God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
by Christopher Hitchens
Twelve, Copyright 2007
320 pages, hardcover
Review by Jim Walker
I have often wondered about Christopher Hitchens position in favor of the Iraq war, especially considering the subject of his new book and his admitted atheism, when you consider that the idea of preemptive war came about, in large part, as an invention from ancient religious minds. Even George W. Bush has used religious justification for the war in Iraq, the very same war that Hitchens favors. Even though he now sees the failure of the Iraq war, he still champions the idea that the United States should go around the world overthrowing dictators that they don't like (as evidenced by his admission to this in a Charley Rose interview about this book). Not too surprisingly, Hitchens doesn't go into his war dance in his new book because it doesn't fit the subject (or because he secretly realizes his error and wants to change the subject).
In spite of his incomprehensible position on war I do find lots to agree with in "God is not Great." Not that the book doesn't have flaws, mind you. For example, he makes a mistake about the sexual nature of Jews when he writes, "Orthodox Jews conduct congress by means of a hole in the sheet." I can find nothing that establishes this in Jewish culture or religious practice. It appears that he got this meme directly or indirectly from the movie, "Like Water For Chocolate." (I made a parody about the marriage sheet with the hole in it in my Gift ideas for religious people.) He also doesn't seem to realize the role of "positive" Christianity in Nazi Germany (a term the Nazis invented) that outweighed any movement toward a pagan Nordic cult, especially in Hitler's mind.
[Addendum: To Hitchens credit, he has since recogonized the Jews "sex through a hole in a sheet" as an urban legend and has removed this section from future editions. (see: Transcending God)]
In spite of these and many more minor flaws, I did enjoy Hitchens searing wit and sarcasm. He goes much further than Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins in debasing religion. Interestingly, many critics of Dawkins try to paint him as mean spirited and fundamentalist atheist, yet anyone who has ever read his books and seen his lectures and interviews knows that he comes off as thoughtful, kind and shows great humor. Hitchens, on the other hand, comes off as downright belittling, and I love it! About time, I say, but his belittling has good reason behind it. As Thomas Jefferson once wrote, "Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions." Hitchens ridicules with wit, and I suspect that many of his put-downs will go over the heads of many religious people. For example, look how Hitchens reduces Aristotle's gods and the last remaining god of monotheism:
Aristotle, whose reasoning about the unmoved mover and the uncaused cause is the beginning of this argument, concluded that the logic would necessitate forty-seven of fifty-five gods. Surely even a monotheist would be grateful for Ockham's razor at this point? From a plurality of prime movers, the monotheists have bargained it down to a single one. They are getting ever nearer to the true, round figure.
When Hitchens writes about why heaven hates ham; the hazards of religion, in war, health, and politics; orthodox Jews that suck the bloody penises of little boys; and the false metaphysical claims of religion, the reader cannot fail to understand the poison of religion. Nor does Hitchens criticize only Christianity but he equally attacks Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. All religions fall under Hitchens axe because superstitious thinking cannot possibly solve any of the worlds problems, and in fact, creates many of them. Anyone who holds to any of these religions will have to answer the many questions that Hitchens poses, most of which probably never even occurred to them. For this reason alone, anyone who owns a religious belief should read this book.
The media teaches that Saddam Hussein's regime was secular in nature, but Hitchens reports that Saddam enjoyed a long relationship with Islam's mullahs, that he inscribed the worlds "Allahuh Akhbar" "God Is Great" on the Iraqi flag, and sponsored holy warriors, built mosques, and murdered thousands of people in his "Operation Anffal" borrowing a term from the Koran.
Readers will feel shocked to learn of the existence of Hindu and Buddhist murderers and sadists, how Buddhist and Shinto priests trained the suicide bombers, or Kamikaze, in WWII, and a form of Hindu suttee that recommends "suicide" of widows, and lots more.
Much of the book covers the old standbys of atheist reason: the reason why arguments from design doesn't work, why secularism works better than religion, and how religion kills. Hitchens also covers the origins of the monotheistic religions and reveals that these ancient shamans knew very little about the world. How could any modern person substitute pre-scientific texts such as the Bible and the Koran in favor of science that has revealed vast knowledge about the macro and micro universe?
I also love how Hitchens equates religion with solipsism several times in the book (something that theists love to throw at nonbelievers). Although Hitchens doesn't give the reasons why religion practices soliphism, if you think about it, theists have concern only for themselves and their fellow believers (damn those that don't convert). Religion comes entirely from the mind of believers and solipsism claims that knowledge only comes from the self. This fits religion to a tee because their only source about god and the supernatural comes from holy scriptures, written by fallible men, or from their own selfish minds. Nothing about supernatural religion comes from outside the mind; it comes entirely from the self, the very essence of solipsism.
