God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
by Christopher Hitchens
Twelve Books, Hachette Book Group USA, 2007
(307 pages, $24.99, hardcover)
reviewed by Richard Kirk
Sam Harris’s The End of Faith apparently set other atheist minds to thinking, “If a Stanford graduate student can write a popular religion-bashing book, surely I can do better.” Christopher Hitchens’s recent effort in this genre employs a broader literary and cultural palate than Harris or Richard Dawkins ( The God Delusion), but philosophically, God Is Not Great is as shallow as its predecessors.
Among other irritants, its chatty apologia for European secularism is peppered with insults of his intellectual adversaries. C. S. Lewis’s writings are “dreary and absurd,” and intelligent-design arguments “well-financed propaganda” on behalf of a “puerile tautology.”
Hitchens’s far-reaching thesis is that “religion poisons everything”—making things worse than they would be if folks accepted his views: that there is no god; that natural science provides the only philosophical answers rational people require; that evolution (understood as a process of random change “directed” by nature’s survive or perish judgments) is the sole cause of human development; and that a morality consistent with Jefferson’s ideals can rest on these materialist premises.
He argues for this unqualified thesis as if a sound conclusion about the consistent effect of religion can be established via a list of particulars. Since he has 5,000 years of history from which to cherry-pick, it would be astounding if he couldn’t assemble a long train of examples in favor of any idea he cared to promote.
Among the “proofs” he offers for his thesis are these: the child-evangelist Marjoe; the dubious revelations of Latter-day Saints founder Joseph Smith; the Messianic pretensions and recantation of Sabbatai Sevi; a pastiche of alleged Old Testament barbarisms; and an anti-kosher chapter titled “Why Heaven Hates Ham.”
The problem of discovering causes and effects in societies suffused with religion doesn’t bother Hitchens, who tacitly assumes that Thomas Jefferson would have embraced similar ideals absent the Christian society in which he was raised.
An Avoided Test
Logically, the only way to test Hitchens’s thesis would be to compare modern atheistic or secular regimes with their historical predecessors. Yet this is just the comparison he avoids.
Rather than viewing fascism as a political byproduct of the loss of faith, he notes that many religious individuals and institutions supported fascist regimes and that secular leftists opposed fascism more strenuously than religious leaders—neglecting to mention that this opposition was largely rooted in another monstrous ideology or that Stalin did far more than any religious leader to embolden Nazi Germany, thanks to his pact with Hitler in 1939. He then avoids a comparison with Communist regimes by classifying communism as a religion of sorts.
In contrast, Hitchens associates atheism with respected individuals like Einstein, Bertrand Russell, and (curiously, for a philosopher who’s been described as “drunk with God”) Spinoza. About the demographic death spiral confronting Europe or the abysmal decadence of post-modern culture, he has nothing to say—just as he uncritically assumes that a society educated to believe in a blind evolutionary process will produce more altruists and democrats than a society that speaks of human beings as “endowed by their Creator with . . . unalienable rights.”
Also unscrutinized is the ironic fact that his careless but revered evolutionary process has produced an overwhelmingly religious species—suggesting that religion, even if untrue, passes the critical “survivor” test. Another unbroached irony involves Nietzsche’s assertion that science’s “will to truth” derives, ultimately, “from the flame which a faith thousands of years old has kindled: that Christian faith, which was also Plato’s faith, that God is truth, that truth is divine.”
One part of Hitchens’s book is different from all the rest: that section where he describes the dissolution of his Trotskyite faith. In those few pages he lays bare his soul, most poignantly in this wistful confession: “There are days when I miss my old convictions as if they were an amputated limb.”
He then invites readers to jettison their dogmas, just as he did. The pain, he assures them, will subside in time. Yet his “amputated limb” probably accounts for the mean-spirited tenor of his work—and for the contempt he displays toward those “mammals” who continue to indulge in the consolations of religious faith. Like a jilted lover, he wants everyone else to feel his pain.
This faith-negating stance does provide a consolation of its own—one termed “skeptical mastery” by Hegel. Hitchens’s critical perspective (skeptical mastery in its Freudian version) reduces all other faiths to childish wishes and mass delusions, leaving only the skeptic’s personal convictions exempt from scrutiny and ridicule.
There is certainly a place for skepticism in philosophy and in life. Alfred North Whitehead offered this tribute to “The common sense of the eighteenth century” in Science and the Modern World:
Its grasp of the obvious facts of human suffering, and of the obvious demands of human nature, acted on the world like a bath of moral cleansing. Voltaire must have the credit, that he hated injustice, he hated cruelty, he hated senseless repression, and he hated hocus-pocus. Furthermore, when he saw them, he knew them. In these supreme virtues, he was typical of his century, on its better side.
Whitehead concludes his comments, however, on a different note, one utterly foreign to Christopher Hitchens: “But if men cannot live on bread alone, still less can they do so on disinfectants.” One might charitably regard God Is Not Great as a minimally effective and largely obnoxious disinfectant.
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