Home » current events

God-bothering

God is Not Great

By Christopher Hitchens

It’s depressing, but it must be admitted nonetheless: we live in an intensely religious age. Creationism creeps its way back into schoolrooms in a sleek new package. The President of the United States refers to the Christian God as his father. The daily body-count in every morning’s newspaper is the result of sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni factions in Iraq who’ve forgotten their doctrinal brotherhood. Bombs have stopped going off in Northern Ireland, God be thanked, but the greatest act of terrorism in the history of the world was committed by young men who had prayers on their lips when they did it. Given all this, it’s perhaps understandable that the atmosphere of heightened tension would prompt choice members of the Western intelligentsia to publish one screed after another screed declaring a plague on all their houses.

These jeremiads are wearisomely similar in their tone, their illicit fervor, and above all their adolescent overreaching. They throw out the baby, the bathwater, the obstetrician, the hospital, and the parking lot, and they ask nothing in return from their audience except that they turn their collective back on the long, long centuries of the beliefs that have given them comfort in all of life’s hardest parts (not to mention added to all the best of life’s joys). In the midst of all this venting, one wishes that some equally published, equally credible, most of all equally readable intellectual would step forward to parse the praises of religious practice, but rumor on the Internet is that C.S. Lewis is currently dead.

So we’re left with the attack dogs (‘pit bulls’ would in this case be a bit generous – the bite radius on most of these broadsides is considerably closer to ‘pocket-pet’ category), and after Daniel Dennett’s subversive and eloquent Breaking the Spell, Sam Harris’s compact and intellectually merciless Letter to a Christian Nation, and Richard Dawkins’ commercially successful, idiotically vengeful The God Delusion, it was only a matter of time until the Western literati’s most prominent atheist lion issued his own roar.

Enter Christopher Hitchens, sounding off at length in god [sic] is Not Great (throughout the work involved, God is lower-cased, presumably to deflect undue veneration, although Zeus, Vishnu, and everybody else with a corner office still warrants capitalization). We’re probably safe to consider Hitchens’ book as the temporary capstone on the current wave of anti-Christianity broadsides. Certainly reading his book gives one the impression that he, at least, intends it to be so.

In Book One of his magisterial Civitas Dei, Saint Augustine, the greatest of all Christian theologians, wrote:

Some of you do not know the facts; some of you pretend not to know, and you raise an outcry against the One, who in reality frees you from such oppression. Very well, here are the facts [the translations are mine].

Hithchens would no doubt fail to appreciate the irony, even if he bothered to read the rantings of a backward acolyte.

Hitchens claims he’s been writing his book for years, but the work belies the claim: it’s everywhere botched, sloppy, and adolescent. In fact, when he claims long and considered gestation for the book, he seems to forget that for the past two decades he’s been paid to think out loud for a general public; there is no private compositional magic to be invoked here – we all know what his serious, considered work reads like. It most assuredly doesn’t read like this present book, which exaggerates in ways that are both serious and silly, starting with its ridiculous subtitle, “How Religion Poisons Everything.” Honestly, what is a reader to do with a book whose second stated assertion (the one in the title itself being a matter of opinion in any case) is obviously, patently false on its face? Even a casual, non-scholarly reader could fill several sheets of paper with lists of things religion has not poisoned (cathedrals and cantatas come to mind), after all.

So again, what is the reader to do? Bother to read it, or immediately toss it aside?

For the intellectually curious, of course, there’s only one answer – read on. Hold your nose, close your eyes and think of England, however you manage it, but this is Christopher Hitchens, one of the few public intellectuals still worth reading. Edmund Wilson is dead, Gore Vidal is putting his affairs in order, Anthony Lane largely refuses to indulge in gravitas. And Hitchens still has a ways to go before he’s exhausted his credit at our various pubs of the intellect.

He eats up a lot of that credit in this book. In every chapter, virtually on every page, Hitchens accidentally demonstrates that this is not, in fact, the considered, lifelong intellectual tract he alludes it to be – we may yet hope for such a volume, despite Hitchens’ scare-inducing lifestyle, but we don’t get it or anything like it this time around. That hypothetical work would be grave (but also, because it’s Hitchens, funny) and comprehensive, and it would be entirely worthy of detailed examination.

This present work doesn’t reward close reading, and one cannot help but think the reason for this is because it wasn’t written for serious readers: that, far from being the soul-searching examination of faith and its manifold deficiencies, this book was written to cash in on a craze.

It’s a sodden little craze, but apparently lucrative. And, on the surface anyway, opportune: organized religion of all major stripes has been experiencing a planetwide low point in terms of civilized behavior, at least in the headlines. The Roman Catholic Church play shuffleboard with an as yet uncounted number of priestly sexual predators. The Jewish powers that be in Israel continue to oppress their Palestinian neighbors. And the vicious excesses of radical Islam need no more than a glance at the morning’s headlines to ascertain. The common reader might well be as frustrated as Hitchens claims to be.

