In his controversial best-seller god is not Great, Christopher Hitchens employs the lowercase g for God throughout the book as an apt symbol of his fierce atheism. He is no fan of any religion. The book, however, also reveals what the Oxford educated Hitchens does believe about the ultimate nature and meaning of life. Isn’t that also a faith?
Christopher Hitchens, Man of Faith
by Charles Strohmer
I‘m not a fan of polemics and sardonic wit, but I tend to set that aside for Christopher Hitchens. In the February and March 2001 issues of Harper’s, the contrarian essayist argued that Henry Kissinger should be tried as a war criminal, and he has been strongly critical of some of Mother Teresa’s influence and of the filmmaker Michael Moore. But his most widely discussed contrarian position was taken in 2001 and 2002 when he joined liberal hawks, neoconservatives, and President George W. Bush to support the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a position he still strongly defends.
English born, Hitchens is bullish on America. He has lived in the States since 1981, raising his family, and is now an American citizen. His byline can be found virtually any month in any one of dozens of publications, including Vanity Fair, Slate, The Atlantic Monthly, and The New York Review of Books. And he knows that how we think is at least as important as what we think.
I did wonder, however, if his provocative book, god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, would speak to me. It did, but not in a way I expected, and probably not the way Hitchens expected it would. But first a word from the book. “God did not make man in his own image. Evidently it was the other way about, which is the painless explanation for the profusion of gods and religions, and the fratricide both between and among faiths, that we see all about us and that has so retarded the development of civilizations.” That’s one of the tamer examples whereby the self-described, life-long anti-religionist let’s everyone know he is squarely within the small but noisy club of plain-speaking, metaphysical gamblers whom Anthony Gottlieb calls atheists with attitude, citing Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins. All have written best-sellers that wield an amped-up rationalism to argue from within a naturalistic worldview that God is a myth and religion is manmade, and god help those who don’t get that. For his own outing, Hitchens poured scorn on all religions (pagan, Eastern, and Western) and stirred. Little, if anything, of religion remains appreciated by him.His refrain, religion poisons everything, just keeps coming at you.
In god is not Great, Hitchens uses his power of rhetoric to recall the sillinesses, abuses, and atrocities that the history of religion is infamous for, from the Aztecs to al Qaeda. He has said in interviews that he put thirty years of work into the book, and it shows. Its three hundred pages may chill the bones of some believers or make atheists of agnostics. His refrain, religion poisons everything, just keeps coming at you.
Everything? Even some atheists don’t buy that, including his long-time friend and colleague Salman Rushdie. In a talk at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, Rushdie, who read History at King’s, said, “To stand in this house is to be reminded of what is most beautiful about religious faith. Its ability to give solace and comfort and to inspire.” When asked in an interview with Bill Moyers why he, Rushdie, an atheist, would make such a statement, Rushdie replied, “I do believe that religion at its best has given people profound solace in the travails of life.” Hitchens will have none of this. In god is not Great he writes: “As for consolation, since religious people so often insist that faith answers this supposed need, I shall simply say that those who offer false consolation are false friends.”
Rushdie is not soft on religion. In Grand Rapids some years ago I happened to be among a group to whom Rushdie was shedding light on why, in India, the name of the problem has been religion. Why pick on religion? someone asked. Rushdie had seen why. He was a child in India when the dreadful massacres broke out and continued between Hindu and Muslim families over the partitioning of India and Pakistan. It was a violence made all the more grievous, he told us, because these interfaith communities had lived peaceably together for decades, intermarrying and looking out for one another. But religion “as a totalizing force,” Rushdie explained, had resulted in horrific, ongoing violence and death. Of this period, Rushdie said to Moyers, “You can see how ugly religion can get.” To us in Grand Rapids, he said, “Religion is poison in the blood of India.” Hitchens, however, has taken that image to the four corners of the earth: religion poisons everything.
Of course, it cannot be tenably argued that religion cannot be directed implicated in a long history of documentable nastiness and much worse besides, but that’s a verdict which can be read aloud about every other dimension of life one wants to call into dock. Should the plug be pulled on all politics, or on all education, or on all commerce because their dark sides can be documented? If so, the solution would be a world not just without religion. We’d have to imagine human life in a world without any of its dimensions. This is implied in how god is not Great thinks.
Anyway, certainly there is no excuse for the evils that people commit in the name of their religions, and Hitchens argues that shockingly well. But there is never enough praise for the millions of people of faith who do not go about conspiring to harm or to kill people. They abhor human violence and live peaceably enough in the world, though they know there is always room for improvement. Such believers would say that when they sin, they take responsibility and try to repair the damage they’ve done. Also, it would take a large library to recall the good that people have done in the name of religion just by their charitable donations, philanthropic enterprises, and individual acts of mercy. The book ignores all this, although a slight but decidedly qualified nod is given to several notables of faith (the Franciscan William Ockham, the Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the Baptist Martin Luther King Jr).
Although a life-long atheist, Hitchens claims that it was the events of 9/11 that crystalized the threat of religion for him. “I could sense that religion was beginning to reassert its challenge to civil society long before the critical day of September 11, 2001,” but the “nineteen suicide murderers of New York and Washington and Pennsylvania were beyond doubt the most sincere believers on those planes.” Evidently, sincere believers must be people of violence. This, too, is how the book thinks: there could not have also been “the most sincere” pacifist religionists on those planes.
It should be noted that Hitchens has religious friends, albeit he has “real and serious differences” with them. Also, he respectfully removes his shoes when he visits mosques, and in synagogues he covers his head. And, curiously, he decries the destruction of religious sites, but only because “this is something that no secularist, no atheist, would ever ever allow,” as he told Charlie Rose (May 4, 2007). “It horrifies me. We have a natural resistance in ourselves to desecration.” This is a very odd “natural resistance” for him to claim. To desecrate is to divest something of its sacred character. Are we to believe that Hitchens sees religious sites as sacred?
It is easy to see why apologists for many faiths are jumping on his chest to see who is best, in book reviews, interviews, and debates. As with Dawkins and others in the club, Hitchens seeks to disprove the veracity of all religion chiefly by citing arguments from modern science and the theory of evolution grounded in materialism. (For anyone interested in irony, his use of science to try to disprove religion mirrors others’ uses religion to try to support their “scientific” views.) Not to disappoint, but readers of this essay will have to look elsewhere to find a rehash of any of the many and varied approaches used by apologists to counter the content of god is not Great. Having brought God into the dock, Hitchens has opened the door to discuss his own faith, and that is where I now want to go.