God Is Not Great: a [37G] Book Report (Part One)

God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything is Christopher Hitchens’ broadside volley against religion in all of its forms. It is a grinding assault on the monolith that is religious belief, and it proceeds along three major fronts: religion has failed as an explanatory power; it has failed as a moral power; and it is an impediment to the intellectual and moral advancement of humanity. For those unfamiliar with Hitchens’ writing, his is a style littered with fierce proclamations, readily defended and eloquently supported, which in and of itself makes this book worth reading. God Is Not Great is not an advanced philosophical work, nor do I think it was ever intended – nor did it need – to be. It is a polemic, designed from the outset to undermine the intellectual and moral foundation that religion has claimed for itself, while simultaneously advancing a positive idea of what a truly skeptical and secular world could hope to achieve. (It turns out Hitchens has more than a few quotable lines and I wanted to capture both the premises of the work, as well as passages that highlight his writing style. For the sake of you, dear reader, I have broken this report into two parts. The second part will be posted next week, so check back then! Also, for any curious readers, I am quoting from the 2009 paperback publication.)

Opening Volley

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything is a collection of loosely related essays that revolve around the idea so clearly stated in the book’s title. Hitchens emphatically believes that we would be better off without religion morally, intellectually and culturally, because religion has acted as an impediment to the advancement of humanity on each of those fronts. In chapter one, “Putting It Mildly”, Hitchens reiterates what he sees as “four irreducible objections to religious faith”:

it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this 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. (p. 4)

In light of these objections, Hitchens notes that “… the mildest criticism of religion is also the most radical and the most devastating one. Religion is man-made. Even the men who made it cannot agree on what their prophets or redeemers or gurus actually said or did.” (p. 10)

For those without religious inclinations the man-made nature of religion explains the various ways religion manifests itself in our world. It explains the solipsistic nature of religious teachings that usually emphasize the importance of a mammalian species that happens to have evolved on a small planet that orbits a common star on the outer-edge of a run-of-the-mill spiral galaxy. It explains why so many religious teachings and precepts happen to justify the needs and desires of humans, and particularly men, against the better judgments of rationality. It also explains why religious teachings are simply wrong about so many aspects about the way the world is. There is a good reason we do not and should not utilize religious teachings in order to better understand biology, physics, chemistry, and any other scientific discipline one might happen to name. The potential impact of this explanation – that religion is man-made - is strengthened by its simplicity. It is a theme Hitchens will return to throughout the work and I think he is right to do so.

Religion as an Impediment

Hitchens often objects to the arrogance of religious teachings in the face of the consistency of their error. He notes that we are in the process – thanks to skeptical thought and free inquiry – of knowing more and more and, simultaneously, understanding that we know less and less of what there is to know. Religion refuses to acknowledge this march of human intellectual progress, however.

In other words, in a vast and complicated discussion where we know more and more about less and less, yet can still hope for some enlightenment as we proceed, one faction – itself composed of mutually warring factions – has the sheer arrogance to tell us that we already have all the essential information we need. (pp. 10-11)

A common theme running throughout the book is Hitchens’ optimism regarding the potential progress that can be made if rationality, common sense, and free-inquiry can triumph over the stultifying influences of religion. Because of this unfulfilled potential, Hitchens has no patience for religion: ““The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species. It may be a long farewell, but it has begun and, like all farewells, should not be protracted.” (p. 11) Hitchens is absolutely adamant that humanity can and must shed the dominance of religious belief.

This is a moral imperative that he believes will be crucial for the survival of the species. Religion is something that must be actively engaged and defeated, whenever impossible, because of the impediment it has proven to be. All aspects of human nature are claimed to be covered by religious teachings, and as such the

argument with faith is the foundation and the 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)

If we can discard the outdated accoutrements that are grounded in religious practice then humanity can move forward out from our dark and unenlightened past and more fully into the light of rationality.

He Who Is Guilty

Much of God Is Not Great is dedicated to the horrendous crimes committed in the name of religious faith, or within the religious texts and traditions themselves. Chapter two is titled, bluntly, “Religion Kills”, and it is difficult not to walk away from the chapter without worrying about how easily religious disputes can break out into unpitying violence, or how easily religion seems to foster the certainty of faith that can lead to the cold indifference or searing fury that causes so much human suffering. These impulses find their way into everyone’s lives as those of differing religious opinion are also not apt to leave the irreligious alone: “The true believer cannot rest until the whole world bows the knee. Is it not obvious to all, say the pious, that religious authority is paramount, and that those who decline to recognize it have forfeited their right to exist?” (p. 31) This all supports the plea that runs throughout the book; namely, that those who are suspect of religion and its intentions should be willing to resist the encroachment of religion into the public (and hopefully, if you are in the right part of the world, secular) sphere.