Frustrated and put upon. In one of the book’s inadvertently hilarious opening scene-settings, we’re treated to that least believable of scenarios, Christopher Hitchens as victim:

But there is a real and serious difference between me and my religious friends, and the real and serious friends are sufficiently honest to admit it. I would be quite content to go to their children’s bar mitzvahs, to marvel at their Gothic cathedrals, to ‘respect’ their belief that the Koran was dictated, though exclusively in Arabic, to an illiterate merchant, or to interest myself in Wicca or Hindu or Jain consolations. And as it happens, I will continue to do this without insisting on the polite reciprocal condition – which is that they in turn leave me alone. But this, religion is ultimately incapable of doing.

One can just picture the scene: a cocktail party in Notting Hill or the Upper East Side, with all of the sorry bastards who get to be the ‘religious friends’ of, of all people, Christopher Hitchens, just throwing themselves at him, unable to pause even for some decent caviar in their ceaseless attempts to nab him for their respective religion (or perhaps the more believable scenario of those same poor religious friends barricading themselves in the bathroom while Hitchens, sloshing drink in hand, pounds on the door saying, ‘for fourteenth time, just leave me alone’).

This would be dotty and a little endearing, this mental picture of the world beating a path to this one prospective convert’s door, if it weren’t immediately followed by a line that fully typifies the noxious, canting underbelly of this whole book:

As I write these words, and as you read them, people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of all the hard-won human attainments…religion poisons everything.

Hitchens here doesn’t specify who these nefarious ‘people of faith’ are, but the reader is completely justified in thinking he’s talking about Muslims. The last time we checked, the Unitarian Universalists weren’t intent on destroying the ‘attainments’ of humanity.The last time we checked, Muslims weren’t either, but this is not the kind of checking Hitchens does. Throughout this book, he focuses on the most fanatical, most radical, most bizarre and destructive splinters of every faith he examines and then extrapolates that splinter backward to characterize that whole branch of faith.

He mentions the late Rabbi Meir Kahane and calls him a “vicious racist,” but it’s the Jewish faith he’s talking about when he writes:

Again, to take the metaphor of the Burgess Shale, here was a poisonous branch that should have been snapped off long ago.

He mentions a “fundamentalist splinter group” that pickets the funeral of every American soldier killed in Iraq. This splinter group claims that each soldier’s death is God’s punishment for America’s toleration of homosexuality – and you can just see Hitchens stepping back and rubbing his hands with relish as he watches this stink-bomb disseminate. Why bring up such a demented splinter-group, after all, except to cast snide aspersions on the broader faith from which it sprang?

Of the hijackers on September 11th he writes:

The nineteen murderers of New York and Washington and Pennsylvania were beyond any doubt the most sincere believers on those planes. Perhaps we can hear a little less about how “people of faith” possess moral advantages that others can only envy.

It’s like he honestly thinks his readers can’t instantly spot the sleight-of-hand going on in that paragraph’s scabrous piece of bait-and-switch: murderers = ‘people of faith’ = hypocrites. When in fact members of radical Islam would claim that those hijackers displayed ‘moral advantages’ – in that they were willing to die for their beliefs. And those of us who are more balanced might point out to Hitchens that his opening statement here, however crass and unfeeling, is not necessarily true: sincerity of belief isn’t measured by its noise, still less by the violence of its aftermath. It would be no less than fair to say he owes the families and loved ones of the dead that day an abject apology for such a scurrilous claim, but a) it’s to be hoped that none of them are reading this particular work of Hitchens, and b) they’d have to get in line. Credulous mendacity is everywhere accused.

Saint Augustine wrote, “The fact that sin exists does not mean the world is full of sin,” but it’s vain to point this out to Hitchens when he’s in full froth. This book is full of sinners, and though their outward denominations might be different, their ultimate transgression is identical: disagreeing with Christopher Hitchens. That opening business of merely wanting to be let alone quickly falls by the wayside; Garbo he ain’t.

Instead, what he really wants all the ‘people of faith’ in the world to do is wake up. In his view, all religious faith in all manifestations and at all levels of intensity is the product of either ignorance or stupidity. Now that our scientific knowledge has finally caught up with our psychological needs, his argument runs, we have no need of what he refers to as “the myths of the tribe and the cave and the blood sacrifice.” Quite apart from the fact that well over half the humans on Earth have little or no awareness of this scientific knowledge (and quite apart from the fact that what constitutes scientific knowledge is a Hell of a lot more fluid than he seems to want to believe), Hitchens allows no middle ground, no crevice where the heart can creep through. For a book about how religion poisons everything, god [sic] is Not Great has virtually nothing to say about faith. Despite the fact that Hitchens calls him “pathetic,” one suspects that in open debate, C.S. Lewis would have very civilly ripped apart Hitchens’ silly posturings.

Science? Such a paltry thing as that is supposed to dethrone religion as a repository for all mankind’s doubts and hopes, all their vengeances and charities? Science and the knowledge of science, yes, says Hitchens:

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. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance, and other infantile needs). Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion, and one would like to think – though connection is not a fully demonstrable one – that this is why they seem so uninterested in sending fellow humans to hell.

