Writer Christopher Hitchens has died at age died at age 62. One of his most popular and controversial books is God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. In a guest column for this blog, Eric Schiller, a Quaker and a retired University of Ottawa professor, writes about the book and analyzes Hitchens’ attack on organized religion.
Eric Schiller’s comments on Christopher Hitchens
This is the first book that I have read by an atheist since I read Bertrand Russell’s, Why I not a Christian, in seminary. Hitchens’ title is one of a new breed of books by outspoken atheists. It is probably not one of the most balanced of the lot. One should probably look at others such as Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, or Sam Harris’ The End of Faith. In any event I think that to read some opposing views from time to time can be stimulating and maybe even useful.
This is not a book for the faint of heart (or the faint of faith), but if you want your faith challenged and possibly even strengthened, then give it a go.
First of all, let us freely admit the good points of the book. Hitchens has done exhaustive work on most of the modern religions. He has catalogued in distressing detail many of the foibles and outright cruelties of organized religion over the years. They are indeed multitudinous. If anything, he left out some of the most egregious examples of religious misdeeds in the conquest of the Americas both in the North (our colonialism) and in the South (the Conquistadors).
As an aside, let me recount a meeting that I often have with a friend. From time to time he confronts me with, “You know Eric, I think that in the history of religion, more harm has been done than good.” I usually do not argue with him on this point.
Another commendable aspect of the book is that Hitchens equally dispenses of all religions without fear or favour. He even includes in his critique, religions that he has previously professed, i.e. Judaism.
Having granted the above points, the book is still disturbingly biased. One should not take this as an objective and balanced treatment of religion. This is especially important because Hitchens makes constant appeal to science and reason. He claims that whereas religion is hopelessly biased and distorts the truth, his point of view is objective. Let’s take a look:
The title of the book
God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Consider that word Everything. This simply means that no good can come out of religion, because it poisons Everything. Hitchens has lots of horrific tales of religion, as for example in chapter 2 ‘Religion Kills’, but really, does it poison everything? This is a bombastic statement and the book is full of such bombast.
As a result of the claim in the title of the book, Hitchens is at his most defensive when he encounters examples that may show that religion does not in fact “poison everything”. When dealing with people like Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Bonhoeffer and some more credible religious groups (dare I mention various faith groups struggling for peace and justice?), Hitchens simply decides to downplay or minimize their contributions. When examples are especially bothersome, it seems as if he decides to just ignore them all together (Bishop Tutu, Jimmy Carter).
Hitchens attacks religion
Religion is the form taken when people organize their spiritual lives within a structure. The book might have taken a different tack if he had decided to come to grips with spirituality.
Hitchens constantly brings up the crudest, weirdest and most outrageous examples of religious behaviour. Granted there are many such examples to draw from, but in so concentrating on these examples, Hitchens fails to acknowledge the more lofty and wholesome currents of religious thought and action. For more on this, see Karen Armstrong’s many writings and her movement to emphasize “compassion” in the world.
No evolution of thought
Hitchens cannot seem to see the evolution in religious thought. Religion can’t be getting any better, according to him, because it is inherently false and must therefore die, or perhaps become even worse. More sympathetic souls have seen a growing trend from ancient religious magic (where people believed they could influence the gods by ritual acts) to a grander view of a religion of awe and mystery to finally an emerging view of universal ethics, as espoused in a new understanding of compassion to all and a view of universal human rights. It is true that lots of remnants of the old warlike, nationalistic, tribal religions remain and they seem to be still alive and well. In the end, it seems to be a matter of where you to want put your emphasis and how you want to interpret the world.
Does not understand mythology
Hitchens often takes religious stories literally and ridicules them. Myth making is one of the most universal traits of humankind. It has ancient roots and is still a feature of organized human behaviour. Basically all myth finds its origins in the historical events of a people. The mythical story is then retold in the community. In this retelling, the values of the community are cemented into the recurring story. This is in fact one of the strengths of mythology. The story embodies the community’s values and the mythical story is thus a teaching device to pass on the community values to succeeding generations. Myths are not to be taken literally. They are symbolic stories that tell of commonly held values in a concrete way, but to get lost in the details of the story is as they say, “to myth the point”.
Secular regimes no better
Historically, secular regimes do not seem to have fared any better than religious regimes. For example, Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Stalin’s communist Russia were not religious, but were capable of horrendous acts. So if religious regimes have been capable of terrible behaviors, so have secular regimes. What we have here is a universal human condition. We will somehow have to learn to control outrageous human behaviour that can lead to a terrible repression of others. Sometimes this destructive human behaviour can be exacerbated and enflamed by religion, but at other times religious impulses can bring out the best in human consciousness. I think the founding of the state of Pennsylvania by the Quakers can be an example of the latter.
Four views of God
All views of God or the divine can be placed in one of four camps:
– The fundamentalists of no matter what religious tradition believe that they have the whole unvarnished truth. All others fall short and really need to be brought into the fold, or in the worse case be obliterated.
– Liberal, moderate believers. Here we find the religious humanists. They are inclined to believe in the presence of the divine, but do not claim to know all the details of this mystery. They realize that others perceive the nature of God in their own culturally determined way as well.
– Religious agnostics. Their life experience has led them to believe that there probably is no God. They come up with other explanations for the mysteries of life. Both liberal religious people and agnostics admit that they cannot ultimately prove their positions. They are therefore willing to tolerate the various conflicting views of others.
– Religious atheists. They are absolutely sure that there is no God. They cannot comprehend the foolishness of others who persist in believing in the God concept.
Religious fundamentalists and atheists have some traits in common. They are both absolutely sure that hey have found eternal truth about all matters relating to God. Since they have found absolute truth they a have a very hard time tolerating others who have not yet been enlightened.
In reading Christopher Hitchens I have met a religious atheist. He is sure that he is right and mocks others who hold to the idea of the divine. I would prefer conversing with an agnostic, but then the world is made up of all kinds is it not?