How Religion Poisons Everything: Christopher Hitchens
God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything is a 2007 book by the author and journalist Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens contends that organised religion is “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children” and sectarian, and that accordingly it “ought to have a great deal on its conscience.” Hitchens supports his position with a mixture of personal stories, documented historical anecdotes and critical analysis of religious texts. His commentary focuses mainly on the Abrahamic religions, although it also touches on other religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism.
Putting It Mildly
Hitchens writes that, at the age of nine, he began to question the teachings of his Bible instructor, and began to see critical flaws in apologetic arguments, most notably the argument from design. He goes on to discuss people who become atheists, saying that some are people who have never believed, whereas others are those who have separately discarded religious traditions. He also asserts that atheists who disagree with each other will eventually side together on whatever the evidence most strongly supports. He briefly discusses why human beings have a tendency towards being “faithful” and argues that religion will remain entrenched in the human consciousness as long as human beings cannot overcome their primitive fears, particularly that of their own mortality. He ends by saying that he would not want to eradicate religion if the faithful would “leave him alone,” but ultimately they are incapable of this.
In this chapter, Hitchens addresses a hypothetical question he was asked on a panel with radio host Dennis Prager: if he were alone in an unfamiliar city at night, and a group of strangers began to approach him, would he feel safer, or less safe, knowing that these men had just come from a prayer meeting? Hitchens answers,
“Just to stay within the letter ‘B’, I have actually had that experience in Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem and Baghdad. In each case … I would feel immediately threatened if I thought that the group of men approaching me in the dusk were coming from a religious observance.”
He gives detailed descriptions of the tense social and political situations within these cities, which he personally experienced and attributes to religion. He has thus “not found it a prudent rule to seek help as the prayer meeting breaks up.”
Next he discusses the 1989 fatwa issued on author and friend Salman Rushdie by the Ayatollah Khomeini because of the contents of his book The Satanic Verses. He goes on to criticise several public figures for laying the blame for the incident on Rushdie himself. He also writes about the events following the September 11, 2001 attacks, describing how religion, particularly major religious figures, allowed matters to “deteriorate in the interval between the removal of the Taliban and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.”
A Short Digression On The Pig; or, Why Heaven Hates Ham
Hitchens discusses the prohibition on eating pigs (“porcophobia” as Hitchens calls it) in Judaism, also adopted by Islam. Hitchens writes that this proscription is not just Biblical or dietary. He reports that even today, Muslim zealots demand that the Three Little Pigs, Miss Piggy, Piglet from Winnie-the-Pooh and other traditional pets and characters be “removed from the innocent gaze of their children.” Hitchens proposes that the prohibition against pork found in Semitic religions may be based in the proscription of human sacrifice, extended to pigs because of the similarities in appearance and flavor between pork and human flesh.
A Note On Health, To Which Religion May Be Hazardous
In this chapter, Hitchens explains how some religions can be hostile to treating diseases. He writes that many Muslims saw the polio vaccine as a conspiracy, and thus allowed polio to spread. He goes on to discuss the Catholic Church’s response to the spread of HIV in Africa, telling people that condoms are ineffective, which, he argues, contributes to the death toll. He notes with examples that some in both the Catholic and the Muslim communities believe irrationally that HIV and HPV are punishment for sexual sin—particularly homosexuality. He describes religious leaders as “faith healers”, and opines that they are hostile to medicine because it necessarily undermines their position of power.
He then criticises the Jewish ritual of circumcision that would have him “take a baby boy’s penis in my hand, cut around the prepuce, and complete the action by taking his penis in my mouth, sucking off the foreskin, and spitting out the amputated flap along with a mouthful of blood and saliva”, and denounces the traditional African practice of female genital mutilation. He concludes the chapter writing of the religious “wish for obliteration” — for a death in the form of the day of the Apocalypse.
The Metaphysical Claims of Religion Are False
Hitchens begins this chapter by saying that the strong faith that could stand up to any form of reason is long gone. He compares the popular knowledge of the world in Thomas Aquinas’ time to what we now know about the world. He uses the example of Laplace — “It works well enough without that [God] hypothesis” — to demonstrate that we do not need God to explain things; he claims that religion becomes obsolete as an explanation when it becomes optional or one among many different beliefs. He concludes by averring that the leap of faith is not just one leap; it is a leap repeatedly made, and a leap that becomes more difficult to take the more it is taken: which is why so many religionists now feel the need to move beyond mere faith and cite evidence for their beliefs.
