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God is Not Great; How Religion Poisons Everything is Enlightening Polemic for Our Time
Written: Apr 11, 2012 (Updated Apr 12, 2012)
a Very Helpful Review
by the Epinions community
Pros:Beautiful and entertaining polemic, many examples of religious evil deeds, criticizes wide spectrum of religions.
Cons:Narrow focus on ethics based critique of religion. It is not very deep.
The Bottom Line: God is Not Great; How Religion Poisons Everything, by Christopher Hitchens takes you on a journey through the many misdeeds of organized religion.
When my oldest son was three years old, an old lady at the mall asked him what he thought he would get from Santa. His answer was that it probably is the same way with Santa as it is with God, a lie that grown ups tell children to make them behave. Depending on your viewpoint that story is somewhat amusing, unfunny, or even annoying. In general people seem to need religious belief systems and they don’t like their faith being questioned. Despite the fact that the different belief systems in general are incompatible with each other and that it seems to be impossible to determine which one is correct, if any, people of faith are pretty certain in their belief.
A Brief Overview of “God is Not Great; How Religion Poisons Everything”
Christopher Hitchens book “God is Not Great; How Religion Poisons Everything”, is mostly an attack on religion from an ethical perspective and therefore it has a somewhat narrow scope, in my opinion. However, he also discusses the reliability of religious scriptures and the absurdities of theology. He even takes on some of the common, so called, God proofs. However, the book “the Miracle of Theism” by J.L Mackie does that in much greater detail and better.
In this book Christopher Hitchens comes to the conclusion that religion and the churches are manufactured by humans, and that ethics and morality are quite independent of faith, and that religion is immoral because it claims divine exemption for its practices and beliefs. As he states, “those who claim a heavenly warrant for cruelty have been tainted by evil”.
What sets this book apart from many other books I’ve read on the subject, for example, “Why I am not a Christian” by Bertrand Russell, “Tro och Vetande / Faith and Knowledge”, “Tro och livsåskådning / Faith and Views on Life” and “Helvetesläran / The Hell Doctrine” by Ingemar Hedenius, is that he criticizes a wide spectrum of religions and he does that in a fairly entertaining manner.
All the Bad Stuff that Religion Does
As mentioned the main focus of the book is on all the bad things that religion has done and does. He discusses or mentions Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Shintoism, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Baghvan cult, pagan religions, the Aztec religion, and more. He also criticizes things like Astrology and superstition in general.
Religion kills and religion is cruel. He tells us how Muslim hardliners insisted that polio vaccination was a US conspiracy and thus prevented the eradication of polio. He tells us about Fatwas, Islamic theocracies, punishment for apostasy, the millions killed in Sudan by the Islamic regime, Islamic expansionist wars in the past, Islamic anti-Semitism (anti-Jewish bigotry), and censorship (for example Animal Farm is censored because it features pigs). He also tells us about the circumcision of girls, oppression of women, and he blames the mess in Iraq following the US invasion on Islamic extremism.
He also comes down hard on Christianity and he discusses the Catholic church’s support for fascist regimes, its culpability in regards to anti-Semitism, Catholic compliance during the holocaust, and how Mother Theresa opposed the use of contraceptives with horrific consequences for poor women, as well as the church’s ill deeds in the past, and he blames much of racism on Christianity. He tells us about how Tibetan Buddhist leaders oppressed people in Tibet in the past and he tells us about the culpability of Japanese Zen-Buddhists in the atrocities committed by the Japanese military during World War II. He also criticizes religious thinking in general for its extreme scapegoating, opposition to science and enlightenment, and he states that religion substitutes genuine virtue and compassion with religious dogma.
Yeah the examples are many but far from exhaustive, and he is quite convincing when demonstrating that religion is dangerous and that religion kills.
Towards the end of the book he also discusses the argument that secular regimes have been violent and cruel, specifically the Nazis and the Communist regimes, and how that in many religious people’s minds implicates secularism. To that he essentially replies that the negative features of these regimes to a large extent were inspired by religion. Even the Bolsheviks who were against religion sought to replace it rather than eradicate it. Its totalitarian tendencies were very much religious in nature. He also details the Catholic Church’s support of fascist regimes and notes that the leader of one of the nations in the axis, Japan, was a religious leader and a deity. Above all, he implies that secularism in itself does not lead to totalitarianism but that organized religion in itself is inherently totalitarian.
Does Morality Require Religion?
A very common objection to atheism and agnosticism is that if you don’t believe in God, what stops you from stealing and lying and raping and killing to your heart's content? Hitchens lucidly explains why morality and ethics is quite independent of religion. First of all, most of us, perhaps with the exception of psychopaths, possess a natural empathy for other people. Also self respect and the desire for the respect of others demand good behavior. He claims that decency is not derived from religion; it precedes it. He points out that there is no useful statistics regarding comparing the behavior of believers and non-believers but the facts seems show that non-believers are at least as well behaved as religious people. To that I can add that highly secular societies likeSwedenandJapanare quite happy societies with a low crime rate.
On Religious Doctrines and Scriptures
Hitchens describes and criticizes the holy scriptures of some religions, the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Koran. He explains why they are most likely created by humans and not divinely inspired. The Old Testament borrowed from other ancient literary works and the Koran from Jewish and Christian scriptures. He discusses violent and primitive stories and claims, absurd theology, and the fact that the Gospels do not compliment each other on very important details and sometimes even contradict each other. They were also written long after the death of Jesus and there were alternatives. An Omniscient and Powerful God could certainly not have inspired this stuff in any great detail.
“God is Not Great” also presents objections to various theological absurdities in the scriptures and the dangers of religious faith in general including, the abdication of rationality, servility, doctrines resulting in sexual repression, etc.
