I just finished God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by the recently
deceased polymath, essayist, and atheist Christopher Hitchens. I bought the book after seeing it linger on shelves and cropping up in my recommendations on Amazon.com for the past year.
It’s a systematic, caustic critique on religion that ends with a plea for secular rationalism and a “New Enlightenment,” a book bound to spur controversy.
I’m no stranger to religion. After an incident involving milk and foam cups at one pre-K, my parents moved me to Gingerbread House, a Catholic pre-K in the nearby City of Syracuse.
My dad drove our blue-green Volvo each day, past the gutted factories and black windows, beneath the low bridges etched with rusty rivulets, and past the sidewalks with tufts of grass and weedy tendrils.
Among the nap-time, craft-time, and play-time typical of most pre-Ks, Gingerbread House had prayer time. Teachers took us to a low, dark chapel with clean floors and a white flame incased behind red glass. A crucifix hung in the front. Now and then, the stories of the Bible cropped up in conversation.
My memory is hazy, but Gingerbread house must have hit something. My mom said I dragged her to the chapel once, and as we stood in the silence, I shushed her and pointed to the crucifix.
“That’s God,” I whispered.
Since then, I’ve been in Catholic school. My parents had no desire to inculcate me with Catholic doctrines (they just wanted the benefits of a private education), but I’ve absorbed doctrines anyway.
I even spent two years discerning a vocation for the Franciscans and heard the definitive “call” one night at prayer. Lit by diffused light in a chapel with broad, clear windows that watched the room like mirrors, I prayed. I could suddenly feel it: a pull, a sense of urgency.
“I need to be a friar,” I said to myself.
But Hitchen’s book has followed me around the past year and jumped to the top of my reading list because I’ve swung the other direction, calling myself atheist. It’s been a slow, painful transition.
Hitchens opens by recounting his own religious schooling as a child. A teacher named Mrs. Jean Watts would take him and his classmates around Dartmoor, writes Hitchens, point out nature, and have them read scripture.
But one day, Mrs. Watts overstepped, saying “So you see, children how powerful and generous God is. He has made all the trees and grass to be green, which is exactly the color that is most restful to our eyes.”
This statement sparked an epiphany that later lead to his own transition to atheism, fortified further by his own research and life experiences–including his time as a corespondent in the Middle East and his various conversions.
Despite this simple beginning, Hitchen’s atheism is blunt and clear. As he says in the same opening chapter,
There still remain four irreducible objections to religious faith: that it wholly misrepresents in the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the minimum of solipsism, that it is both the result and cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking.
He then spends the ensuing 300 pages defending these claims and attacking the atrocities throughout history connected with religion, including a chapter devoted to the “eastern solution” of Buddhism, Hinduism, etc., that is equally vitriolic. His evidence includes the testimony of experts–philosophers and scientists mostly–history, and the direct quotation of scripture and religious authority.
In the more moving passages, he also includes his personal experiences, as when he visited Uganda in 2005 and saw the pain left by Joseph Kony and the “Lord’s Resistance Army,” or LRA.
The listless, vacant, hardened little boys (and some girls) were all around me. Their stories were distressingly similar. They had been seized, at the age of anything from eight to thirteen, from their schools or homes by a stone-faced militia that was itself originally made up of abducted children… The misery inflicted by this army of wretches turned zombies was almost beyond computation.
Yet a religious fundamentalist runs the clinic that treats these children, a point Hitchens clearly respects.
This shows Hitchens’ strength: he attacks religion, yet he also displays fairness at many points. Condescension, skepticism, and indignation infuse his language, but his tone does not damage his evidence or well-reasoned points.
At times, his attacks turn to tirades and my own skepticism surfaced at some points. I also cringed each time he referred to St. Francis as “that mammal” and used “God” in the lowercase.
Yet he recants a piece of evidence he uses in the book by saying it was inaccurate in the new afterward. He does not generally idolize secular saints and proponents of reason like Voltaire, Thomas Pain, and Albert Einstein. His respect includes their flaws.
Moreover, his arguments and tirades do not surface from a personal vendetta, but from a genuine conviction that religion is deeply flawed and has caused many evils. It’s personal in a larger sense.
The writing is educated and rich, yet very easy to swallow for the most part. I found myself laughing at his wry observations and violent vocabulary. Yet the book gains an added poignancy in its concluding chapters, where Hitchens’ own platform clarifies. After a meeting with Rabbi Meir Kahane, an extreme Zionist, Hitchens writes,
Sniffing this insanitary barbarian, I had a real pang about the world of light and color that we had lost so long ago, in the black-and-white nightmares of his dreary and righteous ancestors. The stench of Calvin and Torquemada and bin Laden came from the dank, hunched figure whose Kach Party goons patrolled the streets looking for Sabbath violations and unauthorized sexual contact…
Instead of religion, people should seize the secular pillars of plurality, free inquiry, reason, and free thought, concludes Hitchens.
In this respect, I tend to agree with him, yet I am less critical of religion. I do not know if we must “fight” it, as he concludes. I’m still on wandering, picking up rocks from both sides of the road. In my room, the book rests on the same shelf that has a Bible, a Qur’an, Buddhist discourses, Hindu scriptures, mystic literature, theology, and commentary. I have it spaced apart, so it doesn’t touch, out of respect.
Hitchens’ ruthless arguments and valid points–equipped with clear imagery, evidence, and crisp prose–were intriguing to read, but I still relish the beauties of religion.
Last Wednesday, I spent a week at a Franciscan retreat, where I worked last summer for nine weeks, living like a religious with prayer and mass each day. The sacred rhythm of religious life infused my bones. I left Hitchens at home and fell into silence in the same chapel I had heard “the call” a few short years ago.
I suspect both the book and the call will linger, opposing points on a vast spectrum.