Hitchens also poses the question that originated with Dawkins: "Is religion child abuse?" Considering the teachings of threats of hell, the idea of eternal torture, and the sin of sexual feelings, how many young minds have undergone depression, suicidal feelings, and at its opposite, rebelled to become sadistic rapers or killers in later life? Hitchens forces us to contemplate the untold systematic rape and torture of children, abetted by religious hierarchy, that has happened for centuries as the church stood above allowed criticism.
For these reasons and more, Hitchens wants people to examine the claims of religion and to demand accountability. He realizes that religion has run out of justifications and offers no explanation of anything important. Religion creates the very conditions that could very well wipe off the human species off the planet. To this end, he wants us to know the enemy and to prepare to fight it.
A few quotes from the book:
There still remain four irreducible objections to religious faith: that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking.
We are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe: we have music and art and literature, and find that the serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Shiller and Dostoyevsky and George Eliot than in the mythical morality tales of the holy books. Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and -- since there is no other metaphor -- also the soul. We do not believe in heaven or hell, yet no statistic will ever find that without these blandishments and threats we commit more crimes of greed or violence than the faithful.
We atheists do not require any priests, or any hierarchy above them, to police our doctrine. Sacrifices and ceremonies are abhorrent to us, as are relics and the worship of any images or objects (even including objects in the form of one of man's most useful innovations: the bound book).
Religion Spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago.
If you will devote a little time to studying the staggering photographs taken by the Hubble telescope, you will be scrutinizing things that are far more awesome and mysterious and beautiful--and more chaotic and overwhelming and forbidding--than any creation or "end of days" story.
As for consolation, since religious people so often insist that faith answers this supposed need, I shall simply say that those who offer false consolation are false friends.
The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species. It may be a long farewell, but it has begun and, like all farewells, should not be protracted.
As to the Anglican Church into which I was originally baptized, it may look like a pathetic bleating sheep today, but as the descendant of a church that has always enjoyed a state subsidy and an intimate relationship with hereditary monarchy, it has a historic responsibility for the Crusades, for persecution of Catholics, Jews, and Dissenters, and for combat against science and reason.
Saddam Hussein had decked out his whole rule--which was based in any case on tribal minority of the Sunni minority--as one of piety and jihad. . . . Saddam had inscribed the words "Allahuh Akhbar"--"God Is Great"--on the Iraqi flag. He had sponsored a huge international conference of holy warriors and mullahs, and maintained very warm relations with their other chief state sponsor in the region, namely the genocidal government of Sudan. He had built the largest mosque in the region, and named it the "mother of All Battles" mosque, complete with a Koran written in blood that he claimed to be his own. When launching his own genocidal campaign against the (mainly Sunni) people of Kurdistan--a campaign that involved the thoroughgoing use of chemical atrocity weapons and the murder and deportation of hundreds of thousands of people--he had called it "Operation Anfal," borrowing by this term a Koranic justification--"The Spoils" of sura 8--for the despoilment and destruction of nonbelievers.
I can think of a handful of priests and bishops and rabbis and imams who have put humanity ahead of their own sect or creed. History gives us many other such examples, which I am going to discuss later on. But this is a compliment to humanism, not to religion.
The true believer cannot rest until the whole world bows the knee.
[R]eligion is not unlike racism. One version of it inspires and provokes the other.
Archbishop Lancelot Andrewes, during the celebrated "Black Death" in London in 1665, noticed uneasily that he horror fell upon those who prayed and kept the faith as well as upon those who did not. He came perilously close to stumbling upon a real point.
The human papillomavirus (HPV) has long been known as a sexually transmitted infection that, at its worst, can cause cervical cancer in women. A vaccine is now available--these days, vaccines are increasingly swiftly developed--not to cure this malady but to immunize women against it. But there are forces in the administration who oppose the adoption of this measure on the grounds that it fails to discourage premarital sex. TO accept this spread of cervical cancer in the name of god is no different, morally or intellectually, from sacrificing these women on a stone altar and thanking the deity for giving us the sexual impulse and then condemning it.
At least two major and established religions, with millions of adherents in Africa, believe that the cure is much worse than the disease. They also harbor the belief that the AIDS plague is in some sense a verdict from heaven upon sexual deviance--in particular upon homosexuality.
