I recently read Christopher Hitchens‘ book – god is not Great, How Religion Poisons Everything, and will be posting a review on Amazon.com in a few days (updated: Amazon review here). Let me begin by saying that I first become aware of Mr. Hitchens by watching some of his television interviews concerning the Iraq war. What impressed me was his ability to hold an argument very well – and in this age of tabloid journalism, intelligent debate is quite rare. What was also very impressive was his careful handling of a debate with Parliament Member George Galloway, whose bizarre views concerning middle-eastern policies were clearly revealed by the articulate remonstrance delivered by a cool-headed Hitchens. Trained at Cambridge and Oxford universities, Hitchens’ studies have been in the fields of philosophy, politics and economics. Politically speaking, he has been a source of bewilderment to many – liberals have been bothered by his support of the war in Iraq, and conservatives are confounded by his socially liberal views; but despite all this, his popularity continues to grow. His recent book, which heralds atheism as the cure for the “cancer of religion,” has been receiving a great deal of attention; and yet what is disturbing to me is that no-one has really taken his recent work to task – not seriously anyway. After all, Hitchens recently managed to debate Al Sharpton (website, audio and video below) regarding the contents of god is not Great. I must say that whoever chose Sharpton to defend the subject of theism must have assumed that Hitchens needed the day off – it was one of the greatest non-contests in human history.
But perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of Hitchens’ book is this: it grossly belies Hitchens’ known ability to produce a cogent argument. Strangely, his book is chock-full of dysphemisms, faulty logic and emotionally contrived rants. One of his oft-repeated expressions, in the book and in public, is: “Evolution has meant that our prefrontal lobes are too small and our adrenal glands are too big.” In other words, we are too emotional and moronic for our own good. The problem with his slogan here is this: he is convinced that all people of faith are fundamentally emotional and moronic. I must confess that when reading the book, I couldn’t help but to remember my own contests against Christians in the past. Trained from my youth in public schools, and thus having been fed a regular diet of evolutionary biology and cosmology, I was a committed atheist from the very beginning who delighted in cornering Christians and berating them regarding their “infantile” belief in God. Thus it was no surprise to anyone when, in a debate class, I chose to argue against the veracity and authority of the Bible. Needless to say, Mr. Hitchens’ arguments are very familiar to me.
It is for this reason that I feel a strong measure of empathy for the man for I can see reflections of my own arguments from the past in the very pages of his book. Strangely, Hitchens’ normally calm temperament is somewhat lost in this book; but his descriptions concerning his upbringing may shed some light on the matter; after all, he speaks of having the good fortune of a father “who had not especially loved his strict Baptist/Calvinist upbringing.” From this he then brands his own atheism as a “Protestant atheism” which is evident when one considers his angry diatribes against that which he considers to be the Christian faith. Therefore, upon reflecting back on what Hitchens said about our prefrontal lobes and adrenal glands, it seems that he becomes the prominent illustration to his own point. But I must say that even though he tries to prove too much in his book, he still does make a number of valid observations about “religion” (as he defines it), and I do believe that the discussions generated over his book will offer an important opportunity for dialogue concerning atheism, genuine Christianity and mere religion.
WHERE HE IS RIGHT –
The one thing that I find with Hitchens’ criticism of religion is this: His rebukes of mere religion (that is, religion as a manmade system), are often correct. This truth makes his book a very strange read to be sure. On the one hand, his premises and conclusions are wrong; however many of his intervening arguments are somewhat true. It would be unprofitable for me to try to catalogue all of his criticisms of religion here, but I must say that of all of the rebukes that he delivers, almost all of them reflect the same criticisms that I have delivered from the pulpit, and they also reflect the same concerns shared by every other conscientious minister of the Gospel that I know of: many believers are appalled, as is Hitchens, by the perversities of money-hungry televangelists, of the false religion of Roman Catholicism and of the political-Christian movements in our nation; we too oppose the ridiculous hypocrisies of Al Sharpton, as well as perversions that go on in the name of money-centered marketing in the church; and many are also repulsed by the ravages of C. G. Finney and the resultant scars of the Burned-over District in New York. Personally, it is in these critiques that I find Hitchens to be more correct than he realizes. But it is strange to me that he manages to avoid mentioning the fact that Christ Himself inaugurated His ministry by entering into the temple with a whip in hand, overturning the tables of the money-changers, while driving out the religious hucksters who had transformed His Father’s house from a place of prayer into a man-centered shopping mall. Ultimately, true Christianity is a living rebuke against all man-made religion. If Mr. Hitchens believes that he is being original by rebuking the religions of men, then he must think again.
