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 America are treated to its ghastly subtitle: How Religion Poisons Everything, a claim so hyperbolic as to be near parody. (Those in the UK, I should point out, do get the far superior The Case Against God on the front of their book.)

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 Uganda 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.

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 Baghdad 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.

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.


  1. I picked this and his autobiography up in the recent Kindle sale. I'm looking forward to reading it for the prose, rather than his philosophy. I'm a lifelong atheist and there's little prospect of me changing my opinions on religion and humanism at this late stage.

    The anecdotal nature of the work is likely because he was writing a book to entertain and stoke controversy in equal measure. That's how he rolled.

    Specific stories are really the only way to present a work like this, surely. It's impossible to bring scientific method to the table and expect to disprove religion, when the other side can point to their articles of faith, roll their eyes and tell you that all those measurements and facts are very nice but they KNOW they're right. The only way to counter this is with real world examples that can't be described as theoretical or up for debate.

    It isn't going to change any opinions either way. I guess many atheists just like to have a book that re-affirms their belief. Ironic, no?

  2. Nat, I’m very pleased with your appraisal of Hitchens. Of the “New Atheists,” he is my favorite to read. I find Dawkins grating; his constant reliance on positivism is lame, and his philosophical training is very weak. Sam Harris is a rabble rouser, and not worth the paper he’s printed on, and Daniel Dennett is very hit or miss. Like you said, Hitchens is remarkably flamboyant in his prose, and it can be a lot of fun to read… so long as you understand that what you’re reading is not first-rate philosophy, and doesn’t even pretend to be objectively considerate.

    One of the immediate problems with Hitchen’s thesis is that, if we consider the facts, religious folk constitute the vast majority of all charity work. The vast majority. And most humanitarian aid programs are religiously founded. Where do you see a non-faith founded homeless shelter, thrift store, or missions program? Even the Peace Corps was founded by Catholics, and that’s an international affair. A fair rebuttal is that much of the religious outreach comes with an attempt at conversion—but, if you talk to many missionary leaders, there are a lot of opinions about whether or not that is right. This variation of opinion alone annihilates Hitchen’s entire point: the religious community is far too broad on any one topic alone to be tossed away. His generalizations are so weak because they are just that.

    I think that had he made his case not about “religion as a whole” but about “cultic, militant fundamentalism,” he might have been able to do something more with the points he brings up. The reality is that the majority of professing Christians, Muslims, Jews, whatever, aren’t “Soldiers for [Insert Religious Icon].” They’re people who have a belief, and it barely, rarely colors who they are. Most of them are evangelists, out there in the world shouting and telling everyone that they’re wrong… Hitchens, however, is. The kind of people he denounces—fundamentalists, people who fight for their way of life, they’re the same kind of person he is. His appraisals of religious believers are awful similar to the appraisals of atheists made by fundamentalists. And, of course, not all atheists are Darwin-thumping rabble rousers, either. They’re people who have a belief, and it barely, rarely colors who they are.

    This entire argument about Faith vs. Non-Faith is as stupid as the argument about the legality of Homosexual marriage, and people write just as many goddamn books about that, too. People are more complex than the individual components of their identities, but if you listen to these “critics” and “thinkers,” they’ll have you believe you’re simple Theist or Atheist, Hetero or Homo. It’s ignorant, and it makes big, big money. Thus the American subtitle on Hitchens’ book.

    Anyway, you know my thoughts on this entire argument; I’m a deist, after a fashion, and my beliefs are founded in cosmology and mathematics. I don’t know about dogma, and both theistic and atheistic fundamentalists make me very uncomfortable.

    Oh, about the totalitarian state being theocratic: the totalitarian state is the only kind of state that has clear foundations in anti-theological thought processes: communism. All of the democratic and commonwealth nations of the world are founded, at least in some part, in a form of religion (with varying degrees of intensity). Interestingly enough, every single totalitarian government does develop a cult of personality. Perhaps when governing so many people it is impossible to have anything short of a state-supported religion, whether it is “official” or not. If religion is the opiate the masses, and the masses have been hooked for as long as there has been a crowd, I don’t particularly see a clear way forward without a spiritual bond between Government and Governed. That’s something to think about.

  3. I'm not disagreeing with you, Travis, but you'll find that "religious folk constitute the vast majority of all charity work" in the US. That's simple statistics because the vast majority of the population there claim to follow a religion.

    Of course Bill Gates, one of the biggest philanthropists in the world and a US citizen, is at best an agnostic.

    Most of the rest of the Western world has considerably higher rates of atheism and more Government funding in their social programs. I'd say religious organisations still run the majority of the actual charities at a local level - but there's less need for it due to the wider social safety net.

    If you look at international organizations like Amnesty International, say, membership and support will reflect the religious make-up of the local population.

