God Is Not Great – Christopher Hitchens

image courtesy of The Guardian

Describe it

The late, great contrarian Christopher Hitchens’ informed and impassioned attack on religion.

What I loved

Hitchens is at his most likable when he is gushing over his political, scientific and literary heroes and their legacies.

“We [Atheists] are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe: we have music and art and literature, and find that the serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Schiller and Dostoyevsky and George Eliot than in the mythical morality tales of the holy books.  Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and – since there is no other metaphor – also the soul.”

The breadth of knowledge that he brings to bear on his argument is impressive and exhilarating.

His most convincing argument is that societies have become more just and equal due to secular reforms.  In times and places where religious institutions hold significant power, there is greater repression, especially of minorities, and more atrocities are committed to supress the diversity of human nature.  The more tolerant approach displayed by religious institutions in developed cultures is a strategic reaction to their diminished influence.

He also makes a strong cases against the contradictory nature of Christian teaching, the historical legitimacy of the Bible and the Koran, and the barbarity of some stories that supposedly demonstrate exemplary godly behaviour.

He convinced me that freedom of the press is too precious to bow to religiously justified hysteria and intimidation.   And I felt palpably angry when I read about how the church has impeded medicine, and of practices that are excused on religious grounds, especially female circumcision.  Some things should never be justified by cultural relativism.

I also loved that he is not just tearing things down, but offering a more attractive, secular alternative.

What didn’t work

Hitchens is preaching to the choir.  It’s fist pumping stuff for fellow Atheists, but his tone is so contemptuous and arrogant that religious readers will erect their defences and shut themselves off from his more reasonable points.

His arguments are mainly against religious institutions, and not people’s personal faiths.  Most of his targets – the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Catholic Church’s facilitation of child sex abuse, Islamic extremism – are too easy.  His handpicked examples can be so extreme that they border on a straw man argument.

He also uses religion as a scapegoat.  I don’t have enough knowledge of history to refute his points directly, but it often seems that he’s too willing to ignore the complex causes of events, such as the Croatia-Serbia genocide, and reduce the issues down to religious hatred.

Similarly, religion gets all of the blame and none of the credit: because he admires people such as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, he tries to play down their faiths.

Hitchens’s weakest moment comes when he tries to pre-empt the argument that secular regimes, such as the Nazis, Stalinist Russia and North Korea, have committed worse atrocities than their religious counterparts.  His assertions, that religious institutions colluded with these regimes, and that totalitarianism uses the same tools as religion, are unconvincing in that they don’t mitigate the fact that these regimes were secular, and that history suggests that fanatical adherence to any ideology, faith-based or secular, breeds horrors.

His attacks on everyday spirituality are less substantive.  While he makes sound arguments against the irrationality and hypocrisy of the Christian cannon in particular, he never addresses the broad and varied nature of people’s personal faiths (see below).

What I learned about writing

Extreme points of view are entertaining and exhilarating in the short term, but less convincing on reflection, and begin to wear thin after 200 pages.

Stray thoughts

I’m an atheist, so in the interest of getting a counter argument, I tried out some of the arguments from God Is Not Great on my Mum, who’s an Uniting Church Minister.  None of them gained traction.

See, she is of the view that “God is love”.  I’ve heard this interpretation once before from someone I respect, and it seems to be a view that is flexible enough to accommodate modern scientific discoveries and values.  Mum agreed that the barbarity and ignorance in the Old Testament is a product of its times, and that the Catholic church has a lot to answer for.  But she gains strength and comfort from the traditions and teaching in the Bible.

True, I wasn’t satisfied with all her answers.  If you can disregard some parts of the Bible, why not all of it?  Even if you conceive of love as being embodied by a God, why does that need to be linked with the Christian tradition?

But she obviously finds that faith improves her life.  Christianity doesn’t speak to me, and I’ve never heard satisfactory, rational answers to the big questions.  But humans aren’t rational creatures, and if people find that religion has a positive effect on their lives, who am I to say otherwise?


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