens Not that I want to impart. It seems like a different world and a different magazine and it happened to a different person. I’d love them to interview me one day about it, for an edition about the role of the Statesman, but I’d really rather you and I focus on the pulse of the issue, which is obviously our common cause.

RD I’ve been reading some of your recent collections of essays – I’m astounded by your sheer erudition. You seem to have read absolutely everything. I can’t think of anybody since Aldous Huxley who’s so well read.

CH It may strike some people as being broad but it’s possibly at the cost of being a bit shallow. I became a journalist because one didn’t have to specialise. I remember once going to an evening with Umberto Eco talking to Susan Sontag and the definition of the word “polymath” came up. Eco said it was his ambition to be a polymath; Sontag challenged him and said the definition of a polymath is someone who’s interested in everything and nothing else. I was encouraged in my training to read widely – to flit and sip, as Bertie [Wooster] puts it – and I think I’ve got good memory retention. I retain what’s interesting to me, but I don’t have a lot of strategic depth. A lot of reviewers have said, to the point of embarrassing me, that I’m in the class of Edmund Wilson or even George Orwell. It really does remind me that I’m not. But it’s something to at least have had the comparison made – it’s better than I expected when I started.

RD As an Orwell scholar, you must have a particular view of North Korea, Stalin, the Soviet Union, and you must get irritated – perhaps even more than I do – by the constant refrain we hear: “Stalin was an atheist.”

CH We don’t know for sure that he was. Hitler definitely wasn’t. There is a possibility that Himmler was. It’s very unlikely but it wouldn’t make any difference, either way. There’s no mandate in atheism for any particular kind of politics, anyway.

RD The people who did Hitler’s dirty work were almost all religious.

CH I’m afraid the SS’s relationship with the Catholic Church is something the Church still has to deal with and does not deny.

RD Can you talk a bit about that – the relationship of Nazism with the Catholic Church?

CH The way I put it is this: if you’re writing about the history of the 1930s and the rise of totalitarianism, you can take out the word “fascist”, if you want, for Italy, Portugal, Spain, Czechoslovakia and Austria and replace it with “extremeright Catholic party”. Almost all of those regimes were in place with the help of the Vatican and with understandings from the Holy See. It’s not denied. These understandings quite often persisted after the Second World War was over and extended to comparable regimes in Argentina and elsewhere.

RD But there were individual priests who did good things.

CH Not very many. You would know their names if there were more of them. When it comes to National Socialism, there’s no question there’s a mutation, a big one – the Nazis wanted their own form of worship. Just as they thought they were a separate race, they wanted their own religion. They dug out the Norse gods, all kinds of extraordinary myths and legends from the old sagas. They wanted to control the churches. They were willing to make a deal with them. The first deal Hitler made with the Catholic Church was the Konkordat. The Church agreed to dissolve its political party and he got control over German education, which was a pretty good deal. Celebrations of his birthday were actually by order from the pulpit. When Hitler survived an assassination attempt, prayers were said, and so forth. But there’s no doubt about it, [the Nazis] wanted control – and they were willing to clash with the churches to get it. There’s another example. You swore on Almighty God that you would never break your oath to the Führer. This is not even secular, let alone atheist.

RD There was also grace before meals, personally thanking Adolf Hitler.

CH I believe there was. Certainly, you can hear the oath being taken – there are recordings of it – but this, Richard, is a red herring. It’s not even secular. They’re changing the subject.

RD But it comes up over and over again.

CH You mentioned North Korea. It is, in every sense, a theocratic state. It’s almost supernatural, in that the births of the [ruling] Kim family are considered to be mysterious and accompanied by happenings. It’s a necrocracy or mausolocracy, but there’s no possible way you could say it’s a secular state, let alone an atheist one. Attempts to found new religions should attract our scorn just as much as the alliances with the old ones do. All they’re saying is that you can’t claim Hitler was distinctively or specifically Christian: “Maybe if he had gone on much longer, he would have de-Christianised a bit more.” This is all a complete fog of nonsense. It’s bad history and it’s bad propaganda.

RD And bad logic, because there’s no connection between atheism and doing horrible things, whereas there easily can be a connection in the case of religion, as we see with modern Islam.

CH To the extent that they are new religions – Stalin worship and Kim Il-sungism – we, like all atheists, regard them with horror.

RD You debated with Tony Blair. I’m not sure I watched that. I love listening to you [but] I can’t bear listening to . . . Well, I mustn’t say that. I think he did come over as rather nice on that evening.

CH He was charming, that evening. And during the day, as well.

RD What was your impression of him?

CH You can only have one aim per debate. I had two in debating with Tony Blair. The first one was to get him to admit that it was not done – the stuff we complain of – in only the name of religion. That’s a cop-out. The authority is in the text. Second, I wanted to get him to admit, if possible, that giving money to a charity or organising a charity does not vindicate a cause. I got him to the first one and I admired his honesty. He was asked by the interlocutor at about half-time: “Which of Christopher’s points strikes you as the best?” He said: “I have to admit, he’s made his case, he’s right. This stuff, there is authority for it in the canonical texts, in Islam, Judaism.” At that point, I’m ready to fold – I’ve done what I want for the evening. We did debate whether Catholic charities and so on were a good thing and I said: “They are but they don’t prove any point and some of them are only making up for damage done.” For example, the Church had better spend a lot of money doing repair work on its Aids policy in Africa, [to make up for preaching] that condoms don’t prevent disease or, in some cases, that they spread it. It is iniquitous. It has led to a lot of people dying, horribly. Also, I’ve never looked at some of the ground operations of these charities – apart from Mother Teresa – but they do involve a lot of proselytising, a lot of propaganda. They’re not just giving out free stuff. They’re doing work to recruit.

RD And Mother Teresa was one of the worst offenders?

CH She preached that poverty was a gift from God. And she believed that women should not be given control over the reproductive cycle. Mother Teresa spent her whole life making sure that the one cure for poverty we know is sound was not implemented. So Tony Blair knows this but he doesn’t have an answer. If I say, “Your Church preaches against the one cure for poverty,” he doesn’t deny it, but he doesn’t affirm it either. But remember, I did start with a text and I asked him to comment on it first, but he never did. Cardinal Newman said he would rather the whole world and everyone in it be painfully destroyed and condemned for ever to eternal torture than one sinner go unrebuked for the stealing of a sixpence. It’s right there in the centre of the Apologia. The man whose canonisation Tony had been campaigning for. You put these discrepancies in front of him and he’s like all the others. He keeps two sets of books. And this is also, even in an honest person, shady.

RD It’s like two minds, really. One notices this with some scientists.

CH I think we all do it a bit.

RD Do we?

CH We’re all great self-persuaders.

RD But do we hold such extreme contradictions in our heads?

CH We like to think our colleagues would point them out, in our group, anyway. No one’s pointed out to me in reviewing my God book God Is Not Great that there’s a flat discrepancy between the affirmation he makes on page X and the affirmation he makes on page Y.

RD But they do accuse you of being a contrarian, which you’ve called yourself . . .

CH Well, no, I haven’t. I’ve disowned it. I was asked to address the idea of it and I began by saying it’s got grave shortcomings as an idea, but I am a bit saddled with it.

RD I’ve always been very suspicious of the leftright dimension in politics.

CH Yes; it’s broken down with me.

RD It’s astonishing how much traction the left-right continuum [has] . . . If you know what someone thinks about the death penalty or abortion, then you generally know what they think about everything else. But you clearly break that rule.

