A Review of the book, god is not Great
The Fatal Flaw
The title of Christopher Hitchens’ book, god is not Great is likely a reference to the Muslim praise, “Allahu akbar”, which translates: “God is the greatest!” Hitchens is not targeting Islam alone, but his title is fair warning that readers are about to endure a boatload of snarky scoffing aimed at all forms of theism.
The fact that Hitchens’ book is a tedious catalog of finger-pointing is a problem, but a much greater problem afflicts the book, and Hitchens’ thinking in general. The flaw begins to reveal itself in the book’s title. Hitchens never defines “great”, which is to say, he never defines the meaning of “good”. This is a bizarre omission, given that the book is given over to moral outrage. His attacks suggest he has clarity about what is immoral, but he never attempts to explain what morality is, or how we come to it.
Morality is subjective
In one place he writes, “We [atheists] may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake. We do not hold our convictions dogmatically.” Most people agree that openmindedness is a virtue, as long as what is meant is a readiness to adjust one’s thinking to the truth when truth is revealed. But how does a person recognize truth unless a person already possesses a framework into which truth can comfortably be seated? If I believe the truth is that which makes me happy, for example, I will spend my life rejecting any facts that threaten my happiness. Our minds function with frameworks of understanding. Without the framework, well-structured or rickety, we have no place to locate new ideas. And whatever that framework may be, it will influence not only whether we accept new ideas but how we adjust them when we locate them within our thought framework. This makes it clear that, practically speaking, openmindedness is a myth.
What does it mean to pursue an idea for its own sake? Either an idea is true and beneficial to humans or it is false and harmful. Ideas don’t have sakes. People have sakes. There are no ideas, floating about, free of context.
And what can he mean by saying he holds convictions undogmatically? First of all, by definition, if one holds a conviction, it is dogma that he holds. “Undogmatic convictions” is oxymoronic. If his meaning of “undogmatically” is that he believes his convictions should be subject to adjustment, well, that flies in the face of his purpose for writing a book entitled, “god is not Great”. Similarly, to call one’s self an atheist is to be dogmatic. If Hitchens wants to be undogmatic he will have to convert to agnosticism and rename his book, “I’m Experiencing Moral Qualms about god This Week”.If his meaning of “undogmatically” is that he holds strongly to his convictions but is patient and respectful towards those who think differently, well, the contents of his book prove otherwise. Whatever he thinks he believes about atheists, it’s clear he does not believe it.
If we consider the thoughts in Hitchens’ statement one-by-one, it is challenging to make any sense of them. If we blend them a bit, Hitchens seems to be saying that truth is provisional. It is something we discover. If we’re honest and truth-seeking, we will slowly get closer to it. In a way this describes the normal human process of maturation. And yet, the claim that truth is a process also requires truth to be defined in as many ways as there are humans. If truth is a process, then truth is also unknowable. If truth is unknowable, then even if we fall into a pit of it, we may not recognize it. As much as provisional truth may feel like a clarion call to freedom, it is fundamentally a call to chaos. Wherever there is chaos, there is no freedom.
Hitchens actually wrote, “We speculate that it is at least possible that, once people accepted the fact of their short and struggling lives, they might behave better toward each other and not worse.” He speculates on a possibility?This level of confidence in an idea suggests it is best kept to one’s self. He proposes that when people see their lives are short, they will consequently become moral. Why? Why won’t they think, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die”? Why won’t they think, “I better rob a bank today because there’s no way I’m going to endure this short life flipping burgers at McDonald’s”? And while he expects humanism to lead to better behavior, he still fails to explain what “better” means. It’s takes considerable skill to pack this much nonsense into one sentence.
Morality is Innate
Another hint Hitchens provides to explain his idea of morality comes from this statement: “I do not set myself up as a moral exemplar, and would be swiftly knocked down if I did, but if I was suspected of raping a child, or torturing a child, or infecting a child with venereal disease, or selling a child into sexual or any other kind of slavery, I might consider committing suicide whether I was guilty or not. If I had actually committed the offense, I would welcome death in any form that it might take. This revulsion is innate in any healthy person, and does not need to be taught.”
