[The Montana Professor 18.2 Spring 2008 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

Christopher Hitchens
New York: Twelve, Hatchette Book Group, 2007
307 pp.; $24.99 hc

Henry Gonshak
Montana Tech-UM

Atheism is hot these days, at least if the best-seller lists are any indication. Sam Harris's The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell, and the book under review, Christopher Hitchens's deliberately inflammatorily titled, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything--all these stridently atheistic, recent tomes have landed, improbably enough, on the New York Times best-seller list. Or perhaps these books' popularity is not so surprising. Certainly there is much in our world today carried out in the name of religion which must strike many decent people, pious and impious alike, as deeply disturbing. On the national scene, the Christian Right has exerted daunting power on both the state and federal level, never more so than during the presidency of the openly evangelical George W. Bush, and the result has been a theocratic politics which, pushing the boundaries of the constitutional separation of Church and State, has sought to undermine abortion rights for women, make the legalization of same-sex marriage unconstitutional, end federal funding for stem-cell research, and institute prayer in public schools. In a further erosion of Church/State separation, Bush has also promoted "faith-based initiatives," which provide government funds to religious organizations. And, with the current presidential race, I have watched in dismay as candidates from both parties vie to out-do one another in publicly professing the fervency of their faith--apparently a prerequisite to hold elected office in our ostensibly secular democracy.

Internationally, the situation is, if anything, even worse. A burgeoning Militant Islam sees itself as locked in apocalyptic combat with the Judeo-Christian West, while considering terrorism an ideal means to achieve its objectives, thus finding religious justification for the murder of civilians. Moreover, whether it is the Taliban in Afghanistan or the mullahs in Iran, these forms of "Islamofascism" (to use an apt term often adopted by critics of these regimes) have subjected their own peoples (especially women) to endless misery and oppression. And yet many, even in the West, have deemed the religious so deserving of tender public solicitude that even theologically-inspired violence has been justified as a perhaps excessive, but still understandable, response to putative "offense" or "intolerance." For example, as Hitchens claims, when the Ayatollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of Iran, issued a fatwa commanding Muslims everywhere to kill Salman Rushdie, a British citizen and the author of the allegedly anti-Islamic The Satanic Verses, "the Vatican, the archbishop of Canterbury, the chief sephardic rabbi of Israel all took a stand in sympathy with--the ayatollah," as did secular English writers like John Berger, Hugh Trevor-Ropper, and John LeCarre, all of whom concluded that "the main problem...was not murder by mercenaries," or the threat to freedom of speech, "but blasphemy" (30).

Under the circumstances, it is surely necessary to the public weal for avowed atheists to openly take on religion with no holds barred. A political journalist with a flair for lively writing, Hitchens is a seasoned polemicist (another of his books is titled Letters to a Young Contrarian) who has never been afraid to speak his mind, no matter whom he enrages in the process, including erstwhile allies; for example, his vocal support for the Iraq War led him to abandon his column at the liberal journal, The Nation, and sever ties with all his left-wing colleagues at the magazine. In God Is Not Great, Hitchens has composed a bracing, lucid, often witty jeremiad against religions of every sect and creed. Nonetheless, this is a deeply flawed book. Basically, Hitchens is an atheistic fundamentalist, as certain in his detestation of all religion and rejection of any validity to spiritual concerns as, on the other side, theological fundamentalists are equally intolerant and absolutist. With its broad brush, the book offers an unscholarly, nuance-free caricature of religion and the religious.

In a recent article in The New Republic, "Atheism's Wrong Turn," Damon Linker distinguishes between two types of atheists whom he labels "liberal" and "illiberal." For Linker, liberal atheists are perfectly willing to tolerate piety among their fellow citizens, so long as the practice of faith is restricted to the private sphere. Illiberal atheists, in contrast, seek to destroy religion, which they regard as harmful superstition, and the result is an atheism which is "a brutally intolerant, proselytizing faith, out to rack up conversions" (The New Republic, 10 December 2007). Linker places Hitchens (along with Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris) in the latter camp, and rightly so, aptly concluding, "The last thing America needs is a war of attrition between two mutually exclusive, absolute systems of belief. Yet this is precisely what the new atheists appear to crave." Indeed, the expressed aim of God Is Not Great is to convince believers of the error of their ways, to persuade them that religion is actually a man-made institution whose bogus answers to the great existential questions have been supplanted by the truths of science and humanism, and thereby to usher in what Hitchens terms a "New Enlightenment," where mankind has "transcended our prehistory, and escaped the gnarled hands which reach out to drag us back to the catacombs and the reeking altars and the guilty pleasures of subjection and abjection" (283). With all the fervency of a true believer, Hitchens issues a manifesto calling for a future atheistic utopia.