I pose a hypothetical question. As a man of some fifty-seven years of age, I am discovered sucking the penis of a baby boy. I ask you to picture your own outrage and revulsion. Ah, but I have my explanation all ready. I am a mohel: an appointed circumciser and foreskin remover. My authority comes from an ancient text, which commands me to take a baby boy's penis in my hand, cut around the prepuce, and complete the action by taking his penis in my mouth, sucking off the foreskin, and spitting out the amputated flap along with a mouthful of blood and saliva.
In Ireland alone--once an unquestioning disciple of Holy Mother Church--it is not estimated that the unmolested children of religious schools were very probably the minority.
The connection between religious faith and mental disorder is, from the viewpoint of the tolerant and the "multicultural," both very obvious and highly unmentionable.
It is a tragic and potentially lethal irony that those who most despise science and the method of free inquiry should have been able to pilfer from it and annex its sophisticated products to their sick dreams.
There can be no doubt that the cult of death and the insistence upon portents of the end proceed from a surreptitious desire to see it happen, and to put an end to the anxiety and doubt that always threaten the hold of faith.
Augustine was a self-centered fantasist and an earth-centered ignoramus: he was guiltily convinced that god cared about his trivial theft from some unimportant pear trees, and quite persuaded--by an analogous solipsism--that the sun revolved around the earth. He also fabricated the mad and cruel idea that the souls of unbaptized children were sent to "limbo."
One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody--not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms--had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance, and other infantile needs). Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion and one would like to think--though the connection is not a fully demonstrable one--that this is why they seem so uninterested in sending fellow humans to hell.
You can believe in a divine mover if you choose, but it makes no difference at all, and belief among astronomers and physicists has become private and fairly rare.
The harder work of inquiry, proof, and demonstration is infinitely more rewarding, and has confronted us with findings far more "miraculous" and "transcendent" than any theology.
[R]eligion teaches people to be extremely self-centered and conceited. It assures them that god cares for them individually, and it claims that the cosmos was created with them specifically in mind.
Why do people keep saying, "God is in the details"? He isn't in ours, unless his yokel creationist fans wish to take credit for his clumsiness, failure, and incompetence.
[T]here is the very salient question of what the commandments do not say. Is it too modern to notice that there is nothing about the protection of children from cruelty, nothing about rape, nothing about slavery, and nothing about genocide? Or is it too exactingly "in context" to notice that some of these very offenses are about to be positively recommended?
The Bible may, indeed does, contain a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre, but we are not bound by any of it because it was put together by crude, uncultured human mammals.
[T]here has not been a claimed resurrection for some time and no shaman who purports to do it has ever agreed to reproduce his trick in such a way as to stand a challenge. Thus we must ask ourselves: Has the art of resurrection died out? Or are we relying on dubious sources?
The action of a man who volunteers to die for his fellow creatures is universally regarded as noble. The extra claim not to have "really" died makes the whole sacrifice tricky and meretricious. (Thus, those who say "Christ died for my sins," when he did not really "die" at all, are making a statement that is false in its own terms.)
[I]t is only in the reported observation of Jesus that we find any mention of hell and eternal punishment. The god of Moses would brusquely call for other tribes, including his favorite one, to suffer massacre and plague and even extirpation, but when the grave is closed over his victims he was essentially finished with them unless he remembered to curse their succeeding progeny. Not until the advent of the Prince of Peace do we hear of the ghastly idea of further punishing and torturing the dead.
Even a glance at the whole record will show, first, that person for person, American freethinkers and agnostics and atheists come out the best. The chance that someone's secular or freethinking opinion would cause him or her to denounce the whole injustice was extremely high. The chance that someone's religious belief would cause him or her to take a stand against slavery and racism was statistically quite small. But the chance that someone's religious belief would cause him or her to uphold slavery and racism was statistically extremely high, and the latter fact helps us to understand why the victory of simple justice took so long to bring about.
When priests go bad, they go very bad indeed, and commit crimes that would make the average sinner pale. One might prefer to attribute this to sexual repression than to the actual doctrines preached, but then one of the actual doctrines preached is sexual repression. . . Thus the connection is unavoidable. . .
[A]n extraordinary number of people appear to believe that the mind, and the reasoning faculty--the only thing that divides us from our animal relatives--is something to be distrusted and even, as far as possible, dulled.
