Tag Archives: atheism

Book Review: God Is Not Great, by Christopher Hitchens

This is a review of the book God Is Not Great, by Christopher Hitchens.

GodIsNotGreatCover

Hitchens’ purpose in this book is to demonstrate that god (he denies the word the dignity of capitalization, even when using it as a proper noun), in any form, is manmade (hence the title of the book). Not only that, but religion (says Hitchens) has been the greatest source of evil in all of human history, and it would therefore be to our benefit to abandon it entirely. To Hitchens, science, free thinking, and reason are the only means by which progress can be made; and religion is the greatest inhibitor of these faculties.

Hitchens’ intelligence is unquestionable. His style is engaging and his arguments compelling. Believers who read this book will be challenged. Apologists stepping into the ring will find themselves facing all their familiar foes — evolution, violence incited by religious belief, historical (un)reliability of religious texts, the odiousness of certain doctrines, etc. Hitchens resurrects these Goliaths with new vigor and clothes them with fresh language, modern perspectives, and a lifetime of personal experience.

Some newer opponents are thrown in with the old, including some of Hitchens’ own theories as to the origins of certain religious beliefs and practices, which he presents as explanations that are more credible than divine revelation. Any believing reader who hopes to persist in faith must have reasonable answers to Hitchens’ arguments, or else abandon reason entirely; and one of the hardest questions to answer will be, “Why do religious apologists have to bend over backwards and work harder and harder to defend the reasonableness of faith, while atheists are finding that their pieces are fitting together more and more snugly, giving an ever more satisfying picture of reality?”

Stanch atheists reading this book are likely to jump up and beat the air with their fists when they come across a point well made, while devoted believers are likely to dismiss most of what Hitchens writes as lies, or at best, misunderstandings. But believers who are already troubled by doubts may well feel like walking away from their faith after reading this book.

Nevertheless, I believe that adherents to any faith ought to be exposed to the ideas in this book, if for no other reason than to come to terms with the ugliness that religion has undeniably wrought upon the face of history. If a religion is to survive as a positive contributor to humanity, its members must be willing to learn from the mistakes that have been made and evil deeds that have been committed not just by pretenders and hypocrites but even by people of genuine faith, and to invest serious thought into taking care that these demons, which have so impartially plagued all faiths, are put to death. And this book certainly brings the demons to light.

In his attacks on religion, Hitchens goes so far as to say that the problem is not simply that we haven’t gotten religion right yet, but rather that there is no right religion. Whereas most debates (in the U.S. at least) center on Christianity (and Judaism to the extent that they overlap), Hitchens goes after the whole shebang, attacking Islam, Mormonism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. He even takes a few shocking swings at the Dalai Lama. Make no mistake: Hitchens will not settle for fixing religion, or for finding a benign one; he wants to see all religions dead.

However, by his own reasoning, the sudden collapse of faith that Hitchens seems to desire might turn out to be a terrible thing. He observes that some who lose their faith are perhaps more dangerous than any other kind of people; but he fails to note that it might therefore follow that the extinction of faith could leave us in a world filled with lost souls who are even more dangerous than the fanatics that abound already. And on sentimental grounds alone, even the average atheist might feel a sense of loss after the complete disappearance of faith. At the very least, religion has produced a plethora of customs and holidays that unbelievers enjoy as much as believers. The death of religion would rob these things of their meaning. It would leave behind a tremendous void. Intelligent and experienced Hitchens may be, but his hope that humanity might be saved by having its religion excised like a tumor is a bit naïve.

A theme Hitchens frequently returns to is the comparison of the development of religion to the evolution of species. In this analogy, society is the primordial ooze in which self-replicating spiritual ideas are formed. Fragile as life, most such movements die in their infancy; but a few take root, and when they do, they branch and flourish like the evolutionary tree, resulting in countless species of faiths. Slight changes in circumstances at critical points in history of this tree of religions might have resulted in an entirely different religious fossil record, just as the minutest of shifts early on in the growth of the biological tree might have yielded a spectrum of life entirely different from what we see today.

This perspective on the development of religion is reminiscent of Dawkins’ concept of the “meme,” a social or cultural analog of the gene, which is a model for a social norm or custom (or religious belief) that is passed on from one generation to the next, capable of mutating and evolving much faster than a biological gene. Hitchens mourns that religion has survived this process, and it is amusing to note that according to his model, it is the process of natural selection acting on memes of religion that is to blame for the resilience and ubiquity religion enjoys today. And so it turns out that one of Hitchens’ greatest allies (evolution) in his fight against faith has already been working against Hitchens’ cause for thousands of years.

If Hitchens expects the masses to hop on his bandwagon, he must be prepared to give them some sort of assurance that extinguishing religion would not result in hell on earth. After all, people are asking: Without religion, what will guide our morals? How could life have meaning? Hitchens tries to offer words of hope in the face of these two questions.

He contends that the true world (as opposed to the world as it is understood within various faiths) is far greater and more marvelous than any holy text or divine revelation has ever been able to conceive, and that humankind, though in fact being neither the ultimate culmination of creation nor the center of attention of a supernatural being, is still greater, nobler, and more full of potential than any religion has ever been able to suggest we are. Without religion, we will be able to understand, appreciate, and even enjoy our world better. And without religion, we will be able to realize the potential of humanity more fully. Faith impedes human progress more than anything else, and only once we have broken free from it (or at least pushed it into an irrelevant corner) will we be able to soar on the wings of reason with the freedom of open minds.

