Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Review: God Is Not Great

Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great brings literary talent to a subject all too often bogged down by abstruse philosophical language. His case against religion is primarily a moral one; he examines the practical results of religion on improving man's condition, which are not impressive. To a lesser extent, he exposes the contradictions of religious teachings, such as Moses's ten commandments alongside his order for parents to stone their insubordinate sons to death. There is little that is new in this book, but the author certainly puts known material together in a fresh, articulate way. He commands a great deal of cultural knowledge and lends an impression of intellectual authority.

God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens bookRead more reviews on AmazonThere's something of a double standard, though, in Hitchens's attribution of altruism to innate human decency and barbarism to religion. It can't go both ways—our behavior either stems from religion or it doesn't. But if religion is man-made, then it can't be the fundamental source of any behavior.

Hitchens is a polemicist; he could have crafted a more eloquent title than "god is not Great" but it wouldn't have enraged so many theists. And in doing so he may have ensured he'd be preaching to the choir. Only a portion of this book—the critique of religion's logic—could steer the religious moderate away from religion, for this group is likely to feel affirmed by Hitchens's criticism of extremism. The fact is that most people nowadays don't pressure their children into believing, burn witches at the stake, or join holy crusades. They are religious because it enriches their lives with a shred of meaning and community. This is not to say that Hitchens's strategy won't work; it may be that stirring up trouble is the most effective way to bring attention to the issue.

Hitchens misses the point on Nietzsche's phrase "God is dead". Nietzsche was talking about the resulting crisis in values as Christianity was shed from the European mind, a crises that Hitchens is only partially successful in addressing. He speaks of the sense of awe and wonder at the mechanistic cosmos, which I think provides a powerful but insufficient purpose of life. As the title implies, God Is Not Great is best an argument against religion than an argument for any replacement.

7 comments:

  1. I may have to read this, although Christopher Hitchens is a huge asshole in general. I think the strongest arguments against theism is that religions are not founded on things that help humanity at all, and works like the Bible make it quite clear that God is not just or loving or decent - in many stories he is cruel, vindictive, or even petty. I don't doubt that people believe religion makes them a better person, but it's hard to find convincing evidence that in thousands of years of religious tradition, it's hard to pinpoint in what ways religions have helped society as a whole. I mean, I guess the churches are pretty... You need to listen to Julia Sweeney's "Letting Go of God" - it's a one-woman show about her journey to atheism. It really did change my outlook on religion completely.

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  3. Hitchens is very intelligent, but I think he often winds arguments to fit his position to the extent where he's either actively trying to delude us or he's unaware that he's deluding himself; and I think it's most likely the latter case. Anyway, I do like reading him, but it's just the agreeing with him that's far too difficult. Honestly, sometimes I think he fits Plato's definition of a Sophist a little too neatly.

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  4. "God is great" is a phrase used in some prayers. I think Hitchens was making a play on words by titling the book "God is not great".

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  5. EEH, what do you think Hitchens is deluding himself about? Is it that the consequences of religion are always "bad"?

    Nora, that's a good point. I wasn't aware of the prayers, but I did know Muslims often chant "God is great" during rallies.

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  6. He does not believe there is a god so the title says it all: He's insulting and rude. He may be intelligent, but he certainly lacks wisdom.

    Controversy does sell however.

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  7. James, I think he's deluding himself on a lot of issues, such as conflating ideology with religion and secularism with humanism. It would take a lot of time to dissect each argument, but if you watch his debates, you can see him actively reworking ideas by changing words without adjusting definitions; whether this activity on his part is conscious or not, is the only point I remain confused about.

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