Christopher Hitchens, Toronto: Emblem Editions, 2008, 307 pp.
WN: With such a claim in the title, Hitchins’ treatise invariably tells us far more about the author than his subject. His brother Peter’s book fills in the details: The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith.
To be sure: any humanist with a modicum of decency excoriates the evils of religion. As brilliant Irish literary critic Terry Eagleton, former friend and fellow activist of Hitchins, puts it in Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate1
Religion has wrought untold misery in human affairs. For the most part, it has been a squalid tale of bigotry, superstition, wishful thinking, and oppressive ideology (p. xi)”.
But one could of course insert any number of substitutes for “Religion”–ideology, political zealotry, nationalism, etc., and state the same. In brief, such horror is part of the human condition, hardly unique to religion.
I reflect at length on this in: Easter Song, Keith Green, and Reflections on the Resurrection.
Of course too, as is maddeningly often pointed out: in the very rage against God is acknowledgement of God’s existence . . .
A century and a half ago Pope Pius IX published the Syllabus of Errors, a rhetorical tour de force against the high crimes and misdemeanors of the modern world. God Is Not Great, by the British journalist and professional provocateur Christopher Hitchens, is the atheists’ equivalent: an unrelenting enumeration of religion’s sins and wickedness, written with much of the rhetorical pomp and all of the imperial condescension of a Vatican encyclical.
Hitchens, who once described Mother Teresa as “a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud,” is notorious for making mincemeat out of sacred cows, but in this book it is the sacred itself that is skewered. Religion, Hitchens writes, is “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.” Channeling the anti-supernatural spirits of other acolytes of the “new atheism,” Hitchens argues that religion is “man-made” and murderous, originating in fear and sustained by brute force. Like Richard Dawkins, he denounces the religious education of young people as child abuse. Like Sam Harris, he fires away at the Koran as well as the Bible. And like Daniel Dennett, he views faith as wish-fulfillment.
Historian George Marsden once described fundamentalism as evangelicalism that is mad about something. If so, these evangelistic atheists have something in common with their fundamentalist foes, and Hitchens is the maddest of the lot. Protestant theologian John Calvin was “a sadist and torturer and killer,” Hitchens writes, and the Bible “contain[s] a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre.”
As should be obvious to any reasonable person — unlike Hitchens I do not exclude believers from this category — horrors and good deeds are performed by believers and non-believers alike. But in Hitchens’s Manichaean world, religion does little good and secularism hardly any evil. Indeed, Hitchens arrives at the conclusion that the secular murderousness of Stalin’s purges wasn’t really secular at all, since, as he quotes George Orwell, “a totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy.” And in North Korea today, what has gone awry is not communism but Confucianism.
Please click on: God Is Not Great
- Click on title to see my long review. See also the lecture series that gave rise to the book: