A Book Review – Christopher Hitchens – god is not Great

This has been a long time in coming, both in terms of activity on this blog and in finishing and posting this review itself.

I picked up Christopher Hitchens’ book “god is not Great” quite some time ago.  Its bright yellow cover bound and determined to call attention to it no matter how little of the book was visible on the shelf.  From the blurbs on the back of the book, I was expecting somewhat of a well argued thesis on, well, “How religion poisons everything.”

First off, I am sorry that I did not get my book review done before Mr. Hitchens died.  I had a hard time finishing it, because I couldn’t continue reading it.  It was bothering me immensely, and I had to make one last push to finish the final 33 pages in order to honestly complete this review. Tomorrow, I will donate it to the library or leave it somewhere. To allow some other seeker to read it and make their own decisions on it.  Sorry for the spoiler alert, but I disliked this book.

Aside from my personal issues with the writing style he used, which to me sounded condescending and insulting, my primary problem with the book is that he does not argue his thesis statement at all.

His thesis statement is “god is not great, religion poisons everything”.  At least, that is what I understood from the introduction to the book.

He covers a lot of the expected ground for a book with this sort of thesis, which can be summed up by the chapter titles:

Chapter 2 – Religion Kills
Chapter 3 – A Short Digression on the Pig; or, Why Heaven Hates Ham
Chapter 4 – A Note on Health, to Which Religion Can Be Hazardous
Chapter 5 – The Metaphysical Claims of Religion Are False

And so on…

Unfortunately, page after page, chapter after chapter, Hitchens utterly fails to show that it is *religion* which is poisoning everything.  Each argument he makes can be easily summed up in one phrase:

“Humans suck.”

To perhaps put a finer point on it:

“Humans use religion to control, suppress, justify, mutilate, oppress, and kill other humans and destroy other things too.”

But notice, religion isn’t what is poisoning everything.  It is those particular peoples’ use of religion, like any other system that can be bent to someone’s will, that he is holding up as an example of how religion is terrible.

One could argue the same thesis using any other system that humans have come up with.

“Democracy poisons everything”
“Fascism poisons everything”
“Capitalism poisons everything”
“Environmentalism poisons everything”

Each one of these examples can hold that same roster of arguments.  Hitchens isn’t critiquing the system, in this case religion.  He is critiquing how people use it.  He is undermining his own premise, but ignoring that he is undermining it.  Perhaps I’m ignoring his equation of the religion to the practitioner, but as I state in my premise, I think that he should have been more clear in his thesis statement if he was really critiquing the religious people rather than the religious system the people operate in.

Now let’s look at some of his premises – I’m not saying that I disagree with them all.  Some of his arguments are compelling, and his statements seem insightful.

“There still remain four irreducible objections to religious faith: that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum solipsism, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking.” (page 4)

From a completely scientific standpoint, the creation story is not supported at all.  But put it into context – the creation story is how man at that time explained how everything came to be.  Religion was humanity’s science at one point.  Now, science is humanity’s science.

As far as combining the maximum of servility with solipsism, well, I feel like he’s basically saying that following a religion makes you a slave in your own mind, because you internalize something that is not externally provable. It is often an argument that faith is a matter of faith, that it does not require proof.  By definition that does enter into solipsism territory.  And certain religions do encourage service, meekness and humility as virtues, which could result in slavish-type behaviour.

That religion is the result and cause of dangerous sexual repression.  There are ample examples of religion causing and enforcing sexual repression, such as his examples later of the edict told to so many Christian children that masturbation will make you go blind, etc.  Frankly, that is again an attitude from those who are using the religion, and not necessarily an edict from the source material itself.  And as far as being a result of sexual repression… Perhaps a case of “If I can’t have it, neither can you and I will become the best religious enforcer of purity”?  I find that assertion a bit more tenuous.

Finally, religion is grounded on wish-thinking.  The language in this assertion is unfortunately a bit childish, and this begins his use of language to belittle the religious folk.  This doesn’t set us up for a rational discussion, this is belittling and dismissive.

But there are other, more incisive statements:

“Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience.” (page 56)

Indeed, I cannot argue with Hitchens on this laundry list of sins because I myself have made many of these arguments. Many evils have been perpetuated in the name of religion – by the people using religion as their tool. Even in a section running from p.158-160, where he outlines how a young boy was turned into an evangelical superstar, and later revealed how it works, he still is just showing how people can use religion and the mythology of religion as their tool for whatever end they have in mind. That still does not prove the thesis that religion is evil.

One of my main issues with Mr. Hitchens’ writing is his use of language, as I mentioned before. So much of it contains a sneer.

“…his yokel creationist fans…” (p. 85)
“Even supposing this version of events to be correct…” (p.131)
“But given infinite power, one might have thought that a more striking or less simpleminded miracle could have been confected.” (p.141)
“…two equally stupid schools or factions…” (p. 162)
“Remember that we are examining the childhood of our species.” (p.267)

(That final line was being an apologist for some early atheists’ interest in clearly irrational pursuits such as Freemasonry and alchemy.)

I’ll end with this note – it is a book worth reading. Even though I disagree with how he presents it, Hitchens has undertaken some great research, some good story telling, and reports interesting findings. However, he does not prove his thesis that it is religion that is the problem. Rather, he shows that is it people and their ability to use a religious system to inflict harm and oppression on others which is the problem.

Hitchens is an atheist, and like many I have come across, takes a very superior attitude over people with religious or spiritual beliefs. I would have found the book to be far more convincing and compelling if he had minimized that attitude, and written in a convincing way rather than a belittling way.