I believe in God.
I admire Christopher Hitchens pen.
So why didn’t I rush out to buy god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything when it hit the book stores?
For one thing, I’ve never purchased a Hitchens’ title, even if I regularly visit Hitchens Web for new offerings to savor. Instead of buying the book, whenever I found myself in a bookstore, I’d seek this title out, crack it open, and read a few pages. What I read intrigued me. I finally bought it and read it the other day.
As I read this book, I felt no shame, no desire to rush out and consume as many C.S. Lewis essays as I could lay my hands on, no inexplicable compulsion to shower. To the contrary, while this is an unabashed condemnation of any form of belief in God, and by extension any believer, it is no celebration of secularism. It is a celebration of reason, science, and humanity, all three of which any thoughtful believer ought to be able to “get with.”
One of my first observations about this book is the case of Hitchens’ title. Hitchens lower-cases the word “god.” Does he intend this as some kind of disrespect? Or, is he framing the problem—that all human expressions of belief in God invariably result in religious doctrine that is too often narrowly and erroneously construed and applied with disastrous results? While I think the former is true, I think the latter may be more accurate.
In this anti-religious polemic, Hitchens asserts there are three provisional conclusions about religion:
…[R]eligion and the churches are manufactured, and that this salient fact is too obvious to ignore…
This first conclusion is the most persuasive, and, in my mind at least, the most agreeable. If you have studied biblical criticism, you will enjoy recollections of familiar arguments filtered through Hitchens’ unapologetic, at times even caustic, writing. If you haven’t, this work will make you think.
You cannot conduct a serious study of the Bible’s cannonization, for example, and avoid the role of human choice in the Bible’s content. Prior to the Council of Trent (1545 to 1563), which established the books of the Bible recognized today, there were at least nineteen prior attempts to discern which writings were sacred. This not only makes troubling the claim that “the Bible is the Word of God,” on a more empirical level, it reminds me of a verse in William Blake’s “London” that references religion using the term mind-forged manacles:
In every cry of every man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear.
~William Blake, “London,” from Songs of Experience (1791)
Some interpret this poem as a lament of oppressive government and religion by the down-trodden. Others suggest the down-trodden in this poem have brought this plight upon themselves. After reading god is not Great, I think Hitchens would contend that both interpretations look at the same problem—religion—from different angles.
If the Biblical canon is inspired by God, in it is also the choice of “man”—inspired or not. Hitchens’ beef is that religious leaders’ first obedience is religious doctrine, not science, reason, or even humanity. Moreover, if priests, rabbis, and imams of all stripes have made inspired interpretations of the Bible, the Talmud, the Qur’an… there are most certainly a number of unfortunate, poorly deliberated ones as well. One of my favorite passages in the book deals with the duplicity of the Catholic Church over the doctrine of divorce:
Take a single example, from one of the most revered figures that modern religion has produced. In 1996, the Irish Republic held a referendum on one question: whether its state constitution should still prohibit divorce. Most of the political parties, in an increasingly secular country, urged voters to approve of a change in the law. They did so for two excellent reasons. It was no longer thought right that the Roman Catholic Church should legislate its morality for all citizens, and it was obviously impossible even to hope for eventual Irish reunification if the large Protestant minority in the North was continually repelled by the possibility of clerical rule. Mother Teresa flew all the way from Calcutta to help campaign, along with the church and its hard-liners, for a “no” vote. In other words, an Irish woman married to a wife-beating and incestuous drunk should never expect anything better, and might endanger her soul if she begged for a fresh start, while as for the Protestants, they could either choose the blessings of Rome or stay out altogether. There was not even the suggestion that Catholics could follow their own church’s commandments while not imposing them on all other citizens. And this in the British Isles, in the last decade of the twentieth century. The referendum eventually amended the constitution, though by the narrowest of majorities. (Mother Teresa in the same year gave and interview saying that she hoped her friend Princess Diana would be happier after she had escaped from what was an obviously miserable marriage, but it’s less of a surprise to find the church applying sterner laws to the poor, or offering indulgences to the rich.)
~Christopher Hitchens, god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, pages 17-18
This passage illustrates a very recent example of selectively applied Church doctrine, one standard for the modern, Irish descendants of the nameless, faceless people in Blake’s “London,” another for the rich and celebrated. Hitchens does a remarkable job of compiling and recounting examples like this, and the effect is highly persuasive, but to most believers, this argument will do nothing to shake-up faith. It is easy to recognize the role of human fallibility through the course of Biblical history, and many Christians I know have balanced their Biblical study with such criticism.
Ethics and morality are quite independent of faith, and cannot be derived from it…
Where this deontological argument is concerned, Hitchens fails to mention what surely must be a palpable sense of discomfort in looking across the life raft that is his position to see Dr. Laura Schlessinger paddling along in rhythm with him. The only difference between Hitchens and Schlessinger is that where Hitchens’ moral code derives from a priori reasoning about the nature of things, Schlessinger’s derives from her Jewish faith. Hitchens’ emphasis on science and reason as the bedrock of ethical choice is reminiscent of Immanuel Kant’s idea that moral rightness comes from acts that further the status of people as free and rational beings. (Hitchens also commits an entire chapter to the idea that there is no metaphysical—ontological—justification for religion.)
Arguably, ethics and morality can exist in an absence of religion, but to claim that ethics and morals cannot be derived from religion is to crawl perilously far out on the branch. There are a host of studies that suggest otherwise. Still, to dwell on this is to miss Hitchens’ larger point: while examples of religious doctrine that frees people to utilize reason and science as the central premise in decision-making do not exist, examples of religious doctrine that constrain individual freedom and discourage ideas based on reason and science do.
Because it claims a special divine exemption for its practices and beliefs, Religion is not just amoral but immoral…
At this, Hitchens unleashes his own brand of shock-and-awe argument. For those who can get past the repulsion and insult, the real target of his ire becomes apparent: it is not religion in its entirety, but the kind of religious doctrine that prohibits free and rational thought, and worse, the application of this doctrine in political and legislative contexts. When Religion breaches the concept of Separation of Church and State, the result is almost always disastrous: Jihadism, condemnation of AIDS prevention through condom use, prohibition of Federal Stem Cell research, elevation of Intelligent Design as a science… his examples are legion. These are the incoherencies of religious doctrine upon which atheists like Hitchens thrive, at once my intellectual fallacy and embarrassment.
As a man who believes in God, Hitchens’ god is not Great is a great read if for no other reason than it proves that after more than 200 years, Blake’s mind-forged manacles exist still.