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

This week, I continue on with my latest reading of Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. If you missed it, you can check out part one here

The Wickedness of Religion

The next few chapters are primarily focused on religion and morality, during which Hitchens argues that religion itself is not just amoral but immoral, and that religion does not actually make people morally better. The thrust of his argument is neatly encapsulated in his comments on the slow moral defeat of slavery and racism:

The chance that someone’s secular or freethinking opinion would cause him or her to denounce the whole injustice was extremely high. The chance that someone’s religious belief would case him or her to take a stand against slavery and racism was statistically quite small. But the chance that someone’s religious belief would cause him or her to uphold slavery and racism was statistically extremely high, and the latter fact helps us to understand why the victory of simple justice took so long to bring about. (p. 180)

Hitchens’ strategy throughout this section of the book is to draw not just a correlation between immoral behavior and religious belief and teachings, but to show a causal connection between religion and immorality. He is, in effect, providing us with a litany of religiously inspired horror stories with the aim of destroying religion’s supposed monopoly on morality. Hitchens touches on a range of fairly well known topics, from the collusion of religion and totalitarian states; the abuse of children at the hands of religious teachings and religious teachers; the mental anguish inflicted on the religious by unobtainable religious goals; and so on. This argument does not, however, necessarily demonstrate that religion itself is problematic, but only those who claim to be religious. In order to be truly effective in divorcing religion and morality, Hitchens needs to show that religion itself is conceptually immoral.

In chapter eleven, ““The Lowly Stamp of Their Origin”: Religion’s Corrupt Beginnings”, Hitchens discusses the way in which religions are founded on the credulity of the general populous:

This is an ancient problem. Credulity may be a form of innocence, and even innocuous in itself, but it provides a standing invitation for the wicked and the clever to exploit their brothers and sister, and is thus one of humanity’s great weaknesses. (p. 161)

This relationship, wherein the general public is beholden to the religious teachers for dispensation and salvation through the doctrines of that religion, is ripe with potential abuse. Furthermore:

There are, indeed, several ways in which religion is not just amoral, but positively immoral. And these faults and crimes are not to be found in the behavior of its adherents (which can sometimes be exemplary) but in its original precepts. These include:

- Presenting a false picture of the world to the innocent and the credulous

- The doctrine of blood sacrifice

- The doctrine of atonement

- The doctrine of eternal reward and/or punishment

- The imposition of impossible tasks and rules (p. 205)

By placing people in a state of dependency and then demanding more of them than can be achieved, religion inspires an abusive relationship of intertwined dependence and judgment. Hitchens is quick to note that religion can and has inspired people to good, but he says that this good is not realized because of religion, but rather because of the same humanist impulses that motivate the irreligious to the same moral accomplishments. Discussing the events of the book tour that preceded the publication of God Is Not Great, Hitchens recounts a challenge he issued during a debate:

My challenge: Name an ethical statement or action, made or performed by a person of faith, that could not have been made or performed by a nonbeliever. I have since asked this question at every stop and haven’t had a reply yet. (p. 289)

If religion seems so closely tied to the excesses of immorality and so readily abusive to its adherents, then how can one claim that religion is, in and of itself, moral? In Hitchens’ eyes the answer is clear, and if nothing else his attack should be enough to give any religious person cause for concern. I find this line of attack intriguing because it bypasses discussions of doctrine and attacks religion as an institution: a system with which people have a particular type of relationship. If any incarnate version of religion places people into a relationship of the type described by Hitchens, then it seems religion as practiced by most adherents is inherently immoral. Should one attempt to counter this assertion with a version of religion that does not resemble what has been previously described, I think Hitchens would argue that that thing would not be religion as normally defined and understood. If we take away any authoritative characteristics of religion, then we are left with something more akin to spirituality. That which lacks authority cannot readily be imposed on others, nor is it likely to lead to an abusive relationship between that authority and those under its nominal care.

Counter Attacks

The end of the book focuses on anticipated rebuttals by religious proponents, followed by an impassioned but thoughtful argument for the dominance of secularism, pluralism, and skepticism. Chapter seventeen counters what Hitchens calls “the last-ditch “case” against secularism”, which states: as bad as religiously oriented societies have been, self-proclaimed secular societies have demonstrated themselves to be far worse. Hitchens humorously observes that “it is interesting to find that people of faith now seek defensively to say that they are no worse than fascists or Nazis or Stalinists. One might hope that religion had retained more sense of its dignity than that.” (p. 230) All humor aside, if this argument holds it would seem to give some credence to the idea that religion does make people act more morally, which would in turn undermine the thrust of much of what Hitchens has said up to this point in the book.

