Christopher Hitchens

God is Not Great

God is Not Great. By Christopher Hitchens. Atlantic Books, 2008. 307 pages. 8.99.

Review by Robin Bartlett Barraza, 2012 | Review by Caleb Acton, 2009

Review by Robin Bartlett Barraza, 2012

This morning a 2008 interview with 2012 Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum was making the rounds on social media sites. Santorum, a particularly provocative conservative Christian who has been making headlines lately for his unsavory treatment of women and minorities was quoted as saying that there “is no such thing as a liberal Christian”. He was addressing the question of whether or not then-candidate for President Barack Obama was a Christian. Santorum answered the interviewer that Obama joined a United Church of Christ Church because the church does not take a literal approach to the Bible, which troubled him. “To take what is plainly written and say that I don’t agree with that, therefore, I don’t have to pay attention to it,” Santorum asserts, “means you’re not what you say you are. You’re a liberal something, but you’re not a Christian. That’s sort of how I look at it.” Rick Santorum, ironically (I suppose) has an ally in renown atheist, journalist and brilliant rhetorician of the 21st century, Christopher Hitchens.

Hitchens is certainly the most eloquent if not the most bombastic of the so-called “New Atheists”. Hitchens, in his 307 page pointed, acerbic, often comic rant entitled god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, declares that “either the Gospels are in some sense literal truth, or the whole thing is essentially a fraud and perhaps an immoral one at that” (120). He makes the same claim as Santorum in his 2008 interview; that one cannot possibly read the Bible in anything other than a literal fashion and still call themselves Christian. Hitchens not only sets out to prove the ways in which religion poisons everything using some of the same rhetorical tools of the American Christian religious right, but he also dismisses and alienates all of the liberal religionists including non-supernaturalist practitioners of faith who agree with his critique of the ways in which fundamentalism is poisonous.

In Hitchens’ first chapter, he lays out, in a very personal way, his thesis that religion poisons everything, harkening back to his own religious upbringing, juxtaposing the mindlessness of religion with the reason of science saying that all religion is “grounded on wish-thinking” (4). He says of himself and his new Atheist colleagues: “we differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake. We do not hold our convictions dogmatically…” Hitchens points to the mind gymnastics required for intellectuals, and philosophers to hold fast to theological reasoning, declaring that religion “spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago: either that or it mutated into an admirable but nebulous humanism” (7).

In Chapter two, entitled “Religion Kills”, Hitchens lists the ways in which religions of all ilk are responsible for the death and destruction of people from Beirut to Belfast to Lebanon. He begins the chapter by histrionically proclaiming that he would feel “immediately threatened” if he came across a group of men in any country coming home from a religious observance (18). In Chapter 3, in almost a non-sequitor “digression”, Hitchens discusses “why heaven hates ham” in an attempt to malign religious observation via prohibition of foods, suggesting that the Orthodox hatred of the pig (porcophobia) has to do with a fear of cannibalism.

 In Chapter 4, Hitchens argues the ways in which religion is bad for world health, citing examples such as Jehovah’s Witness’ refusal of medical treatment for themselves and their children, advice given by the Vatican’s president of the Pontifical Council for the Family that condoms cause AIDS because of microscopic holes in the latex, the use of female circumcision, and Muslim rumors in the country of Bengal that the use of innoculations for children was a plot, ending the practice. Perhaps most graphic and disturbing is Hitchens’ illustration of the rare Hasidic Fundamentalist practice of Mohels removing baby boys’ foreskin by sucking on the penis. He claims that a Mohel in New York City gave multiple baby boys genital herpes this way in 2005, killing two. This practice was protected, he says, for political reasons by the Mayor during a reelection year under the auspices of “religious freedom”. He makes the compelling argument for why religious practices are at best immoral, and, at worst, evil, when foisted upon innocent children.

