Posts Tagged ‘religion poisons everything’

REVUES FROM THE REV: “God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” by Christopher Hitchens.

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

GodisNotCoverThough God may not be great this book certainly is.

Cheapskate that I am (I blame my Scottish Presbyterian ancestry) I generally borrow books from my fine local library.  So why, then,  did I choose to purchase my own (albeit soft-cover) edition of this book?  Because of all the books I’ve read on this subject (Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell”, Harris’ “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation” and Dawkin’s “The God Delusion”) this was the one I had to own.  Reading it again (with eyes slightly different than the first time last year) I am glad it is mine to scribble upon and turn corners of pages for later reference.

If you’re not already familiar with the boozy and brilliant Christopher Hitchens, you’ve clearly not been paying attention to the so called “new atheism” that has been rising into view in American culture in recent years.  Hitchens is a Brit (now a naturalized proud American citizen), a former Marxist and writer who offended thousands of former liberal fans when he came out in support of the invasion of Iraq (not for any love of President Bush and the “Neo-cons”, but for humanitarian reasons: the removal of a cruel despot).

Hitchens has become the most eloquent spokesperson for a no-holds barred critique of man-made religion (which, in short, covers all known religions).  As such, he has become the target of the apologists of religion (whom he makes a habit of debating in public forums whenever the opportunity presents itself).  Personally, I would not want to go against this man in a debate.  He has a quick and piercing mind with a vocabulary to match it.  In the end, Hitchens is criticized most for his “tone”.  This stands to reason, as there is little to criticize in his logic and argument.

So, what about this book.

“God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” tells you what you’re in for in it’s direct and bold title, for Hitchens intends to give religion the dressing down it deserves.  One by one the author meets the claims that religion makes for itself and, frankly, destroys them (imparting a reasonable doubt into the reader is not what Hitchens is about).  His writing is direct, clever and ferocious.  I found it bracing and funny on the first read (often laughing out loud), and reasonable and humane the second time around.   I don’ t know that I’d run across anything like it before, especially not in writing relating to our very human tendency toward religious belief.

Hitchens takes on the metaphysical claims of religion, the arguments from design, of special revelation and the claims that god and religion are the basis of all human morality (along with a few digressions, such as the chapter on the Pig subtitled “Why Heaven Hates Ham”).

In looking for some good quotes for this review, I found myself feeling like I should have to quote almost the entire book to do it justice.  The first chapter alone is a clear summation of what is to come, and a brilliant description of the position and attitude of the nonbeliever.  What Hitchens manages to do (most of all) is to state the glaringly obvious in a way that made me wonder why it hadn’t always been obvious to all of us before:

“There still remain four 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”.

Of course HItchens can attack “faith” with evidence because even as religion claims to be based solely upon faith (and therefore beyond the scope of reason), it cannot resist seeking support for itself in all kinds of supposed evidence.  But as Hitchens shows, the evidence thus presented for faith is stunning in it’s consistent mediocrity (such as the “tawdry” acts that pass as miracles).

With all the criticism heaped upon Hitchens for his unsparing attacks, I am struck by the impassioned humanity underlying his quest.  In short, he thinks too highly of us evolved mammals to see so many of his kind bowing their knee to an imagined god (or more to the point, to just another mammal who is profiting from their particular “priesthood”).

The basic thrust of his argument is that we know so much more today than we did in the days when many of our major religions were formed.  And although religion was our earliest attempt to answer questions about our origins, death and natural events, there are now no remaining questions for which we require religion to supply the answers.  Yet despite this, belief in religion persists to the point that new religions are forming all the time (special attention is paid in the book to two recent arrivals on the scene that illustrate the phenomenon: Polynesian “Cargo Cults” and Mormonism).

The upshot of “God is not Great” is that religious belief doesn’t have a leg to stand on and  if we humans were truly rational creatures a book such as this would end religious belief.  It won’t, of course (even the author describes religion as “ineradicable”).  But, at the very least, it strips away the false mantle of respectability that the religious have long borrowed from their innate humanity to whom the true credit for their morality, reason and sense of beauty derive.