Book Review: God is Not Great

The late Christopher Hitchens had a long and varied career as a political and social commentator and journalist known for his exceptional ability as a polemicist. In his later life, he was best known as one of the ‘Four Horseman’ following the publication of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Like much to do with Hitchens, its brevity is no indication of restraint as he levels the most devastating assault in the least amount of space while leaving nowhere for apologists to find solace.

Thus the mildest criticism of religion is also the most radical and the most devastating one. Religion is man-made.

The greatest strength of this book is how Hitchens is able to draw from personal experience. Those who have watched the many clips of his speeches and debates on YouTube will be familiar of his story of being challenged by Dennis Prager to answer a question with a straight yes or no. Predictably, the question was not so closed:

I was to imagine myself in strange city as the evening was coming on. Toward me I was to imagine that I saw a large group of men approaching. Now – would I feel safer, or less safe, if I was to learn that they were just coming from a prayer meeting?

Again, if you are familiar with Hitchens, you know his answer and you know that he qualifies it by saying that he has been in that situation; in Belfast, in Beirut, in Bombay, in Belgrade, in Bethlehem and in Baghdad. ‘And that is just the B’s’. In this book, Hitchens elaborates and tells you of his experiences and it is enlightening and alarming.

Here, then, is a brief summary of the religiously inspired cruelty I witnessed in these six places. In Belfast, I have seen whole streets burned out by sectarian warfare between different sects of Christianity, and interviewed people whose relatives and friends have been kidnapped and killed or tortured by rival religious death squads, often for no reason than membership of another confession.

As I say, it is this book’s greatest strength; that Hitchens’ objection to religion is not just because of its scientific, historical, logical or moral failings, but because of its harmful influence on the present world. This is a view Hitchens is able to qualify with his enormous range of experience travelling and reporting from all dangerous corners of the world.

If I search my own life for instances of good or fine behaviour I am not overwhelmed by an excess of choice. I did once, shivering with fear, take off my flak jacket in Sarajevo and lend it to an even more frightened woman who I was helping escort to a place of safety (I am not the only one who has been an atheist in a foxhole). I felt at the time that it was the least I could do for her, as well as the most. The people shelling and sniping were Serbian Christians, but then, so was she.

Most other books that find agreement with his conclusions are written by scientists and philosophy professors. They are somewhat stuffy, as if they are written from cramped university offices and private studies where the focus is on dismantling the claims of religion in a logical and systematic fashion. Hitchens’ book by contrast is speckled with the dirt, blood and sweat of intrepid experience.

At least this is how the early and later chapters of the book read. In the middle chapters Hitchens does lay down his critique of religion in terms of its scientific, historical and logical failings. Just as those chapters drawing on Hitchens’ personal experiences are the book’s strength, these mid-book chapters are perhaps the book’s weakness. I felt that these topics have been better dealt with by those scientists and philosophers in their stuffy studies. Hitchens’ writing does not quite inspire the same wonder of the natural universe that Lawrence Krauss, Richard Dawkins or Neil deGrasse Tyson do.

The style of writing is something I also had a little trouble with. While the book has a clear structure at the chapter-level; within each chapter, Hitchens is playing fast if not loose. The book is short and dense yet fluid. Incendiary information is rapidly hurled at the reader and no punches are pulled. It is easy and exciting to read and understand, but difficult to catch one’s breath and try and form conclusions.

It makes God is Not Great a difficult book to review and even harder to quote from. Many of Hitchens’ points have all the hard-hitting quality of a well-delivered soundbite but delivered in a fullness of length that spares no one. It packs a lot of punch in just 280-odd pages. The chapter on religion and health moves swiftly from discussing lies about vaccines and condoms, to child abuse, circumcision and genital mutilation, blood transfusions and organ donation, sex and homophobia, mental illness and the looking forward to Armageddon, in less than 20 pages.

Would you care to see my video of the advice given by Cardinal Alfonso Lopez de Trujillo, the vatican’s president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, carefully warning his audience that all condoms are secretly made with many microscopic holes, through which the AIDS virus can pass? Close your eyes and try to picture what you might say if you had the authority to inflict the greatest possible suffering in the least number of words.

The chapter on ‘Religion as an Original Sin’ is especially provocative. Here, Hitchens attacks religion in its basic precepts – a taste for blood sacrifice, a doctrine of atonement, eternal reward and punishment and the imposition of impossible tasks and rules – the essence of totalitarianism.

Another aspect of this book that offers a difference is Hitchens’ use of ‘evidence against interest’. That is, rather than limit the source of his arguments to those who are trying to challenge the claims of religion; Hitchens’ seeks out those who had no such intention, whose faith is deeply considered, yet have discovered errors, contradictions and falsehoods along the way. One example is Barthon Ehrman:

[Ehrman] had attended the two most eminent Christian fundamentalist academies in the United States, and was considered by the faithful to be amongst their champions. Fluent in Greek and Hebrew […] he eventually could not quite reconcile his faith with his scholarship. He was astonished to find that some of the best-known Jesus stories were scribbled into the canon long after the fact, and that this was true of perhaps the best known of them all.

This story is the celebrated one about the woman taken in adultery (John 8:3-11) […].

As Ehrman concedes:

The story is not found in our oldest and best manuscripts of the Gospel of John; its writing style is very different from what we find in the rest of John (including stories immediately before and after); and it includes a large number of words and phrases that are otherwise alien to the Gospel. The conclusion is unavoidable: this passage was not originally part of the Gospel.

I learned a great deal from this book. To give an example, when discussing how new religions form, Hitchens makes some extraordinary parallels between the origins of Mormonism and Islam. There is also far more to the work of William of Ockham, much of it fascinating, than I had previously been aware. I also loved that the writing is full of references to other works – fiction, non-fiction and scripture – some of which I had not heard of, others I had not thought of in that way, before. I wish I had taken better notes of such references as a guide to further reading. I may read the book again just to note them all.

One of the biggest take-aways from this book, for me, was the chapter concerning the ‘Last Ditch “Case” Against Secularism”. This is the argument that ‘secular’ dictatorships – Nazis, Stalinists, etc – have been just as bad as the examples of religious extremism. This is one of those arguments that never seems to die no matter how many times it is successfully refuted. Though it will probably continue to rear its head, Hitchens’ takedown of this argument is one worth remembering for its finality and for his point regarding why he does not wish for religion to be banned.

Hitchens ends his book by reminding us that the non-religious have a heritage to be proud of as well – including Socrates, Lucretius, Epicurus, Bayle, Voltaire, Kant, Franklin, Hume, Paine and Darwin – most of whom were not atheists but neither could they be expected to have been in their time. Hitchens sees the problems facing the world in the era of terror as a race between the forces of religion and of enlightenment and calls for a new enlightenment to blunt the forces unleashed by fundamentalism. As with all of Hitchens’ work, it is difficult to find a credible counterargument to the conclusions of this book, as much as many would like to. His death is still felt by those who sense the void he has left in his unique ability to challenge dictatorship, totalitarianism and the forces of unreason.


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