I appreciate Hitchens’ moral position in this case. And let me add that Hitchens seems to be a morally sensitive person, generally speaking. I do not think his atheism has turned him into a monster or even a less moral person than the average Christian. His atheism has scrambled his mind in various ways, though. He claims to not set himself up as a “moral exemplar”. By this I believe he recognizes he has stumbled morally from time-to-time. Good for him for being honest. But he also fails to recognize that his entire book is an exercise in throwing stones. He is bitterly antagonistic towards all religious types and their evil behaviors. The posture he takes is of one who considers himself morally superior. This undermines his posture of moral humility.
His comment that he would consider suicide if he were so much as accused of seriously harming a child is hard to believe. I hope he is not suggesting that people should consider suicide when others falsely accuse them of horrible acts. I don’t doubt that, being the atheistic provocateur he is, he has been unjustly accused of many evils. I suspect he is well-practiced in ignoring false accusations.
The primary problem in his statement comes from his use of “innate revulsion”. Hitchens believes that revulsion against child abuse is innate in any healthy person. I believe him when he speaks for himself, but he cannot know what every person in the world thinks. That’s just bad science. Perhaps he means it as a tautology. In other words, if someone doesn’t feel the revulsion, by definition, he is unhealthy. But how does Hitchens know that he himself is healthy? How does he know that his revulsion is a correct moral response? How does he know that his innate feelings are not the remnants of religious thought that he has not managed to shake? And why does he imagine that the rest of the world should conform to his innate feelings? How is this different from the imposed religious moralities he finds so offensive? How is this not merely the establishment of a new religion, Hitchenism?
The Declaration of Independence made a similar statement: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Really? If those truths were self-evident, why did they need to be written out? It’s clear that whatever the Colonists thought was self-evident, they also thought the British did not think was self-evident. So the claim of self-evidence is self-evidently not true. Then the signers of the Declaration proceeded to say that all men are created equal, even as they knew they had no intention of freeing their own slaves. Apparently it was not self-evident to them that black people were human. Or maybe it was just self-evident that they had no intention of acting on the self-evident.
I believe there is innate moral awareness in every living human. I believe this based on the revelation that humans have been created in the image of the good God, in order to be like him. I also believe that, to one degree or another, all humans suppress their innate moral awareness. We know…and we don’t want to know. As such, humans are unreliable judges of truth or goodness. In contrast, the claim of innate understanding from a humanist point of view remains a mystery, other than as survival technique. Moreover, the claim of innate understanding is profoundly undermined by the concept that morality is evolving.
Humanism routinely attaches itself to scientific materialism to find explanations for its religious ideas. It is not a logically necessary marriage but I don’t know of any humanists who aren’t so connected. This leaves the humanist with three possible “moral” postures, none of which explain how they are actually moral.
The first humanist posture is the basic survival of the fittest. This is a simple formula that rewards the swift, the strong, and the powerful. Politics in America has the particular stench of this perspective.
The second humanist posture is: We only have a short while to take our pleasures on this planet, so we might as well get along and be mutually supportive, because that is the most likely way we will experience long and pleasant lives.
The third humanist posture is: I will publicly espouse posture #2 while in my secret dealings pursue posture #1.
It is apparent to me that there are plenty of humanists of all three stripes living on the earth today. The three are all strategies for gaining the most pleasure. But all three fundamentally define good selfishly. Good is what is good for me. If good is good for you, well, I don’t mind, as long as your good doesn’t reduce my good. Posture #3, which humanism cannot object to, tends to be the default position of humanists. This reduces morality to a kind of parasitism.
Scientific materialism, a sect of humanism, simply has no basis for even thinking about morals. What makes it better to be alive than to be a rock? The materialist may counter with, “I like being alive, therefore living is good.” Well, perhaps you like carving people into little pieces and putting them in freezers. Maybe you like to write nonsensical books that exploit people’s attraction to provocateurs, their love for thumbing their noses at authority figures, their love of complaint, or their deep desire for autonomy. Money from their pockets into yours. Our likes are not particularly useful for understanding morality. For a person to like like exploiting other people does not answer the question as to whether everyone else would prefer that person to be a rock.
The final hint Hitchens provides for his moral grid comes from evolution. Hitchens is not so full of hubris to claim that he has achieved, or that humans have achieved the acme of moral understanding. His view is that of the liberal mind: we are in the process of learning.