    Even I'm starting to find Dawkins grating. He is a man on a mission. The rise in so-called atheist fundamentalism in the US probably has a lot more to do with the active cultural bias against atheists there. Something which isn't an issue in Europe. Perversely this means there's more of a market for tub-thumping atheist proselytizing in the States.

    And to really make it seem like I'm disagreeing for the sake of it, I'll throw this out. Burma.

    Burma's Faceless Leaders


  4. Oh, Dawkins and Hitchens are both clearly men on a mission, though it is a mission that I largely agree with. I see the argument that religion doesn't wholly define a person, and it's certainly true in many cases, and I also wholly agree that books like God is Not Great, The God Delusion, or what have you are completely futile, and yet... I still think it's something that needs to be discussed and is worth arguing. To throw in a Hitchens quote (one that I considered opening the review with, but decided against):

    "The argument with faith is the foundation and origin of all arguments, because it is the beginning - but not the end - of all arguments about philosophy, science, history, and human nature. It is also the beginning - but by no means the end - of all disputes about the good life and the just city." (p. 12)

    That seems quite true to me. No, a man's faith does not decide every aspect of him, but it does have a tremendous influence on the way that he thinks and acts. The ways in which we would and should proceed in worlds with and without an objective purpose that's already been handed down to us are very different. So yeah, it's not a question that's going to be answered any time soon, and these specific books will likely have little impact in the end, but I still think it's a discussion too important to be brushed under the rug.

    I agree with your objections to Hitchens' thesis, though, Travis. Saying that religion does no good in the world is as ludicrous as saying that it does no wrong, and, though Hitchens is reasonable half the time and allows it its good deeds, he spends the other half snatching them back or whittling them away. That being said, as Anton Gully pointed out, doing it as a numbers game is meaningless, since there simply are more believers than non. A far more interesting question, I think, would be the amount of charities done by the groups per capita. Hitchens claims that he thinks it's more atheists that do good than theists, but, really, that's an assertion he doesn't back up in any way and, much as I'd like to know the answer, I've no idea how one could be reached.

    I disagree with the idea that totalitarian states like Russia are/were theocracies, that seems to be going too far. But I do think that the idea of them being fundamentalist is an interesting idea, at least in the sense that they hold to a set of beliefs just as fervently, and just as potentially irrationally, as any theist. Then again, simply accepting dogma is simply the mark of most men anywhere, no matter their system of governance or faith. Maybe it's not so much which system they're in as it is that most men simply require an overarching, infallible system of some sort, be it religious or political.

    Of the New Atheists, I've so far read Dawkins (The God Delusion), Hitchens (God is Not Great), and am in the midst of Harris' The End of Faith. On Harris, you do have a point. The variance between chapters is astounding. Some are incredibly interesting, others tedious or even horrific in their dogged insistence. For him, I completely agree with you that's he's as much if not more a fundamentalist than nigh all of those he so rails against, even if he is a fundamentalist with some fascinating thoughts. As to whether I'll review or read more of him once I've finished this book, I've yet to decide.

  5. I was deeply disappointed with The God Delusion; Logical Positivism is the only vein Dawkins knows how to tap, even though that, in the realm of actual philosophers, it folds instantly. Still, for the common masses, it seems to make sense, and so it's a drum that can be beaten:

    I would wonder, if you take the two groups (theists and non-theists) individually, which has a higher percentage of individuals within each set that DO participate in charity/volunteer work/humanitarian aid? I would think that in that study, the Faithful and Unfaithful would be separately gauged, and I think that would be more fair. I'm willing to bet that it would be the faithful, even if that's only because every Sunday there's a man with a white collar shouting that they need to be helping (which, obviously, isn't good rationale).

    About Russia as a theocracy: see the cult of Joseph Stalin. Wiki it; it's actually a cool read, although we see similar patterns in the late Kim Jong Il's rule. I'm inclined, Nat, to believe that you're onto something: men need some sort of Zarathustrian hierarchy to contextualize their lives and the energy expended during it....

    I'm not particularly on either side here, but I do I think that an open, honest debate SHOULD be had about this topic. To that point, I did listen to an excellent debate on NPR about this subject, which has more or less informed my stance. It's available through iTunes under the "NPR: Intelligence Squared Debates." The title is, "Would the World be Better Off Without Religion?" I recommend it; it's a pretty intense debate.

    Like Nat says, it's an interesting discussion that needs to be had, and it doesn't need to be brushed under the rug... but I'd like to see a more intelligent discussion going on. And there is, but for that, you need to climb up into the stratosphere of philosophical discussion... and I don't think I have the wherewithal for that kind of argument.

    Anyhow, I did enjoy the review. It was quite level-headed, and I agree with a lot of what you said.