That said, God Is Not Great does score some hits against institutionalized religion. Hitchens is most convincing when he explores the generally perverse relationship religion has had to that most basic of human urges--sex. The Catholic Church adamantly prohibits homosexuality, abortion, masturbation, birth control, and premarital sex, while demanding clerical celibacy (also required of many Buddhist monks). Judaism ritually circumcises an infant boy's penis as a symbol of human submission to God. Islamic sects in Africa remove an adolescent girl's clitoris in order to deprive her of sexual pleasure, and hence decrease the likelihood that she will be unfaithful to her husband. Repeatedly, religious doctrines and practices concerning sexuality have made people miserable. Hitchens correctly points out that the greatest victims of religion's sexual proscriptions have always been children, who, at an impressionable age, are taught to hate their own bodies. What exactly does religion have against sex? Hitchens plausibly answers that theological sex-bashing is the "outcome of an ideology which sought to establish clerical control by means of control of the sexual instinct and even of the sexual organs" (228). In other words, since sex is the most powerfully anarchic of all our impulses, religions seek to police sexuality in order to inculcate blind obedience. His contention echoes the complaints of many opponents of institutionalized religion through the ages, such as the poet William Blake, who wrote in "The Garden of Love" that "priests in black gowns were making their rounds, / And binding with briars my joys and desires." Admittedly, Hitchens's argument is a tad absolutist, as usual, conveniently ignoring those aspects of religion which celebrate Eros, such as Hinduism's theological sex manual, The Kama Sutra, or Judaism's belief that making love to one's spouse on the Sabbath is a mitzvah (a blessing). Still, the basis of his accusation rings true.

Hitchens is also on relatively solid ground when he titles his second chapter, "Religion Kills." Restricting himself arbitrarily to the letter "B" to prove his point, Hitchens surveys the impact of religion in Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, and Baghdad, discovering, unsurprisingly, that the result of conflicts between rival faiths has been to turn these cities into charnel houses--even when, as in the case of Northern Ireland, feuding Catholic and Protestant sects both worship a deity who happened to be a radical pacifist. Certainly, religious warfare has been a constant blight on human history. However, Hitchens overlooks the way the conflicts he cites have a political as well as religious dimension. In Iraq, for example, current clashes between Sunnis and Shiites are not just about disagreements over who is the proper heir to the Prophet Mohammed, but also about who shall exercise political power in the country.

Even more importantly, in reality the worst genocides in the 20th century were actually perpetrated by avowedly secular regimes: the Nazis in Germany, and the communists in the Soviet Union, Red China, and (under the Khmer Rouge) Cambodia. Although it takes almost the entire book, Hitchens finally does address in a late chapter this important counter-argument. However, his rebuttal is tendentious in the extreme. Basically, Hitchens seeks to show that these ostensibly secular dictatorships were actually religious, since "a totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy, and its ruling caste, in order to keep its position, has to be thought of as infallible" (232, italics in original).

There is truth here. Totalitarian states do clothe their leaders in the mantles of gods and prophets, present their ideologies as holy writ, punish dissenters as heretics and apostates. As Hitchens notes, a classic collection of essays by ex-communists is aptly titled, The God That Failed. On the other hand, communism is an explicitly atheistic ideology premised on Marx's claim that religion is the "opiate of the masses." Every communist leader, from Lenin to Mao to Castro, has been a doctrinaire atheist, and every communist regime has sought to ruthlessly extirpate native religious practices. Soviet cosmonauts who traveled to outer space proudly reported they had seen no sign of either God or Heaven. Hitler, too, rejected what he saw as a "weak" Christianity (not to mention what he thought of Judaism) in favor of a this-worldly warrior cult led by the Aryan Übermensch. Under the circumstances, Hitchens's redefining secular totalitarian regimes as covertly religious in order to bolster his thesis that religion (and religion alone) "kills" is a disingenuous debater's trick. One can see, though, why Hitchens would be reluctant to admit that atheists murder with the same ferocity as do believers.

The issue of communism is especially relevant because in the book's most self-revealing moment Hitchens confesses that he was once enthralled by an absolute system of belief which bears comparison to religion: namely, Marxism--in his case of the Trotskyite variety. "Thus, dear reader," he admits, "if you have come this far and found your own faith undermined--as I hope--I am willing to say that to some extent I know what you are going through. There are days when I miss my old convictions as if they were an amputated limb. But in general I feel better...and you will feel better too...once you leave hold of the doctrinaire and allow your chainless mind to do its own thinking" (153). This is the only point in God Is Not Great where Hitchens shows the slightest empathy with the religious sensibility (albeit while still insisting that religious belief is an illusion), as well as the one time he is personally vulnerable, and the result is perhaps the book's most interesting moment. But Hitchens fails to see that he still lacks a "chainless mind," since, as noted, he has simply substituted for the absolute certainty of Marxism the absolute certainty of atheistic fundamentalism. In truth, Hitchens still has more in common with the religious mind than he is aware.

