God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens
Reviewed by Richard Dawkins
Times Literary Supplement
There is much fluttering in the dovecots of the deluded, and Christopher Hitchens is one of those responsible. Another is the philosopher A. C. Grayling. I recently shared a platform with both. We were to debate against a trio of, as it turned out, rather half-hearted religious apologists ("Of course I don't believe in a God with a long white beard, but..."). I hadn't met Hitchens before, but I got an idea of what to expect when Grayling emailed me to discuss tactics. After proposing a couple of lines for himself and me, he concluded, "...and Hitch will spray AK47 ammo at the enemy in characteristic style".
Grayling's engaging caricature misses Hitchens's ability to temper his pugnacity with old-fashioned courtesy. And "spray" suggests a scattershot fusillade, which underestimates the deadly accuracy of his marksmanship. If you are a religious apologist invited to debate with Christopher Hitchens, decline. His witty repartee, his ready-access store of historical quotations, his bookish eloquence, his effortless flow of well-formed words, beautifully spoken in that formidable Richard Burton voice (the whole performance not dulled by other equally formidable Richard Burton habits), would threaten your arguments even if you had good ones to deploy. A string of reverends and "theologians" ruefully discovered this during Hitchens's barnstorming book tour around the United States.
With characteristic effrontery, he took his tour through the Bible Belt states -- the reptilian brain of southern and middle America, rather than the easier pickings of the country's cerebral cortex to the north and down the coasts. The plaudits he received were all the more gratifying. Something is stirring in that great country. America is far from the know-nothing theocracy that two terms of Bush, and various misleading polls, had led us to fear. Does the buckle of the Bible Belt conceal some real guts? Are the ranks of the thoughtful coming out of the closet and standing up to be counted? Yes, and Hitchens's atheist colleagues on the American bestseller list have equally encouraging tales to tell.
God Is Not Great is a coolly angry book, but there are good laughs too; for example, Hitchens's hilarious account of how Malcolm Muggeridge launched "the 'Mother Teresa' brand upon the world" with his story that, while the BBC struggled to film her under low-light conditions, she spontaneously glowed. The cameraman later told Hitchens the true explanation of the "miracle" -- the ultra-sensitivity of a new type of film from Kodak -- but Muggeridge fatuously wrote: "I myself am absolutely convinced that the technically unaccountable light is, in fact, the Kindly Light that Cardinal Newman refers to in his well-known exquisite hymn".
Hitchens also offers an extremely funny brief history of Mormonism: how it was invented from scratch by Joseph Smith, a nineteenth-century charlatan who wrote his book in sixteenth-century English, claiming to have translated the text from plates of gold -- which conveniently ascended into heaven before anyone else could see them. Even the amanuenses to whom the illiterate Smith dictated had to sit behind a curtain lest they should catch a glimpse and be struck dead. Do you know anyone so gullible? Yet today, Mormonism is powerful enough to field a presidential candidate, its clean-cut young missionaries patrol the world in pairs, and the Book of Mormon nestles in every Marriott hotel room.
Hitchens's title alludes, of course, to those famous last words "Allahu Akhbar". The subtitle has suffered from its Atlantic crossing. The American original, "How religion poisons everything", is an excellent slogan, which recurs through the book and defines its central theme. The British edition substitutes the bland and pedestrian subtitle "The case against religion".
I referred earlier to Hitchens's old-fashioned courtesy, and that was not (entirely) a joke. You can hear it in recordings of his lectures and debates, and you can see it in the first chapter of this book, "Putting It Mildly".
I leave it to the faithful to burn each other's churches and mosques and synagogues, which they can always be relied upon to do. When I go to the mosque, I take off my shoes. When I go to the synagogue, I cover my head.
