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God Is Not Great: The Case Against Religion
by Christopher Hitchens
Atlantic Books £17.99, pp320
For such a rabid God-hater, Christopher Hitchens has a very pious background. If not a binge-worshipper, he was a serial congregant, grazing on a buffet of faiths. Hitchens has been ‘an Anglican, educated at a Methodist school, converted by marriage to Greek Orthodoxy … and remarried by a rabbi’.
Unlike one of his rationalist heroes, John Stuart Mill, who wrote of his rare status as someone ‘who has not thrown off religious belief but never had it’, Hitchens has had to jettison a jumble bag of faiths. He does so with relish.
Religion, in God Is Not Great, is ‘violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry’. Guilty of misogyny, child abuse and fraud on a monumental scale, it is ‘a plagiarism of a plagiarism, of a hearsay of a hearsay, of an illusion of an illusion’.
On this foundation, an anti-God industry has set out its groaning bookstall. After Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, Hitchens is the latest fire-and-brimstone atheist. Having sharpened his ire on targets such as Mother Teresa, whom he once denounced as a fanatic, he now takes on an opponent he may consider to be more his own size. Even the most diehard non-believer may balk slightly at the notion of Hitchens as an alternative deity.
Not that he sets himself up as such. But even his title, the negative of Allahuh Akhbar, the legend Saddam inscribed on the Iraqi flag, implies a certain greatness in the author. This is Hitch versus God, slugged out to the bloody death. Hitchens’s opponents have applied to him the blanket criticism levelled at the anti-theist genre: these people are theological ignoramuses who know and understand nothing of the religions they mock and seek to destroy.
This seems a lazy criticism of Hitchens. In addition to dabbling in many faiths, he bases his arguments on a sometimes forensic analysis of the Koran, which he dismisses as borrowed from ‘both Jewish and Christian myths’ and the Old and New Testaments. (The latter, in his irrefutable analysis, is full of contradictions, illiteracies and late addenda which undermine all literal credibility.)
On the evidence of this book, Hitchens has spent too much time around religion, not too little. Like an ex-smoker who grows to loathe the habit more than those who have not tasted nicotine, he abominates God with the zealotry implicit in dictatorial faith. Anyone who has grown up in the shadow of hellfire evangelism will recognise some answering echo here. This is a papal bull for the non-believer.
How, Hitchens wonders, can people be so solipsistic, so selfish and so credulous? The early fathers of faith were living in a time of ‘human pre-history’, when no one had any idea of what was going on and God provided as good a backstory as any. Now that Darwin has explained our origins and Einstein has charted the beginnings of the cosmos, the excuses for blind faith have evaporated.
Yet the intelligent and thoughtful remain unshaken in their credo and creationism seems a rising influence on both sides of the Atlantic. Why this paradox has arisen remains largely unaddressed. Hitchens is right in much of what he says. Religion is a charter for war and human suffering. It is enmeshed with child abuse and massacre. From the abortion-clinic picketer to the suicide bomber, its disciples are the deadly and the deluded. They include the bishops preaching wickedly that the Aids virus can leak through microscopic holes in condoms and the Muslim conservatives who, in Hitchens’s reportage of Calcutta, denounced polio droplets as a Western plot to induce impotence and diarrhoea. Why would any wise and rational human build his or her life round such mad cults?
This question is never really answered. Hitchens does not get to grips with the power of a blind trust that, far from being snuffed out, seems more unquenchable than ever now that all the lies and deceptions of organised religion have been exposed by science. Nor does he examine what, beyond rank stupidity, drives communities and states back to primitive belief.
The enlightenment left many gaps. Church attendance might be dwindling, but its art, music and architecture still make many ungodly Britons cultural Christians. Secular society has still not devised rites of passage to welcome people in to the world and usher them out of it. Like Hitchens, people still get their marriages honoured and their children baptised in the name of a hollow God.
Science and reason have all the answers, but the spiritual solace they lack is also missing in an encyclical whose many qualities include no shred of tolerance or doubt. Hitchens’s book will be manna to the converted, but his explicit aim is to win believers to his cause. I doubt that he will reclaim a single soul.
Source: The Guardian
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