Locked up to make us feel better

Petty criminals are increasingly being given life sentences not for crimes they have committed, but

Almost unnoticed, a fundamental change in penal policy is gathering pace. The main factor in the length of a sentence is, increasingly, not the severity of a crime, but the supposed risk that an offender will do something worse if released.

Risk assessment is at best an inexact science - often, as we shall see later, shockingly so. But its emerging role in the sentencing process is having dramatic consequences: hundreds, soon to be thousands, of petty arsonists, pub brawlers and street muggers are in effect being given life, usually on the basis of highly subjective pre-sentence reports.

The change is certain to cause a further great rise in the prison population, already at record levels, having grown faster under new Labour than under any previous government. It is also arousing deep concern among lawyers, and will top the agenda at a special conference organised by the Criminal Bar Association in Birmingham next month.

The consequences for classical notions of justice are profound. Old lags have a saying: "If you can't do the time, don't do the crime." It needs reformulation: "If you can't do the time, don't have a background that might make a bureaucrat think if ever you're set free, you might be dangerous to the public."

At the heart of this shift is a piece of legislation whose import was barely appreciated when it passed through parliament: the Criminal Justice Act 2003, with its indeterminate public protection (IPP) sentences. According to the act, judges must impose an IPP - life in all but name - on any person convicted of any one of 153 separate violent and sexual offences, if they believe, in the words of the act, that there is "a significant risk to members of the public of serious harm from the commission of further specified offences". In an appeal judgment last year, one of the most senior criminal appeal judges, Lord Justice Judge, made clear how huge a departure this is: "Although punitive in its effect, with far-reaching consequences for the offender on whom it is imposed, it [the IPP] does not represent punishment for past offending. The decision is directed not to the past, but to the future."

It is not as if it had been difficult to lock up the truly dangerous under existing legislation. For decades, judges have been able to give "discretionary" life sentences to those convicted of certain crimes short of murder, such as rape and wounding with intent to kill. After 1998, the "two strikes and you're out" law (now replaced by the IPP) meant that anyone convicted of one of a short list of very serious crimes for a second time got life automatically.

However, the scale on which the IPP is being used dwarfs these older measures. Discretionary and automatic life sentences used to be given about 200 times each year. Since coming into force in April 2005, the IPP has been imposed more than 2,000 times, with a rate of over 100 new IPPs each month. As an official told me, Home Office models predict that by 2011, there will be 12,500 inmates serving IPPs - more than three times as many as those doing life for murder.

"Risk panic"

Hard cases, as the saying goes, make bad law, and the cases that the government cited to justify the 2003 act were very hard indeed - such as the release of the paedophiles who killed the 14-year-old Jason Swift in 1985. Such debate as there was helped to fuel a "risk panic", in which the media have focused obsessively on crimes committed by previous offenders who should have been under supervision, such as the 2005 murder in Reading of the teenager Mary Ann Leneghan.

It cannot be stressed sufficiently that there is no empirical basis for this panic at all. A study of sex offenders emerging from long-term imprisonment, published in 2002 by a team led by Oxford University's Roger Hood, found (as had earlier, similar projects) that their reconviction rate is reassuringly low. Of the 94 followed for six years after release, only eight were reconvicted for a further sexual offence. Another four were reconvicted and jailed for a non-sexual violent crime. Since the study, multi-agency schemes to monitor such offenders after release and more widespread sex offender treatment in prison may well have reduced this risk.

Even freed lifers commit relatively few crimes. The number of homicides by those previously convicted of homicide and released varies each year between zero and two - roughly 0.3 per cent of murders. In all, about 3 per cent of freed lifers will eventually be convicted of an imprisonable offence.

Nevertheless, public rhetoric is at fever pitch. A recent Observer article claimed that the system for monitoring freed sex offenders in the community is close to collapse. This was accompanied by an editorial headlined: "Control these terrifying predators". Robert Whelan, of the think-tank Civitas, told the Sunday Times that the lesson from the Mary Ann Leneghan case was that all offenders should be kept much longer in prison. Those who disagreed, he said, were "diehard utopians".

Radical as the 2003 act is, it was not the first attempt to protect society from its most dangerous members. From 1857, government criminal statistics began to include figures for "known thieves and depredators". The long search for ways to deal with them began.