CH I have one consistency, which is [being] against the totalitarian – on the left and on the right. The totalitarian, to me, is the enemy – the one that’s absolute, the one that wants control over the inside of your head, not just your actions and your taxes. And the origins of that are theocratic, obviously. The beginning of that is the idea that there is a supreme leader, or infallible pope, or a chief rabbi, or whatever, who can ventriloquise the divine and tell us what to do. That has secular forms with gurus and dictators, of course, but it’s essentially the same. There have been some thinkers – Orwell is pre-eminent – who understood that, unfortunately, there is innate in humans a strong tendency to worship, to become abject. So we’re not just fighting the dictators. We’re criticising our fellow humans for trying to short-cut, to make their lives simpler, by surrendering and saying, “[If] you offer me bliss, of course I’m going to give up some of my mental freedom for that.” We say it’s a false bargain: you’ll get nothing. You’re a fool.

RD That part of you that was, or is, of the radical left is always against the totalitarian dictators.

CH Yes. I was a member of the Trotskyist group – for us, the socialist movement could only be revived if it was purged of Stalinism . . . It’s very much a point for our view that Stalinism was a theocracy.

RD One of my main beefs with religion is the way they label children as a “Catholic child” or a “Muslim child”. I’ve become a bit of a bore about it.

CH You must never be afraid of that charge, any more than stridency.

RD I will remember that.

CH If I was strident, it doesn’t matter – I was a jobbing hack, I bang my drum. You have a discipline in which you are very distinguished. You’ve educated a lot of people; nobody denies that, not even your worst enemies. You see your discipline being attacked and defamed and attempts made to drive it out.

Stridency is the least you should muster . . . It’s the shame of your colleagues that they don’t form ranks and say, “Listen, we’re going to defend our colleagues from these appalling and obfuscating elements.” If you go on about something, the worst thing the English will say about you, as we both know – as we can say of them, by the way – is that they’re boring.

RD Indeed. Only this morning, I was sent a copy of [advice from] a British government website, called something like “The Responsibilities of Parents”. One of these responsibilities was “determine the child’s religion”. Literally, determine. It means establish, cause . . . I couldn’t ask for a clearer illustration, because, sometimes, when I make my complaint about this, I’m told nobody actually does label children Catholic children or Muslim children.

CH Well, the government does. It’s borrowed, as far as I can see, in part from British imperial policy, in turn borrowed from Ottoman and previous empires – you classify your new subjects according to their faith. You can be an Ottoman citizen but you’re a Jewish one or an Armenian Christian one. And some of these faiths tell their children that the children of other faiths are going to hell. I think we can’t ban that, nor can we call it “hate speech”, which I’m dubious about anyway, but there should be a wrinkle of disapproval.

RD I would call it mental child abuse.

CH I can’t find a way, as a libertarian, of saying that people can’t raise their children, as they say, according to their rights. But the child has rights and society does, too. We don’t allow female – and I don’t think we should countenance male – genital mutilation.

Now, it would be very hard to say that you can’t tell your child that they are lucky and they have joined the one true faith. I don’t see how you stop it. I only think the rest of society should look at it with a bit of disapproval, which it doesn’t. If you’re a Mormon and you run for office and say, “Do you believe in the golden plates that were dug up by Joseph Smith?” – which [Mitt] Romney hasn’t been asked yet – sorry, you’re going to get mocked. You’re going to get laughed at.

RD There is a tendency among liberals to feel that religion should be off the table.

CH Or even that there’s anti-religious racism, which I think is a terrible limitation.

RD Romney has questions to answer.

CH Certainly, he does. The question of Mormon racism did come up, to be fair, and the Church did very belatedly make amends for saying what, in effect, it had been saying: that black people’s souls weren’t human, quite. They timed it suspiciously for the passage of legislation. Well, OK, then they grant the right of society to amend [the legislation]. To that extent, they’re opportunists.

RD But what about the daftness of Mormonism? The fact that Joseph Smith was clearly a charlatan –

CH I know, it’s extraordinary.

RD I think there is a convention in America that you don’t tackle somebody about their religion.

CH Yes, and in a way it’s attributed to pluralism. And so, to that extent, one wants to respect it, but I think it can be exploited. By many people, including splinter-group Mormons who still do things like plural marriage and, very repulsively, compulsory dowries – they basically give away their daughters, often to blood relatives. And also kinship marriages that are too close. This actually won’t quite do. When it is important, they tend to take refuge in: “You’re attacking my fundamental right.” I don’t think they really should be allowed that.