The damage of religion need not be bodily inflicted on others, as it can too easily be mentally or culturally disruptive. In chapter three, humorously titled “A Short Digression on the Pig; or, Why Heaven Hates Ham”, Hitchens highlights that the troubles created by the seemingly unjustifiable prohibition on eating pork demonstrate: “In microcosm, this apparently trivial fetish shows how religion and faith and superstition distort our whole picture of the world.” (p. 41) These cultural distortions can lead to further non-violent physical harm, as Hitchens notes in chapter four, “A Note on Health, to Which Religion Can Be Dangerous”, in which he touches on the various public mental and physical health problems religion has wrought, and continues to wreak.

Topics include the Bush administration’s opposition to HPV vaccines, male and female circumcision, religious prohibitions of medical treatment, and more. There is also the issue of our often dysfunctional relationship to our sexuality: “The relationship between physical health and mental health is now well understood to have a strong connection to the sexual function, or dysfunction. Can it be a coincidence, then, that all religions claim the right to legislate in matters of sex?” (p. 53) This sexual dysfunction is often the most dramatically on display by religious clerics themselves, as has been demonstrated by the widespread sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests (though this abuse is in no way limited to members of the church). Hitchens is especially sensitive to the destructive role religious practice has played in the lives of countless children throughout history, a charge he lays against religion with particular force. “…both in theory and in practice, religion uses the innocent and the defenseless for the purposes of experiment…the conscription of the unprotected child for these purposes is something that even the most dedicated secularist can safely describe as a sin.” (pp. 51-52)

These are powerful objections to the religious, but not directly religion. I think this is an important distinction to make because it prevents one from becoming distracted by ad hominem attacks. The target here is religion, not those who practice it. However, the importance of these observations will be borne out as God Is Not Great unfolds. In later chapters he will discuss the moral role religion is supposed to play and how religion’s consistent inability to make people more moral implies religion is fundamentally wrong based on its own teachings. Given how often people cite the moral importance of religion as a mark in its favor, I think this line of attack is important and potentially profitable if it can be shown that religion lacks any unique connection to moral and ethical truth.

Wrong, Wrong, Wrong

Leaving behind the worldly effects of religion, Hitchens proceeds to attack religious teachings in more intellectual terms. Chapters five, six, and ten attack the metaphysical claims made by religion; indeed, chapter five is titled “The Metaphysical Claims of Religion Are False”. As if often the case with Hitchens, he leaves no room for interpretation as to his stance on a given subject, something I find quite refreshing given the constant qualifying and careful treading that is often attached to arguments of this type. His attack on faith is blunt:

One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody – not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms – had the smallest idea what was going on. (p. 64)

Hitchens then moves quickly to cut off potential intellectual escape routes. In light of the advancements in knowledge we have won through hard-fought intellectual endeavor (often in the face of religious opposition) the sort of faith that is reasonably and rationally defensible is no longer an option. “Faith of that sort – the sort that can stand up at least for a while in a confrontation with reason – is now plainly impossible.” (p. 63) This inability for religion to accommodate the constant influx of information has led to the current state of many religious traditions: one of blind faith that openly and often proudly rejects and lambasts the body of human knowledge in favor of the antiquated belief systems to which they are attached. Hitchens does not believe that this unquestioned leap of faith can be easily sustained, however, and he touches on what the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard pointed out:

it is not a “leap” that can be made once and for all. It is a leap that has to go on and on being performed, in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary. This effort is actually too much for the human mind, and leads to delusions and manias. Religion understands perfectly well that the “leap” is subject to sharply diminishing returns, which is why it insults reason by offering evidence and pointing to confected “proofs”. (p. 71)

Chapter six continues the intellectual assault by attacking common philosophical arguments employed to justify religious belief. There is nothing ground-breaking to be found in this chapter, though it is a good refresher on common arguments from design. Chapter ten repeatedly emphasizes the importance we should place on evidence, as even “faith, yet again, discredits itself by proving to be insufficient to satisfy the faithful. Actual events are still required to impress the credulous.” (p. 140) If even the religious yearn for verifiable evidence to support their supposedly blind faith, then we should be willing to hold those claims of evidence to the stringent standards we demand of other impactful and meaningful claims: “…exceptional claims demand exceptional evidence.” (p. 143)

When those religious claims conflict with the standards by which we judge all other claims, Hitchens affirms the position that we are intellectually duty-bound to take the most reasonable answer: “Once again the razor of Ockham is clean and decisive. When two explanations are offered, one must discard the one that explains the least, or explains nothing at all, or raises more questions than it answers.” (p. 148) And when troublesome explanations are put forward without sufficient evidence, or any verifiable evidence at all, then Hitchens enjoins us to employ another intellectual razor that now bears his name: “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” (p. 150)

