Some thoughts on God is not Great, Christopher Hitchens

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.

The positive

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.

The negative

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.

Crude examples

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?


10 thoughts on “Some thoughts on God is not Great, Christopher Hitchens

  1. Whether organized religion operates for good or ill is to some extent not related to the beliefs it is supposed to be a vehicle for. It’s more about structure. Very few religious organizations can be considered in any way democratic. Much like corporations or police departments, or fascist regimes, some are totalitarian, some oligarchic. The general tendency for such organizations on average, over time, is going to be negative, emphasizing such things as power, wealth and stability for those high in the organization. It is perhaps worse in religious organizations, because those high in the organization tend to get defined as having God’s favour and therefore beyond reproach and needing no safeguards or checks on their behaviour or authority.

    Perhaps what the religious need is the same thing polities and economies need: Organizations controlled from the bottom up with freedom and openness front and centre.

    Dennis replies: Thanks for your contribution. Comments anyone?


  2. To confuse “religion” with “spirituality” is to make the mistake of confusing the package with its contents. It’s like confusing “science” with “truth.”

    Religion is simply the external rituals and trappings used to express an internal spirituality searching for and expressing truths of the human condition. Science is engaged in the same quest – a search for truth – and, like religion, comes complete with its own dogmas to guide that quest.

    People often make the mistake of thinking either science or faith must be an infallible guide to truth without realizing that both are essential to satisfy a human being’s restless heart. Neither religion nor science is particularly noble in and of itself, and the exaltation of one based on the denigration of the other is a failure to understand both.

    The excesses and evils resulting from men and women of the church ‘playing God’ with the lives of others are well known. Less well known, perhaps, are the excesses and evils resulting from scientists who become convinced they possess absolute truth. One need only think of eugenics and other scientific fronts for racism, biological warfare, nuclear weapons and so on to realize that the Converts of the Congregation of Science also play God with other people’s lives. For every monstrous deed perpetrated in the name of religion, one can point to equally monstrous deeds perpetrated in the name of science.

    For example, every weapon of war is a result of the application of at least a rudimentary science. Yet, we do not abandon science because its application (misapplication I would argue) has caused so many deaths, and continues to do so in our own time. Every bomb dropped and every bullet fired in every war can be traced to a science lab. Nor do most people condemn scientists working in military death industries as walking in darkness. Similarly we do not abandon religion because it has been abused by so many. The scientist who condemns the religious fanatic for holy war is always willing to turn a blind eye to the fact scientists like himself provide the weapons for such wars.

    The simple fact of the matter is that without goodwill or some sort of morality that recognizes the ‘other person’ as the equally deserving of respect and compassion as ‘my self,’ both religion and science become hideous caricatures of something intended to better the human condition. Those who exalt one while turning their backs on the other deform themselves.

    I feel sorry for people who rant and rave about the wickedness of organized religion while proclaiming the gospel of science as a religion of pure truth. In so doing, such people have, unfortunately, become like the religious fanatics they so vigorously condemn. They do not realize that if they remove the log from their own eyes, they will be able to see the speck in the other’s eye much more easily.

    “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth…” John Paul II


  3. @Purple Library Guy – that’s a pretty broad generalization about religious organizations. Not all of them are structured like the Catholic Church! I can’t speak for non-Christian faith groups, but there are many different models among Christian churches. Reformed or Presbyterian churches, for instance, are very democratic. In the Reformed Church, the highest decision making body is created every year through delegations of regional church groupings, each of whom is elected by their own church. The pastor is an employee of the church, responsible to the elected church council, and does not get to make decisions regarding worship, pastoral care or administration on his or her own. And as I’m sure the author of this blog post could tell you, it’s hard to be less hierarchical than the Quakers!

    While there are some very authoritarian Protestant traditions, it’s also true that the Reformation created a sense of each person alone with God and their conscience that provides a countervail to any totalitarian tendencies of the church hierarchy.