In the following chapter Hitchens proclaims that the metaphysical claims of religion are false, stating that faith of “the sort that can stand up at least for a while in a confrontation with reason—is now plainly impossible.” (63) He uses poor Saint Paul to make his argument, citing Corinthians: “when one is a child one speaks and thinks as a child. But when one becomes a man, one puts away childish things.” Religion is the “childish thing” we are expected to put away in post-enlightenment society. Perhaps one could make the claim that publically lambasting all religious people as stupid, ignorant imbeciles is also a childish thing one should put away when one becomes a man.

In Chapter 6, Hitchens posits that “arguments from design” are specious and completely at odds with the findings of contemporary science, which suggest that we will never find anything “irreducibly complex.”  He cites multiple examples, but doesn’t go into much depth on this subject, presumably letting his scientist New Atheist colleagues address these positions in their books.

In Chapters 7-9, Hitchens scathingly maligns the sacred texts of the three monotheist Abrahamic faiths: the “Old” Testament, the New Testament and the Koran by using arguments about the improbability of the literal truth of these books, arguments biblical scholars throughout the centuries have already exhausted. He says nothing new, and again seems to suggest that there is no other way to adhere to these three faiths unless one is a believer in the literal portrayal of events contained in each account.

In Chapters 10-16, Hitchens outlines further the ways in which religion is a human-made construct that attempts to explain, comfort, anesthetize, control, dominate, and oppress. In Chapter 10, Hitchens explains why we have no good reason to suppose that miracles have actually ever occurred, arguing that humans are naturally superstitious. In Chapter 11, Hitchens uses Joseph Smith and the origins of Mormonism as an example of how religion is man-made and both depends  and preys upon the credulity of large groups of people, perhaps in the interest of the acquisition of women and money.

In Chapter 13, Hitchens explores the topic of whether religion makes people behave better, and not even Martin Luther King is off-limits in his maligning. He uses The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement as an oft-cited example of people behaving well because of religion, holding King up as a brilliant and inspiring rhetorician who uses the Mosaic story in his speeches without the “savage punishments and genocidal bloodlettings” (175). Hitchens suggests that there is cognitive dissonance in King’s use of both the “Let My People Go” Mosaic narrative of the terrifying, punishing God of the Hebrew Bible and preaching non-violence out of the other side of his mouth. In other words, he accuses King of not staying true to the text of his tradition by glossing over the murderous God of the Hebrew Bible.

According to Hitchens, people behave well in spite of, not because of, religion. In Chapter 17, he also seems to make the corollary ridiculous claim that secular and Atheist regimes who behave badly (Stalinist Russia, National Socialism, etc.) do so because they are in fact only alternative manifestations of religion as well. In Chapter 18, Hitchens discusses the “resistance of the rational”, pointing out the absurdity of the faithful’s insistent belief that a person can interpret the will of a “person unknown” (268).

In his concluding chapter, Hitchens declares the need for a new enlightenment--a world without religion--one in which the “pursuit of unfettered scientific inquiry” and “the divorce between the sexual life and fear, and the sexual life and disease, and the sexual life and tyranny, can now at last be attempted, on the sole condition that we banish all religions from the discourse” (283). He declares that religion has (thankfully) “run out of justification” (282).

If Christopher Hitchens just admitted his objective is to eradicate religion and the ills religion inflicts on the world by claiming that all religious people are supernaturalist theists and fundamentalists in service of that goal, rather than glossing over the different and complex ways religious doctrine and texts are interpreted by the faithful, his argument would contain more merit and intellectual honesty. Like Rick Santorum and so many other fundamentalists, Hitchens glosses over or maligns the existence of liberal, non-“biblical literalist”, and non-Orthodox practitioners of faith traditions in his scathing prose, perhaps because he believes that if they aren’t part of the solution (to eradicate religions from the earth), they are part of the problem. Hitchens declares that religion “arouses suspicion by trying to prove too much” (115). He makes a compelling, well-argued case for why this is true in the case of supernaturalist and Fundamentalist literalist practitioners, but one could say the same of his delightfully funny, well-written, and smug book: Hitchens arouses suspicion by attempting to prove that all of religion can be painted with one broad brush.

