Buy the Book

Unbelievable Hitchens

His new book opposing theism stacks the deck against the faithful.

By 7.10.07

Send to Kindle

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
By Christopher Hitchens
(Twelve Books, 320 pages, $24.99)

Watching Christopher Hitchens on television after Jerry Falwell died, it was clear the celebrated writer was beyond irked. Rather than politely disagreeing with the deceased preacher's doctrine, Hitchens smeared on gobs of spite, from "it's a pity there isn't a hell for him to go to" to "if you gave Falwell an enema, he could be buried in a matchbox."

Why the clear psychological torment? For starters, he no doubt played it up to promote his new book, God Is Not Great It's a case for atheism, and he states his reason for writing it (and presumably by extension, for lashing out at Falwell) thusly:

I would be quite content to go to [my religious friends'] children's bar mitzvahs, to marvel at their Gothic cathedrals, to 'respect' their belief that the Koran was dictated.... I will continue to do so without insisting on the polite reciprocal condition -- which is that they in turn leave me alone. But this, religion is ultimately incapable of doing. As I write these words, and as you read them, people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction.
Very dramatic, particularly the clever shift between his friends (whom he wishes would leave him alone, apparently) and terrorists. And it's certainly true that some religious fanatics threaten their fellow human beings. But are Hitchens's friends the threat he makes them out to be?

I DON'T RUN in his circles, but I have had the rare experience of seeing American religion from two sides. As a teen I left Catholicism for agnosticism, much to the chagrin of some of my own peers. Some advised me I'd go to hell. Another remarked aloud in class, "Don't say the word 'Bible' in front of Bobby. He'll melt."

Still others -- the vast majority, I should note -- were quite decent about the whole thing.

Then I headed off to college, where (to put it mildly) things were different. I held prevalent enough religious views that not once did I have to defend them in a debate. I forgot the talking points I'd developed in high school.

If anything, I found myself on the religious right. In an op-ed for the conservative campus newspaper, I argued that anthropology professors should address the problems Intelligent Design theorists purport to find in evolutionary theory -- not teach ID, just explain why it's wrong. On came the "ignorant" label accompanied, as were the denunciations of my high school classmates, with some genuine argument.

The truth: If you don't want to face religious tension, move somewhere your beliefs are common. In other words, neither Christians nor secularists are perfectly tolerant, so segregate yourself. Hitchens lives -- as I do now -- in the D.C. area, where even conservatives aren't all that pious. (National Review's John Derbyshire calls them "Metro Cons", a category I fit into to some degree.) So in everyday life, it's almost certain that Hitchens dishes out as much hatred as he takes. He can't use his own persecution to justify his condescension.

STILL, THAT CONDESCENSION abounds in God Is Not Great. The book is chock-full of loaded terms like "pathetic," "baseless" and "awful." Hitchens refuses to capitalize the word "God," even when it's a proper noun. For some reason, he gets a kick out of labeling those he dislikes "mammals," or redundantly, "human mammals." Religion comes from the "infancy of our species." In short, he insults the religious too much to ever convert them, settling for ginning up his relatively small base of unbelievers. That's not too much of a loss, though, as his case isn't that convincing. He starts with the thesis that religion is evil, then finds all the evidence he can for it, rather than weighing competing bits of evidence against each other. He ignores or dismisses ideas he doesn't like.

Sometimes that's quite explicit. For example, he mentions he doesn't believe Mary, if she existed, gave birth as a virgin. Fair enough. But then he makes the startling claim that if someone could prove Mary did exist, and that she had given birth as a virgin, and that no other human had done so before or since, "it would not prove that the resulting infant had any divine power." And he singles out the faithful for their willingness to ignore evidence.

The problem goes deeper than specific examples of malice and adamant denials that any evidence at all could, even hypothetically, support the idea of God. Throughout the book, Hitchens depicts the good that religious people do as non-religious, and the bad that secular people do as â€" well, religious. Regarding the former, see his discussion of Martin Luther King, Jr. Hitchens points out correctly that one does not need religion to oppose bigotry. He also points out, equally correctly, that the Bible verses King often cited (the Moses story especially) don't actually support civil rights in the modern sense. It was "let my people go," not "let all people go."

But the notion that religion didn't largely inspire the civil rights movement is simply absurd. King was a reverend, after all, who used his pulpit for advocacy. He used the Scriptures, in context or out, to sway whites and energize blacks. The churches provided a community to organize and a means of doing so.

Hitchens's treatment of Nazism and communism is similar, though slanted in the opposite direction. He points out some interesting examples where religious groups aided these trends, but more bizarre is his assertion that totalitarianism derives from religion. He quotes "British socialist Richard Crossman" from The God That Failed: "The Communist novice, subjecting his soul to the canon law of the Kremlin, felt something of the release which Catholicism also brings to the intellectual, wearied and worried by the privilege of freedom."