  4. Response to response:
    I have been involved in three different church denominations in many different communities and found them to be very democratic with elders/deacons voted into leadership positions, just as with a union or political office. Your description of our organizations doesn’t bear any resemblance to anything I have seen. In the contrary, I have seen the the turmoil in one church that came from a very democratic visioning process, which could never have taken place in a totalitarian society. I don’t doubt that there are churches where people have exerted authority and sought wealth, but your impressions are not everyone’s experience with church life.


  5. A most interesting article. But in my opinion it concentrates too much on problems that humans encounter while being governed by their fellow human beings. And further, by the way that people rationalize ill treatment of each other. And of course those problems are evident in actions of people who still claim to be a member of various religious communities. All religions I know of teach love and peace so those nasty actions, to me, are simply human failings. My problems with religion arise from holy books that talk of peace and love and yet in those same holy book from this God of love and mercy we hear people talk of being afraid of that same God. We hear of an eye for an eye vengeance -type of admonitions. We hear from Christian religion, for example, where the bible says that homosexuality is an abomination. We read in Leviticus 25:44 that it’s fine to own slaves. And in Deuteronomy 23:2 helpless, innocent children “born out of wedlock” are called bastards and they and their offspring are doomed to Hell for generations to come. Other religions have the similar types of problems that I find difficult to accept and cause me to seriously doubt and accept them.

    Yet I know that most religions espouse noble ideals and lead people into actions that are selfless and most admirable indeed. It’s most unfortunate that so many of us can’t seem to sift out the problems in their religion and reach for the noble ideals.


    1. Hi Randy,
      It might help to realize that the Bible is simply a collection of books written by various people at various times trying to communicate their experience of God, individually or collectively, as an active player in human history. That does not mean everything attributed to God in the Bible must be true or was dictated by God to his earthly secretaries. A look at the genocidal campaigns ‘ordered’ by God (Book of Joshua) in the conquest of the ‘Promised Land’ is a prime example! Who could worship a God that orders the wholesale destruction of every man, woman and child, not to mention animals, of a conquered people? Similarly, there are also various injunctions and commands in the Old Testament we find repugnant, including those dealing with homosexuality, slave owning, and so on.

      Two points need to be understood by the “Christian” in dealing with such depictions of God. First, Jesus was a prophet (and much more than ‘just’ a prophet) and is proclaimed Son of God by his followers. As such, he ‘speaks with authority’ and some of his most notable speeches in the New Testament present a radical reinterpretation of the Mosaic Law which provided the Old Testament rational for wiping out entire populations, gays, and so on.

      Jesus brought a ‘new law’ and it is the law of love. As a Christian, I have great respect for the Old Testament because Judaism was the cradle of Christianity, but I am not obligated to accept or believe that God ever orders genocide. My understanding of God is shaped first and foremost by Jesus’ teaching. It is Jesus’ revelation of God (love one another, forgive enemies, do good to those that hate you), not the terms of the Mosaic Law detailed in the Pentateuch, that guides the Christian. Of note is the fact that Old Testament prophets also raised their voice in protest against the excesses of their day. Indeed, the prophet Micah said that all God required of us was to ‘love kindness, do justice and walk humbly with God.’

      Secondly, most so-called Christians who rant and rave against homosexuality are hypocrites who are really practicing ‘cafeteria Christianity’ wherein they ‘pick and choose’ what parts of the Bible they accept. The homophobia of the Old Testament is part of the Mosaic Law and those who use it as the basis for their homophobia should be consistent and follow the whole law, not just the parts they like.

      Thus, people who use the Bible as a cudgel against gays and lesbians are just old-fashioned hypocrites unless they also approve of owning slaves, the right of a father to sell his daughters into slavery, the ‘unclean-ness’ of menstruating women, offering burnt offerings of bulls, rams, and other animals, stoning those who work on the Sabbath and so on. All of these deeds and more are mandated in Leviticus. To simply pick homosexuality out of this list of ‘crimes and commands’ in Leviticus while ignoring the other commands shows a desire to promote hate, not Christianity.