Jesus Was a Hellraiser
In the chapter “The Evil of the New Testament” Hitchens describes and discusses something that very much connects with my own experiences and mental torments.
When I was eleven years old I read the Bible (the Swedish translation King Gustav V 1917) starting from Genesis 1:1 to Revelation. I was bothered by the fact that so many stories seemed like crazy fables and that they depicted a jealous and vengeful God, not a loving and kind one. However, I was told that the Bible would get better as I moved into the New Testament. I was disappointed.
Not only was I disappointed by the inconsistencies and the strange claims in the Gospels and the New Testament. What was much worse for me was that Jesus was not as nice and all loving as I had expected but he rather seemed intolerant and ill tempered and he made references to Hell and everlasting fire. The Old Testament features atrocities and deadly punishments from God (that probably never happened) but the Hell doctrine is a horror of a totally different magnitude. I should add that some modern English translations translate “Sheol” in the Old Testament as “Hell”, which is not correct. It was not that way in the Swedish translation.
Anyway, the way the Hell doctrine typically seemed to be interpreted, at least when I was a kid, was that all people are sinners and go to everlasting extreme torment after death unless they accept Jesus as their savior. Basically, it does not matter what you have done, or how good or bad you are. It is the choice of religion that matters. Someone who tortures, rapes and kills thousands of people can be forgiven by God, via Jesus, and that without consulting the victims or their families, but the victims will burn in everlasting Hell if they have the wrong religion or no religion. Some refer to this crazy theology as “saved by Grace” and claim that it is wonderful and good news. I cannot think of any worse news.
As the great church father Tertullian said when explaining the pleasures of paradise “one of the most intense pleasures of the afterlife would be the endless contemplation of the tortures of the damned” (page 57 from “God is Not Great”). To that I say to Tertullian; if there is a Hell (which I don’t believe) it only belongs to those who wish it upon others.
However, it is when you start making special exceptions for children and those who have never heard of the Gospel that the absurdities really start piling up. In fact if you believe in Hell you should kill every baby to save them from going to Hell even if it is just one. No sane loving human being can continue believing in Hell as a destination for non-believers, yet that was what the churches of yesteryear did (some still do).
Christopher Hitchens discusses the Hell doctrine and other theological absurdities in this book but not in great detail. There are better books on the subject, for example, “Helvetesläran” (the Hell doctrine) by the Swedish philosopher “Ingemar Hedenius”. I see this as a missed opportunity since the Hell doctrine is the most evil doctrine invented in human history and it has wrought extreme psychological suffering upon hundreds of millions of frightened people.
Final Discussion on Hitchens’ Book
I think that the book is very well written and the organization of the book is good. He is an interesting writer and Hitchens command of the English language is amazing. However, on a few occasions I could not follow him. What does he mean by “religion maximizing solipsism” (the sense that I am the only conscious mind as I understand it)?
His writing style is like that of a polemist and perhaps that of an entertainer rather than a scientist or someone presenting a logical concise argument. Personally I prefer strings of facts, logical arguments, and conclusions if they are attainable. I also think that Christopher Hitchens appear somewhat pompous. Therefore his writing style is not really my personal preference. However, in general I find his argumentation powerful and entertaining. I would not like to argue with him about anything.
I do not entirely like that he for the most part attacks religion from an ethical perspective. It makes for easy reading. However, there are so many other angles from which you can attack religion. Many people still resort to so called God Proofs (ontological, cosmological, teleological proofs, moral arguments for God, arguments from consciousness, and religious experience) and even ridicule non-believers for not seeing the “obvious”. I encounter this all the time and the cosmological argument for a first cause is popular despite the fact that the most advanced forms of all of these God Proofs have been thoroughly debunked by such writers as J.L. Mackie. In fact, in M-theory (modern physics) Multiple Universes (Multiverses) create themselves. Now invoke the anthropic principle and the cosmological argument for a first cause fails.
In addition you can criticize absurdities within a specific theology, use history and science to criticize religion, and focus on the virtue of knowledge and inquiry over faith, etc. As mentioned he does that but not to a great extent.
Ingemar Hedenius, a Swedish philosopher did that in his book “Faith and Knowledge” and “Faith and Views on Life” in which he attacked Christian theology, or specifically Lutheran theology, and criticized it from all angles as he also criticized the concept of “faith” contrasted it with scientific inquiry and rational argumentation. His arguments were devastating to those who considered “faith” a virtue. Ingemar Hedenius’ book was clearly a more well rounded book and in my opinion a better book. However, it was also more challenging reading. Despite that fact the book was instrumental in transforming Swedish society into a more secular society.
It sounds from my criticism as if I did not like Christopher Hitchens book, but I do. This was just a lengthy explanation of why I think the book could have been even better.
I have heard and read that Christopher Hitchens book contains errors so I went on-line to find out more. Some of the alleged errors you will find on-line are misrepresentations of what he is saying and are not real errors. However, it is true that this book contains a few real errors but not many. More importantly they have very little bearing on his arguments. That will not stop some people from saying that theologians like Dr. Mark Roberts make mincemeat of Christopher Hitchens. Well, that is what you call wishful thinking.
Christopher Hitchens attacks religion in general. However, I don’t see his book as an all out attack on all types of spirituality. It is more an attack on organized religion of all kinds. I could imagine “spiritual thinking” without Hell, and without doctrines, without superstition, and without faithful adherents, that is compatible with science, and that emphasize compassion and kindness and the pondering and inquiry regarding the “mysterious beyond” after death.
In summary this was a pretty good book but it was not my favorite book on atheism/agnosticism. I rate this book four stars.
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