Tuesday, December 27, 2011
Christopher Hitchens - God is Not Great
Let’s get this out of the way right at the beginning: the argument at the center of God is Not Great is not a subtle one or a moderate one, not something with which accords can be reached or with which peace can be made. Hitchens doesn’t set out to fire an opening salvo but to deliver a complete strike and a killing blow. In his own words, his goal is to prove that the usefulness of religion is in the past, and that its foundational books are transparent fables, and that it is a man-made imposition, and that it has been an enemy of science and inquiry, and that it has subsisted largely on lies and fears, and been the accomplice of ignorance and guilt as well as of slavery, genocide, racism, and tyranny. (p. 229)
Unsurprisingly, that grand lack of subtlety where the problems start setting in. Far, far too many of Hitchens’ arguments fall into the same trap. After fiery but rational openings, they leap farther, into wild and unsupportable overstatement, leaving their strengths and weight far behind. The first example of this the reader’s to experience is right on the cover. The volume’s title, God is Not Great, is a suitable one, exemplifying Hitchens’ desire to show the evils perpetuated by the divine. And then, those buying the book in
are treated to its ghastly subtitle: How Religion Poisons Everything, a claim so hyperbolic as to be near parody. (Those in the America , I should point out, do get the far superior The Case Against God on the front of their book.) UK
Christopher Hitchens argues through specific tales and events rather than through abstractions. Many of these tales come from his personal experience, many sections and assertions open with In northern
in late 2005, I sat in a center for the rehabilitation of kidnapped and enslaved children… (p. 188) or I once joined these potential adepts and acolytes (p. 195) and the like. Hitchens lived an incredibly worldly life, experiencing far more than most ever could or will. Despite that, these arguments backed by anecdote are all unable to, by themselves, carry the day. Uganda
This can be most clearly seen, I think, in the book’s second chapter, Religion Kills. The majority of its page count is devoted to an answer Hitchens gave to Dennis Prager, a religious broadcaster, when asked, if a large group of men approached him at night in a strange city, if he would feel safer were they “just coming from a prayer meeting.” (p. 18) In response, Hitchens discusses experiences that he had in – to stay within the letter ‘B’ (ibid) -
Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem, and and why, in those situations, he felt “immediately threatened” by that “group of men […] coming from a religious observance.” (ibid) Each of those six experiences is interesting, well presented, and thought provoking. Baghdad
All of that’s enough to justify Hitchens’ flippant answer – “No,” (p. 28) needless to say – to Prager’s question, and, considering the breath of Hitchens’ answer and knowledge and depending on how much the reader finds his or herself swayed by his arguments, might even be enough to somewhat justify his claiming that religion is “an enormous multiplier of tribal suspicion and hatred, with members of each group talking of the other in precisely the tones of the bigot.” But to go from there to the chapter title that Religion Kills is simply silly and would require a broadening of the argument not even attempted in the chapter’s pages. It’s well proven here that religion can kill (or as he puts it at one point, faith and worship can make people behave very badly indeed. (p. 242)), but is there anyone who would even challenge such a truism?
Hitchens’ style of attack is excellent for laying to waste certain aspects of religion, for assailing sects and leaders, for showing the dangers and flaws of faith. But it proves ineffective for taking down the edifice of religion as a whole, and Hitchens even seems aware that it's ill suited to the task and unfair if used for it: I do not say that if I catch a Buddhist priest stealing all the offerings left by the simple folk at his temple, Buddhism is therefore discredited. (p. 185) But he makes that very error time and time again. The chapter There is no “Eastern” Solution, to give but one example, begins with a discrediting of a “celebrated guru” (p. 195) known as Bhagwan. Hitchens’ claim here is that these religions are centered on a distrust of and abandonment of the intellect, and he illustrates the dangers of this by showing how Bhagwan fleeces his followers and abuses them horribly. But this is no more a discrediting of all gurus than the presenting of one guru who does not steal and rape would be a validation of all of them.
This death-by-a-thousand-cuts kind of assault on religion is also one badly damaged by factual errors. When discussing religion’s insanities, Hitchens tells us that Orthodox Jews conduct congress by means of a hole in the sheet. (p. 54) That’s outright false and utterly unsubstantiated, and its presence amidst a list of other, equally appalling acts of the faithful, serves to make the reader question the whole thing. All the rest certainly sounds convincing, but, after all, if I didn’t happen to have Orthodox relatives, would I know the above falsity to be just that? Mind you, I don’t think that Hitchens has penned a volume of lies, not at all. Rather, I think that Hitchens, in his drive to stick every injustice he could find on faith, let a few inane rumors sneak right through his critical faculties and research skills and land on page fifty-four of an otherwise fine work. Nonetheless, its presence there is a damning one that makes it just that much harder to trust every other line and example in the volume.
But let's zoom out and move away from the particulars for a moment. A problem, maybe even the problem, with this whole How Religion Poisons Everything subtitle and thesis – and a large part of the reason why such an overstated subtitle/thesis is so laughable – is the good that religion rather undeniably does in the world. This is where, in my opinion, Hitchens falls the hardest, looking out from his view of religion and, based on its so-hostile tenants, then trying to claim that just about every good thing religion’s ever done is nothing but the faithful inadvertently acting on essentially secular/humanistic principles. He acknowledges that “charity and relief work” might “appeal to tenderhearted believers,” but claims those things to be wholly consequences of “modernist and the Enlightenment.” (p. 192) But that’s absurd, seeing as charity was a fundamental part of the Christian church all the way back to Roman times.
