The Best Mind of the 18th Century

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

Christopher Hitchens, Twelve Books, 307 pages, $24.99

One is tempted to quip that Christopher Hitchens is certainly one of the best minds of the 18th century, but that would be to give Hitchens too much credit as an equal to Voltaire in wit. He is not, and his God Is Not Great presents little of substance beyond what one would hear murmured in Enlightenment salons. Even more irritating, the style rarely rises above naughty school-boy sniggering. (One imagines him as a young boy penciling in a mustache on the Madonna in the town crèche at Christmas, much to the delight of his fellow rogues hidden in the bushes.)
Perhaps I am not being fair, or more likely, I have best-seller-atheist-book fatigue after reviewing Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, and finding in Hitchens nothing new and a lot more of it. Given the tedious similarity of Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation, Dawkins’s The God Delusion, and Hitchens’s God Is Not Great, I’m beginning to think the triumvirate hatched its literary blitz after a club meeting and all used the same outline.
Well, weary or not, here we go. The most significant problem with Hitchens’s argument is precisely that it does belong in the 18th century, that is, in a time when it was still possible to declaim upon How Religion Poisons Everything (the subtitle of Hitchens’s book). In those heady days of overt deism and covert atheism, enemies of religion could gather together, exchange stories of religious hypocrisy and savagery, and imagine that once the poisoned barbs of Christianity were removed from innocent human flesh, and priests and kings were suitably strung up by each other’s entrails, the world would breathe a long and peaceful sigh of relief.
That was before the French Revolution, before Stalin, before Hitler, before Mao, before Pol Pot; in short, before any actual attempt to politically eliminate either Christianity in particular or all religion in general, and set up a regime based entirely on secular foundations. Before it was ever tried in earnest, the intellectual atheist could wade through many a hypothetical reverie of the innocent and Edenic future of practical atheism.
That is the whole problem with Hitchens’s book: He still thinks he has that enviable luxury. His finale — a mere seven pages long — is titled “The Need for a New Enlightenment,” as if it hadn’t been tried already and found woefully wanting. The ending appeal — to “undreamed-of vistas inside our own evolving cortex,” the “proper study of mankind” being “man, and woman,” the idyllic “study of literature and poetry,” “unfettered scientific inquiry,” and certainly most of all, the long-awaited “divorce between the sexual life and fear, and the sexual life and disease, and the sexual life and tyranny” — is so drippingly theatrical and naïve that the reader becomes embarrassed on Hitchens’s behalf.
Of course, Hitchens realizes that his anti-religion must answer the obvious objection: “Is it not true that secular and atheist regimes have committed crimes and massacres that are, in the scale of things, at least as bad if not worse?” His mode of defense consists in (1) avoiding the issue by continuing to talk about all the bad things done in the name of religion or by anyone with a religious name; (2) admitting that some bad things were done by allegedly atheist regimes, but that when, say, communists were slaughtering people by the millions they were actually acting out of an as-yet-not-exorcised spirit of religion; (3) hinting that this spirit might be stitched into our genes by evolution, so that our genes unhappily deflect atheism from achieving its glorious potentialities; (4) deflecting consideration of Hitler by finger-pointing at popes and cardinals who allegedly supported Hitler; and (5) sidestepping the wickedness of Stalin by examining the banalities of his attempts to parrot religious ceremonies. All that allows Hitchens to say — with an entirely straight face, as far as I can tell — that “totalitarian systems, whatever outward form they may take, are fundamentalist and, as we would now say, ‘faith-based.'”
Really? What if I cleverly disowned all the wickedness done in the name of Christianity by saying that all the evil perpetrated by so-called religious people was actually done out of a spirit of rebellion against God, and therefore true Christians are entirely innocent of any crimes?
That would not only be disingenuous, but unmanly. If I am to be a Christian, I must swallow hard, and look with a clear and humble eye at the sins of Christians, my own first and foremost. If Hitchens really wants to be an atheist, he should have girded his loins before taking up his pen, and taken a good, long, hard, sobering, honest look at the blood and darkness of the 20th century, almost all of it done in the name of unbelief.

