God is Not Great a Flawed but Important Book

God Is Not Great
Christopher Hitchens

New York: Twelve Books, 2009
ISBN 978-0-446-69796-6
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The thesis of Christopher Hitchens’ latest book is summed in its subtitle: “How Religion Poisons Everything.” His is an unabashed atheist’s take on religion, but no matter what your personal beliefs or non-beliefs might be, it’s a book you should read and consider carefully.

Hitchens is a well-known leftwing journalist and the author of no less than fourteen other books, numerous pamphlets, and untold numbers of essays. He’s also an extremely intelligent and articulate man. If only he had kept his penchant for glibness in check we could have called this book the thinking-person’s Religolous. I wish he had, as his numerous zingers—funny though they are—simply supply ammunition for those who would stereotype the work and dismiss it without contemplation. More’s the pity, because if you are a person of faith you’d do well to clean up the very bad act that Hitchens chronicles—the links between war and religious belief, the death toll from lunatic faith-healers, child-abusing priests, preordained sexism, anti-intellectualism, the psychological damage done through guilt inducement, stealth in the name of God, and the unconscionable justifications for poverty, oppression, violence, and boorishness.

This book will—to put it bluntly—piss off a lot of people. My advice would be to save the piety for deeds instead of words. If you wonder how someone has the gall to write such a book, open your newspaper. Hitchens presents a world in the grips of warring camps bent on proving that their god is the only god, even if they have to oppress or kill everyone who disagrees. Here’s the kicker—it’s damned hard to disagree with him. The historical track record for organized religion is bleak indeed—so bleak that Hitchens practically defies any god or gods who might exist to prove existence by smiting religious evil-doers. In the absence of a cleansing smiting Hitchens argues that at best the gods don’t care, though he’s inclined to say the cosmos designed itself. And whatever else you might think of his book, you’d be hard-pressed to refute his assertions that we’d be better off listening to scientists and the health community in all matters relating to human sexuality, reproduction, population, and controlling STDs.

Those who find Hitchens overly selective might counter that millions have been helped by religion and that living saints imbued with the spirit of holiness are the antidote to those who commit monstrous acts in the name of religion. He anticipated that. This is a screed, but it’s not an uniformed one. Hitchens waltzes us through philosophy, psychology, and history to deflect arguments that religion makes us better or that it’s necessary. His is as much an apologetics for humanism as an assault on religion, one that those who lack faith can usefully mine when attacked for having no basis for their morality.

I have a few quibbles of my own. Labor advocates used to make a distinction between “Christianity” and “Churchianity.” They had nothing good to say about the latter, but thought there might be merit in the former. That’s not a bad way to consider the differences between individual acts of religious humility and the horrors perpetuated by institutionalized religion. It may be unfair to not parse the differences more carefully.

Moreover, as politically incorrect as it is to say this, Hitchens should have been even harsher in his treatment of Islam. There is a Western reluctance to call out Islam given the touchiness with which Muslims approach all criticism and the tenuous situation around the globe. I share the view that self-selected fanatics unfairly tar the reputation of millions of faithful Muslims. That said, there’s not nearly enough self-correcting outrage pouring forth from the Muslim community. A faith that celebrates the issuance of a fatwah against Salmon Rushdie and a Danish cartoonist, but not against those who convince children to strap bombs on themselves, oppresses women, blows up World Heritage monuments, and applauds when fanatics crash planes into tall buildings—remember the dancers in Palestine after 9/11?—is in serious need of self analysis (to say nothing of leadership changes). In a word, we need to see more evidence that Islam is a religion of peace. And, yes, we also need to see Christians acting charitably instead of arrogantly, and Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists applying their views of justice and morality to their Muslim neighbors. That is, unless all the world’s religions are content to prove Hitchens right on every single point he made.

In the end, I suppose there is the difference between this reviewer and Hitchens. He finds religion irredeemable. Like Sigmund Freud in 1927, Hitchens sees faith as a relic from the infancy of human evolution that should be cast aside for grown-up thoughts. Maybe so—but I still have enough faith (if I dare use that word) to think that if we got rid of the principals and practiced the principles of religion, it could still be a force of redemption. Maybe.


Canada Could Teach Lessons on Civility

How about a tower to peace?

Imagine it if you can. Imagine visiting the nation’s Capitol. Imagine safe streets where citizens walk about all hours of the day and night, not worrying about harassment or attack. Envision a clean city teeming with restaurants, craft shops, galleries, and food stands.

Now imagine wandering over to the Capitol building when the sun goes down. A sound-and-light show will transform its edifice into a canvas upon which scenes from the nation’s history will be presented, its culture celebrated, and identity discussed. Think frank, not Disneyfied. Imagine, for instance, a scene in which whites are shown succumbing to greed and ripping off the Natives who welcomed them. Imagine another in which racial prejudice past and present is acknowledged. Now consider a scene in which a labor strike—a general strike that closed down an entire city no less—is celebrated as an important lesson in making the nation consider the plight of the working class. (Indeed, try to imagine the very mention that a “working class” exists.) Imagine that there are only two references to the military in the entire thirty-minute presentation—and war is presented as tragedy, not glory and bravado. Imagine that more attention is given to Nobel Peace Prize winners, a man who failed in his quest, rock and roll stars and protest music performers. Imagine a script in which people talk about the importance of maintaining their ethnic identity, speak with pride of the nation’s welfare system, and discuss the need to balance business development with human needs and a national infrastructure.

Guess what? If you can imagine any of this, you’re in Ottawa, Canada, not Washington, DC. And having just witnessed MozAik, the multimedia extravaganza on Parliament Hill, I came away feeling sad for my nation—for the crime- and greed-riven streets of Washington, for its filthy ambience, and for the twisted values that flow from it. One nation embraced the best it can be, the other the most it can grab. So why does the second continue to pretend that it’s the greatest on earth? Because it has the biggest guns? It seems to me that a few things are missing: civility, respect, pride, community and, yes, liberty itself. Can you even imagine walking around the U.S. Capitol after dark? And who would venture beyond the Mall, even in daylight? Since when is the ability to walk the perimeter of an armed camp freedom? And when did Americans decide they’d rather live in a Disney illusion instead of working to build a good society? Canada may be small, but it sure could instruct the United States on the difference between materialism and quality of life.

PS—The man who “failed” was Terry Fox (1958-81), whom Canadians regard in heroic terms. Fox lost his right leg above the knee to cancer. In 1980 he decided to run across Canada on his prosthesis to raise money for cancer research. He began in Newfoundland and made it 3339 miles to western Ontario before the cancer that killed him spread to his lungs and forced him to give up his quest far short of British Columbia. Canadians hold an annual Terry Fox Marathon to raise cancer research funds. They’ve also named streets, schools, trails, and fitness centers for Fox. Is it just me, or is Terry Fox more worthy to contemplate than, say, Lindsay Lohan?