The Birth and Rapid Rise of Islam, Animated (622-1453)

To anyone unfamiliar with the history of Islam, it comes as something of a shock that it got started less than a millennium and a half ago. In that relatively short span of time, Islam has become the world’s second-largest religion, a fact that becomes more understandable when you see the running start to which it got off visualized in the video above. Created by Ollie Bye — previously featured here on Open Culture for his cartographical animations of the rise and fall of the British Empire, the spread of writing, and the history of the world — it depicts the spread of Islam, which began in earnest after the death of its founder, the prophet Muhammad, in the year 632, and whose legacy is the “Muslim world” as we know it today.

“By conquest and conversion, the new religion spread quickly westwards through the territories of the Byzantine empire,” says the Victoria and Albert Museum’s page on luxury objects of the period. “By the 640s, Muslim forces were advancing across North Africa, conquering Sicily in 652 and the Iberian Peninsula in 711.”

Let’s pause to give that achievement due consideration: Islam overtook Spain just a century after its foundation, a conquering speed that puts the Roman Empire in the shade. (The Muslims also managed to get the upper hand of the Persians, who’d presented such a stiff challenge to not just the Romans but the Greeks before them.) “By the early 8th century, Islamic territories had almost encircled the Mediterranean.”‘

“During this time Muslim rulers, soldiers, traders, Sufis, scholars, poets and architects all contributed to the shaping of distinctive Islamic cultures,” says the site of Harvard’s Pluralism Project. “Across the wide-reaching Islamic world, transregional Islamic culture mixed with local traditions to produce distinctive forms of statecraft, theology, art, architecture, and science.” (Nor should we neglect the delights of Moorish cuisine.) This Islamic Golden Age, like all golden ages, eventually came to an end. The center of civilization had shifted undeniably by the time of the European Renaissance — which, according to the Pluralism Project, may never have taken place “without the creativity and myriad achievements of Muslim scholars, thinkers, and civilizations.” And given that Islam remains the world’s fastest-growing major religion by births, it surely hasn’t exerted the last of its global influence just yet.

Related content:

An Animated Introduction to the World’s Five Major Religions: Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity & Islam

Animated Map Shows How the Five Major Religions Spread Across the World (3000 BC – 2000 AD)

The Complex Geometry of Islamic Art & Design: A Short Introduction

How Arabic Translators Helped Preserve Greek Philosophy … and the Classical Tradition

A Visual Map of the World’s Major Religions (and Non-Religions)

The History of the World in One Video: Every Year from 200,000 BCE to Today

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

J. Robert Oppenheimer Explains How, Upon Witnessing the First Nuclear Explosion, He Recited a Line from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I Am Become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds”

No matter how little we know of the Hindu religion, a line from one of its holy scriptures lives within us all: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” This is one facet of the legacy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, an American theoretical physicist who left an outsized mark on history. For his crucial role in the Manhattan Project that during World War II produced the first nuclear weapons, he’s now remembered as the”father of the atomic bomb.” He secured that title on July 16, 1945, the day of the test in the New Mexican desert that proved these experimental weapons actually work — that is, they could wreak a kind of destruction previously only seen in visions of the end of the world.

“We knew the world would not be the same,” Oppenheimer remembered in 1965. “A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.'”

The translation’s grammatical archaism made it even more powerful, resonating with lines in Tennyson (“I am become a name, for always roaming with a hungry heart”), Shakespeare (“I am come to know your pleasure”), and the Bible (“I am come a light into the world, that whosoever believeth on me should not abide in darkness”).

But what is death, as the Gita sees it? In an interview with Wired, Sanskrit scholar Stephen Thompson explains that, in the original, the word that Oppenheimer speaks as “death” refers to “literally the world-destroying time.” This means that “irrespective of what Arjuna does” — Arjuna being the aforementioned prince, the narrative’s protagonist — everything is in the hands of the divine.” Oppenheimer would have learned all this while teaching in the 1930s at UC Berkeley, where he learned Sanskrit and read the Gita in the original. This created in him, said his colleague Isidor Rabi, “a feeling of mystery of the universe that surrounded him like a fog.”