Arguments From Design
In this chapter, Hitchens writes that Abrahamic religions are used to make people feel like lowly sinners, encouraging low self-esteem, while at the same time leading them to believe that their creator genuinely cares for them, thus inflating their sense of self-importance. He says that superstition to some extent has a “natural advantage”, being that it was contrived many centuries before the modern age of human reason and scientific understanding, and discusses a few examples as well as so-called miracles.
He then discusses the design arguments, using examples such as the human body wearing out in old age as bad design. He writes that if evolution had taken a slightly different course, there would be no guarantee at all that organisms remotely like us would ever have existed.
The Nightmare Of The Old Testament
Here Hitchens lists anachronisms and inconsistencies in the Old Testament, and writes that many of the “gruesome, disordered events never took place.” He writes that the Pentateuch is “an ill-carpentered fiction, bolted into place well after the non-events that it fails to describe convincingly or even plausibly.” He points out, for instance, that when Moses orders parents to have their children stoned to death (see also List of capital crimes in the Torah) for indiscipline (citing Deuteronomy) it is probably a violation of at least one of the very commandments Moses brought down from God. He observes that Moses “continually makes demented pronouncements (‘He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord’).”
The “New” Testament Exceeds The Evil Of The “Old” One
Hitchens first connects the Book of Isaiah in the Old Testament with its prediction that “a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son” (see Isaiah 7:14), pointing out where the stories converge, Old Testament to New. Comparing the Testaments, he considers the New Testament “also a work of crude carpentry, hammered together long after its purported events, and full of improvised attempts to make things come out right.” He points out that, while H. L. Mencken considered some of the New Testament events to be historically verifiable, Mencken maintained that “most of them show unmistakable signs of having been tampered with.”
Hitchens also outlines the inaccuracy in Luke’s attempt to triangulate three world events of the time with Jesus’s birth (viz, the census ordered by Caesar Augustus of the entire Roman world, the reign of King Herod in Judea and that of Quirinius as governor of Syria, see the Census of Quirinius). He further relates that there is no record by any Roman historian of any Augustan census, and that, although “the Jewish chronicler Josephus mentions one that did occur—without the onerous requirement for people to return to their places of birth”, it was undertaken “six years after the birth of Jesus is supposed to have taken place.” In addition Hitchens notes that Herod died in 4 BC, and that Quirinius was not governor of Syria during his tenure.
Hitchens refers to The Passion of the Christ as “a soap-opera film about the death of Jesus produced by an Australian fascist and ham actor named Mel Gibson”, who “adheres to a crackpot and schismatic Catholic sect”. In Hitchens’ view, the film attempts tirelessly to blame the death of Jesus on the Jews. Hitchens claims that Gibson did not realize that the four Gospels were not at all historical records, and that they had multiple authors, all being written many decades after the Crucifixion — and, moreover, that they do not agree on anything “of importance” (e.g., the virgin birth and the genealogy of Jesus). He cites many contradictions in this area.
He further contends that the many “contradictions and illiteracies” of the New Testament, while written about at great length in other books, have never been explained except as “metaphor” and “a Christ of faith.” He states that the “feebleness” of the Bible is a result of the fact that until recently, Christians faced with arguments against the logic or factualness of the Bible “could simply burn or silence anybody who asked any inconvenient questions.”
Hitchens points out the problematic implications of the scriptural proclamation “he that is without sin among you, let him cast a first stone” with regard to the practical legislation of retributive justice: “if only the non-sinners have the right to punish, then how could an imperfect society ever determine how to prosecute offenders?” Of the woman whom Jesus saved from the stoning (she having been charged with adultery), the author contends that Jesus thus forgives her of sheer sexual promiscuity, and, if this be the case, that the lesson has ever since been completely misunderstood. Closing the chapter, he suggests that advocates of religion have faith alone to rely on — nothing else — and calls on them to “be brave enough” to admit it.
The Koran Is Borrowed From Both Jewish and Christian Myths
Chapter nine assesses the religion of Islam, and examines the origin of its holy book, the Koran. Hitchens asserts that there is no evidence for any of the “miraculous” claims about Muhammad, and that the Koran’s origin was not supernatural. Hitchens contends that the religion was fabricated by Muhammad or his followers and that it was borrowed from other religious texts, and the hadith was taken from common maxims and sayings which developed throughout Arabia and Persia at the time. Hitchens also identifies similarities between Islam and Christianity, as well as identifying plagiarisms of the Jewish faith.
The Tawdriness Of The Miraculous And The Decline Of Hell
Chapter ten discusses miracles. Hitchens says that no supernatural miracles occur, nor have occurred in history. Hitchens says that evidence of miracles is fabricated, or based on the unreliable testimony of people who are mistaken or biased. Hitchens points out that no verifiable miracle has been documented since cameras have become commonplace. Hitchens uses a specific purported miracle by Mother Teresa to show how miracles can become perceived as true, when in fact they are based on myth or falsehood.
