The third book I read recently which resonated thematically with the previous two is one I have come somewhat late to given my inclinations. But a new paperback edition was recently released and I considered buying it. I hesitated as I was uncertain whether anything new or substantively unique was contained therein to make it worth having on my shelf. I have other books along similar lines and while I am fond of the author, it seemed unlikely this book would offer anything not already covered.
Christopher Hitchens was a journalist and essayist and became one of our best commentators on current events, politics, and related subjects. Even when I disagreed with him I have always found his arguments cogent and insightful and never less than solidly grounded on available fact.
So when he published a book of his views on religion, it seemed a natural addition to my library, yet I missed it when it first came out. Instead, I read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, which I found useful and well-reasoned, but pretty much a sermon to one who needed no convincing. Such books are useful for the examples they offer to underpin their arguments.
Such is the case with God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Hitchens’ extensive travels and his experiences in the face of conflict between opposing groups, often ideologically-driven, promised a surfeit of example and he did not fail to provide amply.
The title is a challenge, a gauntlet thrown at the feet of those with whom Hitchens had sizeable bones to pick. In the years since its initial publication it has acquired a reputation, developed a set of expectations, and has become something of a cause celebré sufficient for people to take sides without having read it. I found myself approaching the book with a set of expectations of my own and, with mild surprise, had those expectations undermined.
Yes, the book is a statement about the nature of religion as an abusive ideology—regardless of denomination, sect, theological origin—and offers a full range of examples of how conflicts, both between people and peoples, are generally made worse (or, more often than not, occur because of) by religious infusions into the situation. It is in many ways a depressing catalog of misuse, misinterpretation, misstatement, misunderstanding, and sometimes misanthropy born out of religious conviction. Hitchens analyzes the sources of these problems, charts some of the history, and gives us modern day examples.
But he tempers much of this by drawing a distinction between individuals and ideologies.
He also opens with a statement that in his opinion we shall never be rid of it. This is quite unlike people like Dawkins who actually seem to feel humankind can be educated out of any need of religion. Hitchens understood human nature all too well to have any hope that this was possible.
He does allow that possibly religion allows some good people to be better, but he does not believe religion makes anyone not already so inclined good.
By the end of the book, there will likely be two reactions. One, possibly the more common, will be to dismiss much of his argument as one-sided. “He overlooks all the good that has been done.” It is interesting to me that such special pleading only ever gets applied consistently when religion is at issue. In so much else, one or two missteps and trust is gone, but not so in religion, wherein an arena is offered in which not only mistakes but serious abuse can occur time and time again and yet the driving doctrine never called into question. The other reaction will be to embrace the serious critique on offer, even the condemnations, and pay no attention to the quite sincere attempt to examine human nature in the grip of what can only be described as a pathology.
Because while Hitchens was a self-proclaimed atheist, he does take pains to point out that he is not talking about any sort of actual god in this book, only the god at the heart of human-made religions. For some this may be a distinction without a difference, but for the thoughtful reader it is a telling distinction. That at the end of it all, Hitchens see all—all—manifestations of gods through the terms of their religions as artifices. And he wonders then why people continue to inflict upon themselves and each other straitjackets of behavior and ideology that, pushed to one extreme or another, seem to always result in some sort of harm, not only for the people who do not believe a given trope but for the believers themselves.
We are, being story-obsessed, caught in the amber of our narratives. Per Mr. Thompson’s analysis of myth, we are never free of those stories—even their evocation for the purposes of ridicule bring us fully within them and determine the ground upon which we move. The intractable differences over unprovable and ultimately unsubstantiated assumptions of religious dictate, per the history chronicled around the life Roger Smith, have left us upon a field of direst struggle with our fellows whose lack of belief often is perceived as a direct threat to a salvation we are unwilling ourselves to examine and question as valid, resulting in abuse and death borne out of tortured constructs of love. Christopher Hitchens put together a bestiary of precedent demonstrating that treating as real the often inarticulate longings to be “right” in the sight of a god we ourselves have invented, too often leads to heartache, madness, and butchery.
The sanest religionists, it would seem by this testament, are those with the lightest affiliation, the flimsiest of dedications to doctrine. They are the ones who can step back when the call to massacre the infidel goes out.
All of which is ultimately problematic due simply to the inexplicable nature of religion’s appeal to so many.
But it is, to my mind, an insincere devoteé who will not, in order to fairly assess the thing itself, look at all that has been wrought in the name of a stated belief. Insincere and ultimately dangerous, especially when what under any other circumstance is completely wrong can be justified by that which is supposed to redeem us.