RD Do you think America is in danger of becoming a theocracy?

CH No, I don’t. The people who we mean when we talk about that – maybe the extreme Protestant evangelicals, who do want a God-run America and believe it was founded on essentially fundamentalist Protestant principles – I think they may be the most overrated threat in the country.

RD Oh, good.

CH They’ve been defeated everywhere. Why is this? In the 1920s, they had a string of victories. They banned the sale, manufacture and distribution and consumption of alcohol. They made it the constitution. They more or less managed to ban immigration from countries that had non-Protestant, non-white majorities. From these victories, they have never recovered. They’ll never recover from [the failure of] Prohibition. It was their biggest defeat. They’ll never recover from the Scopes trial. Every time they’ve tried [to introduce the teaching of creationism], the local school board or the parents or the courts have thrown it out and it’s usually because of the work of people like you, who have shown that it’s nonsense. They try to make a free speech question out of it but they will fail with that, also. People don’t want to come from the town or the state or the county that gets laughed at.

RD Yes.

CH In all my tours around the South, it’s amazing how many people – Christians as well – want to disprove the idea that they’re all in thrall to people like [the fundamentalist preacher Jerry] Falwell. They don’t want to be a laughing stock.

RD Yes.

CH And if they passed an ordinance saying there will be prayer in school every morning from now on, one of two things would happen: it would be overthrown in no time by all the courts, with barrels of laughter heaped over it, or people would say: “Very well, we’re starting with Hindu prayer on Monday.” They would regret it so bitterly that there are days when I wish they would have their own way for a short time.

RD Oh, that’s very cheering.

CH I’m a bit more worried about the extreme, reactionary nature of the papacy now. But that again doesn’t seem to command very big allegiance among the American congregation. They are disobedient on contraception, flagrantly; on divorce; on gay marriage, to an extraordinary degree that I wouldn’t have predicted; and they’re only holding firm on abortion, which, in my opinion, is actually a very strong moral question and shouldn’t be decided lightly. I feel very squeamish about it. I believe that the unborn child is a real concept, in other words. We needn’t go there, but I’m not a complete abortion-on-demand fanatic. I think it requires a bit of reflection. But anyway, even on that, the Catholic Communion is very agonised. And also, [when] you go and debate with them, very few of them could tell you very much about what the catechism really is. It’s increasingly cultural Catholicism.

RD That is true, of course.

CH So, really, the only threat from religious force in America is the same as it is, I’m afraid, in many other countries – from outside. And it’s jihadism, some of it home-grown, but some of that is so weak and so self-discrediting.

RD It’s more of a problem in Britain.

CH And many other European countries, where its alleged root causes are being allowed slightly too friendly an interrogation, I think. Make that much too friendly.

RD Some of our friends are so worried about Islam that they’re prepared to lend support to Christianity as a kind of bulwark against it.

CH I know many Muslims who, in leaving the faith, have opted to go . . . to Christianity or via it to non-belief. Some of them say it’s the personality of Jesus of Nazareth. The mild and meek one, as compared to the rather farouche, physical, martial, rather greedy . . .

RD Warlord.

CH . . . Muhammad. I can see that that might have an effect.

RD Do you ever worry that if we win and, so to speak, destroy Christianity, that vacuum would be filled by Islam?

CH No, in a funny way, I don’t worry that we’ll win. All that we can do is make absolutely sure that people know there’s a much more wonderful and interesting and beautiful alternative. No, I don’t think that Europe would fill up with Muslims as it emptied of Christians. Christianity has defeated itself in that it has become a cultural thing. There really aren’t believing Christians in the way there were generations ago.

RD Certainly in Europe that’s true – but in America?

