Which Century Is This?

Christopher Hitchens

Even as a series of car-bomb attacks (apparently planned by Islamist members of the medical profession) were convulsing the United Kingdom, an outbreak of torrential rain in Yorkshire left thousands of people homeless across the northern part of the country. British weather is notoriously bad but seldom freakish, so another opportunity presented itself for speculation about what—apart from a thorough drenching—the heavens had intended.

There have always been witch doctors and shamans who claim to have private sources of information about such phenomena, and fortunes were to be made in ancient times by mumbo-jumbo practitioners who could promise to produce rainfall. This job isn’t actually necessary in Britain, where the rain can be counted on (especially in the summer months), so several bishops of the Church of England took the opposite view and blamed the excess precipitation on sex. To be exact, the Bishops of Carlisle and Liverpool (one of them likely to become the next Archbishop of Canterbury) attributed the flooding to a recent decision by Tony Blair’s govern-ment—Tony Blair then being on the eve of his departure from office—to lift various legal restrictions on homosexuals. For good measure, they added that the inundation could also be a verdict from God on the evil tendency of humans to produce climate change and on the general selfishness and materialism of industrial civilization.

This apparently leaves only the question of why heaven should have decided to punish the County of York-shire rather than, say, the fleshpots of London, where same-sex adventures are far from unknown. If those car bombs had exploded in London’s club and theater district, they would undoubtedly have slain and dismembered a lot of people in whose lives the quest for celibacy and continence is not conspicuous. I wonder if the bishops would have pronounced this Islamist terrorism a part of God’s judgment, as well?

The last time that God was said to have condemned a city was in the water-borne devastation of New Orleans, but it was eventually noticed that Hurricane Katrina had spared the rather louche streets of the French Quarter and flooded the more respectable districts, so opinions on the divine motive became, if anything, more fanciful. The mayor of the city thought it could be a reprisal for the invasion of Iraq, while a senior rabbi in Israel expressed the view that America itself was being punished for supporting the evacuation of religious zealot settlers from the Gaza Strip. Take your pick. In ancient times, it was thought that sodomy was the cause of earthquakes. This opinion will probably undergo a revival when the next “big one” hits San Francisco—though the last time that city was hit, by a quake caused by the San Andreas fault in 1906, it was by no means a byword for gay promiscuity.

It is to the good, of course, that we are pattern-seeking animals who look for connections and explanations. Our tendency toward innovation and experiment is the outcome of this itch. The downside is that people will prefer a junk theory or a conspiracy theory to no theory at all. It seems utterly fantastic that an ordained bishop of a state-financed church, a man who has the right to sit and vote in the British House of Lords, should entertain the speculation that meteorology and morality are in the slightest way connected. But he not only thinks they are connected; he claims to discern the connection between particular policies and individual storms.

Absurd as it may seem even to be writing about such garbage, this silly episode is useful in making one or two points. In debates with the faithful, atheists like myself are constantly being told that we should relax about religion and that the churches cannot and should not be judged by the stupidity of their “fundamentalists.” This complaint is being addressed to the wrong quarter, for here we have some reputable leaders of a famously “moderate” ecclesiastical organization talking as if the universe of the stupefied medieval peasant was the one in which they not only dwelt themselves but wished others to inhabit as well.

Second, it demonstrates that mere scientific advance is not enough to undermine superstition. We actually know quite a great deal about climate and climate change, and, if it is true that human activity has been contributing to a rise in global temperatures (as seems extremely probable), then there is no need for any God to “do” anything. He can simply watch as his creatures reap the consequences of their own folly. Thus, the idea that an additional condemnation for that folly, visited only on the people of Yorkshire, would be needed is an idea that only the stupidest person could contemplate without mirth. But none of our advances in knowledge is enough on its own to dispel the primitive impulse to look skyward for signs and portents, even in post-industrial Britain in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

A final observation may be worth making. Until recently, fools like the Bishop of Carlisle would have been content to blame floods on gays and leave it at that. But now, they like to make the trendy insinuation that global warming may be a sin as well. This is not the only symptom I have noticed of the “green” movement taking on the aspect of a cult or religion. I have the vague impression that a majority of secularists are also environmentalists of one or another stripe. It might be time to look out for the indications of religious fanaticism, or primeval nature worship, in the ranks of the apparently “scientific.”

Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. His memoir Hitch-22 is published in paperback by Twelve.


Even as a series of car-bomb attacks (apparently planned by Islamist members of the medical profession) were convulsing the United Kingdom, an outbreak of torrential rain in Yorkshire left thousands of people homeless across the northern part of the country. British weather is notoriously bad but seldom freakish, so another opportunity presented itself for speculation …

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