The next chapter, "Religion Kills", benefits from Hitchens's experience as a war correspondent. (Others have likened him to Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene, but my own comparison is with Waugh's intrepid rogue Basil Seal, who couldn't keep out of trouble or away from the world's trouble spots.) Publicly challenged by an American preacher to admit that, if approached by a gang of men in a dark alley, he would be reassured to learn that they had emerged from a prayer meeting, Hitchens's return volley was unplayable:
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 can say absolutely, and can give my reasons, why 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 does give his reasons too, and in no case are they vulnerable to the objection "But the dispute in B- is tribal / political / economic, not religious". It is doubtless true that the people of B- are killing each other over something more than a mere liturgical disagreement. They are pursuing hereditary vendettas, paying back economic injustices. It's all "them and us" stuff, yes, but how do they know who is them and who is us? Through religion, religious education, sectarian apartheid; through decades of faith-based separation, starting in kindergarten, working up through faith school and on to later life and the inculcated horror of "marrying out"; then, most importantly, the dutifully segregated indoctrination of the next generation.
I once had a televised encounter with a leading "moderate" Muslim, of the kind who gets a knighthood or a peerage for not being an "extremist". I publicly challenged this "moderate" to deny that the Muslim penalty for apostasy was death. Unable to do so (the Koran is word-for-word inerrant), he wriggled and twisted, and finally claimed that it was an "unimportant detail", because never enforced. Tell that to Salman Rushdie, of whom the knighted "moderate" had earlier said, "Death is perhaps too easy for him".
....the literal mind does not understand the ironic mind, and sees it always as a source of danger. Moreover, Rushdie had been brought up as a Muslim and had an understanding of the Koran, which meant in effect that he was an apostate. And "apostasy", according to the Koran, is punishable by death. There is no right to change religion....
Thus Christopher Hitchens on his friend Salman Rushdie, whom he welcomed into his Washington home and was subsequently warned by the State Department
...to change my address and my telephone number, which seemed an unlikely way of avoiding reprisal. However, it did put me on notice of what I already knew. It is not possible for me to say, Well, you pursue your Shiite dream of a hidden imam and I pursue my study of Thomas Paine and George Orwell, and the world is big enough for both of us. The true believer cannot rest until the whole world bows the knee. Is it not obvious to all, say the pious, that religious authority is paramount, and that those who decline to recognize it have forfeited their right to exist.
Hitchens invokes the Danish cartoons to discuss complicity and cowardice in the West:
Islamic mobs were violating diplomatic immunity and issuing death threats against civilians, yet the response from His Holiness the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury was to condemn -- the cartoons! In my own profession, there was a rush to see who could capitulate the fastest, by reporting on the disputed images without actually showing them. And this at a time when the mass media has become almost exclusively picture-driven. Euphemistic noises were made about the need to show "respect" but I know quite a number of the editors concerned and can say for a certainty that the chief motive for "restraint" was simple fear. In other words, a handful of religious bullies and bigmouths could, so to speak, outvote the tradition of free expression in its Western heartland.
While I admire Hitchens's courage, I could not condemn those editors. There are times when "cowardice" amounts to no more than sensible prudence. But Hitchens is surely right to despise leaders of other religions who, while under no threat, go out of their way to volunteer a gratuitous "respect" and "sympathy" for those who incite murder in the name of God.
To return to Hitchens on Rushdie and the fatwa:
One might have thought that such arrogant state-sponsored homicide...would have called forth a general condemnation. But such was not the case. In considered statements, the Vatican, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the chief sephardic rabbi of Israel all took a stand in sympathy with -- the ayatollah. So did the cardinal archbishop of New York and other lesser religious figures. While they usually managed a few words in which to deplore the resort to violence, all these men stated that the main problem raised by the publication of The Satanic Verses was not murder by mercenaries but blasphemy.
Moving to today's Iran (and this may go some way towards explaining his otherwise mysterious flirtation with the neocon blackguards of Washington) Hitchens notes, "as I write, a version of the Inquisition is about to lay its hands on a nuclear weapon". This is an unexpected threat. Theocracy doesn't obviously nurture the sort of cultural and educational advancement that goes with modern scientific inventiveness. Hitchens develops his point with respect to September 11, 2001, when
from Afghanistan the holy order was given to annex two famous achievements of modernism -- the high-rise building and the jet aircraft -- and use them for immolation and human sacrifice. The succeeding stage, very plainly announced in hysterical sermons, was to be the moment when apocalyptic nihilists coincided with Armageddon weaponry. Faith-based fanatics could not design anything as useful or beautiful as a skyscraper or a passenger aircraft. But, continuing their long history of plagiarism, they could borrow and steal these things and use them as a negation.
