Christopher Hitchens: God is Not Great
Friends and family of the heroic passengers on United 93 may be surprised to find out the Islamic terrorists who hijacked the flight on 9/11 were “the most sincere believers” on the plane. This nugget comes from our crusty media star Christopher Hitchens’ new book, which is certain to generate controversy.
Out of context, Hitchens’ assertion about the terrorists may appear inappropriate, if not treasonous, but he’s using the word “believers” as a pejorative, and in this sense, he’s preaching to his choir. His fellow materialists will love the play on words. We believers, though, whom he refers to elsewhere as “yokels,” “credulous idiots” and “stupefied peasants,” may wonder why we picked up the book in the first place.
We picked it up because, despite its grandiose title, it promised to offer a thoughtful critique of organized religion. Given the rise of Islamic fascism; the disgrace within the Roman Catholic Church; the recalcitrance of fundamentalist Jewish settlers on the West Bank; and the brutal hostility of some American protestant sects toward women, gays and anybody else who dares question their authority—in light of all this, the book seemed right for our time.
But as learned and well-researched as it is, God is Not Great merely offers a fleeting critique of what we think of as organized religion. At its center lies a broader attack against those who, religious or not, believe in the life of the spirit as well as the life of the flesh. In short, Hitchens has written a hymn of praise to scientific materialism and, sad to note, a clumsy apology for its own many crimes.
“Religion Kills,” Hitchens titles a chapter with typical bravado, as though science doesn’t. The history of scientific inquiry is filled with examples of incompetence, chicanery and outright torture and homicide undertaken in the name of “reason” and “progress.” Yet Hitchens continues to imply that evil is the prefecture of religion rather than a resident of both secular and spiritual worlds.
In one telling passage, Hitchens offers the tentative conclusion that religion is “not only amoral, but immoral.” Using child abuse as an example, he writes: “The ignorant psychopath or brute who mistreats his children must be punished but can be understood. Those who claim a heavenly warrant for the cruelty have been tainted by evil.”
What then of the National Socialist scientists who conducted experiments on Jewish children in Hitler’s death camps? Clearly psychopaths and brutes, they did not claim “a heavenly warrant” for the cruelty they inflicted. Should they, too, have been “understood” since they were not committing their crimes in the name of God, but in the name of science?
When Hitchens recites the horrendous persecutions inflicted on authority of the Church of Rome, he often leaves the impression that these were mostly crimes committed by believers against unbelievers, but history is rarely so neat.
The Anabaptists in 16th-century Antwerp were themselves believers in a just and loving God, but they were nonetheless burned at the stake, buried alive, drowned, eviscerated and hanged simply because they refused to baptize infants (their logic being that baptism should be reserved for professing believers who had attained the age of reason).
The “rational mammal” (a Hitchens conceit) would probably conclude that the motives for all of these crimes, even if precisely deduced, would be immaterial; that the perpetrators were monsters, whatever their faith; and that the victims, even if believers, shouldn’t in any way be blamed for the horrors visited upon them.
The rational mammal might even reject the book’s jacket pronouncement that the greatest issue of our time is “the malignant force of religion in the world.” This mammal might conclude that the millions of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and others gassed by Hitler’s fascist thugs; the 30 million dead in Stalin’s secular paradise; and the 50 million dead during Mao’s “cultural revolution” might suggest scientific materialism—through its grotesque stepchild, totalitarianism—as the greatest threat. Hitchens, of course, claims that totalitarianism is “faith-based” and that Stalin did not want to destroy religion, only to “replace” it. That’s an odd spin, even for Hitchens, although no one can deny the Islamic jihadists are on a totalitarian roll.
But perhaps the oddest assertion Hitchens makes in the book is that Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor and theologian who was hanged for resisting Hitler, “acted in accordance only with the dictates of conscience.”
It’s difficult, isn’t it, to fathom the notion that Bonhoeffer would have considered his conscience entirely separate from his faith. From his prison cell before his execution, he wrote: “Our relation to God is a new life in ‘existence for others,’ through participation in the being of Jesus.”
Despite the clarity of this Christian witness, Hitchens claims that Bonhoeffer’s faith had “mutated into an admirable but nebulous humanism” by the time he died. This is vintage Hitchens, the idea that the evil in the life of a believer arises “precisely from his faith,” but that the good in the life of a believer is not even an argument for his faith.
Hitchens also proposes a secular sainthood for Dr. Martin Luther King because, despite the fact that he was a professed Christian, he “probably plagiarized his dissertation, and had a notorious fondness for booze and for women a good deal younger than his wife.”
To praise King’s accomplishments while ridiculing his witness is one thing, but it’s quite another to ignore or dismiss the faith of the thousands of believers who packed the churches in Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma; who worshipped long into the night with King and sang and prayed and marched straight into prison like their Christian brethren did for 2,000 years before them—that cloud of witnesses who were sawn asunder and crucified upside down and fed to wild animals because of their faith.
Ask around at the black churches in Birmingham, Mr. Hitchens. find out to Whom the thanks and praise are directed.
As for your offer of textual criticism, thanks but no thanks. We’ve a literature we can read on our own. It is life-affirming and written, among others, by believers and nonbelievers, atheists, Baptists, insurance adjusters and punks.
We’ve got Song of Solomon, Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, Ecclesiastes and The Lord of the Rings. We don’t need a new literature of cynicism and defeat any more than we needed to be “new” men under those butchers Lenin and Stalin. We don’t have to “replace” religion. We can live with it. We can make do. And in the meantime, we can re-read the poetry of somebody like Rainer Maria Rilke, who reminds us what it’s like “to step out of my heart and go walking beneath the enormous sky.”