WHERE HE IS WRONG –
Defining Christianity: Hitchens denies the reality of Christ and the Bible, and oddly enough, he seems to feel that his dismissive attitude requires little defense. But in addition to this, he then lumps all “religion” into one trash can, tossing Christianity in as he does so; and yet when reading his book, it becomes apparent that he doesn’t understand the Christian message of salvation in the first place, which complicates his attempt to include Christianity in his criticisms. In fact, it is often difficult to imagine that he is speaking inclusively of Christianity at all, especially when he says:
“Imagine…that you can picture an infinitely benign and all-powerful creator, who conceived of you, then made and shaped you, brought you into the world he had made for you, and now supervises and cares for you even while you sleep. Imagine, further, that if you obey the rules and commandments that he has lovingly prescribed, you will qualify for an eternity of bliss and repose.” p. 15
In my notes in the book I responded with the following: “Chris, I can’t imagine that either.” The Christian hope is not that a person can merit, through personal obedience, the hope of eternal life – instead, it is Christ’s obedience that is the foundational hope of the Christian. Hitchens’ definition of religious faith does represent the many religions of the world – but it logically excludes genuine Christianity. In fact, his followup question is even more revealing:
“Why does such a belief not make its adherents happy?” p. 16
This is profound. Based upon his own definition of religion I too must to ask: who could be happy? Note: the people in Christ’s day were “distressed and dispirited” because they were falsely taught, by the Pharisees, that obedience to the law and to tradition was their only hope. This point is very important since it reveals that Mr. Hitchens doesn’t take genuine Christianity to task as much as he thinks he does. In reality, he spends more time describing and critiquing the man-centered religions of the world. In baseball terms we would call this “a swing and a miss.”
Logic and Research: There are enough straw-man arguments in this book to constitute a fire hazard and the underlying logical fallacies are quite frustrating. One reason for my frustration is, as previously mentioned, that Mr. Hitchens has demonstrated that he knows better. But I can also say that I comprehend the problem; after all, we all tend to degrade the application of logic when we emote – it’s all a part of that prefrontal-lobe-adrenal-gland issue mentioned earlier (more fundamentally speaking, it’s called sin). But the other reason that this is a frustrating read is because these logical fallacies are so extreme and numerous. I will only refer to one here, and it has to do with Hitchens’ own criticism of a message delivered by Billy Graham in memory of the fallen of 9/11, delivered on September 14th 2001 at the National Cathedral in Washington. I myself remember that speech quite well; at the time I criticized aspects of it – especially because it was presented within a deeply ecumenical environment. But when I commented on his message, I utilized the transcript and made sure that I was criticizing what was actually said; Hitchens, on the other hand, took the license to do something very different:
“[Billy Graham’s] absurd sermon made the claim that all the dead were now in paradise and would not return to us even if they could…there is no reason to believe that Billy Graham knew the current whereabouts of their souls, let alone their posthumous desires.” god is not Great, p. 32.
When I read this I accepted it as a valid point at first, that is, until I checked, once again, the contents of the message. Unfortunately for Mr. Hitchens, Mr. Graham did not say “all the dead” but instead said this:
“…many of those people who died this past week are in heaven right now, and they wouldn’t want to come back.”
While it can be argued (and I would agree) that Mr. Graham could not even attest that many were in heaven as a fact, however, Hitchens’ substitution of the word “many” with “all” takes the statement to an odd extreme. This may be a genuine mistake; if not it is libelous, especially since he took the time to blame Graham for the very word that Hitchens himself supplied.
Other Matters: The reference work in god is not Great is – not great, and leaves the reader often wondering where his assertions are coming from. In fact, after the above example, one should wonder about any of his references, whether recorded in the end-notes or not. There are also a number of rather slippery guilt-by-association arguments that would make even a moderately trained debate instructor reach for the red pen. The most frequent of which is his employment of this construct:
Premise – many foolish things have been done in the name of religion.
Conclusion – therefore, “religion poisons everything.”
That argument is logically invalid. It will only happen to produce a true outcome when one harvests examples from man-made religions whose doctrine is poisoned to begin with. In such cases, one can employ such premises based upon evidence that the religion is in fact the pedagogical source. But it is utterly useless as an indictment against biblical Christianity. Should anyone want to contest that point, just try reversing the recent travesty of those who 1. made a life size chocolate Jesus – “My Sweet Lord“; 2. painted a mock version of da Vinci’s last supper, using canines; and 3. featured a fashion show entitled “Imitation of Christ.” The fact that these same free-speech mavericks are completely unwilling to do the same with Islam’s prophet Mohammed should settle one’s uncertainty about the differences between Islam and Christianity (people seem to know what provokes violence, and what does not). Beyond such strained reasoning as above there appears to be, embarrassingly, an implicit invocation to the now defunct theory of Recapitulation by Ernst Haeckel on page 221; but in addition to this there are comments like these:
“You can believe in a divine mover if you choose, but it makes no difference at all, and belief among astronomers and physicists has become private and fairly rare.” p. 70.
“It [religion] is also fully aware of the ever-mounting evidence, concerning the origins of the cosmos and the origin of the species, which consign it to marginality if not to irrelevance.” p. 229.
As a Christian and a pastor, one would think that I should seriously consider forfeiting my Bachelor of Science degree in Physics and giving up on astronomy altogether, especially after comments like these. But in all of this I am reminded of my own dogmatism as an atheist, many years ago, and by this I am all the more motivated to pray for this man.
