In his god is not Great Christopher Hitchens writes:

June 5, Los Angeles: A three-hour debate with the Reverend Mark Roberts, senior pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, in Orange County, on Hugh Hewitt’s conservative Christian chat show. Very nice of Mr. Hewitt. The Rev doesn’t accuse me of not knowing what I’m talking about: Indeed, he’s very civil about the book. At one point I ask him if he believes the story in Saint Matthew’s Gospel about the graves opening in Jerusalem at the time of the crucifixion, and the occupants walking the streets. Doesn’t it rather cheapen the idea of resurrection? He replies that as a Christian he does believe it, though as a historian he has his doubts. I realize that I am limited here: I can usually think myself into an opponent’s position, but this is something I can’t imagine myself saying, let alone thinking.

I'm not sure if I'm wrong, but as far as I know, one uses the phrase let alone to talk about two or more things with the part following let alone is way more improbable to occur.

The following example is from OED's definition of let alone:

  • He was incapable of leading a bowling team, let alone a country.

Back to Hitchens, he says he can't imagine himself saying something, let alone thinking it. But isn't it easier and more likely for someone to think something, rather than saying it? I mean, you may think anything but you may choose not to pronounce it because thinking may occur unwillingly and is just a matter of moment while saying what you think totally depends on your will to do it.

I hope I've meade myself clear enough. Any remarks are appreciated.

Thank you.

Note: I'm sorry, I should have known that this passage might be a bit insufficient for the purposes of a proper context. So, I'm giving the whole paragraph this time. Hitchens talks about the events he had experienced during the tour he was on to promote his book god is not Great. This is an excerpt from the Afterword of the book.

  • 3
    It's not about freedom to think whatever one likes, in, say, a repressive regime where public statements must conform. Rather it is about being true to one's beliefs, where you may not think anything; you think only what you think. You cannot lie to yourself. On the other hand, you can say almost anything. "The world is flat". There, I've said it. But I don't think it.
    – TimR
    Commented Jul 31, 2015 at 12:29

5 Answers 5


Logically, it seems like this is the reverse of the usual process, as you explained. We would usually sooner think something than come out and say it. However, I believe in this case, he is more concerned about changing his entire philosophy by permitting such a thought to enter his mind, than about uttering words. At least that's the impression I get.

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    Indeed. Perhaps a better word than thinking would have been believing.
    – talrnu
    Commented Jul 31, 2015 at 17:01

Here's the thing: To any normal, rational English speaker, the least probably option could be on either side of "let alone". It's common usage, and most people would not blink an eye.

On the other hand

It throws people like me into small fits of rage. The least probable option should come after "let alone", such as:

I wouldn't even think of misusing "let alone" in a sentence, let alone actually do it on a public forum.

That is the correct usage, and the only way that makes literal sense. But much like the misuse of literally, in the common vernacular it is often misused.

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    Actually, I'm with you on this one but I can't choose the best answer since each one of the answers makes sense in its own right. I think I'm going to get the true meaning when I finish the book, which is close. Then I'll vote the best answer.
    – A.K.
    Commented Jul 31, 2015 at 16:48
  • Is this a matter of probability or severity?
    – neontapir
    Commented Jun 18, 2019 at 17:37

Whether you are more likely to think something or to say it depends on the circumstances. Like if I think, "Wow, Sally has gotten really fat", the thought may come to my head, but I don't want to say it out loud because that would be rude.

But in this case, I think what's in Hitchen's head is that someone might say something to defend his position in a debate, or to conform to the expectations of others, even though he himself doesn't really believe it. Like in my "Sally has gotten fat" example, just reverse it: I would be more likely to say, "Yes Sally, I can see that you've lost weight", then to actually think it. That is, I may be more likely to make a nice statement out of politeness than to actually think that that nice statement is true.

So I haven't read this book, I don't know the full context, but I'm guessing from your quote that a Christian made this statement and, well, I don't know what the person actually said or meant, but from the quote it SOUNDS like he's saying that he believes two contradictory things at the same time. Hitchens might imagine that someone who doesn't believe some Christian idea might SAY that he does to his Christian friends to avoid offending them, and say that he doesn't believe it to his secular friends to avoid offending THEM. He finds such a position, I presume, intellectually dishonest. He can't imagine himself SAYING something so dishonest just to avoid offense, but he has an even harder time imagining himself actually believing contradictory things simultaneously, i.e. not just saying he believes them, but actually believing them.

(BTW I normally avoid commenting on substance in example quotes and limit myself to grammar, but as a Fundamentalist Christian myself, I absolutely agree with Hitchens on this point.)


He says "I can usually think myself into an opponent’s position..." He was trying to understand his opponent. So even his tongue had difficulty with the proposition. Even more difficult it would be to actually understand it logically (thinking it).

So the way he actually said it was a bit awkward but his point was clear. He couldn't logically understand the proposition he heard. i.e. He thought it was absurd.

  • Although I'm thinking of the possibility of a misuse here, if it had the slightest bit of sense, I think it would be your answer.
    – A.K.
    Commented Jul 31, 2015 at 16:41
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    @A.K. At first I too thought he misspoke, but not this time. The thought came from someone else. To understand it he would first repeat it. Then he would analyze it logically. The direction is from the outside to the inside.
    – D_Bester
    Commented Aug 1, 2015 at 2:09

saying, let alone thinking

Could be a usual sentence for people who are strict in their believes (e.g religious people). They don't let anything enter their mind. They don't want think about something they know is opposed to their beleives.

Also note saying need less time than thinking for one who refuses something.

I can't even say it (for a moment), let alone I want to think about it (for awhile)

  • Note that Hitchens is strictly non-religious. So much so that we could say that he is religiously non-religious.
    – D_Bester
    Commented Aug 1, 2015 at 2:00
  • @D_Bester, Yes, I changed bad to opposed to their believes. Here, religious people are an example of such people.
    – Ahmad
    Commented Aug 1, 2015 at 6:05

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