Christopher Hitchens is the latest skeptic to take on religion.
God Is Not Great
How Religion Poisons Everything
By Christopher Hitchens
TWELVE BOOKS; 307 PAGES; $24.99
When Friedrich Nietzsche announced the death of God in 1882, he immediately added that the news had not yet reached all ears, and that it would be some time before it did. But one and a quarter centuries have passed since then, and one might have thought, what with the telegraph, the Internet and all, that the news would have reached everyone by now. Instead, the opposite seems to have happened: After several decades in which skepticism and secularism did indeed appear to be in the ascendant, the current state of the world seems to attest that God has made a recovery no less miraculous than that of Aslan, the heroic lion from the Chronicles of Narnia.
The resurgent popularity both of God in general and of particular, sectarian gods (according to recent polls, Jesus has once again overtaken the Beatles) comes despite the fact that modern science and philosophy have undermined all the justifications that might once have made belief in His existence a reasonable proposition. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection pretty much mopped the floor with the last major contender for such a justification, the argument from design; scientific work since Darwin’s time has only confirmed his victory. Nor has any religious theorizer ever managed, to my knowledge, to provide a convincing response to the problem of evil — a knockdown objection to traditional theisms if ever I have heard one. Yet religious believers go on believing as if none of this had happened. No wonder the skeptics are frustrated.
One of the results of this state of affairs is the recent spate of books by nonbelievers — Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins chief among them — attempting to restate, in one manner or another, the case for skepticism and against theistic belief. Christopher Hitchens’ “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” now takes its place in that company. The following passage, which comes in the context of an argument that organized religion manifests a deep tendency toward encouraging child abuse, serves well enough as a thesis statement:
“Since religion has proved itself uniquely delinquent on the one subject where moral and ethical authority might be counted as universal and absolute, I think we are entitled to at least three provisional conclusions. The first is that religion and the churches are manufactured, and that this salient fact is too obvious to ignore. The second is that ethics and morality are quite independent of faith, and cannot be derived from it. The third is that religion is — because it claims a special divine exemption for its practices and beliefs — not just amoral but immoral.”
Later he adds: “Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience.”
One supposes this will ruffle a few feathers — notwithstanding Hitchens’ repeated insistence that he is happy to allow consenting adults to engage in whatever religious practices they may choose, so long as they leave him and other innocent bystanders be. Nor will believers be pleased with the parade of religious scandal, hypocrisy and downright stupidity the author provides for our edification — ranging from a former U.S. senator’s scripturally-inspired refusal to support civil rights legislation (” ‘I’d sure like to help the colored,’ ” he explained, ” ‘but the Bible says I can’t.’ “), to the former Texas governor who explained his opposition to teaching the Bible in Spanish with the trenchant observation that ” ‘if English was good enough for Jesus, then it’s good enough for me,’ ” to the bishop of Llandaff’s remarkable reply to Thomas Paine’s observation that Moses behaved rather less than ethically in ordering his generals (as recounted in the Book of Numbers) to “kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known a man by lying with him. But all the women-children that hath not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.”
Apparently unperturbed by the slaying of civilians, including children, the bishop was scandalized by Paine’s suggestion that the keeping of the young female virgins had lascivious implications: “[I]t was not at all clear from the context,” he pointed out, “that the young females were being preserved for immoral purposes rather than for unpaid labor.”
