Many, many refutations have been written of Christopher Hitchens’s god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Readers can take some small comfort that this won’t be another.
After all, what would even be the fun in piling on at this point? The Washington Post reviewer cast Hitchens as a latter day incarnation of the censorious anti-liberal Pope Pius IX and professed to have “never encountered a book whose author is so fundamentally unacquainted with its subject.”
In religious venues — even tolerant, liberal, kitten-hugging ones like Commonweal — the response has been not shock and outrage but open mockery. Conservative publications from this one to the Claremont Review of Books to Taki’s Top Drawer have dissected and made a study of the book’s many errors and eccentricities. On the other side of the pond, Hitchens’s brother Peter dropped the normal sibling non-review rule and had a run at it in the Daily Mail.
Hitchens’s public defenses of his thesis haven’t been much more successful. True, he bested the Reverend Al Sharpton in a televised debate — barely. But whenever he’s come up against serious opponents, it’s been ugly. Near the end of their exchange in Christianity Today, Douglas Wilson borrowed a line from Wyatt Earp in Tombstone to ask Hitchens, “You gonna do something or just stand there and bleed?”
His argumentation has been found flimsy by philosophers and rhetoricians; riddled with errors by biblical scholars and theologians; sloppy and tendentious by historians of religion; unrigorous by social scientists; breezy and brazen by literary critics; and obnoxious by most readers of good will. One is half surprised that dentists haven’t pronounced on its massive overbite — yet.
THE CRITICAL RECEPTION of the book is one thing, the public reaction quite another. Hitchens is a popular speaker and critic but not normally a runaway bestseller. Tell that to the 300,000 people and counting who’ve bought copies of god is not Great. One lesson for cynics might be that brandishing sharp objects around holy cows can itself be a cash cow.
In fact, in all the criticism and refutations of the book, the one real failure has been the failure to understand the book’s success. Reviewers have lumped it in with other anti-religious bestsellers, including Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation and Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, and written god is not Great off as part of a trend, leaving it to others to explain that trend.
It would be wrong to blame the critics for their blind spot. They’re used to reviewing books qua books, and usually expected to have reviews in long before they know if the volume is going to be a hit. But still, it’s a question worth pondering for the future of what we do: How do you review a book that isn’t a book, a 283-page pose?
It’s not a rhetorical question. Some assumption of good faith by the author is an important part of how critics operate, but Hitchens simply cannot be this stupid.
Exhibit A: In his discussion of slavery, Hitchens focuses entirely on the American experience so that he can damn Christianity for the peculiar institution. He overlooks the role of the Catholic Church in abolishing slavery in Europe and gives scant attention to the role of the Muslim slave trade in starting it up again in the new world, and he manages to gloss over the fact that slavery predates organized religion.
Exhibit B: Hitchens maintains that the non-religious can be just as moral and, more to the point, as charitable as religious believers, intentionally ignoring a rather impressive body of evidence in the process. Yes, atheists and freethinkers can be more charitable, but that isn’t how it actually shakes out.
Exhibit C: In his discussion of Jesus, Hitchens jumps all over C.S. Lewis’s famous categories for how we can think about the Son of Man: Lord, liar, lunatic, or the devil. Hitchens refuses to accept Lewis’s “rather wild supernatural categories, such as devil and demon” — and of course, God –; finds his “reasoning…so pathetic as to defy description”; and then proceeds to wildly misrepresents the chain of reasoning that he claims to find so unpersuasive.
In Mere Christianity, Lewis began by making the case for God and then explaining why Jesus either had a pretty good claim to being the Big Guy Himself, or was nuts, or, worse, nefarious. Hitchens doesn’t have to agree with Lewis that Jesus was God made flesh but the other options are perfectly good, logical ones, and he knows it.
Hitchens brings up Lewis not in order to wrestle honestly with what the great medieval scholar and Anglican convert has to say but to selectively quote and then have done with one straw argument and move on to the next . Lewis’s categories help to set up a swipe at textual accuracy of the Bible which in turn sets up an attack on biblical literalists.