The necessity of the United States’ subsequent dropping of not one but two atomic bombs on Japan, examined in the 1965 documentary The Decision to Drop the Bomb (below), remains a matter of debate. Oppenheimer went on to oppose nuclear weapons, describing himself to an appalled President Harry Truman as having “blood on my hands.” But in developing them, could he have simply seen himself as a modern Prince Arjuna? “It has been argued by scholars,” writes the Economic Times‘ Mayank Chhaya, “that Oppenheimer’s approach to the atomic bomb was that of doing his duty as part of his dharma as prescribed in the Gita.” He knew, to quote another line from that scripture brought to mind by the nuclear explosion, that “if the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst into the sky that would be like the splendor of the Mighty One” — and perhaps also that splendor and wrath may be one.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2020. In the light of the new Oppenheimer film, we’re bringing it back.

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63 Haunting Videos of U.S. Nuclear Tests Now Declassified and Put Online

53 Years of Nuclear Testing in 14 Minutes: A Time Lapse Film by Japanese Artist Isao Hashimoto

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

When There Were Three Popes at Once: An Animated Video Drawn in the Style of Medieval Illuminated Manuscript

Pope Francis, who’s been head of the Catholic Church for a decade now, is officially Pontiff number 266. But if you scroll through Wikipedia’s list of popes, you’ll see quite a few entries without numbers, their rows cast in a disreputable-looking darker shade of gray. The presence of several such unofficial Popes usually indicates particularly interesting times in the history of the Church, and thus the history of Western civilization itself. The new TED-Ed video above, written by medieval history professor Joëlle Rollo-Koster, tells of the only period in which three popes vied simultaneously for legitimacy. This was The Western Schism — or the Papal Schism, or the Great Occidental Schism, or the Schism of 1378.

However one labels it, “the origins of this papal predicament began in 1296, when France’s King Philip IV decided to raise taxes on the church.” So begins the narrator of the video, which animates the historical scenes he describes in the style of a medieval illuminated manuscript. (It includes many amusing details, though I haven’t managed to spot any aggressive rabbits or snails, to say nothing of butt trumpets.) Pope Boniface VIII, the Church’s leader at the time, responded with the Unam Sanctam, “a radical decree asserting the pope’s total supremacy over earthly rulers.” The clash between the two resulted in the death of Boniface, who was eventually replaced in 1305 by Clement V.

As “a French diplomat seeking peace in the war between England and his homeland,” Clement strategically moved the seat of the papacy to Avignon. Seven popes later, the papacy moved back to Italy — not long before the death of Gregory XI, the Pontiff who moved it. Out of the chaotic process of selecting his successor came Pope Urban VI, who turned out to be “a reformer who sought to limit the cardinals’ finances.” Those cardinals then “denounced Urban as a usurper” and elected Pope Clement VII to replace him. But Urban refused to relinquish his position, and in fact “entrenched himself in Rome while Clement and his supporters returned to Avignon.”

This began the schism, splitting Western Christendom between the capitals of Avignon and Rome. Each capital kept its line going, replacing popes who die and perpetuating the situation in which “European rulers were forced to choose sides as both popes vied for spiritual and political supremacy.” Only in 1409 did a group of cardinals attempt to put an end to it, electing a new pope themselves — who went unrecognized, of course, by the existing popes in Rome and Avignon. The schism went on for nearly 40 years, underscoring the alliterative truth that “even those who are supposed to be pious are prone to petty power struggles.” Most popes, like any figures of power, must feel lonely at the top — but that’s surely better than when it’s too crowded there.

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Watch the Bayeux Tapestry Come to Life in a Short Animated Film

Animated: Stephen Fry & Ann Widdecombe Debate the Catholic Church

Pope John Paul II Takes Batting Practice in California, 1987

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Discover the Sarajevo Haggadah, the Medieval Illuminated Manuscript That Survived the Inquisition, Holocaust & Yugoslav Wars

If you attended a seder this month, you no doubt read aloud from the Haggadah, a Passover tradition in which everyone at the table takes turns recounting the story of Exodus.