Things get more egregious still when it comes to the poaching of individual believers and their accomplishments, particularly Martin Luther King, Jr: At no point did Dr. King […] even hint that those who injured and reviled him were to be threatened with any revenge or punishment, in this world or the next, save the consequences of their own brute selfishness and stupidity. All things that I, and I suspect most, would agree with, and perhaps, one might think, a reason for Hitchens to soften and acknowledge that some good can come from men of deep faith. Not at all, as it turns out. Instead, he, from this, concludes that King was, in no real as opposed to nominal sense, then, […] a Christian. (p. 176) It’s of course easy, Mr. Hitchens, to make the case that religion has had no good practitioners when you swoop in and claim that all goodly and godly men were not in fact godly.
So after all that criticism, I suspect my long time readers (if I’ve any left after all this and if I ever had any and if those I hypothetically do have ever thought I was particularly good at all this criticism stuff) are quite convinced I’m about to reach my conclusion, my dismissal of Hitchens’ overwrought, overstated, and too narrowly (and sometimes too unfairly) argued attack on religion. Not at all, as it turns out.
God is Not Great is a luxury car with the misfortune of having a maker convinced that it can fly and who, as a result, enters it into all sorts of competitions designed for helicopters and airplanes. This book is never going to sway a believer, prove the nonexistence of God, prove the malevolence of all believers, or disprove all the good things religion’s ever done. Truth be told, despite its own proclamations and subtitle, it’s not really designed for even attempting such a thing, and its few tries are rather weak, though admittedly quite impassioned. No, the roads this finely made automobile was meant to drive were more earthly ones, focused on the fallacies and flaws and weak humanity inherent in the practice of the religions and their leaders that it discusses.
Maybe the key part of all this is Hitchens’ prose. His might be the most fiery, caustic, dancing, biting and clawing writing that I’ve ever read, remorseless and witty, calculated to sting and cut, and fiercely intelligent. This is the kind of writing that will run roughshod over all boundaries, is near guaranteed (maybe even designed?) to cause offense, and is also prone to overshooting its mark on occasion, but the destructiveness is an integral part of its splendor: We shall have no more prophets or sages from the ancient quarter, which is why the devotions of today are only the echoing repetitions of yesterday, sometimes ratcheted up to screaming point so as to ward off the terrible emptiness. (p. 7) Countless times when reading I found myself laughing out loud, caught somewhere between the venom of the words and the ludicrousness of the actions described.
I’m tempted to go on like that for ages, but I’ll refrain. Similarly, I’ll avoid a recounting of all of Hitchens’ arguments. Such a thing might have proved interesting, but, on the points where we broadly agree, it’s no doubt better to let the author speak for himself than to rewrite his text here. Suffice to say, though, Hitchens on the warpath is a sight well worth seeing, and one that spits out immeasurable fascinating thoughts amidst its bile.
The final thing I want to discuss is Hitchens’ treatment of humanism, his alternative to religion. Taking refuge in the middle of all Hitchens’ anger are moments of joy and awe that are just as much a part of the whole, a reverence and respect for science and the natural world. Though Hitchens doesn’t outline what he thinks is needed in place of religion, he does give hints as to its character – and, of course, he defends it against religion’s counterattacks.
In the chapter An Objection Anticipated: The Last-Ditch “Case” Against Secularism, Hitchens deals with one of the most pervasive arguments I’ve seen against atheism, namely the bringing out of its own tyrants and the discussion of the crimes of “secular and atheist regimes.” (p. 229) Some of the section is given to specific and factual linkings between religion and fascism and its crimes, and it’s quite successful at a fair bit of that, but the more interesting part, for me, was the discussion of totalitarianism in general. Hitchens says that totalitarianism – as exemplified by, say, the reverence towards the communist ruling party – should not be viewed as the opposite of religion but rather as, essentially, another form of it. Towards this end, Hitchens provides a very interesting quotation from George Orwell’s The Prevention of Literature: A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy, and its ruling caste, in order to keep its position, has to be thought of as infallible. (p. 232)
It’s a very interesting and well done section, and convincing in its way, but I can’t help but feel that Hitchens is here missing, or at least slightly dodging, the point. When most people say religion, they do not mean simply fundamentalism of any sort, and saying that the proper antithesis of secularists like Hitchens is not religion but all forms of dogmatic belief seems going too far. Hitchens may – and, of course, does – favor and encourage questioning and inquiry rather than dogma, but that doesn’t change the fact that atheists as a group are not defined by this questioning but rather by their lack of belief in god. Throwing all of the uncritical atheists back to the other side and saying they’re not wanted feels too much like (to use an example pertinent to this blog’s general focus) a literature professor pulling out all the good Science Fiction stories, pointing to the (almost by definition rubbish) remainder, and saying that, see, it’s a worthless genre after all.
It’s only in the tail end of the section that Hitchens gets to what is, in my eyes, the real reason that comparisons to Hitler, Stalin, and other monsters are not a real refutation of atheism. Humanism has many crimes for which to apologize, he says. But it can apologize for them, and also correct them, in its own terms and without having to shake or challenge the basis of any unalterable system of belief. (p. 250) It’s true that Stalin and his ilk were atheists, but they are not in any way revered or held up as paragons of unalterable virtue in the way that the biblical prophets by definition are.
When all’s said and done, God is Not Great is a fascinating read that’s sure to provoke a reaction out of you. I think this is a work as dominated by its flaws as its successes, and it’s not one that I can wholly endorse or agree with. It is, nonetheless, an interesting and impassioned one, put together by an erudite author skilled with a pen. Hitchens is absolutely brilliant with specifics, and it's well worth it for the interested, in my eyes, to read this for those delectable and wrathful examples and expositions, even if some of the overall conclusions may not be nearly as roped in as one would like.