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Sunday, January 30, 2011

God is Not Great

Christopher Hitchens has had a large amount of media coverage lately because he is dying and he is completely unapologetic about being an atheist. I've been reading his articles on Slate.com for years but never knew much about his life until this book was published and the media coverage on it started. I was fortunate enough to come across a copy and gave it a read last fall.  It's taken me a while to write about it because it took me some time to gather my thoughts about it.

Hitchens spends the greater share of this book on a criticism of Christianity. I believe most of his criticisms were apt.  Hitchens makes the claim (and the subtitle of this book) "religion poisons everything." His main hypothesis is that people would be better off altogether if religion did not exist and that a great share of the bad acts that have happened throughout human history are directly inspired and caused by religion.

Hitchens describes a question he was once asked, about if he came across a group of men at night would be less afraid if they were coming from a prayer meeting. Hitchens does a creative description of some of the places he has visited that just start with the letter B.  He then goes over Belfast with it's Catholic radicals, Beiruit and the Muslim radicals, Bombay and how its radical religious activists have taken over the city, and caused the recent name change to Mumbai. Hitchens concludes that in many cases he would feel much better if he knew a group of strange men at night had not come from a prayer meeting.

Hitchens also describes his role as the devil's advocate in the beautification of Mother Theresa, yes the real one he discusses being invited to the Vatican to testify.  He describes how according to his investigation, a woman claimed that she had a tumor that was cured by the healing powers of the deceased nun, but that the woman was undergoing medical treatment at the same time. Hitchens posits that the beautification of Mother Theresa may cause the prolonged illnesses or deaths of several people in India and elsewhere as they turn to faith healing for relief rather than to medicine.

A smaller portion of the book but more rare is a critique of eastern religions.  Many of the people who find themselves disaffected with Christian religions turn to Buddhism or other religions that they see as less tainted by greed and corruption. I myself have been attracted to Taoist philosophy as an alternative to Christian philosophies. Hitchens brings up several events in Hindu and Buddhist history that are as egregious and immoral as the inquisition or the crusades. In fact he titles the chapter "There is no Eastern Solution."

I've read quite a few critiques of this book, many of them focus on the fact that many religious people are good and fine people. None of the critiques I've read have been able to refute the assertion by Hitchens that people who are good are good regardless of belief, not because of it. He discussed the good works of several atheists and agnostics like Thomas Paine, Bertrand Russell, and Charles Darwin. He then discusses how we may be counting several historical figures as religious simply because they did not feel free to discuss their doubts of the prevailing religion publicly. I believe he is probably right about this, the lessons of Socrates, Shelley and Scopes were probably well learned by those who were afraid to challenge the moral order. The other day in an advice column I read the story of a woman who was afraid to discuss her lack of religious beliefs on Facebook because she was afraid of the consequences she would face at work.  I'm sad that this type of thing is still going on on modern day America.

One criticism I thought of was what about the evil acts of those that do not profess any religious belief? Several communists come to mind and several dictators such as Hitler and Hussein only seemed to use religion tangentially. In fact if you compare Iraq under Hussein to its neighbors such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, the religious freedom allowed looks somewhat liberal. Looking at evil behavior on a deeper level makes me believe that there is something other than a belief in God that turns an institution evil. Perhaps anarchists have a valid point when they say that all institutions and organized groups will turn to evil at some point if their power is unchecked.

I found this book to be a very interesting read.  It is certainly one of my favorite books of the past while. I will miss Christopher Hitchens when he's gone.


  1. Good blog...I would be interested in reading that as well.

  2. While atrocities are committed in the name of religion and by religious traditions, I disagree with the conclusion that religion is uniformly and universally bad.

    I think the underlying issue is human nature and our propensity to divide the world into "us" and "them." Any group or institution that sees the world in this duality and perceives a threat from "them" will likely marginalize the other and, in he very worst case, commit genocide. The more power "we" have, the easier it is for us to destroy "them."

    While religion admittedly has a poor track record of living up to its ideals, the values of love for all, compassion, and humility are found in most, if not all, religions and ethical systems.


  3. Denise, I do have an electronic copy you can have if you don't have it already.

    Gary, yes I retain an open mind. Hitchens has some good points but I've known lots of good people that are very into religion. I also believe that the people leading most religions actually believe in them.


Hey I appreciate you leaving your thoughts behind! Be well my friend.