There’s no definitive edition of the Haggadah. Every Passover host is free to choose the version of the familiar story they like best, to cut and paste from various retellings, or even take a crack at writing their own.  

As David Zvi Kalman, publisher of the annual, illustrated Asufa Haggadah told the New York Times, “The Haggadah in America is like Kit Kats in Japan. It’s a product that accepts a wide variety of flavors. It’s probably the most accessible Jewish book on the market.”

21st century adaptations have included Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Seinfeld, Harry Potter, and Curb Your Enthusiasm themed Haggadot.

There are Haggadot tailored toward feminists, Libertarians, interfaith families, and advocates of the Black Lives Matter movement.

One of the oldest is the miraculously-preserved Sarajevo Haggadah, an illuminated manuscript created by anonymous artists and scribes in Barcelona around 1350.

Though it bears the coats of arms of two prominent families, its provenance is not definitively known.

Leora Bromberg of the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library notes that it is “especially striking for its colorful illuminations of biblical and Passover ritual scenes and its beautifully hand-scribed Sephardic letterforms:”

As precious as this Haggadah was, and still is, Haggadot are books that are meant to be used in festive and messy settings—sharing the table with food, wine, family and guests. The Sarajevo Haggadah was no exception to this; its pages show evidence that it was well used, with doodles, food and red wine stains marking its pages.

Some brave soul took care to smuggle this essential volume out with them when 1492’s Alhambra Decree expelled all Jews from Spain.

The manuscript’s travels thereafter are shrouded in mystery.

It survived the Roman Inquisition by virtue of its contents. As per a 1609 note jotted on one of its pages, nothing therein seemed to be aimed against the Church.

More handwritten notes place the book in the north of Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries, though its new owner is not mentioned by name.

Eventually, it found its way to the hands of a man named Joseph Kohen who sold it to the National Museum of Sarajevo in 1894.

It was briefly sent to Vienna, where a government official replaced its original medieval binding with cardboard covers, chopping its 142 bleached calfskin vellum down to 6.5” x 9” in order to fit them.

It had a narrow escape in 1942, when a high-ranking Nazi official, Johann Fortner, visited the museum, intent on confiscating the priceless manuscript.  

The chief librarian, Dervis Korkut, a Muslim, secreted the Haggadah inside his clothing, reputedly telling  Fortner that museum staff had turned it over to another German officer.

After that folklore takes over. Korkut either stowed it under the floorboards of his home, buried it under a tree, gave it to an imam in a remote village for safekeeping, or hid it on a shelf in the museum’s library.

Whatever the case, it reappeared in the museum, safe and sound, in 1945.

The museum was ransacked during 1992’s Siege of Sarajevo, but the thieves, ignorant of the Haggadah’s worth, left it on the floor. It was removed to an underground bank vault, where it survived untouched, even as the museum sustained heavy artillery damage.

The president of Bosnia presented it to Jewish community leaders during a Seder three years later.

Shortly thereafter, the head of Sarajevo’s Jewish Community sought the United Nations’ support to restore the Haggadah, and house it in a suitably secure, climate-controlled setting. 

A number of facsimiles have been created, and the original codex once again resides in the museum where it is stored under the prescribed conditions, and displayed on rare special occasions, as “physical proof of the openness of a society in which fear of the Other has never been an incurable disease.”

UNESCO added it to its Memory of the World Register in 2017, “praising the courage of the people who, even in the darkest of times during World War II, appreciated its importance to Jewish Heritage, as well as its embodiment of diversity and intercultural harmony depicted in its illustration:”

 Regardless of their own religious beliefs, they risked their lives and did all in their power to safeguard the Haggadah for future generations. Its destruction would be a loss for humanity. Protecting it is a symbol of the values which we hold dear.

For those interested, the Sarajevo Haggadah figures centrally in the bestselling 2008 novel People of the Book, written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks. You can read an New Times review here.