Hitchens even goes further than simply saying that religious explanations are unnecessarily complicated; he charges that they are often completely unnecessary, or only necessary in light of other (unnecessary) religious teachings. He notes that myriad religious responses to the problem of natural disasters and demonstrates the superiority of the atheist’s position:

Everything is already explained. I fail to see why the religious are so reluctant to admit this: it would free them from all the futile questions about why god permits so much suffering. But apparently this annoyance is a small price to pay in order to keep alive the myth of divine intervention. (p. 149)

In short, Hitchens believes that religion is not only poorly equipped to handle out intellectual concerns, it is in fact guilty of creating intractable problems that only exists when one demands the positing of an interventionist deity in the first place. These objections are particularly damning of the Western monotheistic religions who place a premium on the idea of a god that is actively engaged with the day to day minutia of each human life.

Hitchens seems to be employing a swarm tactic, hoping to engulf the faithful with the crushing weight of numerous intellectual questions and enigmas that religion to which religions seems ill-equipped, or even unable, to respond. As is the case with every particular through the book, none of these preceding attacks are conclusive in and of themselves, but it is difficult to imagine that even those of firm religious conviction could walk away from this continual onslaught with their faith unaffected.

A History Only a Mother Could Love

In chapters seven through nine, Hitchens discusses the historical problems of the Old and New Testament, as well as the Koran, in light of what we know to be true about the regions and times in which those traditions developed. He has a special amount of disdain for those who wish to put the “truths” of revelation on equal footing with the empirical data we have obtained through centuries of thoughtful inquiry. Of the value of revelation, Hitchens states­­ that:

There are some very obvious objections to be made to this. In the first place, several such disclosures have been claimed to occur, at different times and places, to hugely discrepant prophets or mediums…In other cases, the opposite difficulty occurs and the divine instruction is delivered, only once, and for the final time, to an obscure personage whose lightest word then becomes laws. Since all of these revelations, many of them hopelessly inconsistent, cannot by definition be simultaneously true, it must follow that some of them are false and illusory. It could also follow that only one of them is authentic, but in the first place this seems dubious and in the second place it appears to necessitate religious war in order to decide whose revelation is the true one. (pp. 97-98)

I think it is difficult for any religious person to answer this charge without immediately diluting the supposedly absolute nature of their core religious precepts. There is also the worrisome possibility that you have adopted the wrong religion, of which there are and have been many. Then there is the historical problem attested to by the many civilizations that have died out, taking their “true” religious system with them into oblivion.

Doubling back to his original objection, Hitchens believes these instances of cultural extinction help reinforce the idea that religion is wholly man-made because it highlights “… how arbitrary human history really is.” (p. 90) Had a handful of events in human history gone slightly differently, the landscape we inherited would likely be vastly different than it is today. He echoes this sentiment later on in chapter eighteen during a discussion of what he considers an “absolutely tragic day in human history”: “the occasion that is now commemorated by the vapid and annoying holiday known as “Hannukah””. [This holiday celebrates the holding out of a fundamentalist Jewish sect called the Maccabees against a Roman siege.]

“The Maccabees… were forcibly restoring Mosaic fundamentalism against the many Jews of Palestine and elsewhere who had become attracted by Hellenism.” (p. 273) Eventually the Maccabees would come to collude with the Romans to rule Judea. “This lugubrious relationship was eventually to lead to Christianity (yet another Jewish heresy) and this ineluctably to the birth of Islam. We could have been spared the whole thing.” (p. 274)

One can almost hear the heavy sigh the might have accompanied the typing of that last sentence.

The first half of God Is Not Great is a bruising affair. It relentlessly attacks religion for its failures in every realm it claims unwarranted success and I cannot imagine anyone could get this far without acknowledging that something is amiss with the concept of religion. I believe this plan of attack - a grinding, unyielding assault - is useful because it does not give one time to regroup, or to find respite on other intellectual grounds. Hitchens is on an all-out offensive and I think the blitz tactic works. All of the arguments put forward are simply stated. This is not a work that hangs on subtle premises or clever word play, and for that it should be commended. Of course, this will do little to satisfy the philosophers out there, but this book is obviously not aimed at them. It would, simply put, fail to convince a dedicated theologian or philosopher based solely on arguments put forth here. However, as a work written for the general public, I believe it succeeds because of its simplicity, even if the philosopher in me wants to spend more time on any given point.

The war continues into the second half, but there is a noticeable change in tone as Hitchens' optimism begins to come through. This is not only an attack on religion but a rallying cry for the rational, skeptical, and secular, as I will highlight in next week's post.


That's it for part one. Check back next week for part two!


Update, August 16th: Part two can be found here!

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