While my own primary concern as a scientist has been with religion's claims about the cosmos and the sources of life, Hitchens restricts such matters to two short chapters. Where he really comes into his own is with the evils that are done in the name of religion: "religion poisons everything". His list is pretty comprehensive. There is a good chapter on religion as child abuse; another on religion as a health hazard, which doesn't fail to mention those Roman Catholic priests, including at least two cardinals and an archbishop, who solemnly told their flocks, in African countries ravaged by AIDS, that condoms transmit the virus.
Reviewers have variously described Hitchens as an equal opportunity atheist, an equal opportunity embarrasser (of all religions), an equal opportunity ranter, and an equal opportunity bigot. He is certainly not a bigot, nor does he rant (any critic of religion, no matter how mild, is automatically assumed to "rant"). But it is true, as another reviewer of God Is Not Great has put it, that it is "ecumenical in its contempt for religion". Even Buddhism, which is often praised as a cut above the rest, gets both barrels.
It is no surprise that Hitchens's chapter "The Nightmare of the Old Testament" effortlessly lives up to its name. The next one, despite its promising title ("The New Testament Exceeds the Evil of the Old") is more about the unreliability of the texts than about any evil to match the admittedly high standards of the Pentateuch. Many Gospel stories were invented to fulfil Old Testament prophecies, and the shameless candour with which their authors admit it is almost endearing: "All this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet...." The real evil of the New Testament gets a chapter to itself: that is, the divine-scapegoat theory of Jesus's crucifixion, as vicarious atonement for "original sin" (the past sin of Adam who had never existed, and the future sins of people like us who didn't yet exist but were presumed to have every intention of sinning when our time came).
Hitchens is quick to note the similarity of Christianity to extinct cults. Jesus slots right into a cosmopolitan catalogue of virgin births along with Horus, Mercury, Krishna, Attis, Perseus, Romulus and, incongruously, Genghis Khan. Is it Jungian atavism, shrewd PR, or sheer accident that leads the inventors of cults, and the religions into which they mature, to conjure their gods out of virgin wombs, like so many rabbits out of hats? Jesus's case was abetted by a simple mistranslation from the Hebrew for "young woman" into the Greek for "virgin".
One of Hitchens's central themes is that gods are made by man, rather than the other way around. A related theme is plagiarism: "monotheistic religion is a plagiarism of a plagiarism of a hearsay, of an illusion, extending all the way back to a fabrication of a few nonevents". A pair of chapters explores "The Tawdriness of the Miraculous" and the widespread fallacy that we derive our morals from religious rules such as the Ten Commandments. As Hitchens witheringly puts it, does anybody seriously think that, before Moses delivered the tablet inscription "Thou shalt not kill", his people had thought it a good idea to do so?
I said that Hitchens comes into his own on the evils that are done in the name of religion: "in the name of" is important. You can't just point to evil -- or indeed good -- individuals who happen to be religious. The case to be made is that people do evil (or good) -- because they are religious. Crusaders and jihadis are -- by their own lights -- good. They do evil things (by our lights) because their faith drives them to it. The nineteen murderers of September 11 scrupulously washed, perfumed and shaved their whole bodies in preparation for the martyrs' paradise, as they set off on what they sincerely, truly, prayerfully believed was a supremely righteous mission.