Religion’s Corrupt Beginnings
Chapter eleven discusses how religions form, and claims that most religions are founded by corrupt, immoral individuals. The chapter specifically discusses Cargo Cults, Pentecostal minister Marjoe Gortner, and Mormonism. Hitchens discusses Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, quoting a March 1826 Bainbridge, New York court trial record convicting him of being a “disorderly person and impostor” who admitted at trial he had, in Hitchens’s words, claimed supernatural powers and “admitting to defrauding citizens” four years before he claimed to find gold tablets containing the Book of Mormon. Smith told his neighbor that only he could view the tablets and had the man write down his dictated translation, which Hitchens says, aped the Old Testament. When the neighbor’s skeptical wife buried 116 pages of the translation and challenged Smith to reproduce it, Smith claimed, after a few weeks, that the original translation was corrupted but he had another revelation and had found another set of plates no one else was allowed to see. Those plates got returned to the heavens after they were translated.
A Coda: How Religions End
Chapter twelve discusses the termination of several religions, to illustrate that some religions are not everlasting, as they claim. The religions addressed include Millerism and Sabbatai Sevi.
Does Religion Make People Behave Better?
In chapter thirteen, Hitchens addresses the question of whether religious people behave more virtuously than non-religious people (atheists, agnostics, or freethinkers). Hitchens uses the battle against slavery in the United States, and Abraham Lincoln to support his claim that non-religious people battle for moral causes with as much vigor and effect as religious advocates.
There Is No ‘Eastern’ Solution
Hitchens dismisses Buddhism and Hinduism as conceits that seek to “put their [adherents’] reason to sleep … and discard their minds” in chapter fourteen, which focuses on maladaptive and immiserating Hindu and Buddhist feudalism and violence in Tibet and Sri Lanka. It touches on the lucrative careers of Chandra Mohan Jain and Sathyanarayana Raju and details his observations of “brisk fleecing”, inane rituals, and unstable devotees witnessed during the author’s staged pilgrimage to a Hindu ashram in Pune, which was undertaken in support of a BBC documentary. He seeks to answer the question of “[h]ow might one easily prove that ‘Eastern’ faith was identical with the unverifiable assumptions of ‘Western’ religion?” He concludes:
It ought to be possible for me to pursue my studies and researches in one house, and for the Buddhist to spin his wheel in another. But contempt for the intellect has a strange way of not being passive. One of two things may happen: those who are innocently credulous may become easy prey for those who are less scrupulous and who seek to “lead” and “inspire” them. Or those whose credulity has led their own society into stagnation may seek a solution, not in true self-examination, but in blaming others for their backwardness. Both these things happened in the most consecratedly “spiritual” society of them all.”
Religion As An Original Sin
Chapter 15 discusses five aspects of religions that Hitchens maintains are “positively immoral”:
Presenting a false picture of the world to the credulous
The doctrine of blood sacrifice to appease gods (such as by the Aztecs)
The doctrine of atonement (harming innocent people to atone for sins)
The doctrine of eternal reward or eternal punishment
The imposition of impossible tasks or rules (including unhealthy views of sex)
Chapter Sixteen: Is Religion Child Abuse?
In chapter sixteen, Hitchens documents how religion has been used to cause harm to children. He cites examples such as genital mutilation, circumcision, and imposition of fear of healthy sexual activities such as masturbation. He also criticizes the way that adults use religion to terrorize children.
An Objection Anticipated
Chapter seventeen addresses the most common counter-argument that Hitchens says he hears, namely that the most immoral acts in human history were performed by atheists like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. Hitchens begins by saying “it is interesting that people of faith now seek defensively to say they are no worse than fascists or Nazis or Stalinists”. He goes on to analyze those examples of immorality, and shows that although the individual leaders may have been atheist or agnostic, that religion played a key role in these events, and religious people and religious leaders fully participated in the wars and crimes.
A Finer Tradition: The Resistance Of The Rational
Chapter eighteen discusses several important intellectuals, including Socrates, Albert Einstein, Voltaire, Spinoza, Thomas Paine, Charles Darwin, and Sir Isaac Newton. Hitchens claims that many of these people were atheists, agnostics, or pantheists, except for Socrates and Newton. Hitchens says that religious advocates have attempted to misrepresent some of these icons as religious. Hitchens describes how some of these individuals fought against the negative influences of religion.