Several things from such a monstrous, purblind passage jostle to be the first mentioned – noting all the religions that have been founded in the modern age, for instance, or wondering what Hitchens’ loved ones think of his belief that comfort and reassurance are ‘infantile’ needs, or even the urge to point out that according to this world-view, that ‘least educated’ child is also de facto the least worthwhile. But the main point is clear: in Hitchens’ argument, faith and intelligence are mutually exclusive.

It will take any reader anywhere in the world exactly five seconds to think of dozens of people they know who constitute living proof this argument is wrong. Five seconds is exactly how long it’s tenable on its own terms.

Once those five seconds have elapsed, pronouncements like the following begin to sound shrill and dense:

There would be no such churches in the first place if humanity had not been afraid of the weather, the dark, the plague, the eclipse, and all manner of other things now easily explained.

It’s hardly an overstatement to say a man who maintains that Salisbury Cathedral, that the Parthenon, that Notre Dame itself was built because men were afraid of the dark has (as the late Frank Herbert would say) left the path of reason.

This is troublesomely brought out most clearly whenever Hitchens strays from his pet subject of religious poisoning. It’s singularly ironic that at times he displays a grasp of evolutionary science exactly as deficient as the tent-revivalists he condemns:

Fish do not have fins because they need them for the water, any more than birds are equipped with wings so that they can meet the dictionary definition of “avian.” (Apart from anything else, there are too many flightless species of birds).

Fish didn’t develop fins to play parchese – it’s certainly no coincidence that they come in so handy for moving through water (if they didn’t develop them for use in water, as Hitchens so mysteriously claims, how’s come nobody on land has any?); and surely Hitchens must know that no species of bird ever but became flightless – they didn’t sit around saying ‘hey! let’s evolve two completely useless appendages just for shits and giggles!’ No, asides like this only serve to reinforce the impression of quick, slipshod work.

Sometimes, the impressions are more serious. Take this passage, for example:

But when it comes to the whirling, howling wilderness of outer space, with its red giants and white dwarfs and black holes, its titanic explosions and extinctions, we can only dimly and shiveringly conclude that the “design” hasn’t been imposed quite yet, and wonder if this is how the dinosaurs “felt” when the meteors came smashing through the earth’s atmosphere and put and end to the pointless bellowing rivalry across primieval swamps.

The reason this is disturbing, as is readily apparent after even a middling-close read, is that for all its vocabulary and syntactical fluidity, it is, in fact, gibberish. Pull at any part of any one sentence, and the whole thing comes apart like a ball of yarn. For an entire book, Hitchens has been saying scientific knowledge will set mankind free from all its ancient blood-cults, but here that very scientific knowledge (red giants and white dwarfs and all the other Lucasfilm special effects) is what leaves mankind dim and shivering? And is he somehow implying that believers in so-called “intelligent design” maintain that God is not the creator of wilderness too? And what in blazes is that dinosaur stuff? Aside from that quaint mention of “primeval swamps,” is Hitchens trying to say an awareness of the immensity of space should make us humble? If so, why does he sound throughout so arrogant about such scientific awareness, boasting that even his children are better than Moses because of it? And if not, is he instead trying to say that heedlessness in the face of such immense knowledge has doomed us, like the dinosaurs? And if so, why use dinosaurs as the example, since, lacking telescopes, they had no choice but to be heedless? It’s like Hitchens was smart enough to stick those distancing quotes over ‘felt’ but lazy enough not to pick a metaphor that isn’t nonsense.

This is the disturbing part, and it’s evident everywhere in this sour, foul-tempered book: a Hitchens who infuriates is customary; a Hitchens who provokes thought is what gained him our attention in the first place; a Hitchens who is careless with his words is a new thing, dire and troubling.

Although to be fair to him, no amount of eloquence could have saved a work so brittle, one that is so willing to dismiss any faith that isn’t laced with hate, one that has only one tarring brush for the uncountable billions of faithful who’ve walked this planet since Neanderthals first held elaborate funeral rites for their dead. Such faith – even in the face of all the evils it’s done (even in the face of all it’s legitimately poisoned), deserves better than these stones cast by he who is most certainly not without sin. god [sic] is Not Great does nothing to further any kind of inquiry into religion’s ills – it just adds one more voice to the worldwide chorus of intolerance it spends its length denouncing.

In the face of its lunging and often incoherent angers, it seems only fitting – hopeless, but fitting – to conclude by listening once again to Saint Augustine, one of those poor, benighted souls who didn’t know anything about black holes:

In this wicked world, and in these evil times, the Church through her present humiliations is preparing for future exaltation. She is being trained by the strings of fear, the tortures of regret, the strain of hardship, and the pits of temptation. She rejoices only in anticipation, when her joy will be made pure. In this situation, many reprobates are mingled in the Church with the good, and both sorts are collected, as it were, in the dragnet of the gospel. In this world, as in the sea, both kinds swim without separation, enclosed in nets until the shore is reached.

____
Amanda Bragg is a florist living in Baton Rouge. This is her first published piece. She is an atheist.