A couple weeks ago, I finished a book which is a few years old but makes a point which is far older. The book is God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens and its point is that God’s almost certainly not there and is a real jerk if he somehow is. According to the famed atheist, the idea of a real God or gods is capable of stifling human development, oppressing human desire and robbing human joy. Though Hitchens would’ve vehemently disagreed with the historical veracity of the account, this assertion is as old at least as the serpent’s words in Eden.
I’ve always loved Hitch. In my most devout days, he was and still is my favorite of the recent atheist Rottweilers. Admittedly, the man was caustic in his approach, but his words bit so hard because he’d sharpened them on a constant feast of illustrious experience and widespread, passionate reading. With his death, we lost one of our wittiest, clearest and sincerest writers. Insulting or not, Hitchens believed his every word about disbelief right to the end.
God is Not Great shows he understood an argument can never be won by pure logical deconstruction. We are narrative creatures and need a story to ground our facts in. I’ve yet to read Dennett’s Breaking the Spell or Dawkins’ notorious The God Delusion but, from what I know about both those men, their antitheistic literature would tend to the more scientific and philosophical side of things. Hitchens was a journalist first so most of his arguments are by anecdote, either personal or historical.
Far from the caricatured atheist stereotype a number of theistic apologists perpetuate, Hitchens is a humanist through and through. His arguments against religion are deft because of their earnest desire for human flourishing and dignity. Maligning him as someone who wants to see the decay of human morality and social mores is to utterly misunderstand his message. He may, at times, be too vitriolic for his own good but he should be commended for his dedication to human rights even if he’s a bit rough around the edges for the more puritanical.
When it comes to the injustices perpetuated by religious influence, Hitchens is as strong as they come. For someone who holds to an occasionally fragile form of religious belief myself, I was often left shaking my head or even sickened at the evils which have transpired in the name of God and proselytization. But perhaps most interesting of all were his stories about religion forming so quickly around shams and charlatans.
There is a set of indigenous people who, when visited by some cargo ships, built a religion around the coming and eventual return of the gods who visited them on these cargo ships. They’ve built docks and they’re still waiting for the cargo ships but they ships are not coming back. Also, there’s a story of a medieval Jewish candidate for the long-awaited Messiah position, with dedicated followers aplenty, who converts to Islam once certain death is hung above his head by the powers that be.
But when it comes to biblical analysis, I was surprised by the blunted blade of his exegesis. He interprets scripture like a fundamentalist which isn’t surprising given his book seems to largely be a polemic against fundamentalism. But, prior to reading Hitchens’ book, I’d inhaled quite a few sophisticated theological and exegetical tomes, both liberal and conservative. It disappointed me to see Hitchens had apparently done no such thing.
This lowest common denominator interpretation of the Old and New Testaments left me wanting more as I could see plenty of the biblical “evils” he discusses explained away by a simple look at larger ancient societal, linguistic and literary contexts. I’m not of the “nothing barbaric happens in the Bible” camp; there are definitely quite a few incidents in the Old and New Testaments which raise my eyebrows and turn my stomach. But if your argument hinges on the misinformation and vaguely illiterate judgmentalism propagated by belief, it would help to not be so misinformed and vaguely illiterate when it comes to the topics you’re attacking.
Luckily, the terms “misinformed” and “vaguely illiterate” aren’t even close to applicable to Hitchens as a whole. I enjoyed his research and beautifully brutal prose. Upon finishing the book, I felt I’d finished the work of a learned and enigmatic person but certainly not a prophet. His arguments went in hills and valleys and I think Hitch would be glad I didn’t take his word wholesale. After all, doing so would be to feed into the same devoted impulse which, according to the author, poisons everything.