Why, Hitchens says, the Gospels offer sometimes conflicting accounts of the works and words of Jesus and the texts underwent an awful process known as — wait for it… — editing. How in the world can you even know what this Christ guy said?
THERE ARE RATIONAL replies one could make to that question (“If Christopher Hitchens gave a speech and there were four different accounts, how could you get back to the Hitchens of History…”) but they are beside the point. The purpose of this book is not so much to make the case against God as to offer assurances to the unbelievers, to the lapsed, to the non-conformists, and to the noncommitted souls who are uncomfortable around public displays of religiosity.
Of these groups, the latter three are vital to the book’s success. The number of genuine atheists in the U.S. is vanishingly small. A recent poll found that voters would be less hostile to a Muslim candidate for president than a potential atheist commander-in-chief. The real numbers, where book sales are concerned, are those people who are uncomfortable with this country’s quasi-established religion for some reason — ranging from general distaste for Godtalk to disagreements over sexual mores to vaguely spiritualist yearnings to a vestigial and often conspiratorial anticlericalism.
god is not Great is not great because it tries too hard to affirm its target readers in their okayness. Hitchens even manages to put in a kind word for the new agey Gnostics. He finds the Gospel of Judas “fractionally more credible then the official account” because “it maintains…that the supposed god of the ‘Old’ Testament is the one to be avoided, a ghastly emanation from sick minds.”
More pandering: Notoriously cheap freethinkers can take some solace in Hitchens’s preachment that “charity and relief work, while they may appeal to tenderhearted believers, are the inheritors of modernism and the Enlightenment.” The religious are rendered more violent than the secular by a neat trick of blaming Communist slaughters on a religious-like impulse. Why, according to George Orwell, every single “totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy.”
Even better, for those readers who want to admire some religious leaders while rejecting the source of their inspiration, this is the book for you. Hitchens unbaptizes Martin Luther King, Jr. — that would be the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. –, claiming his legacy for the ungodly. King wasn’t vengeful and went light on the hellfire and brimstone, so “[i]n no real, as opposed to nominal sense, then, was he a Christian.”
The author confesses to having been “a guarded admirer of the late Pope John Paul II” but contrasts the venerated pope with his terribly flawed Church, and points out that the late pontiff issued a series of apologies to Jews, Muslims, and the Orthodox for past bad behavior by Catholics.
Jesus is a dealt with rather gingerly. After much hemming and hawing, Hitchens admits that there probably was a Jesus, and even has some kind words to say about the Son of Man, at least as regards the story of the adulterous woman whose life he saved. But Hitchens insists that the Gospels are unreliable and that this rabbi could not have been who his misguided followers later claimed that he was. Since there is no God, then no man can be God, QED.
Playing to his audience, Hitchens feigns some tolerance for religious believers. He would not “prohibit” religion, “even if I thought I could.” He isn’t so much bothered by the fact that people believe in daffy things. He just wishes the religious would reciprocate his generosity by “leav[ing] me alone.”
The sentiment behind those three words was responsible for tens of thousands of book sales, at least. Certain people are made massively uncomfortable by religious people even talking about their faith. Any discussion of such things seems to them oppressive, and possibly sinister. Hitchens offers them plenty of faux arguments, half-baked half-truths, and stale Britty witticisms to make them feel more comfortable with their discomfort.
CURIOUS, THOUGH, in this reviewer’s experience the one part of Hitchens’s target audience that isn’t usually so standoffish is genuine atheists. Several friends and acquaintances who do not believe in God and who know that I do (short version: I’m a believer who tried to become an atheist but ended up a Catholic) have complained to me bitterly about my lack of effort to convert them.
There is a weird and poignant sincerity to those complaints that I find to be utterly absent from in god is not Great. Hitchens claims that it’s a work that is deeply important to him but if that were the case he would have written a much better book. God knows, he’s capable of it. Refutations may be in order but where the author is concerned, at least, they seem like wasted effort.
Jeremy Lott would like to wish his family, friends, and colleagues — including the atheists — a very merry Christmas.