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God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

Christopher Hitchens

(Twelve; US: May 2007)

To Hell With All That

It doesn’t take a lot of deep research, all you have to do is start looking around. On an average day not long ago, for example, one can find this news item from benighted and religion-scarred Mesopotamia: 23 Iraqis traveling on a bus in the north of the country—members of a small, angel-worshipping Kurdish sect called the Yazidis—were separated by gunmen from Christian passengers before being themselves driven off, lined up against a wall and shot. The accepted reason for why this had happened was revenge: supposedly a Yazidi woman had recently converted to Islam and was stoned to death for her temerity, only to be posthumously and rather arbitrarily avenged by her fellow believers. This is only a drop in the bucket of modern religious butchery—looking even a bit deeper, and only at the most recent examples, are enough to put one off one’s lunch for a number of days—and it’s a good part of the reason why Christopher Hitchens’ scattershot but blistering and long overdue polemic God Is Not Great has the resonance that it does.


Hitchens is an atheist, and proudly so, without being a snot about it. The voices of atheists, whose very name is still a dirty utterance in ours and many other societies, have been getting louder of late, at least on the bestseller charts. While much of the country loses itself in a fug of happiness over such book-shaped security blankets as The Purpose-Driven Life (or any number of the cheery, infomercial-like texts churned out by our more bestselling preachers), the occasional riposte by the likes of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett has been garnering a growing readership. One could point to any number of reasons for this, from the increasingly volatile religious conflicts brewing abroad and the ever-loudening assaults on reason from homegrown worshippers (though this doesn’t seem good enough a reason, as when have we ever been free from acts of murder, insanity and stupidity being committed in God’s name?). Still, this is an age in which those who have grown weary of religion’s tyranny have a multitude of examples to point to—whether it’s the sociopathic obsession with sex, the inane hierarchical rules, the denigration and brutalization of women, or simply the unending massacres of believers with wrong beliefs—when they want to explain why the time has come to say: Enough.


But back to Hitchens. A fire-breathing polemicist in the grand tradition, the Hitch has spleen to spare and wastes none of it here when going after the godly. Although this tends to work better in his shorter works of journalism than in book-form, it’s still refreshing to witness the freewheeling energy with which he lashes about him. He’s the rare old white male who doesn’t utilize the mantle of political incorrectness merely as a shield for racism or sexism; this is a book that’s dying to offend those who are easily offended, partly for having been mollycoddled for so long. Hitchens also wins points by not coming at his subject with the aloof self-regard of some of the recent band of atheist populists (he makes a point of mocking the arrogant wishes of some atheists to be referred to instead as “brights”). That said, there’s something in this rambling text that could have used the starch rigor of a Sam Harris, whose End of Faith is as good an argument for religion-as-evil as one could ever ask for.


What God Is Not Great has going for it, though, is not just the author’s vitriol, though there’s plenty of that, to be sure. One thing is Hitchens’ stalwart belief that there are more things in heaven and earth to content oneself in life without having to resort to worship of a passive-aggressive imaginary deity who needs to be constantly reminded how much he’s loved: “Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind, and—since there is no other metaphor—the soul.” This is a necessary point to make before he wades into the multitude of ways in which religion corrupts the world and ruins lives. Because without staking that claim first, without making it abundantly clear that, for example, “the findings of science are far more awe-inspiring than the rantings of the godly,” it leaves too much room for the faithful to claim that without belief in something beyond the corporeal, life would hold no purpose. This seems, of course, suspiciously like the philosophical equivalent of the besotted adolescent who proclaims that life without their one true love is hardly worth living. Is a sunset any less glorious without imagining the immortal deity who supposedly created?


Without getting further into such speculation, suffice it to say that the bulk of God Is Not Great is at the least depressing, and at most rage-inducing. How else is one supposed to respond to a book that trods chapter by chapter through the inane superstitions that make up each of the world’s “great” religions. Acting with at least outward respect towards the religious beliefs of others has been instilled in so many of us as just basic good manners (regardless of the lack of consideration showed to non-believers by some of the faithful) that it’s almost necessary to take that second look at the Old Testament, or the Koran, in order to really comprehend how truly baffling they are. Hitchens marvels at the “tendency of the Almighty to reveal himself only to unlettered and quasi-historical individuals, in regions of Middle Eastern wasteland that were long the home of idol worship and superstition,” further noting that Jesus’ gospel teachings were composed of “hearsay upon hearsay, which helps explain their garbled and contradictory nature.”


It is a true comment on the blinkered manner in which we have long been used to speaking about religion that statements like this should be as refreshing as they are. In essence, Hitchens is merely stating the obvious, that most (if not all) religious scripture is, to the non-believer, nonsense. And not just that, but nonsense routinely used to justify the most unimaginable horrors. It’s a simple point, but one that seems to have been lost in our supposedly advanced age. As Hitchens puts it, “the final ripping of the whole disguise is long overdue.”


Believers could indeed argue that religion is hardly the sole reason that people inflict unimaginable violence upon each other, that if it wasn’t religion it would be something else. Racial differences, arguments over money, take your pick. Surely, though, the loyal opposition could (and indeed should) say in response, Do we need one more reason to kill each other?

Chris Barsanti is an habitual scrivener on books and film for the lucky readers of PopMatters, Film Journal International, Film Racket, and Publishers Weekly, and has also been published in The Chicago Tribune, The Millions, The Barnes and Noble Review, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and New York Film Critics Online. His books include Filmology: A Movie-a-Day Guide to the Movies You Need to Know, the Eyes Wide Open annual film guide series, and The Sci-Fi Movie Guide: The Universe of Film from 'Alien' to 'Zardoz'. His writings can be found here.


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