"All things are wearisome, more than one can say." - Ecclesiastes 1:8

Monday, July 23, 2007

God is not great - (not really) a review

It's difficult for me to say what I think of this book because I found it hugely enjoyable and annoying at the same time.

While Hitchens distills his opposition to religion into a sort of four-point thesis at the beginning of the book, really he has two main targets: the idea that religion is the sole source of morality, and the notion that a claim to be custodians of divine revelation should serve as a justification for the exercise of political power of any kind. These are two ideas that should be questioned, argued with, opposed. And there are few people - no, there isn't anyone - who can do this with the skill and panache of Christopher Hitchens.

Which is why the book annoyed me. Because while he hits his target alright, he does so using a blunderbuss. I have the American version, which is subtitled, "How religion poisons everything". This involves, as becomes clear throughout the book, attempting to show that religion poisons everything because religion is uniquely poisonous. The book runs into problems here for reasons that have been outlined by a number of reviewers. I don't think I've got anything particularly original to say, so I'll confine myself to restating it in a slightly different form.

When certain types of Christians are confronted with evidence of various crimes, wars and genocide that have been committed in the name of their religion, they have been known to respond, "Ah but they weren't real Christians". An answer that is as convenient as it is complacent - as well as being for the historian completely useless - I hope you'll agree. The problem with Hitchens' argument is that he does the same thing, only the other way around. When Christians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King behave well, this they do despite their religion. And when a dictator who closed churches and turns them into museums of atheism behaves badly, this is understood as an essentially religious phenomenon.

Hitchens' argument here is more subtle than it is usually given credit for, but it still doesn't quite work. Bonhoeffer was indeed what you might describe as a Christian humanist, and a liberal theologian. But for us to accept that religion poisons everything, you'd have to show that Bonhoeffer's religion poisoned his humanism in some way. I suppose you could attempt this, but it would require a moral self-confidence that I simply don't possess, not to mention historical sources that I have hitherto been unaware of.

In the same way, I think Hitchens is right to identify the essentially religious nature of totalitarianism - with its claims to cognitive infallibility, its recourse to holy books, its martyrs and prophets, its icons, rituals and confessionals, it's eschatology and it's insistence that the ordinary populace live their lives standing to a state-endorsed moral attention. Very like religion - but the point is, it isn't the form of 'religion' that Hitchens addresses himself in most of the rest of the book. No permission claimed from an invisible deity, and without the creation myths or ideas of original sin that he takes issue with in the previous chapters of the book.

In this way the concept of 'religion' becomes stretched when it is applied to Stalin, or Mao - but narrowed in a way that few people would recognise in the case of Martin Luther King. Religion poisons everything because it is uniquely poisonous: after the century of Hitler, Stalin and Mao, I think this is a difficult claim to sustain.

It's this over-reach that is annoying because it spoils for me a book that is otherwise lucid, entertaining, and even on occasion life-affirming. Because it isn't only in the discussion around totalitarianism that Hitchens does this. Take the scandal of paedophile priests, which Hitchens does to challenge the hypocrisy of the church's claim to monopolise morality. It is right to do so, and in this sensitive age of ours it should be noted that few have the gumption to throw this reality back in the faces of those who intone 'family values'.

But the sickening truth is there has never been a human institution, whether religious or not, that is supposed to care for children but has not at some point abused them instead, and then subsequently attempted to conceal it. Therefore, to use this to support his case, Hitchens really needs to provide some evidence that religious institutions are the worst offenders here. But we don't get any, which doesn't sit very well with the tone of the rest of the book. He surely wouldn't want us to take it on faith?

There's another problem raised by this, which has to do with his understanding of what motivates people, which touches upon scriptural literalism or 'fundamentalism'. Religious people do evil because their various bibles give them permission to do so. This is the fact that Hitchens wants people to confront, which is fine. However, when the bible in question doesn't give them permission to do so and they do it anyway, they are nevertheless being motivated by religion. Again I'd argue that Hitchens' argument here, while not entirely satisfactory, is more subtle than it's given credit for. But the concept-stretching goes too far when it is argued further - that if a religious person does do good, and the good they do is apparently inspired by some scriptural injunction or other, this has nevertheless been done despite their religion.

This won't do. "Pagan self-assertion is as good as Christian denial", as JS Mill said. This can and should be argued morally or aesthetically, but Mill's meaning is political. This is the idea that liberty requires this credo to be adopted by the state, which can and must remain neutral on matters of religion; it must make a distinction between a crime and a sin, if it to take a proper role in preserving human freedom. This is what Hitchens believes. As do I - so I would have liked him to make this case with more precision. Instead we got, "Not only is pagan self-assertion as good as Christian self-denial, it is always better because the latter is always bad" - a book that was enjoyable and annoying at the same time.

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