‘god is not Great,’ by Christopher Hitchens, book review [from the archives]

A number of years ago on another blog this review was published. Hitchens has now passed from this life, but I’ve left the review exactly as published before sans the introduction.

Christopher Hitchens is, quoting the inside cover of god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything: “a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and a visiting professor of liberal studies at the New School…He was named, to his own amusement, number five on a list of ‘Top 100 Public Intellectuals’ by Foreign Policy and Britain’s Prospect.” The New Yorker calls him, “An intellectual willing to show his teeth in the cause for righteousness” (the last being an odd choice of terms to say the least), while the Village Voice lauds Hitchens as “American’s foremost rhetorical pugilist.”

The best place to summarize this book is by beginning with a quote from its final two pages:

Religion has run out of justification. Thanks to the teleschope and the microscope, it no longer offers an explanation of anything important….Confronted with undreamed-of vistas inside our own evolving cortex, in the farthest reaches of the known universe, and in the proteins and acids which constitute our nature, religion offers either annihilation in the name of god, or else the false promise that if we take a knife to our foreskins, or pray in the right direction, or ingest pieces of wafer, we shall be “saved.” If is as if someone, offered a delicious and fragrant out-of-season fruit, matured in a painstakingly and lovingly designed hothouse, should throw away the flesh and the pulp and gnaw moodily on the pit.


Then, pining for a renewed Enlightenment, he closes:

Only the most naive utopian can believe that this new humane civilization will develop, like some dream of “progress,” in a straight line. We have first to transcend our prehistory, and escape the gnarled hands which reach out to drag us back to the catacombs and the reeking altars and the guilty pleasures of subjection and abjection. “Know yourself,” said the Greeks, gently suggesting the consolations of philosophy. To clear the mind for this project, it has become necessary to know the enemy, and to prepare to fight it. [Emphasis mine.]

god is not Great is a call to philosophical war by a man who is not himself unprepared to wage it in the public arena. Hitchens does not write as a intellectually doughy, scholastically lacking philosophical pit bulldog. On the contrary, he has seen the world and is convinced that religion is the primary cause of the woes observed there. Attacking the three dominant monotheisms, Judaism, Christianity and Islam (but with a little Hinduism thrown in for good measure) he attributes nearly every single problem in the known universe to mankind’s stubborn belief in the supernatural and argumentation over the right way to serve God, who Hitchens regards as a “totalitarian.”

christopher hitchens

Christopher Hitchens (Image: dailyhitchens.com)

Drawing from his personal experiences, this outspoken representative of positive atheism (or, even further, “anti-theism”) relates stories from “Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem and Baghdad.” Each gives a different perspective of his thesis that religion is the problem and rationalism is the solution. He states over and over again that religion (and thus God) is “man-made,” a leftover relic from the infancy of our “species” that awaits eradication as soon as we evolve past our, using Freud’s concepts, fear of death and proneness to wishful thinking. In fact, Hitchens lists, as his “irreducible objections to religious faith:”

That it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility 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.”

Thus chapters such as, “A Note on Health, to Which Religion Can Be Hazardous,” “The Metaphysical Claims of Religion Are False,” “Revelation: The Nightmare of the ‘Old’ Testament,” and “The ‘New Testament Exceeds the Evil of the ‘Old’ One.” It bears remembering that Christopher Hitchens writes, not as a sniper who never knows or interacts with his victims, but as a ground soldier who has read the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Book of Mormon and each of the other “holy books.” And yet…

In reading Hitchens, and in listening to his public debates there simply seems to be a disconnect between his reading of the Bible and his grasp on what it actually says. It is as if he’s merely looking for any connection no matter how tenuous between it and other practices whether those be Judaistic, Islamic or Aztec, so that he might trash them all as fruit from the same tree with the titular poison. Any Old Testament tie to Christ seems lost on him or characterized as a scheme, a la the theory of the passover plot. His critique of “contradictions” in the gospels is below elementary and, while he is more than willing to allow for the ultimate progress of science and reason, he will not even concede the possibility that future excavations or historical research will confirm currently problematic interpretive challenges (as in Luke’s census dating). Another oft lodged complaint is that the entire biblical doctrine of hell came from “gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” to use his non-biblical phrasing, while he is seemingly ignorant of the perfectly clear statement of Isaiah 66:24 which Jesus references.

[To hear Hitchens in action is to hear the fire and brimstone that he brings to this “discussion.” One has only to listen to the multi-part debate with Dinesh D’Souza (beginning here). It will reaffirm Hitchens practice of referencing scripture when it helps prove his point, yet ignoring it when challenges his stance.]

In the end, it is Hitchens himself who gives all the clue that anyone needs to determine his motivation: self-determination (including repeated assertions of sexual freedom) without the interference of any outside being, and certainly not a “totalitarian god” who he had no say in electing. Hitchens, as all anti-theists, wants nothing to do with a fixed, objective morality that is the product of a Creator. Romans 1 continues to raise itself in my head as if Darwinism and materialism were anticipated long ago, “They turned the glory of God into four footed beasts and creeping things,” then reaching that haunting conclusion, “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools.”

It is with no small amount of frustration that I must, however, admit agreement with much of Hitchens rant. Religion does poison everything, most of all blocking the possibility of a genuine reconciliation to and relationship with God since man, not God, is the actual center of religion, while God, not man, is the center of redemption. His primary disagreements with Christianity stem from the preponderance of misbegotten and unbiblical actions of the Roman Catholic institution–not so much its adherents as its leaders. Leading the way are its 1940′s friendliness with fascism in both Italy and Germany, the Inquisition and its active cover-up in the “child rape” scandal of the last 20 or so years. (Hitchens coarsely and straightforwardly calls this “no child’s behind left.”)

It is difficult, as it always has been, to distinguish for some the difference between the kingdom of God, with those attempting to live under its rule and reign as actually proposed by Jesus, and the RCC which is commonly and errantly referred to as “the Church,” inclusive of all its theological and historical absurdities. Thus, readers of the book will note that, despite his disagreement with the Bible itself, Hitchens’ (other than an occasional slap at ready targets Robertson and Falwell) primary identification of Christianity is with the RCC. This is both unfortunate and inaccurate. Frankly, he should know better.

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.