This is a review I’ve been ready to write for a week, but haven’t had the heart to return to the subject matter because I was so relieved to finish reading God Is Not Great: How Religion Spoils Everything.
Christopher Hitchens piles up a horrendous list of crimes committed by religious people and motivated by religion – but it only obscures the fact that he doesn’t have a case to make at all. It’s no surprise, but always shameful, to be reminded of the terrible things done in the name of religion, especially (since I’m a Christian) by those who acted in the name of Jesus. What’s impressive about Hitchens’ list is that it doesn’t stop at the large scale, well-known examples; he includes the intimate personal cases, the stupidity and ignorance of those long dead, and the drag on scientific progress we religious people cause. And he doesn’t allow us the excuse, sometimes accurately, that things done in the name of religion aren’t necessarily the fault of religion. He relentlessly bores in on the sins of religious systems, especially the Old and New Testaments.
I’ve enjoyed Hitchens’ acerbic wit and opinions on radio and television. I enjoy his writing. He’s sharp and quick. He's unpredictable and completely honest in his assessments, never allowing loyalties to soften his blows. But reading 50 pages or more at a clip is wearisome. This book isn't witty or insightful, it's full of bile and hatred. Of course, he believes he’s justified given the evil sins of religion.
Let me say something that isn’t very pleasing to think about Religion isn’t false just because it’s cruel. Even if every one of Hitchens’ accusations were accurate, they don’t disprove the truth of religion. God might be a cruel being who does delight in manipulating man. In that case, Hitchens’ claim that “religion poisons everything” might be true, but his real claim is that God doesn’t exist. And that just doesn’t follow from every evil example of religion.
But I'm not sure Hitchens is actually attempting to persuade since he believes the rationality of his claims are self-evident. Yet, many of us do need to be persuded out of our religious superstition, and nothing offered can be described as an argument.
Hitchens says religion is evil, and he does mean evil and sin. He freely uses moral language to pin the blame right where he believes it belongs, but he never explained how he, as a materialist, can use moral language and mean them as moral terms that all mankind are beholden to. Hitchens also identifies himself as a humanist. He expresses great faith in the natural abilities of man unhindered by the manipulation and superstition of religion to progress to a fully rational, scientific existence. He says at one point, apparently justifying his use of morality, “Ethical imperative is derived from innate human solidarity.” I take from this that he believes morality is the store of human experience. It’s an interesting story, but he gives no actual argument for any of his claims.
He asserts morality and science’s universal explanatory power, but he never actually argues for them. He accuses religion of tremendous evils, but despite citing an incredible host of examples, he doesn’t actually argue for these. It’s easy to think he has made a case since his list of examples is so impressive (in number) and so revolting. Anyone with a heart and conscience will be repulsed. But there is no argument. It’s a book-length fallacy of begging the question.
He begins and continues all the way through with a false dichotomy between reason and faith. Faith, in his rendering, is blind, anti-rational. Reason is the scientific view of reality, materialism as “proved” by evolution. (Intelligent design is one of the crimes of religion.) And even examples we can cite from history of great thinkers, even scientists like Isaac Newton, who were professed Christian are disallowed because, as Hitchens actually argues, we’ll never know for sure what they really believed despite their public statements because they lived under the fear and manipulation of the church.
The beautiful thing about Hitchens’ case, such that it is, is that he can’t lose. “What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is mine.” Any and all counter-examples are snatched away as anomalies from the religious system and practices, forced confessions of faith, or professed Christians acting against their religion (as he defines it). In Hitchens’ accounting even Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn’t motivated by his Christianity because what made him great was actually in contradiction to what the New Testament teaches. According to Hitchens, the New Testament teaches that forgiveness is withheld until a price is exacted, but King forgave completely and in advance of the actual sins. So he wasn’t a real Christian, or at least his virtuous actions were not examples we can cite.
The most collosal example of this convenient arrangement is that even the evils of atheism can be laid at religion's feet. After all, he claims, religion is the original totalitarian system. Atheist totalitarian regimes are a cheap knock-offs fostered by the negligence and sins of religion.
Hitchens disallows any possible defense or argument against his accusation. Heads he wins, tails we lose. It’s wonderful work if you can get it, and after a while it’s clear it’s ad hoc special pleading just to attempt to make his case solid. He claims, “Virtuous behavior by a believer is no proof at all of – indeed is not even an argument for – the truth of his belief.” If so, then why is bad behavior proof against it? Obviously, in Hitchens’ mind, nothing can change his opinion of religion.
As I mentioned, Hitchens professes materialism, believes it’s proved. He freely makes moral accusations against religion and religious people. He freely admits contempt, and, given what he believes, that would be the proper response. He accuses religion of sins and evil. These are real, objective categories for him, not his personal sentiment. He never explains how, as a materialist who believes in a world of only what science can explain and prove in the physical world, he can lay claim to morality. He ignores the grounding problem, the explanatory power of a view of reality to account for the features in it. Morality, the way Hitchens is using it, has no material explanation. How does he account for the prescriptive, universal nature of morality, not merely descriptive? His humanism won’t get him there because that can only offer a descriptive, contingent account – whatever is is morality. On this major flaw alone, it’s justified to ignore anything Hitchens claims because his view of reality can’t lay claim to morality.
There’s more to the grounding problem, too. Is rationality material? He can’t even ground the rationality he sees as the crown of human progress. If man is purely material, then he’s a machine programmed by nature, c-fibers firing, acting according to the laws hard-wired by his biology. He lauds the “chainless mind,” free from religion. Yet in his view of reality, man is chained by determinism with no escape. There is no rationality because there is no option to behave, think, believe any way other than we do. There’s no point in even trying to persuade religious people to believe and behave different since we’re also just acting the way we’re programmed to. Indeed, even scientific inquiry that Hitchens offers as the hope of mankind is nonsense since only one conclusion is predetermined by our programming.
