College Quarterly
Summer 2009 - Volume 12 Number 3
Reviews God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
Christopher Hitchens
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2007

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

In the interest of full disclosure, Christopher Hitchens’ book has been chosen for review for reasons other than its merits (which are considerable) or its inherent interest (which is substantial). The fact is that it is just one of several books that have aggressively presented the argument for atheism in recent years. Others would serve equally well as a springboard for my ultimate intention, which is to consider the idea of religious conflict in the classroom.

I could, for example, easily have substituted works such as Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, or Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation; or, for that matter, I could have picked Ian S. Markham’s Against Atheism, to approach the topic from the other side.

I should also confess that I have a second slightly illicit reason for selecting Hitchens from the lot. I have been conducting a silent inter-cranial conversation with him for thirty years, and it hasn’t reached a satisfactory conclusion yet.

Hitchens, I know, is a man inured in virtue. His merely personal peccadilloes are of no consequence and can sometimes (but not always) solicit a sense of indulgence. It is virtue, however, that matters. Many critics of atheism and religious scepticism wrongly assume that those who deny their better angels must be embittered, amoral and (in that constantly misused term) cynical. Their sometimes shocking negativity upsets those who spend their lives trying to live up to the cheerfulness of a Wal-Mart happy-face. They mistake righteous (so to speak) anger for rancorous disenchantment and disillusionment. They do not grasp the truth of Friedrich Nietzsche’s great affirmation: “I love the great destroyers for they are the only true adorers!”

Hitchens has his own heroes. They are not exactly secular saints, just as his villains are not merely worldly versions of demons. Among the men he admires are Tom Paine and George Orwell (though he knows that, like him, they have their faults); among the men he despises are Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili (whom most of us know as Joseph Stalin) and Adolf Hitler. Who could disagree?

It is not so much individuals about whom Hitchens has passionate beliefs, but beliefs and behaviours which either enhance or repress life as it might best be lived. In one of his phrases that I put atop each of my course outlines: “It doesn’t matter what you think; it only matters how you think.” Religion, he ardently believes, is repressive. It is not a good way to think.

Christopher Hitchens is, of course, the well-known contributor to Vanity Fair, the author of such books as The Trial of Henry Kissinger (in which he presents the case for the prosecution of the former US Secretary of State and Nobel Peace Prize winner for war crimes), Nobody Left to Lie To (in which he excoriates former US President Bill Clinton and “the worst family” for what can called an almost congenital disingenuousness) and The Missionary Position (in which he conducts a relentless and withering attack on Mother Theresa, whom he considers not to have been just a fraud, but a very, very evil woman).

Chris Hitchens, it should be plain, does not live by my mother’s (and others’) first rule of etiquette, which was never to discuss politics or religion in polite company. I don’t live by it either, so I quite like him for being the barely restrained contrarian that he is.

At the same time, Hitchens is an unrepentant hawk on the matter of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. A lifelong anti-imperialist, a one-time Marxist and a severe critic of American politics and culture (from which criticism he earns a handsome living in Washington, DC), Mr. Hitchens left his leftist friends “gobsmacked” when he allowed his distaste for religion (in this case Islam) to bring him in line with President George W. Bush—on at least one issue. He hasn’t written for The Nation or talked to some of his closest friends ever since.

It was all very poignant really. I was especially moved by oral historian Studs Terkel’s farewell to his old pal, which can be read on-line at <http://www.unattributable.com/2008/11/rip-studs-terkel/>. I suppose you have to approach it from a certain direction but, if you do, a bit of a lump will irrepressibly appear in your throat.

Working out my own conflicted feelings about Hitchens as a writer, as a political commentator and maybe even as a person is taking some time, and I am self-indulgently using this space to see if I can advance the process.

As for the book itself, it is not theology, nor even a sustained and scholarly critique of theology. It does not pretend to be. Hitchens is a much more learned man than he occasionally lets on, but his trade is, simply and honourably, journalism, and God Is Not Great is polemical journalism of a high order.

Hitchens’ purpose seems not to be to persuade the true believer. In fact, his language is so uncompromising that he may even offend the soft-hearted agnostic who happens not be religious, but who doesn’t mind if other people are, and who may admit to (or even boast about) being “spiritual” in some sort of loose and easy way.