      Jesus, like prophets before him, rejected the notion that God was a horribly cruel and vengeful tyrant. He and the prophets argued, against the conventional wisdom of their time 9and ours it often seems). Jesus and the prohpets proclaimed that God was slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

      The same struggle goes on today. Those who condemn gays, people of other faiths, and say every word in the Bible is the literal truth are, in fact, proclaiming a vengeful God full of hate. They also mark themselves as opponents of Jesus. They are free to do that but, for those who take the time to study what Jesus was all about (read the New Testament) such hate-mongering is about as far from Jesus and the reign of heaven he proclaimed as it is possible to get.

      In Jesus’ radical reinterpretation of the Mosaic Law (most detailed in Matthew and Luke), the love of neighbor is equated with the love of God and made the primary command of daily living. As well, Jesus said the most important parts of the law were justice, mercy and faith. This is a far cry from the Book of Joshua in which God orders genocide. Similarly, Jesus said he would not refuse a humble and contrite heart, and that he came so that the world might have life and have it abundantly. Jesus’ revelation of God leaves no room for homophobia or hate in any form, and those who hate place themselves at odds with Jesus and the religion founded in his name.


  6. Ten years ago, I would have applauded Hitchens (and Dawkins and Sam Harris) as fighting the good fight for responsible rationality. Like them, I was a frustrated “modernist” who could not understand how otherwise sensible, ostensibly rational, people could adhere to theism and/or an organized religion. Unlike Hitchens, I had (I thought) good reason to feel self-righteous as I had been a staunch believer myself and had even spent several years in a Roman Catholic seminary many decades ago.

    It took a number of (recent) years of concentrated study and exposure to new ways (to me) of doing philosophy combined with a sincere desire to find a way out of the “prison of logic” within which I felt bound, to change my mind. Today I have a profoundly different view of theism and religion and, more importantly, I am now able to meet people of faith on much more respectful and constructive terms.

    The key to my transformation, which may or may not apply to others, is difficult to express in simple terms, because these are complex and difficult issues. Were I pressed, I’d say that when I was in my “Dawkins” phase, I was limited by “expectations of uniformity,” whereas today, I live by “expectations of difference.” Whereas I used to approach a Catholic, for example, with an implicit understanding that this person would be a Catholic the way I was a Catholic, the way everyone is a Catholic and that this person’s belief were identical to my own, when I was a Catholic. To me all knowledge and belief was a single cloth. Prove one strand faulty and it all failed. That strand for me was the existence of God and unless a believer were willing to argue God’s existence successfully, their entire religion would be rendered incoherent. This is likely similar to Hitchens’ et al’s thinking, as well, and we were both wrong. Worse, we were also complicit in doing harm to people of faith in our self-righteous pronouncements. In sum, to this piont, I view Hitchens, et al, in their writings on the subject of God and religion, to be morally culpable because they are self-righteously oblivious to the potential for harm among those who read or hear their polemics.

    Their failure is one of imagination. Not being able to imagine how the other can hold views so apparently different from one’s own can be taken not as a simple declarative statement “I cannot imagine being an atheist (or theist),” but rather, as an admition of failure; one that begs the response: “Perhaps you’re not trying hard enough.”

    I see the core, underlying problem as resulting from failed attempts to square modernist ways of thinking about rationality with the apparently contradicting lived personal experiences that defy its strictures. The modern philosophers–Descartes and Kant, especially–presented the western world with a definition of rationality that has served science very well, but it falls far short of being the gold standard, the be all and end all of what we choose to call knowledge. It relies on assumptions of uniformity–that humans all share the same abilities to name and access evidence in order to demonstrate that a claim is true or false–forever and always. This helps us understand why we are continually surprised at the ways others are different from us–that some are theists and others, atheists, as one example. But even those claims imply one definition of theist and one definition of atheist.