Ethical imperative is derived from innate human solidarity. Nice story. Proof? When was this human solidarity? Any point he can identify, I suspect we can point to morality that predates it.
Hitchens tells us a nice story about the sociological beginnings and need for religion in a pre-scientific world. I’ve heard the story before and I’m not impressed. It’s a story because there is no proof, no argument. It’s simply a way to account for one view of the historical development of religions. And it doesn’t even do that accurately. He weaves an explanation to fit the facts (somewhat according to his choosing and characterization), but no real proof this is the way it really is. Religion is manmade because it goes back to mists of mankind’s memory. It began and has been used as a way to control and manipulate naive people. Similarities between religions means they borrowed and made up things. Nice story, but no proof. And just to offer a couple of inconvenient facts that don’t fit this narrative, monotheism and polytheism didn’t develop in the order Hitchens claims to fit the evolutionary story he spins. That’s a preconceived bias imposed on the facts to make the story fit. Similarities in religious accounts aren’t proof of fantasy and copying, but instead could be examples of recounting something true that might have come from a common experience or awareness.
Have religious people done and continue to do contemptible things? Yes, it’s shameful. First, only someone who can account for morality actually claims that. Second, there is a real difference in religions and what they teach that Hitchens ignores. He just conflates all religion with the preconceived notion that they’re all false superstitions, not arguing for that. I would agree with him that some religions are superstitious, manipulative, and actually do teach and motivate evil things. These are false religions. Christianity is different. Now, Hitchens doesn’t believe that and goes at lengths (two chapters at least) to exegete our Scripture for us to demonstrate the Bible actually teaches evil things. Anyone without an ax to grind will be able to see that Hitchens offers the worst possible interpretation on everything he attempts to explain. Now, if you want to blame a religious system for sins it motivates, then you have to show it from what is actually taught and believed, not from Hitchens’ hatred he brings to the text. Again, his “case” is skewed by his prejudice, not made by an argument. So I think it’s still fair to defend Christianity on the grounds that many people have and do do things in the name of religion that cannot be justified from the Bible. Those crimes can be laid on those individuals, not the feet of Christianity as properly taught. I admit that terrible things have been done in the name of Christianity, and it breaks my heart, but Christianity has also shown its internal power of reformation to return to the actual teachings of Scripture to correct the sinful manipulation.
As I mentioned, Hitchens treats all religious claims equal and he employs a rhetorical device I’ve noticed lately among this new crop of arrogant atheists attacking religion for its evil. Zeus, Jesus, Joseph Smith – they’re all just superstition. But this dismissal ignores real differences in these claims. Zeus and his ilk were never really offered as historical figures. Mythological is quite different from the historical claims with evidence. To marginalize the historical claims of the Bible he relies on a very narrow sampling of New Testament scholarship, late-dating the Gospels, dismissing the accounts as history. He just gets the facts wrong because he’s apparently read quite exclusively from liberal scholarship. He puts great store in Bart Ehrman’s work. (We’ve pointed to good responses to Ehrman in the past. Please use the search feature if you’d like to find these.)
Hitchens, as a humanist, puts great faith in mankind’s potential for progress. Given the history of mankind he cites, and granting the weakness of man in religion, where does he get his confidence in mankind (atheism) without accountability to God and the eventual of man’s progress in the future? It’s not necessarily a fact that religion is the cause of mankind’s atrocities; it’s just as possible given the facts that man has corrupted religion. Given that on his account both religion and evil can be traced to man’s earliest history, how does he know that it’s religion that is evil rather than man? It’s a correlation, not a cause that he’s cited. Yet his humanism and his case depend on the cause being religion. As we’ve argued before, this isn’t necessarily where Christianity leads. It is where atheism leads, with no accountability to an objective morality or judge. Hitchens is living on borrowed moral capital.
After this lengthy response, it might seem contradictory to say that most of what Hitchens offers in his book can be responded to in five words: Ridicule is not an argument. How much of an “argument” actually remains when the ridicule and piles of bad acts by bad men are removed from the book? Not much. And he still has to show how his view of reality can explain what he holds so dear: rationality, science, morality. Christianity’s view of reality still has more explanatory power over atheism, and over other religions. Hitchens’ book hasn’t touched that in the least. I suspect the primary reason for that is that he hasn’t even bothered to assess the relevant scholarship in the subjects he plunges in to that have long since considered and answered what Hitchens offers in his book-length indictment.
On this Hitchens and I agree: We don't believe in pluralism or religious skepticism. We believe things are true or false, that we can know at least some of those things, and it's a virtue to believe, argue, and persuade about these things. Hitchens and I are not for a tolerance that wishes to avoid disagreement for the sake of the appearance of unity. And he likes a good, hearty argument.
As I mentioned, I’ve enjoyed Hitchens commentary in the past. After reading this book, he comes across as an arrogant, hateful man who isn’t ashamed to demean those, who by his own view, are not as advanced or gifts as he is. Just last week he stirred controversy by making some mean remarks about Jerry Fallwell on the day he dies. After reading this book, I understand why he did and why he felt no solemnity in the death of someone he thinks is evil. It’s a wonder Hitchens tolerates any religious person, yet I know that he does. This book, I think, is more a portrait of Christopher Hitchens than religion. Hitchens would rebuff this, but I’m actually quite sorry for him because this portrait is of an arrogant, condescending, unhappy man.