Not Christopher Hitchens. He will give the Devil his due, so to speak. He will pay homage to ancient thinkers such as Socrates, and even to some antique Christian saints who can be forgiven their cosmology because they literally didn’t know any better. He even finds his way clear to admire the 17th-century sage, Baruch Spinoza (though he does take a passing jab at Mohandas Gandhi). He also acknowledges the courage and decency that many contemporary Jews, Christians and Muslims (to speak only of the latter-day followers of the tribal god YHWH) have displayed in trying times; but, his admiration for exemplary men such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemöller comes about in spite of their religion and not because of it. He praises them because they acted virtuously in accordance only with their conscience when confronted, as German pastors, with the monstrosity of Nazi tyranny. Hitchens praises them, but he still treats their devotion to God not a matter of disinterest, but of outright hostility. Some may wonder why.

Now, we all know the common arguments that have been advanced against theism since at least the Book of Job. The standard version of one such brief runs like this: If God is compassionate, why is their evil in the world? Why are there anencephalic infants? Why do innocent children regularly die horrible deaths? Why is there war? And, if God is omnipotent, why does He permit hideous atrocities and injustices to go on and, sometimes, to get worse? Would a loving God have created a Hitler or a Pol Pot, a Vlad the Impaler or a Christian like Torquemada? And, if He did, perhaps by accident, why wouldn’t he have seen His error and corrected it, as only He could?

Religion’s critics also regularly make the observation that religion is a social threat because, as they can easily demonstrate, all sorts of crimes have been carried out in its name. Never mind whether Muslims are attacking Hindus, or Christians are attacking Jews, or Jews are attaching Muslims or everyone is attacking pagans and the pagans are fighting back—sometimes ignorant of (or indifferent to) the civilized rules of warfare. Never mind if, within Islam, Sunnis are blowing up Shi’ites or Shi’ites and blowing up Sunnis. Never mind the Catholic-Protestant “troubles” in Northern Ireland in the latter part of the 20th century, and never mind the Thirty Years War in the 17th century. The fact is that religion in general has been associated with (some say caused) as much or more violence and misery as nationalism and political ideology combined. From Moses and the Midianites to Gaza, from the God-Kings of ancient Egypt to Rome to the Aztec Empire and down into the centre of Imperial Japan less than a century ago (and, of course, in many places and times in between), religion has enabled and encouraged cruelty and carnage on an almost (but obviously not quite) inhuman scale. This may all be true, but it is not Hitchens’ point. Blaming gods and goddesses for human misbehaviour is too easy.

Christopher Hitchens berates and mocks religion because he sees it not as a set of beliefs and behaviours that can get out of control and violate its own best principles. Instead, he sees it as a thoroughly human pathology. He sees its essential qualities as inhuman and anti-human. For Hitchens’ religion is not just a matter of the intellectual immaturity of our species, nor is it merely a “crutch” for people who are psychologically unable to abide a universe that is profoundly indifferent to their fate and ours as well. He does not just despise religion because of its utility to bigots and tyrants who want to encourage hatred for a rival tribe, country, “race” or even a clashing civilization. He does despise religion for all of these things, of course; but, he also has contempt for religion because, in his view, it denies our species the opportunity to live up to our own best potential, and to develop our nature beyond a condition of fear and hatred.

Though Hitchens says with accuracy and conviction that he used to be a Marxist and no longer is, he retains some affection for the ideas and personality of the “Moor.” Like Karl Marx, Christopher Hitches wishes to tear away the false flowers that disguise the chains of human oppression, not out of malice, but out of hope. In his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx famously wrote that

religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions … Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers from the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he will throw off the chain and cull the living flower.

For Hitchens, as for Marx, the rejection of religion is at the same time the liberation of humanity, the clearing away of the mental fog of ideological “opium,” and an invitation to live freely, rationally and responsibly in the most ennobling way, by being responsible to and for ourselves.

The emancipatory power of scepticism (or outright atheism) is the prime strength of Hitchens’ approach. Pointing out false metaphysical claims, catching sacred texts in contradictions and “proving” the hatefulness of both long-abandoned religious practices (e.g., blood sacrifice) and slowly dissolving affirmations of slavery, the subjugation of women and the virtue of vengeance are all worthwhile pursuits. And make no mistake, in God Is Not Great, he wields both a scalpel and, more often, a wrecking ball.