But the first question we have to ask is, has society matured morally over the centuries? There are reasons to think so, but there are also reasons to doubt. Women are much freer and treated with greater equality in most societies than in past centuries. At the same time, and more due to the sexual revolution than women’s liberation, relationships between men and women have suffered profoundly. Pornography and sexual experimentation have exploded, to the harm of all. Marriages have become more tenuous, adding to human disconnection, harming children in particular. Deaths from drug abuse and suicide are way up. In the West, males commit suicide far more than women do, but women attempt suicide at a rate 2-4 times higher than males. Liberation hasn’t done much for female happiness, apparently.
Gun violence, especially in the U.S. is way up, expressing itself through drug gangs, broken domestic relationships, and suicide. The data is clear that more guns make us less safe, but this message is falling on deaf ears.
Racist slavery has been banned in the United States. That is a good thing, and it has largely lead to the elimination of other forms of slavery. But this progress has not cured the world of racism. Today the whole discussion around racism has changed from the ideal of equality to the ideal of equity. This ideal of equity is challenging the meanings of justice, private property ownership, and meritocracy. The new ideas suggest, troublingly, that the only way to end racism is to legally encode racism. A quick scan of the continuing military conflicts around the world illustrates that racism is as much a problem in the world as it ever has been.
Communication has certainly improved around the world. We thought that open communication would liberalize societies and put an end to government oppression. The idealists did not anticipate that totalitarian governments can make use of technologies, as well, and use them not only to censor information, but to disseminate propaganda, and for social management. Technology is increasingly squeezing out human privacy. This may serve as a hedge against crime but it also enables government tampering, and enables blackmail or shaming from any adversarial source. Additionally, while the new communication platforms seem like platforms for free speech, the vast majority of attention is given to sites characterized by inflammatory and distorted messages. This has contributed greatly to polarizations within countries, the U.S. more than others. It seems that “enlightened” humanity is more attracted to controversy than thoughtful problem resolution.
Have we become less war-like? The twentieth century was, by far, the most bloody century in human history, with World War II the deadliest of all wars. Things have been relatively peaceful for the U.S. in the meantime, but we still managed to get into the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the war with Iraq, and the war in Afghanistan. Nuclear weaponry, invented less than 80 years ago, looms in the shadows. By God’s grace these weapons have seen little use, but we are regularly reminded of their potential in such places as North Korea, Iran, and in Russia’s engagement with Ukraine.
Well, at least we don’t sacrifice our children to the gods anymore, right? We’re not like those horrible religionists. Whoops. In the United States alone, since 1973 the number of legal abortions per year has ranged from 600,000 to 1.6 million. The total number of children sacrificed to the god Molech is barely worthy of mention in the context of the sacrifices made to the god Unwanted.
Apparently, most Americans are accepting abortion on the basis that “a woman’s right to choose” is more important than the life of her child. Hitchens reveals his own complicity and confusion on this subject. First he is uncompromising on the status of the unborn: “Embryology confirms morality. The words ‘unborn child,’ even when used in a politicized manner, describe a material reality.” He immediately follows this statement with the following: “There may be many circumstances in which it is not desirable to carry a fetus to full term.” “The second-best fallback solution [to unwanted pregnancies]…is termination of pregnancy: an expedient which is regretted by many even when it has been undertaken in dire need.” So Hitchens’ moral determination is that the unborn are children, but sometimes we have to kill them. Note the profound difference between Hitchens’ concern for young children and his concern for unborn children. It would seem that immorality is excused as long as we agonize about it. We may want to think carefully before we concede to this moral principle.
Hitchens makes a logical error when he sees scientific and technological growth, and then imagines there is corresponding moral growth in the human race. The connection is not only illogical, it is clearly untrue. To think that humans are evolving into superior moral creatures is fiction.
The final problem with a faith in evolving morality is that it is inherently an admission of a primitive morality. It seems reasonable and humble for him to say he and society are in a learning process. However, this leaves atheism without a platform on which it can throw darts at other moral perspectives. It is not a platform; it is a log in a fast-flowing river. Hitchens’ book is overwhelmingly a list of complaints about religions and religious types. They are immoral. But Hitchens has proved that he has no idea what morality is. Many of his criticisms happen to be true, but Hitchens has no idea why they are true. And he has no idea when they are false. He seems clear about what is immoral, even as he insists that morality is provisional and will be different tomorrow. It is by wishful thinking alone that the morality of tomorrow will be more moral than the morality of today. It is by wishful thinking alone that the morality of today is not the same or worse than the immorality of yesterday. It is by wishful thinking alone that morality is innate and to be found by plumbing the depths of Hitchenism.