Hitchens’ rebuttal hinges on the equating of totalitarianism – the system of government that the “evil” secular regimes of Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany, Communist North Korea, and the like have imposed on their respective peoples – to theocratic rule. He goes to some length to draw parallels between totalitarian states and theocracies and correctly states that “…the object of perfecting the species – which is the very root and source of the totalitarian impulse – is in essence a religious one.” (p. 232) Hitchens goes on to quote George Orwell, who said that 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) The impulse towards religion and the sort of self-subjugation that comes from religious belief is the same motivating force that allows totalitarian states to exercise the control and influence they do over their citizenry. These states have not eliminated religion so much as have replaced traditional religious beliefs with new secular ones, in which the state itself becomes a deity worthy of unquestioning admiration, loyalty, and worship. Driving this point home, Hitchens paraphrases from The God That Failed (a work concerning the Russian Communist state), stating that “Communist absolutists did not so much negate religion, in societies that they well understood were saturated with faith and superstition, as seek to replace it.” (p. 246)

Hitchens goes on to note that this supposed counter-argument is a double-edged sword, since it would seem to implicate religion whenever the forces of the state and the forces of faith have become intertwined to the detriment of the general population. He comments at some length on the Catholic Church’s cozy relationship with both Mussolini’s fascist Italy and Hitler’s Nazi Germany, prior to, during, and after World War II. If secularism is to be held accountable for the terrible deeds ostensibly done in its name, then religion should be held accountable when the same deeds are done with faith’s assistance. Secular forces, supposedly guided by rational and humanist principles, are as fallible as any human endeavor can and will be. The advantage for secular forces is that “humanism has many crimes for which to apologize. 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) Religion, which has so often acted as an impediment to human progress on all fronts, is simply less well equipped to deal with these excesses of human nature. Indeed, if Hitchens has demonstrated the validity of his criticisms of religion, it seems ready-made to impose those excesses on humanity to the expense of us all.

A Better World

Hitchens closes the work with two chapters that decry the obstacle religion has proven itself to be while simultaneously advocating for the better worldviews of secularism, humanism, and skepticism. This section of the book is less of an argument and more of a plea. He expends a significant amount of effort to show how the skeptical, rational mindset is superior to the religious, faith-based mindset. For instance, he discusses the trial and eventual execution of Socrates for promoting “free thought and unrestricted inquiry” and points out that Socrates stated that, "all he really “knew”…was the extent of his own ignorance. (This to me is still the definition of an educated person.)” (p. 256) Hitchens goes on to say that:

…Socrates was mocking his accusers in their own terms, saying in effect: I do not know for certain about death and the gods – but I am as certain as I can be there you do not know, either. (p. 257)

The advantage that secularism holds over religion is that it is self-limiting when taken in conjunction with skepticism and humanism. The certainty required to justify some of humanity’s most grievous errors is simply not available to anyone willing to take the time to reasonable question everything while taking into account the fallibility of one’s self and one’s cohorts. A dash of this self-doubt goes a long way. Had this mindset prevailed throughout history, we might not have gone through the destruction of the ancient libraries, the suppression of philosophical thought, and the looting of our intellectual heritage by those whose certainty of faith has robbed us all. This is not to say that humanity would not have endured a long and winding road from our pre-history to the modern day. As Hitchens rightly observes:

No doubt there would still have been much foolishness and solipsism. But the connection between Athens and history and humanity would not have been so sundered, and the Jewish people might have been the carriers of philosophy instead of arid monotheism, and the ancient schools and their wisdom would not have become prehistoric to us. (p. 274)

We are at a point in history where we can reasonably choose to throw off the burdens of religion without immediately incurring its wrath. However, religion is much like a wounded animal, which can be the most dangerous at its most vulnerable. The opportunity is there, but we must be careful in pressing the attack. When confronted by those who would have us choose faith over reason, we must be willing to respond resolutely:

In point of fact, we do not have the option of “choosing” absolute truth, or faith. We only have the right to say, of those who do claim to know the truth of revelation, that they are deceiving themselves and attempting to deceive – or to intimidate – others. Of course, it is better and healthier for the mind to “choose” the path of skepticism and inquiry in any case, because only by continual exercise of these faculties can we hope to achieve anything. (pp. 277-278)

Hitchens strongly believes that the current state of the world is one in which religion poses an outright threat to the survival of key cultural values: free speech, inquiry, and expression. We live at a time when religious zealots can impose their will with frightening effective violence. Dissent can be obliterated with the pull of a trigger or the pressing of a button. Secularists must be willing to meet this foe, an enemy often violently flailing as its increasing irrelevance becomes apparent to more and more people.

… confronted with undreamed-of vistas inside our own evolving cortex, in the farthest reaches of 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.” It 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. (p. 283)

We have better alternatives at our disposal. The loss of religion is ultimately, Hitchens believes, something that will free us to become better than we collectively are. We need no longer be bound to ancient tomes, filled with words that are increasingly dated and devoid of meaningful guidance. However:

The loss of faith can be compensated by the newer and finer wonders that we have before us, as well as by immersion in the near-miraculous work of Homer and Shakespeare and Milton and Tolstoy and Proust, all of which was also “man-made” (though one sometimes wonders, as in the case of Mozart). (p. 151)

Religion has had its time, and Hitchens is adamant that it has over-stayed its welcome. There are far better alternatives that are at our disposal, or are waiting to be discovered, for the important questions we must all face. It is time for secularists to actively engage an enemy that has haunted humanity for too long:

”Know thyself,” 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. (p. 283)

I, for one, could not agree with the man more.


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