The problem for Hitchens is that people of faith can concede much of what he says. They can acknowledge the wickedness of their ancestors and sometimes of their contemporary co-religionists. Progressives from Dr. Martin Luther King to Irshad Manji and a new era of “post-theistic” Christians such as the former Bishops of Woolwich (Rev. John A. T. Robinson) and Newark (Rev. John Shelby Spong) all would heartily agree that bad things have been done in the name of religion, but they would insist that religion is not inherently bad, and is certainly capable of reform (it’s been done before). If nothing else, an enduring sense of the sacred and a spiritual connection with what Christian existentialist Paul Tillich famously called “the ground of our being” can be advanced as a way to maintain the best of religious sensibilities, while opposing narrow and exclusive doctrines. Indeed, many postmodern religionists would have few quarrels with the abandonment of the worst of the worst antediluvian practices; they would claim instead that antique superstitions and past (and not so past) abuses are irrelevant to the true mission of salvation.

It is here that the real debate must take begin.

Christopher Hitchens pulls no punches in God Is Not Great. He is unremitting not only in his denunciation of obvious evils from the Christian burning of witches to the Hindu burning of widows, but he is also unrelenting in his further steps in seeking to abolish religious thinking at its root.

The controversy arises most personally and forcefully when he contemptuously disparages the “default position” of youthful seekers and questers after solace and serenity who, some decades ago, temporarily discarded the materialism of their middle class North American lives and went off in pursuit of “a softer solution east of Suez.” Hitchens tells us about his own clandestine infiltration of an ashram near Mumbai. The experience was not as challenging for him as it might have been for others, since he had his own diverse religious journey to assist him. Raised an Anglican, educated in a Methodist school and converted by marriage to Greek Orthodoxy all before learning that he was, in fact, part Jewish, Hitchens had learned to adapt. His description of “blissed-out” visitors who would “burble on about the beyond in an exotic and luxuriant setting” in company with a particular guru, Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh and his retinue and his fleet of Rolls-Royce motor cars is simultaneously hilarious and eerily foreboding. Hitchens once again is interested in more than the debunking of a particularly disgraceful hypocrite. Such an exposure of corruption does nothing, in itself, to discredit the whole of Oriental philosophy, religion (to the extend that the term even applies) and various sorts of mysticism, spiritualism, theosophy, occultism and the myriad extensions thereof.

Surely, we are obliged to ask, if the “organized” religions of Western culture are discredited, is there not something graceful to be said for the East—for Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama and cheerful sage of Tibetan Buddhism, for the impressive panoply of Hindu gods, and for all those clever Japanese poems and Zen mondos and koans?

Christopher Hitchens gives no quarter. He will therefore infuriate believers of all sorts. He will make many agnostics cringe with embarrassment. He is not one to live and let live and to plead for tolerance and an infinitely elastic ecumenism. And so what?

At last I come to my deeper motive for discussing this book at all.

There is no shortage of religious extremism in the world today. I know that I would not survive long in the several theocracies remaining on the planet. As well, although I would not expect to be stoned to death, I am sure that I’d quickly wear out my welcome in some of the more close-knit towns in the American “Bible-belt,” where religious tolerance may be generally accepted, but irreligious advocacy has a harder time.

What about in the classroom?

Ostensibly, except for certain faith-based schools and religious colleges and universities, there is a general consensus in the West that the practice of religion is a private matter that ought not to become an obstacle to a secular curriculum. If nothing else, the principle of academic freedom ought to allow for the pursuit of truth in academic settings. This necessarily means the denial of a one-true-faith in a course on Comparative Religion, and it also implies the denial of “creationism” in a course in biology. These battles, many believe, were fought and won many years ago, and it would seem that those who are honestly pursuing knowledge should be permitted to do so without interference from religious or, for that matter, political ideologies that seek to marginalize or remove statements that fly in the face of their sincerely held and strong faith-based beliefs.

Nonetheless, I can speak both from personal experience and from personal knowledge of other cases, that teaching Darwinian evolution is not an entirely free ride for biologists, that criticizing “female circumcision” in a class in Women’s Studies can bring attacks from particular religious perspectives, and that distributing excerpts from the work of Karl Marx (even in tandem with selections from Hobbes, Locke, J. S. Mill and Max Weber) can result in a serious process directed at terminating the employment of a professor of political science.

What, we may ask, would be the fate of a professor in the humanities who made God Is Not Great a required text? If the answer is not an automatic “nothing,” then—regardless of our own views on gods and goddesses, the meaning or absence of meaning of life, and all the thought-provoking or scientifically meaningless questions that preoccupy us constantly or occasionally about the cosmos and our place in it—we have much work to do. Christopher Hitchens would demand that we go further; but, then, he can afford to do so for he has won virtual exemption from criticism as an all-but-official American “advocatus diaboli,” whereas we still have to put food on our tables.



Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca

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