Review by Caleb Acton, 2009

Like an encircled rabble-rouser, Christopher Hitchens starts throwing punches, heedless of whose face they will land on. His overconfidence assures him that his superior strength, or wit, will surely win him the fight against any and all fighters—who are, by their belief, inferior. The list of foes on his search and destroy mission is not limited to the three monotheistic faiths that he spends most of his time on, but it also encompasses Buddhism, Shinto, and even ancient or fringe groups such as the Aztecs and the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Hitchens writes from the heart, announcing that he has “been writing this book all [his] life, and intend[s] to keep on writing it” (285). His motivation for writing comes from his desire to proclaim his inarguable position that “religion poisons everything”—though he leaves the reader with no more than a nebulous understanding of what he means by religion (13).

Hitchens operates on the assumption that religion has “retarded the development of civilization” (8). His four irreducible objections are “that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos” and therefore “manages to combine the maximum of servility” (which Hitchens frequently expresses his repugnance over) “with the maximum of solipsism, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking” (4).

At times he claims to “respect” certain religious rituals or beliefs, but in the same breath he derides them with his eloquent sophistry. The eloquence of his writing cannot be overlooked, for he capably weaves together wit with an overly nasty tone that could turn off the more sensitive reader, yet at the same time hook one into following his tale further. While the writing style is typically silver-tongued, the structure of the book is surprisingly weak. Its chapter titles are extremely clever, yet these chapters’ contributions to the overall goal of the book are sometimes mysterious. At times the arguments in the chapters are hard to follow, not because they are particularly complex, but because they often bear resemblance to a stream-of-though tirade, filled with shocking stories with no citations.

After the introduction, which firmly establishes that his goal is to show that religion poisons everything, Hitchens begins addressing the most common objections to religious faith in chapters two through six. He approaches these chapters with no interest in dialogue; instead, he lunges for the throat, hoping to stifle the oxygen sustaining religion.

Chapter two is a jarring recollection of violence and mayhem done by people of faith throughout the centuries and continuing today. Hitchens makes no attempt to differentiate between warlords and thugs who use religion as a means to a violent end and those whose religion is the kindling for their violence. His intention is only to weave together a story that proves that, as the chapter title suggests, religion kills—or, all religion always kills—and a nuanced understanding would not help this argument. Amid the onslaught of disparaging comments, he appropriately emphasizes a very important critique upon religion’s general hesitancy to make “unambiguous condemnations” of violence (28).

After a strange insertion of chapter three’s digression on “why heaven hates ham,” which simply make claims about the absurdity of religious practices and shows how “faith and superstition distort our whole picture of the world” (41), his proceeding attack, in chapter four, is on the anti-health policies that religion makes. Hitchens recites stories of religious leaders who have made inaccurate statements about disease or disease prevention methods, and passed those messages on to their followers. From Muslim leaders who claimed that the polio and smallpox vaccines would strike one with impotence and diarrhea, to the Christian leaders in Nicaragua, Kenya, and Uganda who said that condoms transmit AIDS, the transfer of this misinformation has been deadly. While Hitchens is right to make these pertinent criticisms of particular religious people, he caries his arguments to absurdity and weaves a preposterous tale to suggest that raping, torturing, and infecting children is a correlative of religion (50-51).

Chapters five and six combat religious faith by arguing that the metaphysical claims of religion are false and the arguments from design pathetic. Hitchens quotes Saint Paul in exhorting the religious to put away their childish thoughts, because they are no longer children; rather, they are enlightened adults, no longer needing the God hypothesis to explain the celestial mechanics (66). Contrary to those who have pointed to the complexity of the human eye as being a sign of intelligent design, Hitchens provides work from Dr. Michael Shermer, which shows the formation to be anything but intelligent—for it is “upside down and backwards” (82). With that proof, Hitchens continues in his humorous, belittling fashion to remark that those who believe in an intelligent designer will “continue to carry the stamp of their indelible origin” (their irrational beliefs) among “the most highly evolved of us” (82).

