In his most recent book, God Is Not Great: Why Religion Poisons Everything, Hitchens joins the cadre of proselytizing atheists currently cross-examining religious texts and traditions in an attempt to demonstrate both the superiority of science and secular humanism to religion, and the gross delusion of those who insist on perceiving a transcendental presence in the world. Hitchens himself experienced a kind of conversion in recent years, abandoning his column at the Nation in a well-publicized spasm of apostasy from the left to emerge after 9/11 as a pugnacious defender of interventionist foreign policy in general and the war against Iraq in particular. Indeed, if we are to take Hitchens at his word, his new book was written to combat the resurgence of superstition and religious fanaticism exemplified by the rise of Islamic jihadismand also to some extent by Christian evangelicalism, Jewish millennialism, and Hindu fundamentalism. Hitchens says he is out to defend secular pluralism and … the right not to believe or be compelled to believe. This defense, he warns, has now become an urgent and inescapable responsibility: a matter of survival. (It isnt clear just who is forcing Hitchens to disavow his atheism.)
Where to begin with a book that is so comprehensively wrongheaded, riddled from cover to cover with errors and misconceptions? Ill start with its authors nearly evangelical fervor about Darwin. Hitchens insists, with overbearing certainty, that human life is the accidental product of a random, purposeless process, and only our vanity and fear of death cause us to think otherwise. Like the Darwinist popularizers Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell), he dismisses religion as an infantile fixation, a remnant of the childhood of our species. It is time for the deluded to grow up and embrace the self-evident truths of science, especially evolutionary biology.
As many philosophers have pointed out, however, Darwinism cannot explain the origin of the universe, the origins of life, or the existence of the laws of nature. Nor can Hitchenss dogmatic materialism explain consciousness, free will, intentionality, or the fundamental intersubjectivity that characterize our everyday experience of the world. As the philosopher Thomas Nagelno friend of religion himselfwrote in disputing Dawkinss The God Delusion, a solely materialistic conception of reality just doesnt compute. The fear of religion leads too many scientifically minded atheists to cling to a defensive, world-flattening reductionism, Nagel observes. Human beings, he reminds us, have more than one form of understanding. The great achievements of physical science do not make it capable of encompassing everything, from mathematics to ethics to the experiences of a living animal. We have no reason to dismiss moral reasoning, introspection or conceptual analysis as ways of discovering the truth just because they are not physics.
It is precisely the world of moral reasoning, introspection, and conceptual analysis to which religion gives expression. Hitchenss denigration of illiterate and primitive peoples in God Is Not Great reveals an enormous ignorance about the moral and philosophical sophistication of our ancestors. Symbolic reasoning is not confined to mathematics and the written word, but has often found expression in totemism and other seemingly irrational beliefs. Yet the idea of religious ritual as a form of knowledge, or possibly even truthone obviously closer to poetry than to philosophical proofnever occurs to Hitchens. Though he presents himself as a champion of the ironic and inquiring against the literal and limited mind, frequently he sounds like a petulant adolescent who demands every poem he reads be paraphrased in order to make its meaning plain.
As a consequence, he tosses off countless howlers, like describing the Catholic belief in the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine of the sacrament of the Eucharist as pretending to eat human flesh and drink human blood, in the person of Christ himself. Not even the most untutored Catholic thinks he is participating in an act of cannibalism when receiving communion. Eating the bread and drinking the wine is a symbolic action, one in which Christ is understood to be present in the form of bread and wine, yet for believers nevertheless really present. Where Hitchens sees only the prose of religious practice, more learned and curious observers recognize complex symbol systems that enable practitioners to grasp reality as a whole while daring to hope that life has a personal meaning, not merely a material existence.
And so to all the witty and necessary things that have been said about the dangers and crudities of religious belief, God Is Not Great adds not one memorable line or phrase. The problem lies partly in its authors bellicose attitude, but also in the limitations of what comes across as a strangely impoverished imagination. Hitchens seems to think that educated Christians and Jews remain biblical literalists, and he sees scripture and religious ritual as failed attempts to explain how the natural world works, explanations we can now rely on science for. But religion is not a primitive form of physics or engineering. As sociologists and anthropologists have demonstrated, religion addresses the social world, not the natural one. As for biblical literalism, the inadequacy of that approach to scripture was evident to St. Augustine 1,600 years ago. Even the fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan, of Scopes trial fame, recognized that the days of creation referred to in Genesis had to be interpreted symbolically. (The anti-evolutionary stance of many contemporary evangelicals is at bottom less about the science than about the social and moral implications of Darwinian notions like the survival of the fittest. Who determines what is taught in the public schools is also a major concern for evangelicals.) No intellectually serious Jew or Christian is under the impression that human life began in a garden or that the first humans were misled by a talking snake. No, the believers whom Hitchens excoriates are not the literalistsHitchens himself is.
