Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Independent Review of 'God is Not Great' by Christopher Hitchens

He is an anti-theist, convinced that the idea of God has been a disaster for humanity, leading us up a hundred blind alleys of sexual repression, hallucination and sectarian slaughter. Here, he redefines religion as humanity's real "original sin".

A battler beyond belief: Review of 'God is Not Great'
by Johann Hari, The Independent
Thanks to Rob Ives for the link.

Reposted from:

The legion enemies of Christopher Hitchens have long argued that he has declined into a premature alcoholic senility where he can only belch and flail incoherently. This dazzling howl against religion will bitterly, brutally, disappoint them. It shows Hitchens can still intellectually get it up – and how.

Hitchens has passed through many phases in his political life, from Trotskyite leftist to Wolfowitzian neo-conservative, but there has always been a single animating core to his thought: an intense loathing of religion. He is not merely an atheist. He is an anti-theist, convinced that the idea of God has been a disaster for humanity, leading us up a hundred blind alleys of sexual repression, hallucination and sectarian slaughter. Here, he redefines religion as humanity's real "original sin".

As with Nietzsche's The Genealogy of Morals, Hitchens's approach here is primarily historical, tracing the major religions back to their origins and showing how they were plainly fabricated by divinely uninspired mammals. Why does the "Virgin" Mary have "no memory of the Archangel Gabriel's visitation, or of the swarms of angels, both telling her she is the mother of God?" he asks; "everything her son does comes to her as a complete surprise. What can he be doing talking to rabbis in the temple?" Why does the "Prophet" Mohammed receive convenient messages from God sanctioning whatever he wants to do, including having sex with a nine-year-old child?

The answer, to Hitchens, is obvious, and derived from Ludwig Feuerbach's great insight. God did not create man. Man created God, cobbling him together from a string of half-understood events and rumours. He points out that we can actually see how religions are born, live on film.

The 1964 documentary Mondo Cane showed the reaction of Pacific Islanders exposed for the first time to Westerners. They concluded that the white interlopers were "their long-mourned ancestors, come back at last with goods from beyond the grave". On the island of Tana, they had a "revelation" that an American GI called John Frum was their redeemer; to this day, they hold ceremonies proclaiming that the saviour Frum will return.

Hitchens does not just attack the easy religious targets: the Falwells and Bin Ladens. He shows how even the warm fuzzy faces of religion can be repellent. He has shown before how Mother Teresa left people to die in agony because "Christ loves suffering". Here, he takes apart the grossly over-rated Mahatma Gandhi, who loathed modernity and medicine, advised the Jews to commit suicide in the face of the Holocaust, and played a much less impresssive role in the battle for Indian independence than the secular Nehru. Ditto the Dalai Lama, whose "one-man rule in [his] Indian enclave is absolute".

Stirred into this historical account are some delicious barbs puncturing the faithful. Do Christians, Jews and Muslims imagine, he asks, that before Moses received the Ten Commandments, he thought murder and theft were good ideas?

God Is Not Great is currently the bestselling book in the US, and the crest of a tsunami of re-energised atheism. Hitchens neatly dispenses with many of the criticisms thrown at himself, Richard Dawkins and its other exponents. Critics claim atheism is "arrogant", but this is the precise opposite of the truth. All atheists say is that, in the absence of evidence, it is absurd to believe. What could be more humble than sticking scrupulously to fact and reason? Hitchens notes: "How much vanity must be concealed... to pretend that one is the personal object of a divine plan?"

Hitchens is less adept when dealing with the next major criticism: what about Stalin and Mao, the atheist mass murderers? Don't they puncture his thesis that "all major confrontations over the right to free thought, free speech, and free inquiry have taken the same form – of a religious attempt to assert the literal and limited mind over the ironic and inquiring one"? He redefines Stalinism and Maoism as political religions, offering the biology of Lysenkoism as Stalin's "miracles".

There is a more convincing atheist answer, absent here. Only the most naive 19th-century forms of atheism are discredited by Stalin: the ones that claimed that ending religion would end evil. A more mature atheism acknowledges that faith – belief without evidence – is one form of bad thinking among many. Just as eradicating smallpox did not cure cancer, discrediting faith would not cure communism, fascism and other delusions. It would still be worth doing, because faith on its own claims many victims.

If there is a flaw to this book, it is that Hitchens's atheism sometimes takes on a misanthropic tone. He opens by quoting the 11th-century Persian poet Omar Khayyam: "And do you think that unto such as you/ A maggot-minded, starved, fanatic crew/ God gave a secret?" He jokes at one point that this planet is "a prison and lunatic asylum that is employed as a dumping ground by far-off and superior civilisations". It's hard not to think of the mysterious central character in his friend Martin Amis's novel Night Train, who commits suicide because she concludes that this mediocre world can never match her own fabulousness.

But Hitchens is supple enough to sense this flaw, and to counteract it a little. He stresses that the new Enlightenment he advocates as a remedy to superstition is "within the compass of the average person". He approvingly quotes the much more life-affirming atheism of Joseph Conrad: "The world of the living contains enough marvels and mysteries as it is... I am too firm in my consciousness of the marvellous to be ever fascinated by the mere supernatural."

The book is full of pin-pricks of sanity and hope like this. Every child stuck in every "faith school" should be bought a copy. A campaign to put this glittering anti-theist tract on the national curriculum – alongside the Bible, the Koran and the other insufferable staples of "religious education" – should begin here.

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