Of course, many among the genuinely faithful developed long ago a commitment to their religion so strong that no possible fact or revelation could count against it. That’s just what faith means, after all, at least according to many. Then again, as Hitchens points out, most such people cannot resist the temptation to proclaim certain events as evidence for the existence and beneficence of God. The problem, of course, is that the evidence is cherry-picked to match the conclusion:
” ‘There but for the grace of God,’ said John Bradford in the sixteenth century, on seeing wretches led to execution, ‘go I.’ What this apparently compassionate observation really means … is, ‘There by the grace of God goes someone else.’ As I was writing this chapter, a heart-stopping accident took place in a coal mine in West Virginia. Thirteen miners survived the explosion but were trapped underground, compelling the nation’s attention for a whole fraught news cycle until with huge relief it was announced that they had been located safe and sound. These glad tidings turned out to be premature, which was an impossible additional anguish for the families who had already begun celebrating and giving thanks before discovering that all but one of their menfolk had suffocated under the rock. It was also an embarrassment to the newspapers and news bulletins that had rushed out too soon with the false consolation. And can you guess what the headline on those newspapers and bulletins had been? Of course you can. ‘Miracle!’ — with or without the exclamation point — was the invariable choice, surviving mockingly in print and in the memory to intensify the grief of the relatives. There doesn’t seem to be a word to describe the absence of divine intervention in this case.”
Is such a mind-set, which insists on seeing God’s hand in the failure of the fourth Sept. 11 plane to reach its target while turning uncomfortably away from the question of why He did not intervene with respect to the other three, open at all to rational argument? Hitchens, for the most part, seems to think the answer is “no,” and one doesn’t get the sense that the primary purpose of “God Is Not Great” is to change the minds of the faithful. The book is for the most part too personal, too anecdotal, to function as argument; one comes away with a good sense of Hitchens’ beliefs on the subject, and some of the reasons for them, but is unlikely to have one’s own views changed. Indeed, one senses that this is due to the author’s deep pessimism regarding the possibility of bridging the gulf between skeptics and believers — a pessimism that renders the reading of the book a somewhat discouraging experience.
The book is an impassioned cri de coeur. It seems as if it was written out of passion, and quickly, with little revision or self-critical scrutiny. One admires the genuine moral outrage that motivated and animates it, but cannot help but wish the author had been less blinded by that outrage to some of its faults and limitations. Individual sentences are frequently vague and sometimes downright inscrutable; and while Hitchens makes many good points, he rarely manages to make them in a way that is pithy or memorable (the banal title is only the first example of this).
Moreover, the book tries to do too much, attempting to take on the three major monotheisms and non-theistic alternatives, while also attempting to address a variety of general issues (religious violence, religion’s metaphysical claims, the influence of religion on behavior, etc.) in about 300 pages. One comes away from almost every chapter thinking one has been granted only a selective view of the topic; and as the selection was made by someone who is obviously partisan, the real issue raised is one of fairness.
Indeed, if believers tend to be closed-minded with respect to challenges to their views, the same can be said of Hitchens, who tends to bolster his dismissal of religion by assuming or defining away anything positive one might say about it. Each apparent acknowledgment of admirable behavior on the part of the religious is immediately followed with a disclaimer denying that the admirable aspect had anything at all to do with religion:
“I can think of a handful of priests and bishops and rabbis and imams who have put humanity ahead of their own sect or creed. History gives us many other such examples … But this is a compliment to humanism, not to religion.”
But surely it is implausible to think that religious belief has never motivated ethical behavior, and even in some cases extreme sacrifice. It may be true that, on the whole, religious belief has inspired more immoral than moral behavior; it may also be true that there are philosophical and psychological reasons to expect this to be the case. But these claims would require a much more rigorous and comprehensive argument than Hitchens manages, or even attempts, to provide.
I am not in any way unsympathetic to Hitchens’ overall claim. Nor do I fail to share his sense of alarm at the current worldwide ascendancy of religious belief and the ways in which such beliefs encourage sectarianism, oppression and violence of various sorts (much of it, indeed, directed toward children), or at the apparently increasing acceptance of religious fundamentalism and the erosion of the church-state distinction in our own society. But I wish he had deployed his passion and his considerable intellectual gifts in a more disciplined manner. Ultimately, “God Is Not Great” is somewhat of a disappointment — not so much for those who disagree, who will simply be irritated, but for those of us who think that it has an important case to make and were hoping that this might be the book to carry that message to the people.
Troy Jollimore is an external faculty Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center. His book “Tom Thomson in Purgatory” won the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry.