Continuing a long and somewhat tawdry literary affair with the much-loved and oft-maligned Christopher Hitchens, I am reading his latest, God Is Not Great. This is his first book that deals with his rather public denunciation of religion, though to faithful1 readers of his other books, his articles, or his interviews, it’s no surprise at all. In a manner much to the consternation of the political conservatives who gleefully forward his scathing review of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, Christopher Hitchens is a dyed-in-the-wool atheist, lumped together with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris as the new breed of intellectual disbelief (so-called the Four Horsemen, either with affection or opprobrium, depending on with whom you’re speaking).
What may be said almost without reservation about Christopher Hitchens is that he is the most eloquent and compelling writer of his little group. While Richard Dawkins may have made a name for himself in the mainstream by his well-written and comprehensible accounts of science2, and likewise Daniel Dennett has a long history of successful philosophical tracts (Sam Harris being the relative newcomer); Hitchens, however, is a veteran journalist, essayist, literary critic, and his breadth of knowledge, grasp of language, and staunch support for liberty of any and all sorts makes him a powerful intellectual force.
Some or much of God Is Not Great is historical in nature; he references, at length, the noted historians Karen Armstrong and Bart Ehrman, among others, to make historical criticisms of the three major monotheisms and their inherent schisms. Dubiously, Hitchens seems to insists that the person of Jesus is far from a historical truth, though in fact I think Dr. Ehrman himself would disagree with the conclusion, depending of course on how you define the person of Jesus. Some history is more recent: in dealing with the common misconception that disbelief somehow begets violence, intolerance, and lawlessness, Hitchens debunks more recent examples (Stalin, Hitler, & al.) and in doing so notes some of the more reprehensible actions of the Catholic church, even in the last century.
Remarkable, I think, about Hitchens’ book is that, unlike Dawkins, at least—who while generally civil, made few concessions—Hitchens reveals that he has tremendous respect for religious intellectuals, and for the generous intellectual, literary, and scientific achievements many of them have left for posterity. Evelyn Waugh comes to mind immediately: though Waugh was a staunch Catholic, and by extension a supporter of the Vatican-supported fascist regimes in Italy and Spain, for instance, Hitchens dearly loves and respects the literary canon that the man left us. In this way that Hitchen’s book, however uncompromising, feels less like a screed and more like a tract in the grand tradition of those he so dearly admires—Hume, for instance, and Socrates and Paine. Some old canards, such as Anselm’s ontological argument, and Paley’s argument from design, Hitchens dismisses outright with the same easy answers as most other disbelievers.
It is interesting to note that Hitchens’ book, while arguablky the most overtly intellectual and steadily uncompromising, also feels the least condescending and the most pluralistic. He says, in one moment, that he doesn’t really care what you do or believe so long as you stop trying to convert him and it is this ultimate conceit of religion—that it cannot for a moment respect the right of another to live without obligation to a particular moral/cosmological/ritual code—that is its greatest fault and that which has led to the most of the suffering commonly attributed to religion.
Some memes are held in common with other noted atheist/agnostic writers, which is only to be expected. The notion of a child being of the faith of his parents, even before he is of the age to understand, is a notable one, as is the notion of child mutilation (think circumcision of various sorts). In fact, Hitchens devotes a whole chapter, entitled “Is Religion Child Abuse?” to the subject, which, even if you don’t ultimately think so, is deserving of some contemplation. The ritual removal of that which can never be reinstated is hardly a fair thing to do to a child for whom there is no possibility of consent and a very real possibility of regret3.
In something by way of conclusion, I feel compelled to say that God Is Not Great is not a likely tool of conversion, which Hitchens hints/hopes at some point in the book; at most, it will disgust the faithful, who will likely never read more than a summary of it, and convince only the disbelievers, for whom I am disinclined to use the worn metaphor of a choir. However, God Is Not Great manages, I feel, to walk the line between a screed and a genuine criticism, which should also be good reading for the faithful; it never hurts to get a good prod every now and then.
- No pun intended[↩]
- cf. The Selfish Gene and others[↩]
- In full disclosure, I should note that I speak as a circumcised male, and have never felt traumatized by such a state, though I understand that some men are. Certainly the practice, especially when practiced by conservative Rabbis who use their mouths to remove the cut foreskin, seems reprehensible and ought not to be practiced in respect to the possible future wishes of the male. But this is a much larger and more complicated argument.[↩]