One of Hitchenss most risible contentions is that even the actions of great mammals such as Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran theologian executed in 1945 for his role in a plot to kill Hitler, are better understood stripped of their religious pretensions. (In making his case against the solipsism and vanity supposedly inculcated by religion, Hitchens repeatedly and annoyingly refers to his fellow homo sapiens as mammals, to drive home the fact that humans are animals, something he falsely believes religion denies.) His airbrushing of history transfigures the achievements of King and Bonhoeffer into triumphs of humanism, not Christian faith.
Even those who share Hitchenss contempt for religion may consider this sleight of hand a kind of vandalism, if not outright sacrilege. According to Hitchens, furthermore, King was only a nominal Christian, because he forgave those who persecuted him instead of condemning them to hell. Like so much of what Hitchens writes, this is a smirking punch line, not an argument. Yes, Christianity long promulgated a rather terrifying doctrine of eternal damnation for sin. Hitchens, however, fails to acknowledge the complementary doctrine of infinite forgiveness, best expressed in Christs own words on the Cross, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. Indeed, reading Hitchens on morality or religion reveals a stunning theological illiteracy. The description of Bonhoeffers faith as an admirable but nebulous humanism fails to understand that Bonhoeffer (like King) was indeed a humanist, but he was a Christian first. Its possible to be both: in fact, for a Christian its required.
God Is Not Great is stuffed with tendentious nonsense; readers venturing into Hitchenss diatribe will find themselves misinformed everywhere, and in brazenly opportunistic ways. Jesus both wished and needed to die, Hitchens insists, which gets the traditional theology exactly backward. The Jews invited hatred and suspicion by proclaiming Israel to be Gods chosen peoplea hoary canard that ignores the fact that the God of the Bible also made a covenant with the people of all other nations, and that his covenant with the Jews made them not privileged overseers, but a light unto other nations. Many pages are devoted to denouncing the atrocity of male circumcision as well as the hideous consequences of the masturbation taboo, the latter of which is surely the most unenforceable and least observed of religious strictures.
Elsewhere Hitchens gets caught up in tangled contradiction. Aware, for example, that his deterministic naturalism cannot offer a rational guide for morality, he urges us to turn to literaturebut turning to literature to escape religion is like thinking you can go for a swim in the ocean without getting wet. And when he urges us to replace religion with unfettered scientific inquiry and its promise of near-miraculous advances in healing, one wonders exactly how unfettered he wants Pfizer or Biogen or the nuclear industry to be. Hitchens advertises himself as a pugnacious skeptic, yet his irony melts away into Chamber of Commerce cheerleading when he conjures up our glorious technological future. Perhaps he was carried away by the inevitable corollary of this familiar rationalist utopian fantasy, namely, the final divorce between the sexual life and fear, and the sexual life and disease, and the sexual life and tyranny. Well, as long as the antibiotics hold out, I suppose.
There is a curious moment halfway through God Is Not Great when Hitchens, in an attempt to sympathize with those he has so exuberantly disparaged, confesses that he himself once succumbed to the false allure of religion. Seduced by the unquenchable yearning of the poor and oppressed to rise above the strictly material world and to achieve something transcendent, he placed his hopes and trust in Marxism, specifically in its Trotskyite sect. Eventually, however, he realized that the longing for a total solution to humanitys problemsa longing he now insists is the essence of the religious instincthad led Marxist true believers to commit or excuse the most appalling crimes. Those of us who had sought a rational alternative to religion had reached a terminus that was comparably dogmatic, he writes. Comparably? Surely the dogmatism and violence of Soviet totalitarianism, like that of the other totalitarian movements of the twentieth century, far outdistanced that of any traditional religion.