In Conclusion: The Need for a New Enlightenment
Hitchens argues that the human race no longer needs religion to the extent it has in the past. He claims that the time has come for science and reason to take a more prominent role in the life of individuals and larger cultures. He says that de-emphasizing religion will improve the quality of life of individuals, and assist the progress of civilization. It is in effect a rallying call to atheists to fight the theocratic encroachment on free society.
Theologian David Bentley Hart wrote in First Things that “[Hitchens’] God Is Not Great shows no sign whatsoever that he ever intended anything other than a rollicking burlesque, without so much as a pretense of logical order or scholarly rigor. His sporadic forays into philosophical argument suggest not only that he has sailed into unfamiliar waters, but also that he is simply not very interested in any of it.” Moreover, Hart stated, “On matters of simple historical and textual fact… Hitchens’ book is so extraordinarily crowded with errors that one soon gives up counting them.”
Critic Michael Kinsley, in the New York Times Book Review, lauded Hitchens’ “… logical flourishes and conundrums, many of them entertaining to the nonbeliever.” He concluded that “Hitchens has outfoxed the Hitchens watchers by writing a serious and deeply felt book, totally consistent with his beliefs of a lifetime.”
Jason Cowley in the Financial Times called the book “elegant but derivative”.
Conservative columnist Ross Douthat, in the Claremont Review of Books, stated, “Every talented writer is entitled to be a bore on at least one subject, but where religion is concerned Christopher Hitchens abuses the privilege.” Of God is not Great, Douthat wrote, “It might be argued that the brevity of the book and the amount of ground it covers should excuse the less-than-rigorous fashion in which it advances its more controversial arguments. But the demands of brevity should clarify and hone, whereas Hitchens manages to be both short and sloppy.”
Mary Riddell wrote in The Observer that: “Hitchens’s book will be manna to the converted, but his explicit aim is to win believers to his cause. I doubt that he will reclaim a single soul.”
Bruce DeSilva of the Associated Press wrote,
This time he’s outdone himself A spate of atheist screeds has arrived in the bookstores lately, but Hitchens’ may be the best since Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian (1927), laying out the essential arguments with force and precision He makes his case in the elegant yet biting prose we have come to expect from him Hitchens is the reincarnation of H. L. Mencken, the penultimate social critic of the first half of the 20th century, who used words like gunshots and considered most Americans ‘boobs’.
DeSilva goes on to opine that “Hitchens has nothing new to say, although it must be acknowledged that he says it exceptionally well.”
Responding to Hitchens’s claim that “all attempts to reconcile faith with science and reason are consigned to failure and ridicule”, Peter Berkowitz of the Hoover Institution (with which Hitchens had an official affiliation) quotes a paleontologist that Hitchens himself commended—Stephen Jay Gould. Referencing a number of scientists with religious faith, Gould wrote, “Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs—and equally compatible with atheism.” For his part, Ross Douthat remarked that “Hitchens’s argument proceeds principally by anecdote, and at his best he is as convincing as that particular style allows, which is to say not terribly.”
In a lengthy critique of the book’s treatment of the Bible and Gospels, William J. Hamblin, a professor of history at Brigham Young University, concluded:
It is quite clear that Hitchens’s understanding of biblical studies is flawed at best. He consistently misrepresents what the Bible has to say, fails to contextualize biblical narratives in their original historical settings, implies unanimity among biblical scholars on quite controversial positions, and fails to provide any evidence for alternative scholarly positions, or even to acknowledge that such positions exist at all…. Hitchens’s understanding of the Bible is at the level of a confused undergraduate. His musings on such matters should not be taken seriously, and should certainly not be seen as reasonable grounds for rejecting belief in God.
Daniel C. Peterson, a professor of Islamic Studies and Arabic at BYU, attacked the accuracy of Hitchens’ claims in a lengthy essay, concluding, “The book…is crammed to the bursting point with errors, and the striking thing about this is that the errors are always, always, in Hitchens’s favor…. There is not a disputed fact or a fact that struck me as questionable that I’ve checked in Hitchens’s book where it has not turned out that he’s wrong. Every single time.”
The religious critic Frank Brennan described the book as an affirmation of Hitchens’ Marxist origins in contrast to his labeling by some critics as a neoconservative:
For all of the claims that Christopher Hitchens has abandoned his earlier Leftist proclivities, there is at least one point at which he remains an orthodox Marxist. Some would argue that his book is a straightforward reiteration of Marx’s own critique of religion, albeit in a more bombastic fashion.
Reviewing the book in the online periodical Taki’s Magazine, Tom Piatek wrote, “Although Hitchens’ book is lively and well written, it is fatally marred by its many rhetorical evasions and falsehoods.”
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