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Jan 24 2008

Review: God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens

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

Dan Savage reports from South Carolina just before the Republican primary, and then has an amusing discussion about his experiences there with religion on Bill Maher’s show.

12 comments

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  1. 1
    Brock

    I’m not sure I’d really be bothered by the use of “mammals” in place of “people”. It seems like an intentional jab at the religious presupposition that homo sapiens are innately more “special” than other animals, that whole “make in god’s image” nonsense. So I don’t mind the frankness. But I suppose if the text around it is at all pretentious, it could become grating.

    In some ways, I prefer the term “meatbag”, championed by the assassin droid HK-47 (the best Star Wars character ever). He probably picked it up from Bender of Futurama. Maybe it’s only funny if a condescending robot says it though.

  2. 2
    Mano

    In which film did HK-47 appear? I was a big fan of the older three SW films (4,5,6) but was turned of by episode 1 and never watched the remaining two.

  3. 3
    Brock

    You’re forgetting that a lot of the Star Wars universe is outside the films. HK-47 is from the excellent video game, Knights of the Old Republic (on both PC and Mac).

  4. 4
    Mano

    Brock, you are being too kind by suggesting that I was “forgetting” this fact. Actually I was never aware of it which shows how much stuff there is going on that never enters my world.

  5. 5
    Chad

    How is religion anti-science? I am a religious man and am majoring in computer engineering… really a science/math degree. Many christians believe that evolution is the work of God.

    Science and Religion do both break down but at different points. In religion, we cannot explain to you where God came from. We must assume that he always existed. However, for those who believe in evolution as the sole reason that we exist, they must also make an assumption. Those people must assume that the matter that makes up our universe always existed. Both lead to things where they cannot be explained.

  6. 6
    Mano

    Chad,

    It is hard to answer your question without you specifying what you mean by religion. When you say “many christians believe that evolution is the work of god”, what does that mean exactly? That god created all laws (including those governing evolution) right at the beginning of the universe and did nothing at all after that? Is that what you believe?

    The idea that there is a Magic Man, some kind of supernatural agent who can do amazing things that violate the laws of nature and yet be undetected, is profoundly anti-science.

    If god does not do anything at all, then the world is indistinguishable from one in which he does not exist. Then questions of where he comes from are irrelevant.

    Science does make assumptions. And there may be certain questions that are very hard to answer, that we have not as yet answered, and may be even may not be able to answer. But we never rule them out. And we never appeal to holy books for answers.

    The idea that just because there may be some questions that science cannot answer means that it is perfectly reasonable to believe in a Magic Man just defies logic. It is like saying that just because I cannot explain how my computer works in detail, that makes it perfectly reasonable to postulate that it is run by gremlins.

    One thing is clear. Science does not allow for the intervention in the universe of a Magic Man. If your version of religion has that feature in any form, however disguised, then it is anti-science.

  7. 7
    Rob

    Having read both _The God Delusion_ and _God is not Great_, I completely agree with this review. Where Dawkins seemed incisive and tough, Hitchens seems petulant and contemptuous. Reading his cheap shots was like watching someone on my team foul the other guy by punching them. Sure, it feels a little bit good, but dirty.

    If I imagine myself as a religious person reading Dawkins I think I would feel uncomfortable, disturbed even. Reading Hitchens I would just be mad.

  8. 8
    Chad

    You need to be fair when considering God.

    You say:
    Science does make assumptions. And there may be certain questions that are very hard to answer, that we have not as yet answered, and may be even may not be able to answer. But we never rule them out. And we never appeal to holy books for answers.

    It is not a magic MAN. I believe him to be something greater than man. Fossil records have shown big jumps in the evolutionary chains. I believe these “jumps” are the work of God.

    How do you know that science will not prove the existence of God? Ruling it out as completely false is anti-science. There has been no proof that he does not exist. I don’t look at the Bible as a history book. I believe that many of the things in the bible are symbolic in nature. I go to the things that I have seen and the things I have felt in my heart. How do you know that God did not create the matter that makes up the universe?

  9. 9
    Chad

    Just because rules of science describe the things on the earth does not mean God does not exist. He created the rules of science when he created the universe.

  10. 10
    Chad

    Ruling out something that you cannot disprove is anti-science. In order to be a good scientist, you must keep an open mind.

  11. 11
    Mano

    Chad,

    It looks like you are using god as an explanation for the things that science has not been able to explain as yet. Such a “god of the gaps” is a god who has been, and always will be, in constant retreat as science explains more and more.

  12. 12
    Jp

    Chad,

    If you accept that some questions cannot (yet) be answered (e.g. about jumps in the fossil record) and you use the same hypothesis (the existence of an intervening God) to explain these wherever they crop up – from theoretical physics to evolution – what would constitute, for you, definitive disproof of the existence of God?

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