Other Major Flaws in Hitchens’ Thinking
Hitchens does not focus on evolutionary theory in the book, but he depends on it. He is comfortable doing so because the theory has been repeated so many times in so many classrooms and so many newspapers that the majority of people in the West are convinced of its veracity. But the assumptions about evolution are unwarranted. The theory is challenged by a number of intractable problems. Some of the more difficult problems are listed here:
- Science has no idea how organic material came from inorganic. (Technically this is not a problem of evolutionary theory but it certainly is a problem for scientific materialism. And it certainly is a problem for atheism.)
- The Cambrian explosion (a period in earth’s history in which life forms multiplied at a radically faster rate than evolutionary theory can explain).
- The Gaps in the fossil record. Scientists had long expected that evolutionary gaps would be closed as more and more fossils were discovered. What has happened, however, is that the fossils collected from all over the world have only confirmed evolutionary gaps. It is clear the gaps will never be closed.
- Irreducible Complexity. (Organs such as the eye require numerous parts in order to function at all. Evolution cannot explain how a variety of parts, useless individually, would gather and sit for aeons, waiting for the last critical part to show up and enable function.) This is the only problem from this list that Hitchens attempts to address in the book. He presents an argument that requires living creatures to be made up of reserves of of non-functioning parts. The model is contrary to biology.
- The complex sequence specificity of DNA is unexplained by undirected chemical evolution. At this point, the existence of DNA is statistically beyond the explanation of chance. “Applying the Explanatory Filter to life’s origin, we find that the sequence in DNA is neither random (chance) nor regular (law). Instead, it exhibits specified complexity, the hallmark of design.” – Nancy Pearcey.
- The problem of mutations. Evolution relies on the process of beneficial mutations surviving while harmful mutations bring death. However, not all harmful mutations are serious enough to threaten life. Harmful mutations take place at a much faster rate than beneficial ones. Because of this, it is more likely that organisms are all in a slow process of de-evolution or de-construction, rather than a process of self-complication.
- Micro evolution v. macro evolution. The scientific community likes to call species adaptability “micro evolution.” This phrasing is convenient since species adaptability is easily observed. However species adaptability has nothing to do with macro evolution, in which creatures change from one sort of creature into another. Such a change has never been observed.
- The second law of thermodynamics says that the universe naturally moves from organization to disorganization. This makes it difficult to explain how a simple organism that reproduces itself perhaps daily would evolve into a complex organism that requires males and females, and a 9-month gestation period. Humans are much more complex and much more fragile than microscopic organisms. Evolution’s assumption of a march from simple to complex doesn’t take place in undirected nature.
- The radical gap between humans and the next creature in the evolutionary “tree” (which, in itself, is a work of fiction). There are similarities between humans and apes, certainly. But the shocking differences are inexplicable via the evolutionary process.
Each of these problems is a serious challenge to the validity of evolutionary theory. When the problems are added together the theory appears to be fairy tale rather than science. Why has the theory caught on and become so imbedded in world-wide thought? First of all, it is because scientists and educators are professionally shunned and marginalized if they publicly question evolutionary orthodoxy. Secondly, the theory has been so widely distributed and embedded in 21st century culture, that to dispute it is to invite being branded a religious nut and an idiot. It’s much easier to just ride the current. But, most importantly, evolutionary theory leaves the door open for humanism and autonomy. Autonomy is the religion of Self. Giving up autonomy is intellectually just too much of a sacrifice for most people. Evolutionary theory leaves an escape route from the righteous demands of religion. If there is a God, then we must adjust ourselves to him rather than independently decide what we want to believe. Evolution, then, is not really about science; it is a critical paragraph in the Declaration of Humanist Independence.
Vague “Religious” Target
Hitchens doesn’t really define “religion”, though it seems he means any belief system established on the supernatural or depending on a god. Assuming this is his meaning, there are a just a few serious concerns with his attack on the actions of the religious.