If ever a man embodied evil it was Adolf Hitler. He never renounced his Roman Catholicism, and affirmed his Christianity throughout his life, but unlike, say, Torquemada or a typical crusader or conquistador, he did not do his horrible deeds in the name of Christianity. Another deeply evil man, Joseph Stalin, was probably an atheist but, again, he didn't do evil because he was an atheist, any more than he, or Hitler, or Saddam Hussein, did evil because they had moustaches. Hitchens is especially good on the idiotic challenge "Stalin and Hitler were atheists, what d'you say to that?" -- doubtless after plenty of practice. Stalin, Hitler and the others may not have been religious themselves, but they understood the ingrained religiosity of their subjects, and exploited it gratefully. Hitchens makes the point only briefly in the book, but he has enlarged upon it in later speeches and interviews:
For hundreds of years, millions of Russians had been told the head of state should be a man close to God, the Czar, who was head of the Russian Orthodox Church as well as absolute despot. If you're Stalin, you shouldn't be in the dictatorship business if you can't exploit the pool of servility and docility that's ready-made for you. The task of atheists is to raise people above that level of servility and credulity.
The point applies again to Kim Jong Il (the Dear Leader) and to his late father, Kim Il Sung (the Great Leader), who is still the Eternal President of North Korea, despite having died in 1994. Hitchens has personal experience of North Korea, and his observations on its modern cult of ancestor worship are the sort of thing he does best.
Having failed myself to find anything to complain about, I thought it my duty to examine other reviews in the hope of uncovering something negative to say. Most of them have been favourable, but Matt Buchanan, in the course of an otherwise rave review in the Sydney Morning Herald, hit home with this:
He is also occasionally guilty of crassness. For example: "In the very recent past we have seen the Church of Rome befouled by its complicity in the unpardonable sin of child rape, or as it might be phrased in Latin form, no child's behind left." Hitchens squanders a lot of trust with that vulgar lapse: readers suddenly catch sight of him chortling at his desk and it's not pretty, or funny, and it impugns his seriousness elsewhere.
An undeniable lapse but not a characteristic one. The slightly odd habit of downsizing self-important leaders by calling them "mammals" is a lesser error of tone that might be corrected in a future edition.
Peter Hitchens begins his negative review in the Daily Mail quite well ("Am I my brother's reviewer?"), but the substance of his complaint seems to be that Christopher is as confident in his disbelief as any fundamentalist is confident in his belief. The answer to the familiar accusation of atheist fundamentalism is plain enough. The onus is not on the atheist to demonstrate the non-existence of the invisible unicorn in the room, and we cannot be accused of undue confidence in our disbelief. The devout churchgoer recites the Nicene Creed weekly, enumerating a detailed and precise list of things he positively believes, with no more evidence than supports the unicorn. Now that's overconfidence. By contrast, the atheist says the humble thing: of all the millions of possible entities that one might imagine, I believe only in those for which there is evidence -- trombones, pelicans and electrons, say, but not unicorns or leprechauns, not Thor with his hammer, not Ganesh the elephant god, not the Holy Ghost.
The second commonest complaint from reviewers is that Christopher Hitchens attacks bad religion. Real religion (the religion the reviewer subscribes to) is immune to such criticism. Here is the theologian Stephen Prothero in the Washington Post:
"To read this oddly innocent book as gospel is to believe that ordinary Catholics are proud of the Inquisition...and that ordinary Jews cheer when a renegade Orthodox rebbe sucks the blood off a freshly circumcised penis."
This complaint, too, is familiar, and the answer (even when the point is not exaggerated, as it is by Prothero) is obvious. If only all religions were as humane and as nuanced as yours, gentle theologian, all would be well, and Hitchens would not have needed to write this book. But come down to earth in the real world: in Islamabad, say, in Jerusalem, or in Hitchens's home town, Washington DC, where the President of the most powerful nation on earth takes his marching orders directly from God. Channel-hop your television in any American hotel room, look aghast at the huge sums of money subscribed to build megachurches, at museums depicting dinosaurs walking with men, and see what I mean.
Finally, there are those critics who can't resist the ad hominem blow: "Don't you know Christopher Hitchens supported the invasion of Iraq?" But so what? I'm not reviewing his politics, I'm reviewing his book. And what a splendid, boisterously virile broadside of a book it is.
Richard Dawkins FRS is Oxford's Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science. His latest book, The God Delusion, has sold more than a million copies in its first year, and is being translated into more than 30 languages.
Books mentioned in this post