The central point of Hitchens’ book lies in chapters seven, eight, and nine, where he lambasts the three monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. His attention is mostly concentrated on the sacred writings of each of the traditions. He claims that “monotheistic religion is a plagiarism of a plagiarism of a hearsay of a hearsay, of an illusion of an illusion, extending all the way back to a fabrication of a few non-events” (280). The arguments that Hitchens makes against the texts are by no means new, and have been addressed as early as the third century C.E. when Origen realized that parts of the Bible were not literally true. Hitchens is quick to point out the bowdlerizing that religious people often do, when their scriptures are offensive; however, he seems to be completely ignorant of (or willfully silent about) any textual criticism, hermeneutical subtleties, genuine disagreements about religious texts, and nuanced positions expressed by contemporary theologians. Instead, he harkens to biblical scholars Mel Gibson and Tim LaHaye for understandings on the gospel of John and Revelation (110, 56). His criticisms of the scriptures might prove helpful in summarizing some of the positions of antitheist claims against scripture, but overall the arguments are woefully lacking real substance.

One of the most glaring inconsistencies of Hitchens claims is found in chapter nine, when he insists that “Islam ought to be joining its predecessors in subjecting itself to rereadings…” (137). However, these rereadings, which contain the aforementioned hermeneutical subtleties and nuanced positions, are exactly what Hitchens has refused to acknowledge in the Jewish or Christian scriptures because he cannot criticize them as easily as the straw figure that he prefers to critique.

Chapters ten through sixteen further Hitchens’ claim that religion is ultimately based on wish-thinking and man-made misinformation. Chapter ten outright denies that anything miraculous has even occurred and as a result, faith lacks its evidence and is therefore left all by itself, “alone and unsupported” (150). Chapter eleven recounts the dubious stories behind the beginnings of Mormonism, the cult of John Frum and the televangelist Marjoe, and claims that people believe in anything that fascinates them. In this chapter, Hitchens makes another well-deserved critique of the prophets and preachers who put on a show just for personal gain—those who believe in “belief” itself, but not in the content of what they preach. Chapter thirteen, yet again, assails religions with stories replete with wickedness—from the Lord’s Resistance Army, notably dubbed the “Christian Khmer Rouge,” to the hand-in-hand activities of the Vatican with the Rwandan genocide—rendering the conclusion that religion emphatically does not make people behave better (190). Hitchens is even hesitant to credit any religious person with good works until they have been thoroughly secularized: namely Deitrich Bonhoeffer, who was simply a nebulous humanist (7) and Martin Luther King Jr. who was “in no real as opposed to nominal sense…a Christian” (176). Chapter fifteen derides doctrine and sixteen adamantly admonishes religions for irreparably maiming the psychological and physical lives of countless children through the compulsory inculcation of faith (217).

In the final three chapters, Hitchens lays out his hopes for a better worldview—one that recognizes: religion’s usefulness is over, its books are “transparent fables,” “it is a man-made imposition,” it is “an enemy of science and inquiry,” “it has subsisted largely on lies and fears,” and it has been “the accomplice of ignorance and guilt as well as of slavery, genocide, racism, and tyranny” (229). He anticipates attacks on secularism in chapter seventeen and therefore, by referring to the connections that religion has had with totalitarianism, employs the elementary playground tactic of noting that when one blames someone else, there are always three fingers pointing back at the accuser. He allows, within his own locality of secularism, nuanced positions—something he rarely (if ever) permits religious traditions. Chapters eighteen and nineteen praise the way that reason previously reigned with the ancient Greeks and Hitchens hopes that this will soon happen again, though it will only come about through a new enlightenment that does away with the fanciful myths of religion.

God is Not Great poses some challenges and valid criticisms against religion; however, these can only be recognized after wallowing through the sordid, incessant, ill-cited stories of religions’ bad boys. Do Hitchens’ punches land solid blows? Yes, some bruises appear, but they fall far short of a K.O.