Conceivably, some readers of these pages will be shocked to learn of the existence of Hindu and Buddhist murderers and sadists. Perhaps they dimly imagine that contemplative easterners, devoted to vegetarian diets and meditative routines, are immune to such temptations?
The curse of Abraham continues to poison Hebron, but the religious warrant for blood sacrifice poisons our entire civilization.
We cannot, like fear-ridden peasant of antiquity, hope to load all our crimes onto a goat and then drive the hapless animal into the desert. Our everyday idiom is quite sound in regarding "scapegoating" with contempt. And religion is scapegoating writ large.
If religious instruction were not allowed until the child had attained the age of reason, we would be living in a quite different world.
The record of syphilitic and other infection, from rotting rabbinical teeth or other rabbinical indiscretions, or of clumsy slitting of the urethra and sometimes a vein, is simply dreadful. And it is permitted in New York in 2006! If religion and its arrogance were not involved, no healthy society would permit this primitive amputation, or allow any surgery to be practiced on the genitalia without the full and informed consent of the person concerned.
"Child abuse" is really a silly and pathetic euphemism for what has been going on: we are talking about the systematic rape and torture of children, positively aided and abetted by a hierarchy which knowingly moved the grossest offenders to parishes where they would be safer. Given what has come to light in modern cities in recent times, one can only shudder to think what has happening in the centuries where the church was above all criticism.
[T]he object of perfecting the species--which is the very root and source of the totalitarian impulse--is in essence a religious one.
An infinity of punishment awaits you even after you die. According to the really extreme religious totalitarians, such as John Calvin, who borrowed his awful doctrine from Augustine, an infinity of punishment can be awaiting you even before you are born.
Calvin's Geneva was a prototypical totalitarian state, and Calvin himself a sadist and torturer and killer, who burned Servetus (one of the great thinkers and questioners of the day) while the man was still alive.
The urge to ban and censor books, silence dissenters, condemn outsiders, invade the private sphere, and invoke an exclusive salvation is the very essence of the totalitarian.
[I]t is certainly not a coincidence that the Catholic Church was generally sympathetic to fascism as an idea.
The connection of the church to fascism and Nazism actually outlasted the Third Reich itself.
If the appalling heresy of believing that Emperor Hirohito was a god was ever denounced from any German or Italian pulpit or by any prelate, I have been unable to discover the fact.
Thus, those who invoke "secular" tyranny in contrast to religion are hoping that we will forget two things: the connection between the Christian churches and fascism, and the capitulation of the churches to National Socialism. This is not just my assertion: it has been admitted by the religious authorities themselves.
Philosophy begins where religion ends, just as by analogy chemistry begins where alchemy runs out, and astronomy takes the place of astrology.
All major confrontations over the right to free thought, free speech, and free inquiry have taken the same form--of a religious attempt to assert the literal and limited mind over the ironic and inquiring one.
Religion has run out of justifications. Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, it no longer offers and explanation of anything important.
[C]onfronted with the undreamed-of vistas inside our own evolving cortex, in the farthest reaches of the known universe, and in the proteins and acids which constitute our nature, religion offers either annihilation in the name of god, or else the false promise that if we take a knife to our foreskins, or pray in the right direction, or ingest pieces of wafer, we shall be "saved."
One Putting It Mildly
Two Religion Kills
Three A Short Digression on the Pig; or, Why Heaven Hates Ham
Four A Note on Health, to Which Religion Can Be Hazardous
Five The Metaphysical Claims of Religion Are False
Six Arguments from Design
Seven Revelation: The Nightmare of the "Old" Testament
Eight The "New" Testament Exceeds the Evil of the "Old" One
Nine The Koran Is Borrowed from Both Jewish and Christian Myths
Ten The Tawdriness of the Miraculous and the Decline of Hell
Eleven "The Lowly Stamp of Their Origin:" Religion's Corrupt Beginnings
Twelve A Coda: How Religions End
Thirteen Does Religion Make People Behave Better?
Fourteen There Is No "Eastern" Solution
Fifteen Religion as an Original Sin
Sixteen Is Religion Child Abuse?
Seventeen An Objection Anticipated: The Last-Ditch "Case" Against Secularism
Eighteen A Finer Tradition: The Resistance of the Rational
Nineteen In Conclusion: The Need for a New Enlightenment
- To obtain this book, click below:
God Is Not Great
Other books by Christopher Hitchens:
Thomas Paine's Rights of Man (hardcover) 2007
Thomas Jefferson: Author of America (hardcover) 2005
Why Orwell Matters (paperback) 2003
The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice (paperback) 1997