God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens
God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
by Christopher Hitchens
Twelve. 320 pp. $24.99
Militant atheism has a long and not notably successful history—punctuated, however, by boomlets that tend to occur after terrible and seemingly inexplicable human disasters. The latest such boomlet owes its popularity to al Qaeda, whose attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001 created an appetite not only for global explanations but for blame. To our arsenal of defenses against future terrorist attacks, today’s crop of professional atheists urge us to add a mistrust of religion in general, in whatever guise. Thus, according to books by Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Daniel C. Dennett (Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon), and Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation), responsibility for an event like 9/11 ought not to be assigned solely or at all to the small group of radical Islamists who perpetrated the attacks, much less to Islam as a whole, but rather ought to be shared among all religions, including the very moderate kinds of religion that exist in the United States and Europe.
Christopher Hitchens’s new book, God Is Not Great, is the most recent and in many ways the most engaging of these exercises, displaying a range of reference and a degree of energy, wit, and learning that the others conspicuously lack. Correspondingly, however, its flaws go much deeper.
Hitchens certainly does not share the worst political faults of the others, who tend to skirt the subject of Islam altogether. He begins, indeed, by thoroughly eviscerating the religious program of the “Islamofacists” now waging war against the West. Only then does he proceed to take us on the familiar guided tour of monotheistic religion in general and its metaphysical underpinnings. Highlights here include his discussion of the philosophical “argument from design” that is said to prove the existence of a divine creator. Any such proposition, Hitchens pronounces summarily, is given the lie by the manifestly absurd glitches in our own design as a species: “our easily worn-out knees, our vestigial tails, and the many caprices of our urinogenital arrangements.”
Other religious claims, Hitchens writes, show similarly clear traces of their man-made invention, and are all the more contemptible for that. The Ten Commandments he finds pitiless. On the one hand they are trite—everyone knows that murder and adultery are bad things. On the other hand they demand of us the impossible. (“One may be forcibly restrained from wicked actions . . . but to forbid people from contemplating them is too much.”) Moreover, the God of the Torah neglects to condemn other and arguably greater evils: racism, genocide, slavery. The purview of this God, Hitchens complains, is “oppressively confined and local. None of these [Hebrew] provincials, or their deity, seems to have any idea of a world beyond the desert, the flocks and herds, and the imperatives of nomadic subsistence.”
The same human stain corrupts arguments for the divinity of Jesus, about whose historical uniqueness Hitchens has his doubts. “There were many deranged prophets roaming Palestine at the time, but this one reportedly believed himself, at least some of the time, to be God or the son of God.” Here Hitchens takes on C.S. Lewis, the strongest modern apologist for Christianity, who posited in Mere Christianity (1943) that Jesus must have been either actually the Son of God or a complete madman of no interest in the least. “I do credit [Lewis] with honesty and with some courage,” Hitchens concedes, setting him up for the kill:
Either the Gospels are in some sense literal truth, or the whole thing is essentially a fraud. . . . Well, it can be stated with certainty, and on their own evidence, that the Gospels are most certainly not literal truth.
When he turns to Islam, Hitchens, unlike many of his fellow polemicists, does not step gingerly. He questions whether it is a separate religion at all, as opposed to “a rather obvious and ill-arranged set of plagiarisms” from Judaism and Christianity. But, precisely because of its lack of originality, Islam is, for him, also the purest type of religion—that is, a showcase of everything evil about religious belief of any kind. After all, in today’s decadent West, “many religions now come to us with ingratiating smirks and outstretched hands.” Islam refreshingly reminds us of the unvarnished truth—which is “how barbarically [the others] behaved when they were strong”—and therefore of the need to free ourselves from all priestcraft if we are ever to realize our human potential for self-sufficient virtue.
Such virtue is, for Hitchens, emphatically not to be achieved by following religious teachings; nor are they the source of it. Human decency, he asserts, “does not derive from religion. It precedes it.” He points to Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and George Eliot, whose moral insights are more valuable than anything we can learn from Scripture. By contrast, most of the evil people in history have been themselves religious; Hitchens adduces the Roman Catholic element in the Tutsi genocide of the Hutu in Rwanda, the Lord’s Resistance Army of Northern Uganda, the Spanish Inquisition. The British, he assures us, abolished slavery not because of agitation by Christian evangelicals but because the practice had become unprofitable.
According to some of today’s atheists, like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, religion is no longer necessary because mankind has outgrown it: the knowledge supplied jointly by Darwin and modern neurophysiology has made religion obsolete. For others, like Sam Harris (and Brooke Allen in Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers), it is modern liberal political arrangements that have made God-given laws otiose. Hitchens is distinct. He does not feel that science has made us superior to religion at last. For him, religion is fundamentally flawed—a petri dish for all the vices that flesh is heir to. It is proof of the enormous evil of which mankind is capable.
This might be called the Hitchens version of original sin—a doctrine he of course despises. At heart Hitchens is an unrelieved misanthrope. And, to his credit, he does exhibit a deeper familiarity with human depravity than any of our other anti-religionist authors, whose faith in the perfectibility of mankind is almost comically touching. The question, given his root-and-branch misanthropy, is where on earth he derives his conviction that mankind would be better off without religion.
The answer would seem to be: nowhere. Take, for instance, the phenomenon of sexual repression, which Hitchens blames on religion and regards (it goes without saying) as an unmitigated evil. But sexual repression, in one form or another, has characterized every human community in history, and always will. Religion can be a highly efficient means of enforcing sexual repression; but if it did not exist, some other means would have been found to impose limitations on the expression of human sexuality.
Or take the issue of religion and politics. In his own lifetime, as it happens, Hitchens has himself been a true believer, albeit not in God but in revolutionary Marxism. His hard-won and long-overdue disillusionment with that creed has given him some sympathy for religious believers: “to some extent I know what you are going through.” It has also, he thinks, given him special standing to deal with an anticipated objection to his argument about political evil—the objection, namely, that in every instance where power has been allied with militant atheism, the result has been the systematic, deliberate murder of citizens on a scale that renders trivial the total number of victims of religious persecution throughout recorded history.
Indeed, in the face of the horrors perpetrated by “scientific socialism,” whether of the Communist or Nazi variety, most of today’s atheists tend to fall mute. Hitchens, however, has a riposte. Communism and Nazism “did not so much negate religion,” he writes, “as seek to replace” it. That is, the essential wickedness of “scientific” totalitarian regimes is traceable in his view to the fact that they are themselves religions. For Hitchens, in short, everything religion touches is bad, and everything bad is religious—including anti-religion. This is the sort of reasoning that gives syllogisms a bad name.
What, then, does Hitchens wish to put in place of religion? He calls for a new Enlightenment, and proposes that we realize its promise by imitating the Socratic method of rational thinking—a suggestion that compels him to engage in some fancy footwork in order to deny there was anything supernatural in Socrates’ insistence that he had a daimon, an inner voice, that enabled him to distinguish good from evil. But this recommendation falls into the same morass as Hitchens’s urging of Shakespeare and Tolstoy over the Bible as teachers of morality. In each case the point is not only anachronistic but odd, given that none of these sages, let alone the Enlightenment itself, is remotely conceivable apart from the religious civilization out of which they all sprang.
There is worse to come. Hitchens is what Hazlitt would call a “good hater.” He hates the idea of the fall of man. He hates the doctrine of atonement and sacrifice. He hates the notion of eternal punishment: “ordinary conscience will do, without any heavenly wrath behind it.” He hates the proscription of masturbation and the prescription of circumcision. Most of all, it emerges, he hates Hanukkah.
Why Hanukkah? It is not just the fact that, in America, the Jews borrowed “shamelessly from Christians in the pathetic hope of a celebration that coincides with Christmas,” a holiday that is itself an “annexation . . . of a pagan Northland solstice.” It is the underlying meaning of the events that Hanukkah memorializes: namely, the success of the Maccabean revolt against the heretical Jewish Hellenizers in the 2nd century b.c.e. For, as Hitchens reads it, that victory—won by a hair—allowed Jewish monotheism to survive, and thereby “eventually to lead to Christianity (yet another Jewish heresy) and thus ineluctably to the birth of Islam. We could,” he laments, “have been spared the whole thing.”
This stroke of counterhistory has been heavily prettified in the details. On the one hand, as Hitchens tells it, there were the Hellenized Jews of Palestine—suave, cosmopolitan, athletic, well educated, yearning to enjoy the finer things in life as represented by their Greek overlords. On the other hand, there were the religious fundamentalists of the day, the Jewish reactionaries seeking only to proscribe and to prescribe. In Hitchens’s reconstruction, the Maccabean revolt sounds like nothing so much as the struggle between “aesthetes” and “hearties” in the Oxford of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.
But the Maccabean wars were not like that. The Greeks were not fighting for the mellow and the metro- sexual. They aimed to pour hogs’ blood over the altar, erect statues of Jove in the sanctuary, eradicate Jewish identity itself. Had the Maccabees failed, there would have been a victory not of secular humanism over religious fundamentalism but of the pitiless Olympian gods—and their Egyptian co-deities—over monotheism and the complexities of ethical life.
Hitchens’s yearning for a world purified of Jews (and therefore of Christians and Muslims) may remind some of Nietzsche. The comparison is unfair, but inevitable. Hitchens’s sketch of a new Enlightenment posits not a world of supermen but only a mild utopia, populated by men in togas discoursing eternally on the eternal verities, a world like the one painted by the Victorian
romanticist Lawrence Alma-Tadema, or envisioned by Oscar Wilde in his gullible, amateurish tract The Soul of Man under Socialism. But that is just the trouble. Shorn of the culture we have, a culture nurtured and preserved by monotheistic religion, his proffered utopia amounts to just another invitation to barbarism. Hitchens here shows himself to be more credulous and sentimental—and much more insidious—than any of the religious mythmakers he so earnestly despises.