Such oversights may be more tactical than careless. Assessing the political implications of religion, Hitchens shows himself to be a tricky rhetorician. For instance, it is a commonplace to note that Stalinism and Nazism tried to replace religion, and in doing so appropriated many of its functions. Hitchens argues that totalitarians were murderous because their ambitions were religious in natureand religious because they were totalitarian. Such tautological trickery ignores the fact that these were explicitly atheistic regimes, determined to destroy all competing centers of authority or power. Traditional Christianity and Judaism contain a profound ambivalence about the uses of political power, but atheistic totalitarianism had no such ambivalence about the unchecked power of the state. Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars, and to God the things that are Gods is not the dogma of a totalitarian. Hitchens is under the impression that he has outgrown his need for the type of total solution Marxism offered, but in reality all he has done is exchange the scientific materialism of Marx for the equally crude materialism of scientism. Thus he is able, in fewer than 300 pages, to dispense with a phenomenon whose study has filled libraries. Case closed.
Amazingly, God Is Not Great offers itself as a kind of ideological primer for Americas global war on terror. [I]t has become necessary to know the enemy, Hitchens writes, and to prepare to fight it. Indeed, Islamic jihadism is a serious threat, but a limited one. Hitchens is right that we must know our enemy in order to defeat him. As we are now in a protracted fight with certain Islamic zealots, it is crucial to understand their thinking and their grievances, if for no other reason than to better anticipate their actions. Alas, the contempt and vilification Hitchens lavishes on his religious enemies are no substitute for real knowledge. And since he thinks religion is nothing more than stupidity, credulousness, and fear, he has little incentive to learn any more about Muslim believers than he does about Christians.
Unrepentant in his advocacy of the war in Iraq, Hitchens continues to defend the credibility of the Bush administrations accusations regarding Saddam Husseins weapons of mass destruction and collaboration with al-Qaeda. It is one of the unintended ironies of this book that while religious belief can be airily dismissed with quips like exceptional claims demand exceptional evidence, the standard for taking a nation to war is evidently less stringent.
Finally, beyond identifying this or that particular enemy, the larger question remains: Is ridding the world of religion the best way to preserve secular pluralism and freedom of conscience? Would the world in fact be a better, freer place without religion? I doubt it. In the history of the United States alone, for instance, committed religious believers were instrumental in the struggle for independence and a constitutional democracy, the abolition of slavery, the fight for womens suffrage, and the victories of the labor and civil rights movements. In Poland and elsewhere in Europe, meanwhile, the victims of totalitarianism found solace and a focus for resistance in the surprisingly empowering illusions of religion. So have many devout Chinese.
Like any other enduring human activityscience, sex, baseballreligion can be misused, and Hitchens is in good company when he denounces religious violence, intolerance, and obscurantism. But his contention that religion has always and everywhere been the enemy of civilization and human dignity is absurd. Many politically engaged modern thinkers are far more cautious in assessing religions moral and political value. Czeslaw Milosz, Polish poet and Nobel laureate, who knew what it was like to live in a society organized around the concept of a total solution, would have recognized Hitchenss effort to extirpate religion as a total solution in its own right. For me the religious dimension is extremely important, Milosz said. Piety protects us against nihilism.
Vaclav Havel, who also lived under a regime dedicated to a purely materialistic philosophy, is convinced that conscience falters without a transcendent referent. Democracy, Havel argues in The Art of the Impossible, must rediscover and renew its own transcendental origin. It must renew its respect for the nonmaterial order which is not only above us but also in us and among us. The loss of this respect, Havel writes, always leads to loss of respect for everything else.
The political lessons of the murderous twentieth century are quite the opposite of those Hitchens puts forth in God Is Not Great. Our democratic faith that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights is not a proposition that unaided reason, evolutionary biology, or history can easily vindicate. Asked for evidence that all men are created equal and endowed with certain rights, we do not and cannot look to scienceand least of all to Darwin.
Like religion, a belief in the inherent dignity and sanctity of human life is a truth revealed to us in ways that science can neither confirm nor deny. Thomas Jefferson, a thinker Hitchens likes to quote as a critic of religion, asked if the liberties of a nation [can] be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? It has been mankinds nearly universal instinct to link the respect we owe each other to the obedience owed the creator, an obedience that is guided by reason, not by ignorance or superstition. Hitchens provides us with little evidence that his ersatz religion of materialism, evolution, and unfettered scientific progress will anchor those liberties more soundly.