God is not Great is one of a number of "new atheist" books that were published over the past few years: Breaking the Spell by Dr. Daniel Dennett; The God Delusion by Dr. Richard Dawkins; In Defence of Atheism by Michel Onfray; and Hitchens' book, to name the best known. However there are significant differences among these books, so if you're thinking of picking one up, you should be aware of their different styles and subject matter.
Hitchens' one-liners in God is not Great will delight atheists who cannot imagine why anyone would take this nonsense seriously, let alone use it as a foundation for their values. Perhaps the freshest contribution Hitchens makes is introducing the general public to the fine points of Mormonism, surely one of the most infantile and ridiculous collection of claims to ever grace the face of the earth. Mormons' clean living habits, which are highly commendable, serve to mask a total detachment from both current and historical reality when it comes to their deranged belief system.
But for the most part, there are no new arguments or information in this book, and Hitchens is preaching to an already convinced irreligious choir. In the same way that he challenges believers to give an example of a moral act that could not have been performed by a non-believer, I would challenge Hitchens to present even one person whose belief in the existence of God has been shaken by this book: sadly I don't think this person exists.
Regardless of how idiotic religious beliefs may seem to non-believers, the fact is that they have persisted among the majority of people, in a majority of cultures, for thousands of years, so they obviously have something going for them. What that something is may not be truth, but religions undeniably appeal to very fundamental psychological needs of human beings for a sense of meaning, direction and purpose in life, that only a minority of people have the time, desire and educational background to fully think through and analyze for themselves. Religion is a often a short-cut to meaning.
For anyone who wants a deeper understanding of the psychological and sociological "hot buttons" that religions use (whether or not they are aware they are doing this), Dr. Daniel Dennett's book Breaking the Spell would be a much better place to start than Hitchens' book.
For those who are looking for a deeper understanding of the "debate" between creationists and evolutionists, Dr. Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion (or indeed any of Dawkins' books) would be a better place to start.
But if what you are looking for is not understanding, but rather an entertaining polemic, Hitchens' is certainly a great read. That having been said, Friedrich Nietzsche made almost all of Hitchens' points, just as entertainingly and much more deeply, more than 100 years ago. Hitchens is Pepsi to Nietzsche's Coca-Cola.
on May 22, 2007
This is by no means a hateful book. In fact, those who have become used to Hitchens' sometimes cut-throat prose will be surprised at how restrained he is, and how quick he is to acknowledge, say, the equally-ghastly crimes of the secular dictatorships of Hitler and Stalin. Then he points out how both regimes were abetted by the church.
The contention by "J" that Hitchens argues that "religions are closed-minded and have only brought about the oppression of women and children without any knowledge of the social and intellectual advances that many religions have afforded us" is proof positive "J" has indeed not read this book. Hitchens simply balances the claims of religion versus the results and argues that overall, religious dogma is merely a holdover from the time when humans had little to no information about how the world is actually constituted. While he does skirt around the shortcomings of scientific reason, Hitchens rightly reminds us that science has actually enhanced the mystery of "creation" rather than spoiling the fun.
Hitchens may be a lot of things: a misanthrope, a contrarian, and sometimes a bit of an arrogant jerk, but to say he is a "closed-minded journalist" without having read this work (which is shot through with references to the Classics, religious scholarship, science, history and literature) is an insult to Hitchens and the book-buying public. Hitchens can look after himself; the book-buying public is so advised.
Christopher Hitchens was obsessed with religion. He says he’s been writing this book all his life, and despite its publication, would continue writing it the rest of his life. In his world travels, he always made time to attend the local religion’s house of worship, no matter what religion it represented. He was even visited at home by the son of the Ayatollah Khomeini, who inscribed Hitchens’ Koran with passages where he disagreed with the supreme leader. Hitchens wanted to know, to learn, to understand, to appreciate. He himself was a member of four religions over his lifetime. The result is 300 pages lambasting religions around the world and throughout history.
