I finally got around to reading Hitchens’ book debunking all forms of religion. I must say that I found it curiously unsatisfying. It is hard to put my finger on the reasons since I agreed with almost all the things he said.
The book seeks to show that religions (he focuses mainly on Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism) are basically frauds initiated by charlatans and con-men, perpetrated on gullible people, and perpetuated by huge religious vested interests that either make a lot money out of the religion racket and/or use it as a form of coercion to suppress dissent (both in thought and practice) often in collusion with corrupt governments.
The book looks at the sacred texts of these religions (Bible, Koran, Book of Mormon) and shows how they are riddled with contradictions and inaccuracies and downright barbarisms, are very parochial in their thinking, of extremely doubtful historicity, and the product of many writers and editors, polishing and changing to suit their own needs and to achieve largely self-serving political and social goals.
The book also looks at the founders of these religions (Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Joseph Smith) and either finds little or no evidence for their actual existence (no evidence at all for Moses and little for Jesus) or if they occurred later enough that their existence could be at least partially corroborated (Muhammad in the 7th century) or fully corroborated (Joseph Smith in the 19th century), contemporaneous records indicate that they were likely self-serving con-men who founded movements and doctrines that conveniently coincided with their own interests and personal gain.
All this is well and good and I have no quarrel with any of it. I think that what bothered me about the book was the unevenness of its writing, coupled with a certain amount of pretentiousness. Everyone, including critics of his views, says that Hitchens is a brilliant writer and I get the feeling that this has gone to his head, so that he tries too hard to live up to that reputation, dropping esoteric references to erudite works and inserting unfamiliar phrases in French and Latin without translations. I find him to be a good writer when he is in good form but have never been overwhelmed by his alleged brilliance. In this book, there are some very good passages mixed with others that seem to lack coherence, a product of either laziness or bad editing.
He also has some annoying verbal tics. For example, he frequently refers to human beings (especially those he does not approve of) as ‘mammals’ instead of ‘people’. This is, of course, true but it is still jarring to read.
The book also flits from topic to topic, not going into much depth, and taking shots all over the place. It is a polemical book, which is fair enough. But it seems to be simply a collection of pot shots taken at religion. Let’s face it, religion is an easy target: it is full of internal contradictions, free of evidence for its preposterous claims, lacking contact with reality, riddled with barbarities, profoundly anti-science, and its history is awful. Taking broad swipes at it as Hitchens does is bound to hit the target somewhere, just like firing a shotgun at a dense flock of birds is sure to bring down something as long as one aims in the general direction. But it is not pretty.
I personally prefer the rapier skills of writers like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett or Victor Stenger. They are the authors of more tightly argued books, which carefully lay out the premises and claims of religion, and then proceed to systematically demolish them.
Perhaps it is no accident that these other writers are scientists while Hitchens is not, and I am partial to science-based critiques of religion. I believe that it is science that is steadily demolishing the case for religion and god and thus scientists are best situated to deliver these blows. Science is advancing all the time, explaining the previously inexplicable and giving ever more reasons to not believe in god. In contrast religious apologists have no new arguments and still trot out those proposed by apologist religious philosophers from centuries or millennia ago, people who could only plausibly claim make their cases at a time before Newton and Darwin and Einstein, when the world seemed a lot less comprehensible than it does now. Even then, these philosophers’ claims have to be reinterpreted and limited to take into account modern scientific developments.
So while Hitchens’ book is a quick and easy read (I finished its nearly 300 pages over a weekend) and I can recommend it, it is not a book that will be on my reference shelf to be periodically sought for fresh insights.
When reading a book I like to mark out for future reference good passages that make a point tellingly. There are some in Hitchens’ book that are very good and I have used them in previous posts. But sadly, he had only a very few passages that struck me as worth preserving.
God is Not Great is a good book, worth reading, but I expected much better. Perhaps that is my fault.
POST SCRIPT: Dan Savage in South Carolina