Related Content 

How Illuminated Medieval Manuscripts Were Made: A Step-by-Step Look at this Beautiful, Centuries-Old Craft

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– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

15-Year-Old Picasso Paints His First Masterpiece, “The First Communion”


It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child. – Pablo Picasso

We think it’s safe to say that most of us have a preconceived notion of Picasso’s style, and The First Communion, above, isn’t it.

Picasso was just 15 when he completed this large-scale oil, having lost his 7-year-old sister, Conchita, to diphtheria one year before.

The stricken young artist had attempted to bargain with God, vowing to give up painting if she was spared. As Arianna Huffington writes in the biography Picasso: Creator and Destroyer:

…he was torn between wanting her saved and wanting her dead so that his gift would be saved. When she died, he decided that God was evil and destiny an enemy. At the same time, he was convinced that it was his ambivalence that had made it possible for God to kill Conchita. His guilt was enormous—the other side of his belief in his powers to affect the world around him. And it was compounded by his almost magical conviction that his little sister’s death had released him to be a painter and follow the call of the powers he had been given, whatever the consequences.

If there’s evil at work in the “First Communion,” he keeps it under wraps. All eyes are on the rapt young communicant, embodied in his surviving sister, Lola, in a snowy veil and gown.

Their father, painter and drawing professor José Ruiz y Blasco, assumes the part of the girl’s father or godfather, a solemn witness to this rite of passage.

Ruiz y Blasco provided instruction and championed his son’s gift. He encouraged him to enter the “First Communion,” and later, “Science and Charity” (in which he appears as the doctor) in the Exposicion de Bellas Artes, a competition and exhibition opportunity for emerging artists.

Picasso later remarked that “every time I draw a man, I think of my father.  To me, man is Don José, and will be all my life…”

Ruiz y Blasco, convinced that Picasso’s talent would bring success as a naturalistic painter of classical scenes and portraits, was deeply disappointed when his teenaged son began blowing off class at Madrid’s prestigious Academia Real de San Fernando. 

Just imagine how he reacted to the scandalous Cubist vision ofLes Demoiselles d’Avignon,” unveiled a mere eleven years after the “First Communion.”

The rest is history.

Just for fun, we invited the free online AI image generator Craiyon (formerly known as DALL-E Mini) to have a go using the prompt “Picasso First Communion”.

The results should surprise no one. 

Related Content 

The Gestapo Points to Guernica and Asks Picasso, “Did You Do This?;” Picasso Replies “No, You Did!”

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How To Understand a Picasso Painting: A Video Primer

Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Did Psychedelic Mushrooms Appear in Medieval Christian Art?: A Video Essay

Historical research reveals psychoactive substances to have been in use longer than most of us would assume. But did Adam and Eve do mushrooms in the Garden of Eden? Unsurprisingly, that question is fraught on more than one level. But if you wish to believe that they did, spend some time with the thirteenth-century artwork above, known as the Plaincourault fresco. In it, writes Atlas Obscura’s Emma Betuel, “Adam and Eve stand in the Garden of Eden, both of them faceless.” Between them “stands a large red tree, crowned with a dotted, umbrella-like cap. The tree’s branches end in smaller caps, each with their own pattern of tiny white spots” — just like you’d see on certain species of fungus. “Tourists, scholars, and influencers come to see the tree that, according to some enthusiasts, depicts the hallucinogenic mushroom Amanita muscaria.”

This image, more than any other piece of evidence, supports the theory that “early Christians used hallucinogenic mushrooms.” Supports is probably the wrong word, though there have been true believers since at least since 1911, “when a member of the French Mycological Society suggested the thing sprouting between Adam and Eve was a ‘bizarre’ and ‘arborescent’ mushroom.” The video essay just below, “Psychedelics in Christian Art,” presents the cases for and against the Tree of Life being a bunch of magic mushrooms. It comes from Youtuber Hochelaga, whose videos previously featured here on Open Culture have covered subjects like the Voynich Manuscript and the Biblical apocalypse.  This particular episode comes as part of a miniseries on “strange Christian art” whose previous installments have focused on hellmouths and the three-headed Jesus.

