Tuesday, January 5, 2010

God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

By Christopher Hitchens, 307 pages.

At the beginning of God Is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens attempts to cloak his book in academic, social scientific jargon so that it reads less like a rant – which it clearly is – and more like a sober, balanced study of religion – which it clearly is not:

In some cases he even resorts to sounding like a philosopher. Thus there exist “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.”

Hitchens engages in his own wish-thinking and misrepresentation. He judges past history by today's standards, thus committing the imperialist's error of universalizing to all times and places his own values. One of the contentions of God Is Not Great is that Christians, Muslims, and Jews do this universalizing towards others. Hitchens never admits to this double standard – so basic to the book – nor explains it. He criticizes the Bible for silly, non-issues:

“[T]he context is oppressively confined and local. None of these provincials, of their deity, seems to have any idea of a world beyond the desert, the flocks and herds, and the imperatives of nomadic subsistence. This is forgivable on the part of the provincial yokels, obviously, but then what of their supreme guide and wrathful tyrant? Perhaps he was made in their image, even if not graven?”

Hitchens' lack of respect for religious believers reflects a common attitude of atheists. Having decided that religious people are stupid, violent hypocrites, he acts as if he has the duty and right to debunk their “stupid” beliefs in as rude, shocking, and disrespectful a manner as possible.

In addition to using words like “yokel” to describe believers, he engages in something that is essential to the bigot's arsenal – crude anecdotalism:

“In 1844, one of the greatest American religious 'revivals' occurred, led by a semiliterate lunatic named George Millar. Mr. Millar managed to crowd the mountaintops of America with credulous fools who (having sold their belongings cheap) became persuaded that the world would end on October 22 that year....When the ultimate failed to arrive, Miller's choice of terms was highly suggestive. It was, he announced, 'The Great Disappointment.'”

In this story, as in many others, the author choses a happening that exposes the supposed falsehood, backwardness, or stupidity of religion and the religious. As an extension of this, he also follows the well-worn path of anti-religionists of cherry-picking the Bible, taking biblical scenes or injunctions out of the scriptural and historical context, rather than at least explaining why certain practices seem so foreign or strange.

Hitchens is equally disrespectful of Islam as he is of Christianity. He displays ignorance about how religious tradition develops and comes to function. He targets with empty though strongly-worded criticism the Islamic hadith, the series of stories about Muhammed and the earliest beginnings of Islam:

“Great chunks of more or less straight biblical quotation can be found in the hadith, including the parable of the workers hired at the last moment, and the injunction 'Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand does,' the last example meaning that this piece of pointless pseudoprofundity has a place in two sets of revealed scripture.”

Given that Islam acknowledges Jews and Christians as “People of the Book” and its own tradition as in some way following on these earlier traditions, why wouldn't Islam have borrowed greatly from the Hebrew and Greek Christian Scriptures?

God is Not Great is not a serious study of religion.

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