As you might expect of a life’s work, it is highly organized, thorough, and sharply confident. What I don’t understand is the point of it all. Collecting all the ways religion is fabricated, hypocritical, fraudulent and just plain wrong is not going to change anyone’s mind. How many Christian fundamentalists will abandon Jesus because they’ve read god is not Great?
He gives examples of where it’s obvious that different writers were involved in telling biblical stories. Well, whole books have been written showing how poor translation of even individual words has led to the codifying of totally wrong facts. This is not mentioned either, but the King James version of the bible – the official one – was cobbled together by committees, who voted by a show of hands on what versions and what words to accept or reject. A simple majority won each challenge. The word of god it is not. So, yes, it’s all problematic. So?
His arguments can also be incomplete, making them one-sided. He slams Islam for prescribing slavery for non-believers, leading to European and American sailors in the Mediterranean being enslaved in the 1700s. But he doesn’t say that in 1452 Pope Nicholas specifically awarded to both Spain and Portugal the eternal right to take any nonbelievers as slaves in perpetuity. This was in an infallible Papal Bull, just as Columbus was about to discover a great new market for it. The result was the multinational slave industry, certified by the Catholic Church.
He’s at his best when he qualifies religions as totalitarianism, and posits that their rules are impossible to follow - by design. That way, the ruling caste can impose arbitrary punishment at will. And so it has been, in Hitchens’ words, a spiritual police state, fueled by indulgences (bribes) and other such corruption. Even Islam joins the corruption, with mullahs issuing temporary marriage licenses to enable prostitution. For a fee.
Hitchens refers far too many times to Ockham’s (Occam’s) Razor, where you must discard redundant evidence and proofs as piling on. Ironically, this entire book is jam-packed overkill. I don’t disagree with any of the evidence. I just think those who have come to the conclusions that Hitchens came to are not made much better by it. For the rest, I can only hope readers approach with an open mind, though practically by definition, this cannot be the case, as religion is not about opening new intellectual frontiers. So I had to wonder what the point was.
I got my answer in the new Afterword, where Hitchens hits on an unexpected positive outcome from this effort. In his book tour, he found that Americans had no idea there were so many like-minded atheists among them. (Polls say better than one in five.) Their self discovery gave him hope and them reassurance that they were not alone, surrounded by the smitten.
on December 31, 2008
I'd been disinterested in Hitchens' book for some while. God has seemed mainly irrelevant to me of late, so the recent spate of God-bashing books didn't really register. Then a friend gave me a copy, and I realized that it's more important than I had been giving it credit. It reminded me that it's not adequate to ignore members of organized religions and hope they'll return the favour - because that is not and will never be good enough for them. We need to remind ourselves of the aspects of institutional religion that continue to be morally harmful, and plan how we can counter their debilitating effects. So, I'm grateful to Hitchens for nudging me back to a more active stance with respect to the positive evils associated with organized religion.
This bit of intellectual argument was the last of eight reads for the month and it almost didn't make it into the list at all. Hitchen's thesis is a very common one and one that I tend to agree with in principle but his delivery is so caustic that it tends to lose both halves of his audience. No religious person will be moved by his statements as he begins with such obvious hatred and disdain that nobody can wade through the maze of attacks the first 20 pages represent. By the time he finally settles down into a less vigorous polemic one cannot help but take all he says with a grain of salt. While I want to believe that the Catholic Church was complicit with Hitler's extermination of the Jews, for example, I find myself unable to take Hitchens' word for it by the time he gets around to saying it. Grains of salt aside though, in those areas in which I have some independent knowledge (nonsensical nature of the Bible, Christian sexual mutilation of male children, devolution of the church into 'entertainment', bizarre origins and beliefs of the Mormon church) I find it hard not to agree with the author almost completely. If even half of what he says is true, we're all in some deep s***. But then again, mankind generally is.