Nevertheless, Hochelaga can’t come down on the side of the mushrooms-seers. Similar vegetation appears in other pieces of medieval art, but “in reality, these are drawings of trees, rendered with strange forms and bright colors,” as dictated by the relatively loose and exaggerated aesthetic of the era. But that doesn’t mean the Plaincourault fresco has nothing to teach us, and the same holds for other “psychedelic” Christian creations, like the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch or the art-inspiring music of Hildegard von Bingen. Judging by the investigations this sort of thing has inspired — Tom Hatsis’ “The Psychedelic Gospels, The Plaincourault fresco, and the Death of Psychedelic History,” Jerry B. Brown and Julie M. Brown’s Journal of Psychedelic Studies article “Entheogens in Christian Art: Wasson, Allegro, and the Psychedelic Gospels” — the relevant history constitutes quite a trip by itself.

Related Content:

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A Survival Guide to the Biblical Apocalypse

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Michael Pollan, Sam Harris & Others Explain How Psychedelics Can Change Your Mind

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Cats in Medieval Manuscripts & Paintings

Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer  (1471-1528) never saw a rhino himself, but by relying on eyewitness descriptions of the one King Manuel I of Portugal intended as a gift to the Pope, he managed to render a fairly realistic one, all things considered.

Medieval artists’ renderings of cats so often fell short of the mark, Youtuber Art Deco wonders if any of them had seen a cat before.

Point taken, but cats were well integrated into medieval society.

Royal 12 C xix f. 36v/37r (13th century)

Cats provided medieval citizens with the same pest control services they’d been performing since the ancient Egyptians first domesticated them.

Ancient Egyptians conveyed their gratitude and respect by regarding cats as symbols of divinity, protection, and strength.

Certain Egyptian goddesses, like Bastet, were imbued with unmistakably feline characteristics.

The Vintage News reports that harming a cat in those days was punishable by death, exporting them was illegal, and, much like today, the death of a cat was an occasion for public sorrow:

When a cat died, it was buried with honors, mummified and mourned by the humans. The body of the cat would be wrapped in the finest materials and then embalmed in order to preserve the body for a longer time. Ancient Egyptians went so far that they shaved their eyebrows as a sign of their deep sorrow for the deceased pet.

Aberdeen University Library, MS 24  f. 23v (England, c 1200)

The medieval church took a much darker view of our feline friends.

Their close ties to paganism and early religions were enough for cats to be judged guilty of witchcraft, sinful sexuality, and fraternizing with Satan.

In the late 12th-century, writer Walter Map, a soon-to-be archdeacon of Oxford, declared that the devil appeared before his devotees in feline form:

… hanging by a rope, a black cat of great size. As soon as they see this cat, the lights are turned out. They do not sing or recite hymns in a distinct way, but they mutter them with their teeth closed and they feel in the dark towards where they saw their lord], and when they find it, they kiss it, the more humbly depending on their folly, some on the paws, some under the tail, some on the genitals. And as if they have, in this way, received a license for passion, each one takes the nearest man or woman and they join themselves with the other for as long as they choose to draw out their game.

Pope Innocent VIII issued a papal bull in 1484 condemning the “devil’s favorite animal and idol of all witches” to death, along with their human companions to death.

13th-century Franciscan monk Bartholomaeus Anglicus refrained from demonic tattle, but neither did he paint cats as angels:

He is a full lecherous beast in youth, swift, pliant, and merry, and leapeth and reseth on everything that is to fore him: and is led by a straw, and playeth therewith: and is a right heavy beast in age and full sleepy, and lieth slyly in wait for mice: and is aware where they be more by smell than by sight, and hunteth and reseth on them in privy places: and when he taketh a mouse, he playeth therewith, and eateth him after the play. In time of love is hard fighting for wives, and one scratcheth and rendeth the other grievously with biting and with claws. And he maketh a ruthful noise and ghastful, when one proffereth to fight with another: and unneth is hurt when he is thrown down off an high place. And when he hath a fair skin, he is as it were proud thereof, and goeth fast about: and when his skin is burnt, then he bideth at home; and is oft for his fair skin taken of the skinner, and slain and flayed.

