God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

In the middle of Christopher Hitchens's astringent new book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (12, 2007), there appears a passage that captures in miniature the impact that the book itself would be having it were widely read by believers (as perhaps it has been):

I have only once, in twenty-five years of often heated arguments in Washington, DC, been threatened with actual violence. This was when I was at dinner with some staffers and supporters of the Clinton White House. One of those present, a then well-known Democratic pollster and fund-raiser, questioned me about my most recent trip to the Middle East. He wanted my opinion as to why the Muslims were so "all-fired, god-damn fundamentalist." I ran through my repertoire of explanations, adding that it was often forgotten that Islam was a relatively young faith, still in the heat of its self-confidence. Not for Muslims the crisis of self-doubt that had overtaken Western Christianity. I added that, for example, while there was little or no evidence for the life of Jesus, the figure of the Prophet Muhammad was by contrast a person in ascertainable history. The man changed color faster than anyone I have ever seen. After shrieking that Jesus Christ had meant more to more people than I could ever imagine, and that I was disgusting beyond words for speaking so casually, he draw back his foot and aimed a kick which only his decency - conceivably his Christianity - prevented him from landing on my chin. He then ordered his wife to join him in leaving.

The pollster displays many of the characteristics that annoy secular humanists about religious people. He has contempt for Islam, at least at its fundamentalist extremes, but he demands reverence toward his own god, Jesus Christ. He is not really capable of "rational discussion"; his religious emotions sink his civility. And he seems to believe that he has the right to order his wife's behavior.

Above all, he is used to living in a world where religion is spoken of with respect. Even in New York, it is considered bad form to talk disrespectfully about religion in general. Which is exactly what Mr Hitchens does in this book, and, even though I agree with him on almost every point, I found the reading of God Is Not Great to be a persistently shocking experience. Mr Hitchens launches nearly twenty attacks on religion, and for anyone with even a modicum of doubt about religion, by the time he is through he makes being religious look foolish if not downright lunatic. (One chapter heading: "Is Religion Child Abuse?" The question is answered in a rousing, convincing affirmative.) It is evident to Mr Hitchens that religion is an utterly man-made affair that is designed to control, oppress, and exclude. He deplores its interference in modern life. He calls for a new Enlightenment:

The study of literature and poetry, both for its own sake and for the eternal ethical questions with which it deals, can now easily depose the scrutiny of sacred texts that have been found to be corrupt and confected. The pursuit of unfettered scientific inquiry, and the availability of new findings to masses of people by easy electronic means, will revolutionize our concepts of research and development. Very importantly, the divorce between the sexual life and fear, and the sexual life and disease, and the sexual life and tyranny, can now at last be attempted, on the sole condition that we banish all religions from the discourse.

Not that he thinks that it's going to be easy.

If I were to choose one chapter for the general reader, it would be the thirteenth, "Does Religion Make People Behave?" Here Mr Hitchens combats with very widespread idea that religion tames the wildness in human nature. This argument-from-utility seems to have sprung up early on in the Enlightenment, which openly professed an undemocratic double standard that distinguished between learned and unlearned men. Mr Hitchens quotes a bishop, who, in debate with the philosopher A J Ayer and responding to Ayer's assertion of atheism, wondered what kept him from living a life of "unbridled immorality." This elicits from the author the suggestion that religions attract people who are afraid of their own impulses. His faith in natural virtue is perhaps his one untestable proposition, but if there is no evidence that the general mass of people would behave morally even if there were no religions to instruct them, that's because such freedom has never, in recorded history, been permitted, until very recently. 

Although it would seem that there is nothing missing from Mr Hitchens's comprehensive bill of particulars, God Is Not Great overlooks the knotty problem of cultural attachment. Italians may no longer go to Mass very often, but they still want crucifixes in classrooms. Religions typically interweave themselves with the cardinal moments of life and death - marriage, birth, military victory. Their theologies may be hopeless confused and even contradictory - Mr Hitchens is rich on Christianity's insistence that, while he was killed by the Jews, Jesus also died for our sins - but they are usually very clear about where you're supposed to stand and what you're supposed to say. In small towns, churches are important community centers. It is clear from his manner that Mr Hitchens does not require the validation of belonging to a group, but most people do need it, and they tend to find it in a religious congregation. As for myself, I'm largely convinced that the Gospels, particularly as read by Martin Luther, are the foundation of modern feminism. Without envisioning it, they nurtured a climate congenial to gender equality.

But Mr Hitchens would probably concede that religion hasn't been all bad, but his point is not historical analysis. His point is that religion's time is up, at least insofar as laying down the law is concerned. He agrees with the religious fundamentalist that religion and science can't be squared, and he wishes that broad-minded progressive types would stop making polite suggestions that they can. If you agree with Mr Hitchens that this "emperor" has no clothes on, then stop pretending otherwise. That is this book's most powerful message, and it will probably surprise you, whatever your religious views, to find how comfortable you are with the pretense. (June 2007)

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