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God Is Not GreatReview - God Is Not Great
How Religion Poisons Everything
by Christopher Hitchens
Twelve Books, 2007
Review by John D. Mullen, Ph.D.
Oct 2nd 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 40)

In the late 1980s I was in a small city in Europe.  There was a central square with a large church at one end and the municipal building at the other.  A bride and groom entered the square in a horse-drawn carriage followed by the wedding party on foot.  As they turned toward the mayor's office, horses' backsides facing the church, I thought of Nietzsche's madman from The Gay Science, "What are these churches now if not the tombs and sepulchers of God?" 

I was wrong of course.  Since the Reagan period, religious enthusiasts in the U. S. have, without challenge, occupied the moral high ground in public discourse and wielded enormous clout.  They became defenders: of life over abortion, straight sex over gay, the family over domestic partnerships, marriage over divorce, full-time moms over career-burdened mothers, abstinence over condoms, the fertilized ovum over the researchers who kill them, the religious life over secular humanism.  They have filled churches, ruled the Republican party and dominated the country's political agenda.

Every thoughtful person knew there were other moral sides to theirs, but it took a long time to get that story out, or perhaps for the general public to listen.  Certainly the rise of violent jihadism is an element in a new readiness now to listen.  For example, the philosopher Michael Martin's Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Temple, 1992) and Atheism, Morality and Meaning (Prometheus, 2002) received nothing like the attention they deserved.  But post-9/11, we have had Sam Harris' End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (W. W. Norton 2005) as well as his Letter to a Christian Nation (Knopf 2006); Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin 2006); Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Penguin 2007); and now Hitchens' best seller.

Hitchens is a wonderful stylist.  "The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species.  It may be a long farewell, but it has begun and, like all farewells, should not be protracted." (11)  In writing about religious strife in the "Holy Land", "Some of these tempests of hatred and bigotry and bloodlust have passed away ... a person can feel relatively unmolested in and around "Manger Square," which is the center, as its name suggests, of a tourist trap of such unrelieved tawdriness as to put Lourdes itself to shame." (23). 

And Hitchens is never one to be wishy washy, "The Bible may, indeed does, contain a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre, but we are not bound by any of it because it was put together by crude, uncultured human mammals." (102)  "But Islam when examined is not much more than a rather obvious and ill-arranged set of plagiarisms, helping itself from earlier books and traditions as occasion appeared to require." (129)  In the interest of equal time, "There were many deranged prophets roaming Palestine at the time [of Jesus], but this one reportedly believed himself ... to be god or the son of god." (118)

Hitchens claims that there are four objections to religious faith: (1) it misrepresents the origins of humans and of the cosmos, (2) it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, (3) it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and (4) it is ultimately grounded on wishful thinking.  Of these Hitchens writes, "I do not think it is arrogant of me to claim that I had already discovered these four objections ... before my childhood voice had broken." (4)   Of  objection #1 there can be no doubt, and that judgment implies nothing about the final scientific disposition of natural selection or of  big bang theory.  Either or both of these may someday be the historical curiosity that Genesis deserves to be today.  But in that event, whatever science replaces them will not be a story domed universes, talking serpents and naked savages.  Concerning number #2 he has in mind the idea that humans are at once dirt in comparison to the Eternal while at the same time the raison d'etre of the entire cosmos.  This is indeed an unusual juxtaposition of claims, difficult to swallow for one who thinks the real is the rational, but to claim that religious ideas are counter-intuitive is to approach tautology.  It is difficult to know what Hitchens is getting at in #3.  Is it that sexual repression should be disregarded?  Is the admitted former Marxist nostalgic for the Marcusean "return to polymorphous perversity"? (See Eros and Civilization 1962)  And is there any evidence that the social practice of religion has only one origin or that this one is sexual repression?  Finally, # 4 seems unlikely to be true.  Surely there are many believers who would wish that the tenets under which they labor were not true, but for a myriad of reasons they cannot come to believe it.  Wishful thinking, or what Freud in The Future of an Illusion (1975) called "illusion", seems one of the least likely of the psychological bases of religious belief or practice when compared to indoctrination, threat of social sanction, ignorance, or indeed rational belief.  Hitchens and other atheists will balk at the idea that religious belief could today be rational.  And when one considers the list of stupidities, inanities, sillinesses, vulgarities, cruelties, and hypocrisies that are done in religion's name and by religious people this is a tempting idea.  Hitchens the rhetoretician relies upon this list to associate Judaism with Abraham's almost-murder of his son and Dr. Baruch Goldstein's actual slaughter of twenty-seven Muslim worshipers in Hebron.  He seeks to burst the holy bubble of the saintly Frances Xavier, "... the man who brought the Inquisition to Asia ...".  And of course Islam is today too-easy a clay pigeon to dwell upon.