Religion as Hitchens defines it, is belief in an infallible, superhuman authority, which humanity should obey. This belief, he says, is the core of all religions, and therefore all religion is inherently anti-democratic. With a globe-spanning stream of examples he shows us that "All religions take care to silence or to execute those who question them ..." Or, they would if they could: "Is it not obvious to all, the pious ask, that religious authority is paramount, and that those who decline to recognize it have forfeited their right to exist?" So in the great war of freedom with absolutism, Hitchens feels it is time to name the real root of the problem. Religion, he believes, must be exposed as the human desire for infallibility.
In the way Hitchens defines religion, he accepts that absolutists are the real representatives of it. This leads him to say that Martin Luther King Jr. was not really a Christian. Why? Because King's devotion to equal respect for people of all cultures contradicted traditional claims that only Christianity comes from God. This reminds me of conservative Christian writer Rod Dreher, who recently rejected Barack Obama's claim to be a Christian. Dreher said that Obama merely claimed to be inspired by Jesus' life, without also asserting that Jesus was "begotten not made." In relation to Islam, Hitchens seems to accept that fanatics for superhuman authority are the real Muslims. And rather than arguing for a more compassionate version of religion, like Fatima Mernissi or Barack Obama have tried to do, Hitchens tries to convince moderate Muslims that their whole tradition is stupid.
In rejecting the superhuman authority of religion, Hitchens comes to a perfectly reasonable conclusion: "Human beings and institutions are imperfect, to be sure. But there could be no clearer proof that holy institutions are man-made." To this, Joseph Campbell, Margaret Mead, Sigmund Freud, or Carl Jung would all agree. The history of religion is the story of humanity's quest for meaning, direction, and fulfillment. What's so non-divine about that? Religion has evolved through endless debate over different human visions of justice, beauty, and happiness. Hitchens is right to say this debate would be more civil if the debaters stopped claiming to be God's mouthpiece. But then would the debate be less, or more holy?
--author of Correcting Jesus
on March 2, 2009
This was a fun book to read because Hitchens is a good writer who is not afraid to finish his thoughts and because I am in general agreement that "religion poisons everything". On the other hand he never deals with the impulse toward transcending individual self-interest and feeling a part of something larger that some have called the sacred. Hitchens does seem to make the point that organized religion is more anathema to universal fellow-creature feeling than is atheism, and I fully concur. To give five stars, I guess I would expect a more complex approach to the whole phenomenon of myth, ritual, and the sacred, but, really, in a book that is often a bracing polemic, there is no space to consider other perspectives. He treats all religions with the same equitable approach, finding in none (including Buddhism) anything worth praise. It's tough to argue with his points because most of them are simply factual observations, and it has always amazed me that so few are willing to face them. Religions control thinking and channel emotions to ends that rarely benefit humankind as a whole and often do quite the opposite. They encourage irrational thinking and a narrow sense of reality, and right now in our world their anachronistic influence is threatening stability and the progress of peace. Like Hitchens says: "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." (Christopher Hitchens)
on July 26, 2007
Bravo! A rallying cry for secular humanism. For those who suffer the sneaking suspicion that "the religious" have been particularly ill-behaved, lately, here is a well-researched historical perspective on religion's assault on reason, freedom and human rights.
The book presents a good description, through examples, of the psycho-social evolution of deity cultism, and its twisted course throughout human development, up until the present.
Hitchens presents a balanced and well-argued case that belief in an omiscient, omnipresent creator belongs in the infancy of the human species, and not in its future. Smattered with jabs of wit and sarcasm, this book should appeal to any thinking person.
on December 24, 2013
There's no doubt that his reasoning is logical and compelling. Most of the world's tensions and killings definitely can be linked back to one religion or another.
on August 16, 2012
Now, I'm a believer...that everything I had been taught about my religion was nothing but a fantastic story. But somewhere, deep inside me, I knew that already.