WHERE HE SEEMS TO BE GOING –
Finally, there is an even greater twist of logic which culminates at the end of the book after an earlier attempt to distance himself from a more radical approach to dealing with religion:
“Religious faith is, precisely because we are still-evolving creatures, ineradicable. It will never die out, or at least not until we get over our fear of death, and of the dark, and of the unknown, and of each other. For this reason, I would not prohibit it even if I thought I could.”
He even offered a correction to Professor Dawkins and Daniel Dennett for their insistence that atheists be called “brights” because of the conceited nature of the label. That is all well and good; however, the logical end of his arguments does in fact belie his apparent charity. In fact there is a chapter entitled Is Religion Child Abuse? His implicit answer to this query is yes. Thus, in most chapters Hitchens is required to employ the worst examples that he can find in order to implicate religion on the whole (including Christianity). While no one can deny that there are hideous acts that are being committed all the time in the name of religion (including child abuse), Hitchens goes overboard once again, and offers us a rather familiar speculation:
“If religious instruction were not allowed until the child had attained the age of reason, we would be living in a quite different world.” p. 220.
Yes, that would be a different world! His assumption of moral supremacy leads him to conclude that parents (especially religious parents) are ill equipped to raise their own children (which, by the way, is the same assumption of most Communistic states). But the fabric of his “morality” is revealed in this grotesque passage on page 176:
“[Dr. Martin Luther King] was a mammal like the rest of us, and probably plagiarized his doctoral dissertation, and had a notorious fondness for booze and for women a good deal younger than his wife. He spent the remainder of his last evening in orgiastic dissipation, for which I don’t blame him. (These things, which of course disturb the faithful, are rather encouraging in that they show that a high moral character is not a precondition for great moral accomplishments.)”
We can be glad that we still live in a nation where we are not required to release our children to the state for such “moral” education as this. He concludes with a very dark representation of religion, calling it a:
“…poisonous branch that should have been snapped off long ago, or allowed to die out, before it could infect any healthy growth in its junk DNA. But yet we still dwell in its unwholesome, life-killing shadow.” p. 275.
This is why I captioned this section – where he seems to be going. As a Christian, Mr. Hitchens considers me to be an infection and a significant carrier of junk DNA. For myself, I find this to be ironic. As one who was bred as an atheist from the beginning, and then was converted as a Christian, what would he have to say about my genetic makeup? Might I be a living specimen and example of instantaneous-speciation? Certainly not!. But Hitchens’ own disdain for this “infection” of religion is so great that he closes his book by expressing his desire for its death. When I read that statement, I couldn’t help but to think of another atheist who not only felt that same way, but he acted upon his belief in an effort to be consistent with his convictions, and that atheist’s name is Saloth Sar (1925-1998). Now let me be very clear here – Christopher Hitchens is not guilty of the same actions of Saloth Sar, and I do not mention this name in order to implicate Mr. Hitchens through the worn out error of guilt by association; however, it is important to note that Saloth Sar employed a slogan among his followers in order to justify the elimination of anyone who opposed them, and this slogan is strikingly similar to Mr. Hitchens’ final thoughts:
Saloth Sar: “To Keep You Is No Benefit, to Destroy You Is no Loss.”
Similarly, and by Hitchens’ own admission, to keep religion is no benefit – its death would be no loss. It is this philosophy of: “those who disagree with me should be eliminated” that has plagued human history, whether under the veil of false religion, or by means of genuine atheism. My question regarding Mr. Hitchens is this: what moral or logical reason is there that prevents him from transforming his own words to the slogan of the atheist Saloth Sar? I would even offer the following vitriol espoused by Mr. Hitchens against late Jerry Falwell in support of my question:
Mr. Hitchens’ own atheistic attitude and philosophy seems to have risen from the ashes of atheists like Saloth Sar who said to those whom he deemed as inferior and therefore worthy of elimination: “…to keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.” In case you are wondering, Saloth Sar is the formal name for the one who is better known as Pol Pot, the Cambodian leader of the Khmer Rouge. It was Pol Pot who was responsible for the slaughter of somewhere between 1 to 2 million people during his reign. Logically speaking, I have to wonder what philosophical difference there is between these two men; but so that no one can accuse me of guilt by association here, allow me to include myself in this important conclusion: the only thing that keeps Mr. Hitchens, myself or anyone from the dark actions of a man like Pol Pot, is the grace of God alone (Romans 3:15) – period.
I will make another post concerning Mr. Hitchens and it will deal with the epistemological common-ground that he in fact shares with Al Sharpton – after all, atheism and man-made religion have much in common.
Context: After his death in 1998, Pol Pot was cremated and his ashes were scattered in the town of Anlong Veng, the final stronghold of the Khmer Rouge.
UPDATE – Video of the Sharpton/Hitchens debate (Language warning for the Q&A session):