Hitchens does admit, however, to having found a replacement for his old Marxism in science. He insists that the wonders revealed by science, as well as the open-mindedness and intellectual rigor of the scientific method, are far more satisfying, as well as more true, than anything offered by religion:

What a difference when one lays aside the strenuous believers and takes up the no less arduous work of a Darwin, say, or a Hawking or a Crick. These men are more enlightening...than any falsely modest person of faith who is vainly trying...to explain how he, a mere creature of the Creator, can possibly know what the Creator intends.... If you will devote a little time to studying the staggering photographs taken by the Hubble telescope, you will be scrutinizing things that are far more awesome and mysterious and beautiful...than any creation or "end of days" story. ...Now at last you can be properly humble in the face of your maker, which turns out not to be a "who," but a process of mutation with rather more random elements than our vanity might wish. This is more than enough mystery and marvel for any mammal to be getting along with. (8-9)

Certainly, Hitchens is right that science has revolutionized our world, providing insights no educated person can afford to ignore, and he is also right that the scientific method is an admirable intellectual model for both scientific inquiry and the life of the mind in general. Moreover, Hitchens is correct, too, that many scientific discoveries have seriously called into question religious beliefs--for example, the findings of Galileo and Darwin appear to undermine at least a literal reading of the Biblical story of Creation. However, Hitchens never explains why, if science is preferable to religion, so many people in our ostensibly scientific age obstinately remain devout, and not only the simple-minded and uneducated. The answer, I think, is that science's inherent materialism fails to meet people's spiritual needs. At one point, Hitchens quotes with incomprehension the evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould's remark that science and religion belong to "non-overlapping magisteria" (282). Gould's comment may be a bit glib, but I think he is essentially right in maintaining that science covers the material world, while religion explores the spiritual one, with each performing a necessary function. That does not mean they will never come in conflict, but it does mean that, with all due respect to Hitchens, science will never provide most people with a satisfactory replacement for religion.

In a late chapter, Hitchens provides a brief survey of the history of atheism (covering much of the same ground reviewed in an excellent four-part BBC documentary rebroadcast on PBS, A History of Unbelief). Like that documentary, Hitchens locates the birth of atheism in skeptical, materialistic Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers and poets such as Epicurus and Lucretius, and then traces the tradition through such seminal Enlightenment philosophers as Spinoza, Hobbes, Voltaire, Hume, Kant, and Thomas Paine. Convincingly, Hitchens asserts that "we cannot know the names of all these men and women, because they have in all times and all places been subject to ruthless suppression. For the identical reason, nor can we know how many ostensibly devout people were secretly unbelievers" (254). Hitchens is perturbed, however, by the fact that most of these thinkers, despite their criticisms of institutionalized religion, were not confirmed atheists. Paine, for example, was a Deist, believing in a "watchmaker God" who created the universe and then withdrew in order to let human beings take over, and Paine's savage attacks in The Age of Reason on what he deemed the "myths" of the Bible were attempts not to destroy religion, but rather to purge it of what he considered foolish superstitions so as to clear the ground for true faith. Hitchens dismisses the vestiges of belief found in the quasi-atheistic philosophers of the past as evidence that the religious hegemonies of their times prevented them from discarding faith entirely. But it seems to me that these past philosophers may have known some things Hitchens ignores--namely, that an open-minded middle ground between the absolutes of faith and unbelief may be the most plausible position, and also that criticism of institutionalized religion need not entail a rejection of all spiritual concerns. After all, even scientists like Einstein sensed some sort of cosmic force or presence operating in the universe.

To show my own cards at my review's conclusion, I consider myself an agnostic, which I distinguish sharply from atheism. An atheist is certain there is no God or afterlife; an agnostic, in contrast, simply does not know one way or the other. Unlike either believers or atheists, agnostics recognize that these metaphysical questions are profoundly mysterious and probably beyond human ken (at least during our lifetimes). Therefore, absolute certainty of any kind on such matters by limited human beings is an act of hubris. Perhaps, rather than more books from believers and atheists, what we need is to hear from the agnostics. We also should listen to those theologians who have struggled to reconcile science with religion. In contrast, one-sided polemics like God Is Not Great may make for a tasty read, but they are not very intellectually nutritious.

[The Montana Professor 18.2 Spring 2008 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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