Thursday, June 17, 2010
God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, by Christopher Hitchens. New York: Twelve/Hachette Book Group, 2007. 317 pp. $14.99. ISBN 978-0-446-69796-5.
I am really disappointed with this book. Christopher Hitchens, the irrepressible, irreverent, irascible, and irreligious journalist has emerged as one of the "new atheists," and I had supposed that I would find reasoned arguments in this book. Not so.
I do not spent a lot of time reading in the literature written by atheists, old or new. At various times I have needed to engage an author=s thought because of my interest in the matters about which he or she was writing (philosophy, psychology, sociology, economics, etc.), and those became the entré to my encounter with atheist sensibilities or positions.
On the other hand, popular writers on science and religion, or culture and religion, or media and religion, or whatever and religion, bemoan or celebrate the fact that a new crop of intellectuals has not only laid claim to being atheists and proud of it, but has also taken up a self-imposed charge to expose the lunacy of religion and thus liberate those who adhere to it in any of its forms from their dark night.
Hitchens is among this crop of new atheists. He is quick to point out in this book that there are Afour irreducible objections to religious faith@: namely, Athat 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 of solipsism, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking@ (4). In other words, the irreducible objections are related to science and cosmology, the inculturation of dominance and oppression, sexuality and abusive sexual practices, and, well … fantasy!
I would summarize his view as articulated in these pages this way: The violence and oppression committed in the name of religion down through history confirm that religion is human‑made and God does not exist. It isn’t necessary to read the entire book to get this point. I could be a bit more generous by saying that another, more positive spin might be this: The existence of unbelievers among the sociocultural and intellectual elite through history confirms that God is unnecessary at least, and non‑existent at best. Hitchens doesn’t say this in these words, but he does say it in other word, with great flourish.
There is no question about the fact that all religions have committed horrific acts against others in defense or imposition of their views. Moreover, from one perspective or another, all religions can be shown to be oppressive in ways that are reprehensible. This should not be denied or dismissed. And there is no "but" that follows here. Rather, it is left to religionists to explain and justify themselves and their conduct in relation to others; the burden is on those who have trafficked in violence and abuse to submit their conduct to the judgment of others, and respond to the criticism that they have manipulated the heritage and teachings of their religion in order to legitimate their conduct.
Hitchens cannot advance a reasoned argument by constructing caricatures of the various religions. It is neither journalism nor scholarship to construct your opponent yourself in order to weigh in with the pre‑selected "evidence." In argumentation, this is known as building a “straw man,” and Hitchens does it quite well. I have no problem with privileging reason and science in the pursuit and articulation of knowledge about our world. But I think it is absurd to characterize your opponent as irrational, primitive, and obscurantist in order to demonstrate your more “enlightened” point. Apparently, he does not suppose that “religion” in any of its historic forms has undergone any development other than devolution since the origins of humanity because he likes to locate the phenomenon of religion in the “infancy of our species” (10, 64) and confine it there even in its contemporary expressions.
In vain did I look for one social or theological issue to be explored in substance with any degree of rigor. Instead, what I found over and over again was the misrepresentation of the central teachings and practices of the various religions that come under his scrutiny. Understandably, the greater portion of Hitchens= critique is directed toward Christianity and Judaism, the two dominant religions in the Western cultural history that have shaped the world in which he lives and thinks. I am sorry that he didn't take the time to "get inside" any one of the religions to a degree that would give his view credibility. He ends up doing what he accuses religionists of doing: speaking from ignorance and caricature about matters in the opposing domain.
The more I think about it, the more it occurs to me that there is another story being told in this book. This is the story of the intellectuals through history who dismissed religion as childish, naive, magical superstition. There=s a major thinker for everyone here, from Plato to Dawkins, but special attention is given to Hume, Darwin, Marx, and Freud. It makes me wonder: What exactly does Hitchens have to contribute to the a‑theist or anti‑theist cause? It has already been said by many others, and–humor excepted–said much better.
One whose thinking and writing as a secular humanist has exercised considerable influence in philosophy, science and humanism is Paul Kurtz, founder and (now former) president and CEO of The Center for Inquiry. Unlike Hitchens, Kurtz has held a genuine respect and appreciation for religion at the same time that his vocation as a scholar has been focused in the advancement of secular humanism and the skepticism of religion. Kurtz shared his thinking on the practice of disparaging religion in a recent interview with David Gibson, religion reporter at Politics Daily. Noting that his current fall-out with the new leadership at the Center for Inquiry is, in part, over just this sort of practice, Kurtz declared, “"Although we [secular humanists] are skeptical of religion, we nonetheless have a positive statement to make. We want to work with religious people solving our planetary problems.” Lest he be unclear on where he stands on the issue of the salience of religion, he went to say that “I don't believe we should ridicule religion. To focus on that is degrading.”
What Hitchens fails to realize is that his paradigm of religion and culture in civil society is antiquated. Oh, to be sure, there is plenty that is wrong and evil about religion in its multitudinous forms. But two indisputable facts should give writers like Hitchens some pause. First, religion is not declining but rather growing across the world, and globalization and modernization are bringing particular challenges to religious traditions old and new throughout the world. In many places in the world, religious communities and groups are exercising increasing influence in all areas of society. The fastest growing global religions are Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, and this growth is occurring outside the historic West. Hitchens appears to hold out expectations that secularization will finally succeed in eliminating religion, but he ought to know that even the formulators of the secularization theory in the sociology of religion have now declared that they were just plain wrong.
Second, it is precisely religion, rather than states or governments, that has catalyzed and mobilized populations and communities to achieve higher levels of human social freedoms and political rights, especially in the capacity to serve the needs of the poor and marginalized. Moreover, while it is true that religion has contributed to inter- and intra-cultural conflict, violence and war in Southeast Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Europe, it is also true that religious communities and organizations have contributed to promoting peace and reconciliation in these very places through programs of economic development, relief, education, human services, and advocacy. (See, for example, AEngaging Religious Communities Abroad: A New Imperative for U.S. Foreign Policy,@ a report published by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.)
Hitchens is a superb writer with a terrific vocabulary. I enjoy reading him regardless of the subject matter. He has a lot of attitude and a very healthy ego, so his work is not for the faint of heart or mind, sort of a mixture of William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal.
Unfortunately, this book is simply a diatribe filled with hyperbole. In the Acknowledgments, he notes that he has been writing this book all his life. I take that to mean he has been struggling against religion (notably Christianity) all his life. He also says that he plans to keep on writing it. I take that to mean he still has issues that need resolution. I wish him well.