By the end of the 19th century, social Darwinism and the work of writers such as Cesare Lombroso had added a veneer of science to the notion of the predatory criminal, and preventive detention for periods far in excess of the ordinary prison sentence was increasingly seen as the solution. Some, such as the writer Bruce Thomson, argued that these inmates should also be castrated: "With cattle, this kind of selection is in fact almost always followed: for hardly anyone is careless enough to allow his worst animals to breed. Why, then, should incorrigible criminals go into prison for short periods only, only to be sent out again in renovated health, to propagate a race so low in physical organisation?"

The term "personality disorder" had yet to be invented, but many argued that dangerous criminals had something like a disease, which made their behaviour incorrigible. As the Westminster Review put it in 1898, "the criminal, while not in the ordinary sense lunatic, is thoroughly irresponsible, hopelessly perverted and mentally and physically incapable of reformation. He is a dangerous animal, and society must be protected against him."

Tyranny of bureaucrats

Against this background, the first public protection sentencing measure took shape: Herbert Gladstone's Prevention of Crime Act 1908. When sentencing a criminal, the court would pay close attention to his record, and so deduce whether there was a high risk of recidivism. If the court thought there was, indeed, "evidence of habituality", it could impose a "dual-track" sentence - first an ordinary penal element, equating to what would previously have been the total sentence, and then "preventive detention", usually for five years. Thus, Gladstone argued, the most dangerous villains would be incapacitated.

The Liberal MP and writer Hilaire Belloc argued in vain that this was "utterly at variance with every political or social principle that western Europe had ever known" for more than 3,000 years. The act, Belloc said, would enshrine the "tyranny of bureaucrats".

One of the sharpest critics of the 1908 act was the home secretary who took office two years later, Winston Churchill. His fear was that it was likely to fall hardest not on the most dangerous, but on prolific petty criminals. "The general test should be - is the nature of the crime such as to indicate that the offender is not merely a nuisance but a serious danger to society?" Churchill wrote in an official circular. Thus he identified a crucial issue of enormous relevance today.

Compared with its 2003 successor, the 1908 act was relatively little used - usually there were fewer than 100 preventive sentences a year. But when it was finally evaluated by a departmental committee in 1932, the findings were devastating. As Churchill had predicted, most of those sentenced were not dangerous at all, but "men of little mental capacity or strength . . . whose frequent convictions testify as much to their clumsiness as their persistence in crime".

Undeterred by this failure, Attlee's Labour government passed another preventive detention act in 1948. In 1963 an inquiry by the home secretary's Advisory Council on Sentencing showed that this was equally unjust. Most of those given the new form of preventive detention - up to 180 people a year - were, in the words of a report from Cambridge University, not predators, but "passive inadequate deviants". In 1967, the 1948 act was repealed.

Overcrowded prisons

Evidence is now emerging that the defect spotted by Churchill in the 1908 act is equally manifest in that of 2003. According to official figures, just 28 - 4 per cent - of the first 707 IPPs were imposed on those convicted of crimes against children, and a further 40 on rapists. Forty-four of those sentenced were arsonists, and 149 had been convicted of wounding. But by far the biggest group - 284 prisoners, or roughly 40 per cent of the total - were given IPPs for robbery, almost all of them for street crimes or mugging.

To be sure, some muggers may, on release, go on to commit murder. A minority of arsonists may one day set a fire in which someone is badly hurt. Yet it is clear that the crimes actually committed by many of those getting IPPs are relatively insignificant - and nothing like as serious as those which would previously have merited life. The median tariff set for the first 707 IPP prisoners - that is to say, the penal element of the sentence, the term that would have been imposed before the 2003 act - is just 30 months.

In theory when the tariff expires, IPP prisoners, as with those serving life for murder, become eligible for Parole Board review, and hence possible release. But as the board's chairman, Sir Duncan Nichol, pointed out last December, even if they do get out at their first opportunity, they will probably spend much longer in jail than before. Most IPP inmates will have spent months on remand, and by the time they have been sentenced and settled in a long-term prison, their review date may well be looming.

It takes months, however, for the various prison and other officials necessary to this process to prepare and write their reports. In addition, before freeing someone already deemed dangerous, the Parole Board will need to see that their so-called "dynamic risk factors" have declined - perhaps by graduation from a long course of therapy while in prison. The likelihood is that the time many inmates spend in jail being assessed as future risks will be longer than the time served as punishment.