Hitchens makes his case against religion with a huge litany of examples that religions are, and have been, irrational and damaging to human living.  He defends the secular alternative against the charge that the two great murdering ideologies of the twentieth century, Nazism and Stalinism, were secular.  His argument here is that the Christian churches were complicit in both regimes.  This is a non sequitur.  Whether true or not, it does not alter the fact that the slaughter of millions in each case was organized and executed by regimes that cited no divine, extra-worldly authority. 

Hitchens does not make an argument that religion of its very nature is incompatible with human reason (others have).  This leaves a gap in his program through which the apologist can charge proclaiming the ideal of the "moderate" Jew, Christian or Muslim (Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, etc.).  It's on this point that Sam Harris's End of Faith makes an interesting contribution.  He argues that the person of moderate faith is complicit in the crimes of religious extremists.  The problem, Harris argues, rests with the rejection of reason, something he believes is intrinsic to the faith of both extremist and moderate.  The suspension of reason creates great danger for human living.  The "extremist" accepts that suspension and employs it as a license to cruelty and murder.  The "moderate" accepts that suspension but acts within the boundaries of civil living.  Harris has two claims about the moderate.  The first is that the he rejects cruelty only because he is willing to ignore portions of his own creed.  The moderate does not slaughter the witches who today wander the October streets of my home town of Salem, Massachusetts because he is willing to ignore the commandment from Exodus 22:18, "Do not suffer a witch to live."  And second, by affirming "faith based believing", the moderate gives it legitimacy and therefore gives the extremist the tools to go forth and murder.

There is a weak point that infects both Harris and Hitchens' claims that religion is an important cause of human violence (indeed Harris claims that the survival of the human species requires the extinction of religion -- or at least of Islam).  The flaw is their failure to disentangle the religious from other potential social factors, e.g., nationalist, economic, cultural, educatioinal.  Harris at least asks the question: Could the (terrorist) tactics of Palestinians warriors be a result of economic or political oppression rather than religious conviction?  This is an extremely complex question of social/causal analysis.  Harris' answer is shockingly cavalier:  No, you don't see Christian Palestinians becoming suicide bombers.  Does anyone believe there are no differences between Christian and Muslim Palestinians other than a (rather minor) disagreement on the status of a certain Nazarene?  No economic, educational differences?  No differences of group identification or empathy, no disparities of tribalist propensities?

This lack of a social-causal analysis comes up many times in Hitchens.  For example he attributes a religious cause to female genital mutilation (223).  This is almost certainly wrong.  FGM occurs in tribal societies, where the worst evil to befall a male is for an offspring of another male to be unwittingly attributed to him.  The difficulty of preventing this is heightened by polygyny, where there are more women to worry about and watch over.  Thus women must be guaranteed virginal (and so unpregnant) at marriage and secluded afterwards (purdah).  FGM is best understood as an element of this complex.  It is required by no religion, has been practiced within or along side all three of the Abrahamic traditions and is more prevalent by far in the polygynous Muslim variations, particularly among less educated populations.  (See Gary S. Becker A Treatise on the Family 2005)

Hitchens has his heroes: Socrates, Spinoza, Paine, La Place, Orwell and M. L. King Jr.  These are good heroes to have.  (Not Augustine, who was, "... a self-centered fantasist and an earth-centered ignoramus ..." (64); not the heroic Jewish Maccabees who, "...were forcibly restoring Mosaic fundamentalism against the many Jews who were ... bored by 'the law,' offended by circumcision, interested in Greek literature ... and rather adept at philosophy (273)"   

Hitchens has provided an interesting and well written, though philosophically unsatisfying, critique of religion and defense of secularism.  Its strength is in a rhetorical appeal to common sense.  Kierkegaard once described his pseudonymous writings as a "corrective", putting forth views that were further over in one direction than he would have liked in order to drag some of the wrong ideas on the other side closer to the truth.  In the area of religion's influence upon our public and private lives (and upon the destruction of that distinction), Hitchens' book is a welcome corrective and we should wish that more are on the way

© 2007 John D. Mullen

John Mullen, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, Long Island, NY


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