- If religion is a construct, all religions are, at best, psychological crutches, or tools for social cohesion but, at their core, false narratives. On the other hand, if one religion actually represents truth, it’s obvious that all the rest would be false narratives. Seeing bad results from religions, as a whole, is no grand revelation brought by atheism. All serious religions already agree that all the other religions are false. With this in mind, 75% of Hitchens’ observations about religion could be correct, even as his fundamental premise about religion itself is catastrophically wrong.
- There have always been imposters, no matter the religion. People often use religion as a means to further their ambitions (just as people have used race or sex or political identity or national identity or tribe or ideology). It is not always easy to tell the sincere from the imposters. If it were, there would be no imposters. Mostly, the religious take one another at their word, since humans are not mind readers. Innocent until proven guilty. Because of this, much blame is laid on the faithful that rightfully should be directed against the faithless.
- Speaking more specifically from a Christian perspective, (though this could be applied to other religions) there is also the issue of maturity. Most come to Christianity without a strong understanding of its doctrines, so it is not uncommon to see true believers badly representing the faith. Taking it a step further, life on earth is understood, in part, as a sanctifying process. The implication of these realities is that Christians are always in the process of maturing, which is to say that even the most mature Christians will have some ideas that are a bit off. This is why they say, semper reformanda.
- Additionally, Christians believe that while on earth they continue to struggle with sin. This means that even when they have good understanding of the truth, they will sometimes fail to conform to that truth. This is not an excuse; it is merely a recognition of the human tendency to act selfishly rather than selflessly. So, again, to look at religious people and say, “You’re a phony because you behave badly,” is to ignore what the faith actually claims. Christians are not hypocrites because they sin; they are Christians because they recognize themselves as sinners in need of being changed.
Hitchens excuses bad behavior in atheists by saying that because they are in the middle of the evolutionary process, they have not reached a state of perfection. But this is the pseudo-evolutionary wishful thinking that morality is progressing in the human community. He seems quite comfortable in using it as an excuse for the atheist while refusing to allow it for the religious. But, if he really believed in his own idea of evolutionary morality, he wouldn’t have a complaint against religions in the first place. He would simply recognize religions as steps toward enlightenment. Of course, taking such a rational, light touch would eliminate the need for the ranting that fills up two thirds of his book.
Religion is the cause of Bad Behavior
Hitchens wants to lay the history of bad behavior at the feet of religion. He ought to know better. Who are the great destroyers in history? Adolph Hitler, fundamentally a humanist racist intent on conquering the world. Death total from World War II? Fifty million people. We can’t blame all this on the Germans. The Japanese own a good portion of the blame, but it all began with Germany. And what about the benefits of atheistic communism in the U.S.S.R. and China? Stalin himself is estimated to have caused the deaths of 20 million people. Mao was responsible for the deaths of 50 million people. Hitchens is right that much evil has been done in the name of religion, but he fails to recognize that much, much more evil has been done in the name of racism or economic ideology or, probably of greatest impact, human hubris and desire for power. The most destructive ideology in world history? Easily, atheism.
People do wicked and foolish things no matter what religion or ideology they may claim. I suppose all religions and ideologies exist because they view themselves as guides for human purpose and behavior. I would argue that any religion or ideology with a significant following does guide its followers into some good behaviors. But every false ideology and religion also has its blind spots, which is what makes them false. One of Hitchens’ complaints about Christianity is that it is made up of laws that no one can keep. But he is not honest enough to recognize how people fail to keep their own rules no matter what they may be. Perhaps, though, this is what makes humanism appealing. One can change the rules on a daily basis to line up with one’s changing preferences. If yesterday’s wickedness is today’s genuine self expression and, therefore, the essence of goodness, the only immorality is to claim that a static morality exists. This is close to where modern morality stands. The great offense today is to say there is truth to which we all must conform. Ironically, while truth itself is dismissed, it has become imperative that people conform to trending morality. In this context, it is clear that Hitchens’ popularity is not on the basis of him being a radical and imaginative thinker, but on the basis of his thinking mirroring the conformist, sophomoric thinking that is so prevalent in Western culture.
There is hardly a page in Hitchens’ book that does not deserve to be contradicted, but there is only so much time in one’s life, so I have limited my review to a few additional issues. These issues are not as critical to Hitchens’ thinking as those already considered but, since he ranges widely in his arguments, it is important to interact with some of them in order to demonstrate the illogic that characterizes his thinking.