CH There are revivals, of course, and among Jews as well. But I think there’s a very longrunning tendency in the developed world and in large areas elsewhere for people to see the virtue of secularism, the separation of church and state, because they’ve tried the alternatives . . . Every time something like a jihad or a sharia movement has taken over any country – admittedly they’ve only been able to do it in very primitive cases – it’s a smouldering wreck with no productivity.

RD Total failure. If you look at religiosity across countries of the world and, indeed, across the states of the US, you find that religiosity tends to correlate with poverty and with various other indices of social deprivation.

CH Yes. That’s also what it feeds on. But I don’t want to condescend about that. I know a lot of very educated, very prosperous, very thoughtful people who believe.

RD Do you think [Thomas] Jefferson and [James] Madison were deists, as is often said?

CH I think they fluctuated, one by one. Jefferson is the one I’m more happy to pronounce on. The furthest he would go in public was to incline to a theistic enlightened view but, in his private correspondence, he goes much further. He says he wishes we could return to the wisdom of more than 2,000 years ago. That’s in his discussion of his own Jefferson Bible, where he cuts out everything supernatural relating to Jesus. But also, very importantly, he says to his nephew Peter Carr in a private letter [on the subject of belief]: “Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise and the love of others which it will procure you.” Now, that can only be written by someone who’s had that experience.

RD It’s very good, isn’t it?

CH In my judgement, it’s an internal reading, but I think it’s a close one. There was certainly no priest at his bedside. But he did violate a rule of C S Lewis’s and here I’m on Lewis’s side. Lewis says it is a cop-out to say Jesus was a great moralist. He said it’s the one thing we must not say; it is a wicked thing to say. If he wasn’t the Son of God, he was a very evil impostor and his teachings were vain and fraudulent. You may not take the easy route here and say: “He may not have been the Son of God and he may not have been the Redeemer, but he was a wonderful moralist.” Lewis is more honest than Jefferson in this point. I admire Lewis for saying that. Rick Perry said it the other day.

RD Jesus could just have been mistaken.

CH He could. It’s not unknown for people to have the illusion that they’re God or the Son. It’s a common delusion but, again, I don’t think we need to condescend. Rick Perry once said: “Not only do I believe that Jesus is my personal saviour but I believe that those who don’t are going to eternal punishment.” He was challenged at least on the last bit and he said, “I don’t have the right to alter the doctrine. I can’t say it’s fine for me and not for others.”

RD So we ought to be on the side of these fundamentalists?

CH Not “on the side”, but I think we should say that there’s something about their honesty that we wish we could find.

RD Which we don’t get in bishops . . .

CH Our soft-centred bishops at Oxford and other people, yes.

RD I’m often asked why it is that this republic [of America], founded in secularism, is so much more religious than those western European countries that have an official state religion, like Scandinavia and Britain.

CH [Alexis] de Tocqueville has it exactly right. If you want a church in America, you have to build it by the sweat of your own brow and many have. That’s why they’re attached to them.

RD Yes.

CH [Look at] the Greek Orthodox community in Brooklyn. What’s the first thing it will do? It will build itself a little shrine. The Jews – not all of them – remarkably abandoned their religion very soon after arriving from the shtetl.

RD Are you saying that most Jews have abandoned their religion?

CH Increasingly in America. When you came to escape religious persecution and you didn’t want to replicate it, that’s a strong memory. The Jews very quickly secularised when they came. American Jews must be the most secular force on the planet now, as a collective. If they are a collective –which they’re not, really.

RD While not being religious, they often still observe the Sabbath and that kind of thing.

CH There’s got to be something cultural. I go to Passover every year. Sometimes, even I have a seder, because I want my child to know that she does come very distantly from another tradition. It would explain if she met her greatgrandfather why he spoke Yiddish. It’s cultural, but the Passover seder is also the Socratic forum. It’s dialectical. It’s accompanied by wine. It’s got the bones of quite a good discussion in it. And then there is manifest destiny. People feel America is just so lucky. It’s between two oceans, filled with minerals, wealth, beauty. It does seem providential to many people.

RD Promised land, city on a hill.