If he had, he would have to conclude that it is not religion that poisons everything, but human beings that poison everything, including religion and atheism. They also poison garden clubs, baseball teams, industrial corporations, moose lodges, academic departments, and charitable trusts. In short, wherever one finds humanity, one also finds inhumanity. But that is a point for Christianity — indeed, a point of doctrine. The doctrine of original sin, noted Chesterton, “is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”
For both believers and unbelievers, it is a sobering thought that the same kind of hypocrisy, cruelty, sloth, cowardice, pride, short-sightedness, shallowness, injustice, and greed is found among believers and unbelievers. The error of Hitchens is to assume that because he finds all these vices among believers, it is belief that causes vice — even among unbelievers.

Benjamin D. Wiker

By

Benjamin Wiker is Professor of Political Science and Senior Fellow of the Veritas Center at Franciscan University. His newest book is The Reformation 500 Years Later: 12 Things You Need To Know. His website is www.benjaminwiker.com, and you can follow him on Facebook.

  • georgie-ann

    the trouble with these books is that untold numbers of people are ready to believe them & use them for an excuse to do/live anyway they want to,…& they end up pointing to a “road to hell,”…seeing lies “in print” turns them into “truth” for many unwitting readers,…

  • Richard

    What I find intersting is that a twerp like chrissy hitchens is able to earn a living. In a better world he would be sitting outside the pub with a cup in his hand. Instead, in the fallen west, he is actually celebrated. He is, a perfect metaphor for our culture and our times: a twerp throwing spitballs in the back of the class.

  • Nick Palmer

    Richard, you’re absolutely right. The sad truth is that people’s capacity for rationalization is boundless, supported as it is by Satan. A person decides what he want to do, then find a way to make it “right.” Each step away from truth involves him in deeper and more convoluted idiocy.

    Witness Nancy Pelosi and Patrick Kennedy, among many others. Thinking Catholics should be wholly befuddled by the bizarre blather spewing from those two dunces about abortion. What part don’t they get? Simple question Nancy, dearest: If Jesus returned to earth, would he be willing to work as an abortionist? Even a really nice, teary, and compassionate one?

    This plays out in my experience, too. I’m a recovering alcoholic. Talk to anyone with a number of years in AA. He’ll be able to relate countless tales he’s heard with one common, yet sub rosa thread: “I wanted to drink so…”

    Mr. Wiker strikes at the heart of Hitchens’s/Dawkins’s/Harris’s logical error — the immutability of human nature and Original Sin are the givens.

  • Gabriel Austin

    Curious among the commentaries on the latest atheistic fashions is the failure to realize that one cannot prove a negative – i.e., the non-existence of God. This is why the attempts are unending.

    On Dawkins, the simplest answer was given by Mary Midgley, whom Dawkins finds “mean”. Which is to say, she demonstrated what a ninnies he really is.

  • John2

    Hitchens can be funny in a belittling, contemptuous, “if you dare to oppose me, you are a fool by definition” sort of style.

    He has used this style of disputation to great advantage. I give him his due, he is a pro — he can ridicule an opponent to great effect. I’d like to set him up with drinks and talk away the evening. I would enjoy that a great deal.

    But this book is irresponsible, silly, and lacking any real merit. In it Mr. Hitchens is pitiful, not much more than a master of the ‘gotcha’ oneliner. Who can take seriously the thin little argument of “God Is Not Great”?

    I direct the same question to Dawkins et al. These people resuscitate long-defeated arguments. They are not serious disputants.

  • Jitpring

    David B. Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies is devastating.

  • Peter

    Hitchens knew at the age of 9 that God simply could not exist. He is spending a lot of time and energy to protect that little boy who lives inside him. Therefore his arguments are childlish. in philosophy his line of reasoning is known as “petitio principi”;it is a logical fallacy arising from the fact that a preconceived idea is already present in the premise needed to be proven.
    In my opinion, too many people find themselves compelled to engage in public debates with him.
    Nothing would hurt his ego more than simply ignoring him. He craves for attention and we are giving it to him.

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