Religion & Science
“The attitude of religion to medicine, like the attitude of religion to science, is always necessarily problematic and very often necessarily hostile.” This is nonsense. Christianity affirms the goodness of material creation (even though nature, like humanity, is damaged). We are spiritual beings and physical beings. Science and medicine, when used appropriately, are God’s gifts to us. Science as a discipline recognizes its own provisional nature. This means that all science must be recognized as current understanding, subject to revision. A Christian believes in science as much as any scientist. But scientists today often believe in scientific materialism, a belief that exceeds the scope of real science. Christianity is often at odds with the religious viewpoints of scientists, but Christianity is pleased to be informed by scientific discovery. As a Christian I am often amazed by scientific discoveries but I have never been surprised by them. On the contrary, the more science I read, the more certain I become of the Creator, and the more grateful I am for his care.
Hitchens opines that faith is belief in spite of evidence. This is nonsense. Faith is action taken in the face of future uncertainties on the basis of evidence. All people live by faith. Certainly Hitchens does. He insists there is no God. He places his faith in the evidence provided by the physical universe. His belief is inherently a logical problem, given that God is a spirit. It’s also a questionable conclusion, given that the evidences of design in the universe are ubiquitous. But the point remains that Hitchens gathers his evidences and then orders his life according to his faith. Faith is driven very much by what people see, and people tend to see what they want to see. It takes a great deal of courage and integrity to see what is in front of us every day and not reconstruct it according to our preferences.
Christian faith is not wishful thinking. Beliefs such as: “I am a man trapped in a woman’s body,” are beliefs disconnected from reality. Christianity is the embrace of reality; it is the commitment to conform to reality rather than to wishful thinking.
Yes, Christians do look to miracles as evidence for faith, but Hitchens also misunderstands miracles. Miracles are not sideshow acts at the circus, meant to wow crowds. Christian miracles have two purposes: to give credence to the fact that the one performing the miracle is an agent of God, and to bring justice and mercy to the earth.
I’ve never seen a miracle, and perhaps if I ever do it will strengthen my faith. But not seeing a miracle is of little concern to me.
My faith in the Triune God is based on historical testimonies over millennia, including many writings of wise saints. It is based on the radical transformation of the disciples after the resurrection of Jesus (which is strong evidence that he did rise from the dead). It is based on the conceptual integrity of the Bible. It is based on the honesty of the Bible (particularly its regular revelations of the faults of its heroes). It is based on the Bible’s ring of truth (Mark Twain commented: “It’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that bother me; it’s the parts I do.”). It is based on the positive changes Christianity has made in individual lives over the centuries. Testimonial books can be found from every century and from any country in the world. It is based on Historical impact. Christians, for example, initiated orphanages, schools, and hospitals throughout the Roman Empire. Christians lead the charge to end slavery. Yes, Christians were numbered among those who fought for slavery, too, but humanism has tended towards such things as genocide for the sake of human “improvement”, while Christianity has done the hard work of fighting for universal human equality. My faith is based on the plan of salvation that depends on God’s grace rather than human effort. This makes so much sense, particularly as I have come to know human nature. It is based on observing the creation, both for its beauty and for the secrets of its design, as discovered by scientific pursuits. And finally, my faith depends on how Christian thought stands up against all other ideologies. Christianity can be hard to understand sometimes, but all other ideologies and religions are simply ridiculous. Hitchens’ benevolent humanism, if that’s what it can be called, is self-evidently more ridiculous than any other widely known ideology. The fact that these other ideologies fall apart while Christianity holds together only adds to my confidence in its veracity. So, thank you, Christopher Hitchens, for writing such an irrational collection of incoherent thought.
“Since human beings are naturally solipsistic, all forms of superstition enjoy what might be called a natural advantage.” There is something to be said about the human tendency towards solipsism. Solipsism is essentially how C.S. Lewis imagines hell in his book, The Great Divorce. But it is humanism that is the fertile soil of solipsism, with its doctrine of individuals designing their own truths and their own realities. Religions drive people together despite their differences, and force them to consider a social reality. Religion dismisses solipsism.