Thus saith Hitchens, at any rate. His reasoning is clear and his intent seems genuine, but he is still needlessly harsh. His writing is at least as caustic as that of Dawkins, and this book seems little different from so many impassioned speeches that have incited mobs to rioting. There seems to be an element of hypocrisy in the utter violence Hitchens and Dawkins would see done to religion when it is the violence allegedly committed by religion that they condemn.

Much of the evil Hitchens blames on religion cannot really in fairness be attributed to the faith itself. True, certain churches and religious officials and devout followers have carried out countless atrocities; but more often than not the perpetrators in these crimes were betraying the tenets of their faith rather than adhering to them. When it is certain people, rather than a faith itself, that deserve blame, Hitchens blames the faith anyway.

When arguing that morality can survive without religion, the basis of Hitchens’ argument seems to be that he and other atheists are, in his eyes, at least as moral as the next fellow. But here there is a missing link in Hitchens’ reasoning, because he is ignoring the fact that he and very likely the other atheists of whom he speaks were raised in religious environments. Indeed, Hitchens goes to great lengths at the beginning of the book to show that religion played an integral role in his childhood development. Even more important than this fact is that the moral environment in which Hitchens lives is one that developed over thousands of years in a religious world. It is ridiculous for Hitchens to pretend that his moral code could have been established apart from the influence of faith. Even if Hitchens claims that his conscience is purely biological, he ought to consider the possibility that the evolution of conscience may have been strongly influenced by social factors, including religion (memes acting on genes).

Throughout the book, Hitchens tries to emphasize our animal nature by repeatedly referring to humans as mammals. But he also exalts our faculty of reason, which sets us apart from other animals. The same thing could be said of conscience; animals may have some basic form of conscience, but certainly not as strong as humans. It seems a slight paradox for Hitchens to at once insist that we come to terms with our baseness as mere animals, all the while calling for us to take hold of reason and let it carry us to new heights. According to Hitchens, we are in an infant stage of humanity, an idea which suggests that we should expect eventually to grow into some sort of advanced stage. This expectation betrays Hitchens’ own desire to be more than a mammal — though I don’t suppose he would be bothered by the seeming contradiction.

I agree with Hitchens that religion has a tendency to keep people’s minds closed. This has bothered me to no end in my own faith, as I am not permitted to question, say, the divinity of Christ. Or if I am permitted to question it, it is only insomuch as the questioning leads to stronger certainty in my doctrine than I had to begin with. Faith does not permit me to truly consider the possibility that Christ might not be divine, for to do so would be to sin. But I am a truth-loving being; and I would want to know if I were being deceived by my faith. I would rather know the truth than live a lie. Like the apostle Paul, I would count myself among those who are to be most pitied if I am giving myself to the gospel of Christ when in fact there is no resurrection. It is ironic that the words of history’s most devout Christian should so resonate with a truth-loving skeptic.

It is these words of Paul that fan the spark of faith within me even as I face Hitchens’ powerful arguments. I cannot shake the accounts that Paul and many other followers of Christ—undeniably historical figures—died for what they believed to be true, when they had firsthand knowledge of what really happened. At the very least, I am convinced that they believed with all their minds that Christ was truly resurrected—else they would not have been willing martyrs. Hitchens seems not to believe that Christ even really existed; I, on the other hand, had been under the impression that most historians at least acknowledge his existence, regardless of how accurate the surviving accounts of his life may be.

Hitchens’ argument against the possibility of miracles seems to boil down to the observation that no miracles have been reliably verified. Here his logic is flawed because he seems to assume automatically that anyone who claims to have witnessed a miracle is delusional and cannot be believed. Furthermore, the scientific verification that Hitchens would require is impossible since miracles are by definition beyond the realm of science. Plainly, Hitchens has already accepted as an axiom that there is nothing supernatural. I support his right to do so, but it renders all of his arguments about miracles completely moot.

Ironically, this materialist view — i.e., accepting as an axiom that there is nothing supernatural — is in a way just as closed-minded and dogmatic as the religious views Hitchens condemns for their closed-mindedness. Hitchens claims that the real world is much greater than any religion has been able to envisage, but he disallows a further expanded worldview by setting this limit: There can be material, but nothing else. If Hitchens really wants to have an open and free mind, he ought not to close it with such finality against the possibility of the supermaterial or of God. And this, too, would be my advice to anyone who reads Hitchens’ book: However convincing Hitchens’ rhetoric may be, keep an open mind.

In the end, what has Hitchens accomplished? Undoubtedly he has widened the schism between atheists and people of faith. He has written a work that can stir up both camps simultaneously. Perhaps a few troubled believers will cast aside their already dying faith; but beyond that, Hitchens has probably only succeeded in inciting people who were already atheists to begin with to start lighting torches and sharpening pitchforks, while in the other camp writs of excommunication are being prepared. If anything, Hitchens has brought us closer to an Armageddon between atheism and religion. And that’s probably exactly what he wants.

[Note: I wrote this review back in 2008. I made a few minor modifications, the most significant of which was to change the statement that Hitchens is gentler than Dawkins. (After reading more of both of their works, I now feel that Dawkins is the gentler of the two.) The original version is on Amazon.com.]