It's true that humans often strive for something beyond themselves -- something to devote themselves to fully, something through which to strive for perfection. But it's a logical fallacy to claim that because religion and communism both utilize that urge, and because religion came first, communism is in essence religious.

In fact, in countries that reasonably separate church and state, where religious groups cannot use physical coercion, religion is a quite healthy way of channeling that impulse.

AS HITCHENS SAYS, proof that religion does more good than harm is not proof that religion's claims are true. (Said claims are a discussion for another time.) But the fact is that God Is Not Great chronicles religion's evils -- even purporting to show how religion doesn't really "make people behave" when addressing MLK -- without weighing them against its benefits. Bear in mind again that Hitchens's book is targeted at a modern American audience. It cannot prevent the massacres depicted in the Bible by converting the slayers to atheists. Would that it could shake Osama bin Laden's faith, but it won't. The fact is that, in America, religion does a lot of good. For an example, see Arthur Brooks's book about charity, Who Really Cares. The media made much of Brooks's finding that conservatives donate more than liberals do, but the underlying reason isn't ideology but religion. Indeed, he finds that secular conservatives donate even less than secular liberals do.

Brooks writes:

People who pray every day (whether or not they go to church) are 30 percentage points more likely to give money to charity than people who never pray (83 to 53 percent). Simply belonging to a congregation -- whether one attends regularly or not -- makes a person 32 points more likely to give (88 to 56 percent). And people saying they devote a "great deal of effort" to their spiritual lives are 42 percent more likely to give than those devoting "no effort" (88 to 46 percent). Even a belief in beliefs themselves is associated with charity: People who say that 'beliefs don't matter as long as you're a good person' are dramatically less likely to give charitably (69 to 86 percent) and to volunteer (32 to 51 percent) than people who think that beliefs do matter.

There are many other areas where religion may help people. Some studies have found links between religiosity and physical or mental health, for example. Others have shown correlations between church membership and crime. These are controversial areas -- they are difficult to measure, with plenty of people wanting the results to slant one way or the other.

Hitchens, to his credit, avoids the questions rather than simply citing studies he agrees with. But at the very least, Hitchens goes too far in claiming to debunk the notion that religion "makes people behave," and it's shocking he didn't address Brooks's work.

Yet if there's one way God Is Not Great is useful, it's as an encyclopedia of religion's downsides. It's worthwhile to mitigate religion's evils, even bearing in mind there's good as well.One could go on for days (and many have) about controlling religious conflicts around the world. So here, let's focus on religion's problems in America. Further, let's ignore controversial areas (should the Ten Commandments adorn public buildings?) and concentrate on practices that are undeniably problematic. These typically involve parental beliefs foisted upon innocent children. (The squeamish should skip the following three paragraphs.)

Some members of Church of Christ, Scientist, for example, refuse to treat their children medically. Hitchens writes of Hasidic fundamentalists who use mohels to circumcise children -- a mohel "take[s] a baby boy's penis...cut[s] around the prepuce, and complete[s] the action by taking his penis in [his] mouth, sucking off the foreskin, and spitting out the amputated flap along with a mouthful of blood and saliva."

And with a wave of Third World immigration, primitive rituals like female circumcision are finding their ways onto American soil. To be absolutely clear here, Hitchens describes female circumcision like this:"[It] involves the slicing off of the labia and the clitoris, often with a sharp stone, and then the stitching up of the vaginal opening with strong twine, not to be removed until it is broken by male force on the bridal night. Compassion and biology allow for a small aperture to be left, meanwhile, for the passage of menstrual blood."

One obvious way to combat female circumcision is to cut back on immigration from these cultures. But barring that, the U.S. can take some serious steps against multiculturalism. There's a great American tradition of leaving religion to its own devices, but that need not come with the expense of death and torture.

One positive sign is the case of Khalid Adem, an Ethiopian immigrant who circumcised his own daughter. Late last year he was sentenced to 10 years in prison, followed by five years of probation, in Georgia.

When reprehensible behavior is excused on religious grounds, believing Americans give people like Hitchens ammo. But then again, Hitchens gives plenty of ammo against atheists. After his anti-Falwell tirade, Mary Grabar opined:

That's the thing about atheists: They greet death with great relish and glee. Along with their loss of an overall sense of sanctity goes their respect for the sanctity of the occasion. I imagine they have the neighborhood gossips giving the dirt over their own mothers' ashes. Or upon the death of a spouse, perhaps they quickly dispense of the body and resume the pursuit of their next pleasure, which is the only solace they have in their little kingdoms of one.

She's wrong, but you'd never know it from reading God Is Not Great.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
Robert VerBruggen is an associate editor at National Review. You can follow his writing here.