“Freud made the obvious point that religion suffered from one incurable deficiency: it was too clearly derived from our own desire to escape from or survive death. This critique of wish-thinking is strong and unanswerable…” Well, sorry. It is wishful thinking to think the objection is unanswerable. I will provide two answers. The first one is that the elimination of religion is equally subject to wishful thinking. It provides the wisher with autonomy and relieves the wisher of the possibility of being judged. The other answer is that wishful thinking may well be a psychological means for shoring up one’s presuppositions. Or it may be an expression of inherent human recognition. Freud should, perhaps, have slowed down a bit and questioned carefully why humans desire to escape death. Why would an accident of a material universe entertain such thoughts? Wishful thinking may represent delusion…and it may represent understanding.
Hitchens does not hesitate to criticize biblical writings, but in so doing he proves himself to have very little understanding of biblical meaning. His approach is to snatch statements out of context, and it’s because he has not studied enough to know contexts. His careless and lazy treatment of scripture undermines his credibility.
I skipped his chapter on the Koran, not because I disagreed with his assertion that it is fundamentally plagiarism from Jewish and Christian theology, but because by that point in the book I was convinced that he was incapable of an honest critique of it. If I want a better understanding of the Koran, I would look to an apologist, not someone who took Koran 101 and assumed this made him an expert.
The Jews Killed Jesus
“One book of the Christian New Testament…blames the Jews for the murder of Jesus.” First of all, more than one book blames the Jews. There has been much historical debate and anger over the question of Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus, but the entire controversy is the raging of dolts and imbeciles. Yes, the Jews killed Jesus. Yes, the writers of the New Testament, with the possible exception of Luke, were Jewish. Yes, nearly all the early disciples were Jewish. Jesus was Jewish. The initiation of Christianity is a Jewish story. All the important players in the story are Jewish—the bad guys and the good guys. A full recognition of the context ought to lead to a sense of thankfulness towards the Jews rather than anger. The New Testament makes it pretty clear, in fact, that the mob murder of Jesus was the result of human sin. No matter when or where, holiness has always been intolerable to the human race.
“One may be forcibly restrained from wicked actions, or barred from committing them, but to forbid people from contemplating them is too much.” This is a simplistic misunderstanding of Christian theology. It is not a sin to experience temptation. Jesus was tempted, and in all the ways that all of us are. There are passages that talk about sinful thinking, such as Matthew 5.28: “I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Jesus is not saying it is a sin to have adulterous thoughts. He is saying that it’s wrong to entertain those thoughts. It’s wrong to ruminate on those thoughts. The point is that thought precedes action and if you think on foolishness long enough it has a way of turning into foolish behavior. Yes, our thoughts need to be guided by truth and love.
Hitchens likes Socrates because Socrates believes conscience is innate and that the gods are unnecessary. “Men and women of real conscience will often have to assert it against faith.” Then he praises Socrates for laughing in the face of the judgment of death put before him by his accusers. As Hitchens puts it, “He proceeds to explain why murder at their hands is meaningless to him. Death had no terror: it was either perpetual rest or the chance of immortality…” Somehow Hitchens does not recognize that Socrates has no idea what awaits him after death. Socrates’ belief about his fate is not strengthened by his proposing two options, both of which may be wrong. The one who would not put faith in the gods still put faith in his own powers of reasoning, and his own imagination about what awaited him.
Hitchens claimed (or confessed) early in his book that “I had already discovered these four objections (as well as noticed the more vulgar and obvious fact that religion is used by those in temporal charge to invest themselves with authority) before my boyish voice had broken.” In other words, Hitchens established a sophomoric worldview (as is common to the young) but never grew out of it. His book of complaints is little more than the recording of a life-long quest for the holy grail as he defines it: proof that religion is false.
In a book entitled, “god is not Great,” Hitchens has failed to define “Great” and he has barely even considered god (or God). What he has accomplished is to thoroughly expose the failures of humanism and scientific materialism. Hitchens’ book, at its core, is an attempt to convince himself that theism, because it is inherently immoral, must be false and must, therefore, have no hold on him. But Hitchens’ explanations for the source of morality are utterly liquid, leaving him and all his fellows with no reason to have complaints about anyone else’s moral formations. This makes it clear that his moral outrage is either a charade or he is actually deluded and is desperately trying to convince himself of his right to autonomy. The outrage he expresses is virtually all founded in Judeo-Christian thought. He can’t seem to see that his complaints against religion are all formed through the lens of religion. He has picked up the two-edged sword of Christianity. He just doesn’t realize he is holding it from the wrong end.