    I advocate for replacing expectations of uniformity with expectations of difference. In mine (and many others’) view rationality was not handed down to us by God. Men like Kant made it up and sold it to us. That’s why it’s so male (cool, unemotional) so white (Kant did not believe that Blacks or women could be truly rational) and so European (note that millions of other people developed their own philosophies in Asia, for example. But thanks to European imperialism, European rationalism became the world standard. In recent decades, modernist rationalism has been thoroughly and compellingly critiqued by dozens of contemporary philosophers–mostly women (see Kant, above, for possible reasons why this is the case) and found wanting. In its place, those who choose to expand their imaginations are left with the more–to me, at least–intellectually satisfying (if ambiguous, troubling and–to many like me–humbling) idea that knowledge does not transcend its knowers. That people make knowledge uniquely in each case, and indeed, they become who they are as uniquely, mostly in relation to others (persons are the product of other persons, as some philosopher would put it). And yes, I am speaking of relativism, but again, this is not a standard interpretation of relativism–the one that scientists and religious believers alike dread as being a license for “anything goes.” Far from it. This view requires more work, more care in establishing the best truth for the purposes at hand and not, like Hitchens, et al, attempting to find the sole Truth to guide all human intercourse.

    In short, to the steadfast readers who have ventured this far, Hitchens, in attempting to use scientific rationalism as a weapon against religion, was misapplying a limited tool to an entirely inappropriate purpose. Rather than hammering away with the same polemics, over and over, Hitchens’s allies and others like him need to stop talking and start listening. Stop assuming you know what theism means to theists and how religion informs the lives of a people of faith. Because you don’t know. You can’t know until you engage that person in a conversation and you won’t accomplish that if you are not open to what they say. To be open, you need to suspend your belief in Rationality and assume differences and not uniformity; you need to consider the possibility that you do not know people of faith in spite of what you think they believe. I find very useful a simple technique for engaging with people of faith. I ask: “How does your faith inform your life?” And I listen to their answers. We then begin a conversation that has far greater potential for a constructive outcome than the one Mr. Hitchens and his fans pursue(d).

    One final word. I would identify myself as an atheist but I did not like or admire Mr. Hitchens. I found him, like Dawkins, bombastic and overflowing with unfounded self-righteousness. Worse, he and the others can (could) have no idea of the potential harm they might be doing because they did (do) not believe there can be any harm in presenting what they believe is a universal truth. In this, they are deeply and profoundly misguided.

    Dennis replies: Thanks Jim, and others. This is becoming a very good conversation.


  7. The complex person who was Christopher Hitchens is aptly discussed by Mel Watkins in his article at StraightGoods. He was someone who was for the rights of Palestinians and who opposed water boarding. He was a bully, a member of the Hoover institute and did not care about making reforms for the ordinary folk.

    I think Christopher Hitchen overestimated the importance of religion. Behind all the religious wars is the economic engine. During the reformation the ruling class wanted the lands of the Roman Catholic Church and to stop paying taxes to Rome. They got what they wanted out of the reformation. During that time when the people took their religion seriously and started an anarchist/communist area, the ruling class raised up an army and killed them all. Even Calvin ruled with the permission of the moneyed people. A permission that they would have withdrawn if he had not relented and permitted usury. Now it is oil they want, so Islam is vilified.

    People who have experienced, or believe that there is something other than the material world explained by Newtonian physics, whether is is a major, minor, or somewhere in between religion, whether it is the people who have seen UFOs, experienced ghosts, E.S.P., Bigfoot or the scientist who theorize that there is other universes or dimensions that we do not fully understand, know the atheist is wrong. Our attempts to find out what that something is, what it is like, and to have some contact with it, is religion. For myself being religious is doing good (truth, justice, fairness, kindness and etc.) Like most people I switch sides all too often.

    Science has its limits. If you listen to the CBC series on ” How to think about science,” It is saying to me that science is more about human psychology than it about finding the objective truth. Take for example gold standard of a peer revue paper. It is reviewed by people who think like (s)he does,been educated by the same people (s)he has , and hold the same theories that (s)he does. Anyone who has a different theory or strange theory will not be taken seriously or ignored.

    An atheist I would prefer to read myself, because he has worked for “the people” is Michael Parenti who wrote “God and His Demons”.

    Dennis replies: Thanks for you comment David. It adds to to valuable and thoughtful discussion by other readers, one occasioned by the death of Christopher Hitchens.


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