Nichol commented: "The global impact of IPPs will be that prison overcrowding will increase; places on offending behaviour courses will be scarce; prisoners may spend more time in custody awaiting such courses when they might otherwise have been released earlier; crucial time will be spent writing parole reports by prison and probation staff who have other duties; and the Parole Board will need increased resources to deal with a quadrupling of our indeterminate casework."

A further factor seems likely to make sentences longer still. The 2002 study of long-term sex offenders by Professor Hood and his colleagues suggested that the Parole Board has an innate and understandable bias towards being overcautious: no one wants to be responsible for setting a maniac free. The study looked at what happened to 82 men whom the board decided were "high-risk" and hence refused parole. Four years after their eventual release, just seven had been reconvicted of a further sexual offence, and four for a violent offence - a false positive rate of 92 per cent for a sexual crime, and 87 per cent for either sex or violence.

These men had been serving determinate, fixed-term sentences, so knew the latest they would get out: perhaps, in their cases, such apparent overcaution was acceptable. Now, however, many of the same type of prisoners will be serving IPPs and may never be freed at all, or be freed only after an exceedingly long time.

Sex offenders sentenced today will have been assessed using one or more structured, psychological "tools". These are not, in any sense, infallible: derived from analysis of prob abilistic risk factors shared by groups, they are a very blunt instrument when applied to individuals - when even their staunchest advocates admit that they are no more than about 75 per cent accurate. Hood's team also looked at what happened after release to prisoners deemed to be high-risk using the tool known as Static-99, and found a false positive rate only slightly better than the Parole Board's.

But at least these tools have been evaluated. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of IPPs is that the method being used by judges in most cases has no such basis at all.

According to the Home Office, most non-sex offenders considered for an IPP - that is, more than 90 per cent - will have been subject only to the standard OASys pre-sentencing assessment, a box-ticking exercise by a probation officer who often will have no direct experience of the offender. Having considered, in a formulaic manner, a variety of factors derived from the paper record, the officer ends the process by making what amounts to a purely subjective judgement: is this offender low, medium, high or very high risk? If either of the latter two, he will probably get an IPP.

I spoke to officials who designed the OASys forms. To date, there has not been any evaluation of their predictive powers, even though they are now being used daily to justify indefinite incarceration. It is, as Belloc put it, "the tyranny of bureaucrats". A new study by the criminologist Diana Fitzgibbon can only amplify such concerns. Based on her investigation of OASys risk analysis in a large city, it finds evidence of "risk inflation", leading to the "non-transformative warehousing" in prison of those thought to be risky. She also discovers widespread gaps in offenders' OASys files - omissions of crucial episodes in their histories that might, had they been considered, have led to their being given a lower risk category.

Authoritarian dystopia

Perhaps this risk inflation explains some of the cases of IPPs that have already been upheld by the Court of Appeal. For example, there was the 18-year-old with no previous convictions who set fire to two rubbish bins at a seaside resort; and the middle-aged man who set fire to his house when his mother went into a care home - he didn't even do the job very effectively: he poured cooking oil on some cushions and tried to set them alight. Among the numerous robbery cases, there was a man who punched a pizza delivery driver in the chest, and tried unsuccessfully to steal his car; later that night he threatened - though did not hurt - someone else and made off with his mobile phone.

In his story (later a Tom Cruise movie) "The Minority Report", Philip K Dick wrote of a system governed by the notion of "precrime", where people who had yet to do anything wrong were convicted and sentenced because the authorities "knew" they would.

Dick was writing science fiction, but even minus his "precogs" - weird beings with the gift of second sight - the precrime world is already here. It shows every sign of becoming an authoritarian dystopia.

The facts of crime and punishment
Research by Sarah O'Connor

2,000 number of preventive detention orders issued in the UK since April 2005

3% only this proportion of freed lifers is reimprisoned for new offences

17,000 increase in UK prison population since new Labour came to power

8,000 number of extra prison places the Home Office plans to create by 2012

£100,000 cost of creating each new prison place

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trident: Why Brown went to war with Labour

Amanda Edwards/Getty Images
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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.”