CH All that and the desire for another Eden. Some secular utopians came here with the same idea. Thomas Paine and others all thought of America as a great new start for the species.

RD But that was all secular.

CH A lot of it was, but you can’t get away from the liturgy: it’s too powerful. You will end up saying things like “promised land” and it can be mobilised for sinister purposes. But in a lot of cases, it’s a mild belief. It’s just: “We should share our good luck.”

RD I’ve heard another theory that, America being a country of immigrants, people coming from Europe, where they left their extended family and left their support system, were alone and they needed something.

CH Surely that was contained in what I just . . .

RD Maybe it was.

CH The reason why most of my friends are non-believers is not particularly that they were engaged in the arguments you and I have been having, but they were made indifferent by compulsory religion at school.

RD They got bored by it.

CH They’d had enough of it. They took from it occasionally whatever they needed – if you needed to get married, you knew where to go. Some of them, of course, are religious and some of them like the music but, generally speaking, the British people are benignly indifferent to religion.

RD And the fact that there is an established church increases that effect. Churches should not be tax-free the way that they are. Not automatically, anyway.

CH No, certainly not. If the Church has demanded that equal time be given to creationist or pseudo-creationist speculations . . . any Church that teaches that in its school and is in receipt of federal money from the faith-based initiative must, by law, also teach Darwinism and alternative teachings, in order that the debate is being taught. I don’t think they want this.

RD No.

CH Tell them if they want equal time, we’ll jolly well have it. That’s why they’ve always been against comparative religion.

RD Comparative religion would be one of the best weapons, I suspect.

CH It’s got so insipid in parts of America now that a lot of children are brought up – as their parents aren’t doing it and leave it to the schools and the schools are afraid of it – with no knowledge of any religion of any kind. I would like children to know what religion is about because [otherwise] some guru or cult or revivalists will sweep them up.

RD They’re vulnerable. I also would like them to know the Bible for literary reasons.

CH Precisely. We both, I was pleased to see, have written pieces about the King James Bible. The AV [Authorised Version], as it was called in my boyhood. A huge amount of English literature would be opaque if people didn’t know it.

RD Absolutely, yes. Have you read some of the modern translations? “Futile, said the preacher. Utterly futile.”

CH He doesn’t!

RD He does, honestly. “Futile, futile said the priest. It’s all futile.”

CH That’s Lamentations.

RD No, it’s Ecclesiastes. “Vanity, vanity.”

CH “Vanity, vanity.” Good God. That’s the least religious book in the Bible. That’s the one that Orwell wanted at his funeral.

RD I bet he did. I sometimes think the poetry comes from the intriguing obscurity of mistranslation. “When the sound of the grinding is low, the grasshopper is heard in the land . . . The grasshopper shall be a burden.” What the hell?

CH The Book of Job is the other great non-religious one, I always feel. “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.” Try to do without that. No, I’m glad we’re on the same page there. People tell me that the recitation of the Quran can have the same effect if you understand the original language. I wish I did. Some of the Catholic liturgy is attractive.

RD I don’t know enough Latin to judge that.

CH Sometimes one has just enough to be irritated.

RD Yes [laughs]. Can you say anything about Christmas?

CH Yes. There was going to be a winter solstice holiday for sure. The dominant religion was going to take it over and that would have happened without Dickens and without others.

RD The Christmas tree comes from Prince Albert; the shepherds and the wise men are all made up.

CH Cyrenius wasn’t governor of Syria, all of that. Increasingly, it’s secularised itself. This “Happy Holidays” – I don’t particularly like that, either.

RD Horrible, isn’t it? “Happy holiday season.”

CH I prefer our stuff about the cosmos.

***

The day after this interview, I was honoured to present an award to Christopher Hitchens in the presence of a large audience in Texas that gave him a standing ovation, first as he entered the hall and again at the end of his deeply moving speech. My own presentation speech ended with a tribute, in which I said that every day he demonstrates the falsehood of the lie 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 muster.”