Not Great

Reviewed by James Kirchick

God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
by Chistopher Hitchens
Twelve, 2007, 307 pages.

The publication of Christopher Hitchens’ latest anti-religious tract, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, could not have come at a more opportune time for its author. Two weeks after it appeared on bookshelves came the death of the American televangelist Jerry Falwell, who had infamously declared, among many other absurdities spanning a half-century, that the terrorist attacks of September 11 were the fault of abortionists, gay people, and the American Civil Liberties Union. This drivel provided the perfect marketing opportunity for Hitchens, who immediately took his dry, unsparing British wit to the airwaves. Asked by a cable television host if he believed Falwell was “in heaven,” Hitchens replied, “No. And I think it’s a pity there isn’t a hell for him to go to.” Hitchens’ atheist admirers might coyly postulate that the near-simultaneous occurrence of this book’s publication and Falwell’s death was divinely inspired.
Hitchens’ merciless skewering of Falwell—“an ugly little charlatan”—was entirely appropriate. Ultimately, however, Jerry Falwell was an easy target, and the rhetorical glee that Hitchens evinced by flagellating a dead man repeats itself, endlessly, as an underlying problem with the polemicist’s book and his arguments about religion in general: When it comes to faith, Christopher Hitchens likes to fight straw men.
This is not to say that the religious fundamentalism Hitchens rightly despises does not exist, or that the threat it poses to humanity is exaggerated. There is much to revile and mock about religion today, and Jerry Falwell and his ilk are the least of it. Turn on the news and you will be awash in images of violent, religiously motivated madness from Pakistan to the ghettos of Paris. The danger the world faces today is a distinctly religious one; religion (or at least a radical form of it) is the cause and terrorism its tool, despite the rhetorical niceties of the president and his minions. This is the reason why reading Hitchens on faith is so cathartic. Since September 11, no one has defended the virtues of Western civilization against the barbarism it confronts more eloquently than this reformed Trotskyite. But according to Hitchens, the only religious people who exist are the fanatics he so pleasurably excoriates.
Hitchens opens his treatise with what ought to be a simple request. Listing a series of expectations foisted upon him by religious people (attending bar mitzvas, offering “respect” for the belief that the Koran was dictated in Arabic, etc.), he writes that he has no problem as long as the religious agree to his “polite reciprocal condition—which is that they in turn leave me alone.” In other words, live and let live. This, however, “religion is ultimately incapable of doing.” He’s only partially right. Judaism—which, according to Hitchens, as the progenitor of Christianity and Islam is ultimately responsible for much of today’s religious lunacy—emerges rather well from his withering critique. This is because the Jewish faith, if it ever had a history of proselytizing, certainly does not any longer. It is when religion makes demands on non-believers that Hitchens gets angry. Mighty angry.
The inescapable fact is that the vast majority of the religious madness that plagues our world today is Islamic, and it is for this reason that the youngest of the three monotheistic faiths—“not much more than a rather obvious and ill-arranged set of plagiarisms,” in Hitchens’ words—comes in for the greatest drubbing. In a chapter that will surely earn him a fatwa if he has not secured one already (entitled “The Koran Is Borrowed from Both Jewish and Christian Myths”), Hitchens makes a convincing case that Islam “initially fulfilled a need among Arabs for a distinctive or special creed, and is forever identified with their language and their impressive later conquests, which, while not as striking as those of the young Alexander of Macedonia, certainly conveyed an idea of being backed by a divine will….”
It is in light of this unoriginal history that Hitchens does not view Islam and its prophet with trepidation and respect, but instead confesses to “laugh[ing] when I read the Koran, with its endless prohibitions on sex and its corrupt promise of infinite debauchery in the life to come.” Nor does Hitchens show much respect for the Almighty; he spells “god” lowercase throughout.
Christianity and, to a greater extent, Judaism, have made their peace with modernity, at least more so than has Islam. Of course, the “intelligent design” movement is but the latest example of taking biblical literalism too far, but Christians no longer execute those who defame their God, and the Jews no longer wage war against the Philistines. Judaism, which is an explicitly non-proselytizing faith, is even more respectful of non-believers in this regard. The same, of course, cannot be said for Islam, which, ironically for a religion whose followers so often accuse the West of being rapacious and imperial, divides the world in half: The land of Islam (dar al-islam)and the land of the infidel (dar al-harb), where war must be continuously waged until victory.
Given Judaism’s adaptation to modernity, Hitchens cannot launch the same sort of verbal assault against it as he does against Islam. He does not seem bothered by this (he is the last person to worry about being called “Islamophobic” or any such epithet), but in an attempt to be ecumenical, he makes some unfair arguments against Judaism. To advance his claim that to be religious ipso facto one must be a fanatic, Hitchens fixates his ire on a particular faction of Orthodox Jewish settlers in the West Bank. It is of course reasonable to feel distaste for the bigotry and territorial demands of the most extreme settlers, but once again, Hitchens creates a straw man: Most Jews (and Israelis) are not religious extremists (even by his own liberal definition), oppose the expansion of settlements in the West Bank, and have long supported the removal of settlers from Israeli-controlled territories. When it comes to both Jewish theology and Jewish religious practice, settlers in the West Bank—who make up less than two percent of Jews in the world, and a significant portion of whom are not in fact religious—are almost meaningless.
Hitchens’ thesis that religion is always stupid, evil, and detrimental to human advancement leads him to make many more absurd claims. For example, he contends that religion was at best tangential to the civil rights movement. But to say that religion did not have to be an important motivating factor behind the civil rights movement ignores the fact that it was. Hitchens can point to all of the atheist, social-democratic civil rights activists he likes (and he misidentifies a monumentally important individual, Bayard Rustin, as an atheist, when in fact Rustin, the head organizer of the 1963 march on Washington, was a Quaker), but this does not negate the obvious fact that the civil rights movement was a church-based cause led by clergy from several different Christian denominations and joined by prominent American Jews, many of whom, like Abraham Joshua Heschel, were motivated by and spoke in the name of religion. If there were great atheist leaders of the African-American civil rights movement, they were overshadowed by the religious ones, which must say something about the power of religion in drawing people’s emotions and energies toward the cause of social justice.
Hitchens believes he has made some sort of great revelation when he points to the difference between what Martin Luther King, Jr. preached—non-violence and moral suasion—and the calls for “savage punishments and genocidal bloodlettings” found in the Old Testament. Hitchens then, with an obnoxious sense of self-appointed authority, declares that “in no real as opposed to nominal sense, then, was he [King] a Christian.” This simplistic assessment of the great civil rights leader’s supposed inconsistency underscores once again the central problem with Hitchens’ book: His assertion that religious people are all zealots because their faiths are grounded in texts featuring scenes that today are considered extreme. Yet King was able to harmonize the teachings of a book written several thousand years ago, when such “savage punishments and genocidal bloodlettings” were a common form of justice and statecraft, with a modern conception of human rights. And indeed, today the overwhelming majority of Jews and Christians practice their religions in a way that is entirely at peace with modern conceptions of justice. But to Hitchens, who arrogates to himself the right to determine who is and who is not sufficiently “religious,” no form of modern religious observance can ever be true religion, because the Bible sometimes expounds moral and legal practices that today are considered abhorrent.

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