Book Review: "god is not great"

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
by Christopher Hitchens


A cranky crack at religious crazies (and others)

Despite Christopher Hitchens' reputation as an irascible critic of religion (and everything else), perhaps because of it, I thought I would give his anti-religion book, 'god is not great" a try. As a liberal Catholic who is a great fan of science, what harm could it do? At worst, he would provide a devastating attack on a cherished assumption, and my faith would go down in flames. But if what I called "faith" was based on nonsense, I'd be better off without it.

Sadly for Mr. Hitchens my faith continues intact, but my appreciation for his intellectual depth has suffered. "god is not great" (if he won't capitalize the word for the deity then I won't capitalize the rest of his title) is basically a long, unsupported rant against religion and religiosity. Surprisingly, Hitchens makes numerous unsupported categorical statements and sweeping condemnations, of the sort he despises in his enemies. Perhaps because of his broad-brush style, Hitchens has a tendency to select the least nuanced interpretation of an event and present it as fact. His chapter of the history of the Old Testament provided some of the most egregious examples. On page 102, he denies wholesale the events of the Exodus story: "It goes without saying that none of the gruesome, disordered events in Exodus ever took place." Now, one may suggest that the Exodus story is an amplified version of a real (albeit minor) event. One may even state the undeniable fact that there is no official Egyptian record of the event (though it's obvious why the pharaohs chose not to immortalize one of their failures by having it chiseled in stone). But to suggest that the Exodus never happened goes far beyond evidence and plausibility and begins to be rival the fantastic story recorded in the Bible. This is not to say that everything in the Bible is historically and scientifically true and that the excavators can now stop digging. For instance, the serious biblical student must pause at the lack of archaeological evidence for a Joshua-style conquest of the Holy Land. But biblical scholars are way ahead of Hitchens. The Bible provides its own ample evidence -- courtesy of the contradictions between the conquest narrative in Joshua and the more protracted struggle described in Judges -- that the "conquest" took a long time and had much of the character of assimilation. To the unsubtle Hitchens, this contradiction proves the Bible is entirely false. To the more careful student of biblical history, the contradiction suggests other possibilities, such as a weak group's propagandistic need to impress neighboring and warlike tribes.

When it comes to the New Testament, Hitchens is equally addled. He makes much of the work of Bart Ehrman, a modern biblical scholar, who states that the Resurrection narrative of Mark is a later historical addition. Duh, Chris! That is common knowledge among biblical scholars and hardly original with Ehrman. Hitchens defies logic (one of his cardinal sins) by concluding that adding a resurrection to Mark disproves the Resurrection itself. Would not the first impulse of the early church been to proclaim the resurrection, not to write it down? Hitchens intends to amaze the reader with bald statements about the lack of concurrence between the nativity stories (true) and the resurrection stories, though these latter tales differ only in insignificant details. But in Hitchens' world, if two people have different opinions about you it is proof that you do not exist.

But Hitchens makes valuable points. To its everlasting shame, religion has much blood on its hands. It has taken the side of ignorance and tyranny, often in opposition to its own "sacred" teachings. To the smarmy religious commentator who asked whether Hitchens would feel safe in a strange town at nightfall if he knew that the large group of men approaching him were coming from a prayer meeting, Hitchens gave the devastating reply (p 18), "Just to stay within the letter 'B,' I have actually had that experience in Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem and Baghdad." He goes on on describe frightful experiences with people whose religious world view led them to violence murder and mayhem. Hitchens is also right on when he attacks the idiocy that uses religious precepts to determine health policy. Be it female genital mutilation in Africa, Catholic edicts against condom use in AIDS ravaged nations, evangelical abstinence-only campaigns or the Muslim claim that oral vaccines cause impotence, religion has often done the devil's work, self-servingly depriving humans of effective medical care and dooming them to lives of sickness and degradation.

Most devastating to religionists, Hitchens makes the completely valid and observable point that one needn't be theist to be moral. Aside from the truth the religion has often fostered hatred and has been the excuse for much sickening barbarity, many non-religious people are loving, cooperative, productive, calm and reasonable. The religious fanatic has much to learn from the heathen.

We religious people must take note of Hitchens' criticisms. We must balance the world as it appears to our senses with the world as our scriptures tell us it ought to be. We must come to grips with a world that is billions of years old. We must wonder at a Deity who can tolerate countless eons during which his creation lives by feeding on itself. We must wrestle with the notion of a beneficent, all-powerful being who doesn't intervene often to save his children, and who is pleased to wait millennia as they develop vaccines, food crops and other life-saving techniques to sustain themselves in the dignity and joy that are His supposed grant to humanity.

We must even thank cranks like Christopher Hitchens for keeping us honest, and for attacking the mental dodges that help us justify appalling behavior, pretending that illogic pleases the Creator. But let's not pretend that "god is not great" amounts to anything more than venting of the inexhaustible Hitchens spleen. For all of his bluster and chest-pounding, Hitchens is no clear-thinking critic. He is often so committed to his vituperative diatribes that he falls into same logical fallacies as the most nimwitted of his opponents. Though he rightly excoriates the Church for its violence, the best one can say about his own violent temperament is that it's good he is not a churchman, else we would have another Khomeini/bin Laden/Torquemada on our hands.

For all of its unintentional value to theists, Hitchens' book does not (and can not) disprove the existence of God. Neither is the book a nuanced and reasoned exposition of the state of biblical scholarship or archeology. Hitchens has equated foolish religious ideas with religion itself. In this he is wrong, a fact that his bitter screeching will not alter.