Pigs and rats also had a bad rep, and like cats, were tortured and executed in great numbers by pious humans.

The Worksop Bestiary Morgan Library, MS M.81 f. 47r (England, c 1185)

Not every medieval city was anti-cat. As the Academic Cat Lady Johanna Feenstra writes of the above illustration from The Worksop Bestiary, one of the earliest English bestiaries:

Some would have interpreted the image of a cat pouncing on a rodent as a symbol for the devil going after the human soul. Others might have seen the cat in a completely different light. For instance, as Eucharistic guardians, making sure rodents could not steal and eat the Eucharistic wafers.

Bodleian Library Bodley 764 f. 51r (England, c 1225-50)

St John’s College Library, MS. 61 (England (York), 13th century)

It took cat lover Leonardo DaVinci to turn the situation around, with eleven sketches from life portraying cats in characteristic poses, much as we see them today. We’ll delve more into that in a future post.

Conrad of Megenberg, ‘Das Buch der Natur’, Germany ca. 1434. Strasbourg, Bibliothèque nationale et universitaire, Ms.2.264, fol. 85r

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Christopher Hitchens’ Final Interview: Hear the Newly-Released Uncut Conversation with Richard Dawkins

Never was there such an exhilarating time and place to be interested in atheism than the internet of ten or fifteen years ago. “People compiled endless lists of arguments and counterarguments for or against atheism,” remembers blogger Scott Alexander. One atheist newsgroup “created a Dewey-Decimal-system-esque index of almost a thousand creationist arguments” and “painstakingly debunked all of them.” In turn, their creationist arch-enemies “went through and debunked all of their debunkings.” Readers could enjoy a host of atheism-themed web comics and “the now-infamous r/atheism subreddit, which at the time was one of Reddit’s highest-ranked, beating topics like ‘news,’ ‘humor,’ and — somehow — ‘sex.’ At the time, this seemed perfectly normal.”

This was the culture in which Richard Dawkins published The God Delusion, in 2006, and Christopher Hitchens published his God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything in 2007. “I’m not just doing what publishers like and coming up with a provocative subtitle,” Alexander quotes Hitchens as saying.  “I mean to say it infects us in our most basic integrity. It says we can’t be moral without ‘Big Brother,’ without a totalitarian permission, means we can’t be good to one another without this, we must be afraid, we must also be forced to love someone whom we fear — the essence of sadomasochism, the essence of abjection, the essence of the master-slave relationship and that knows that death is coming and can’t wait to bring it on.”

Dawkins and Hitchens became known as two of the “Four Horsemen of the Non-Apocalypse,” a group of public intellectuals that also included Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. The label stuck after all of them sat down for a two-hour conversation on video in the fall 2007, during which each man laid out his critique of the religious worldview. Four years later, Dawkins and Hitchens sat down for another recorded conversation, this time one-on-one and with a much different tone. Having suffered from cancer for more than a year, Hitchens seemed not to be long for this world, and indeed, he would be dead in just two months. But his condition hardly stopped him from speaking with his usual incisiveness on topics of great interest, and especially his and Dawkins’ shared bête noire of fundamentalist religion.

Dawkins, a biologist, sees in the power granted to religion a threat to hard-won scientific knowledge about the nature of reality; Hitchens, a writer and thinker in the tradition of George Orwell, saw it as one of the many forms of totalitarianism that has ever threatened the intellectual and bodily freedom of humankind. In this, Hitchens’ final interview (which was printed in Hitchens’ Last Interview book and whose uncut audio recording came available only this year), Dawkins expresses some concern that he’s become a “bore” with his usual anti-religious defense of science. Nonsense, Hitchens says: an honest scientist risks being called a bore just as an honest journalist risks being called strident, but nevertheless, “you’ve got to bang on.”

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Does God Exist? Christopher Hitchens Debates Christian Philosopher William Lane Craig (2009)

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Christopher Hitchens: No Deathbed Conversion for Me, Thanks, But it was Good of You to Ask

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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