God Is Not Great
The fear of God is the beginning of knowledge, says the Old Testament book of Proverbs, and the fool despises wisdom and instruction. According to Christopher Hitchens, Solomon got things wrong side round. More often than not, it has been the god-fearers who have stifled knowledge and persecuted those seeking wisdom and instruction. In God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, he attempts to set the record straight.
A British-born author and journalist, recently naturalized as a U.S. citizen, Hitchens made his name in America as a fiercely independent and controversial columnist for the politically left newspaper The Nation. His biweekly column, “Minority Report,” ran from 1982 until 2002, when he publicly and acrimoniously split with the newspaper in part because of his support for the then-forthcoming invasion of Iraq and his growing concern with what he called Islamic fascism and theocratic nihilism.
Hitchens is both revered and reviled as a polemicist whose command of language and breadth of literary and historical knowledge make him a formidable opponent. In the past, he has leveled withering polemics at respected and even revered icons. He criticized the health practices and political liaisons of Mother Teresa in The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice (1995). He argued that Henry Kissinger should be charged with war crimes for past foreign policy decisions in The Trial of Henry Kissinger (2001). He has also written a book-length condemnation of the alleged treacheries of former president Bill Clinton and shorter critical pieces on Ronald Reagan and Princess Diana.
Hitchens’s basic case against religion in God Is Not Great is largely conventional. First, religion is a human construct. “It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance, and other infantile needs).” Its teachings and sacred texts reveal this human origin. “Even the men who made it cannot agree on what their prophets or redeemers or gurus actually said or did.” While religion’s claims about the origins and purpose of life might have inspired conviction in the past, they can no longer contend with what we know about the world now. “Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion, and one would like to think that this is why they seem so uninterested in sending fellow humans to hell.”
While religion held sway over science and reason by virtue of the auto-da-fé and a spectacular assortment of other tools with which to correct the misguided, no effective opposition could be made to its authority. Not for many centuries were the silent cadres of unbelievers able to make their case for secularism. “The decay and collapse and discredit of god-worship does not begin at any dramatic moment . Rather the end of god-worship discloses itself at the moment, which is somewhat more gradually revealed, when it becomes optional, or only one among many possible beliefs.” For Hitchens, that moment began with the Enlightenmenta lesson to be remembered, and the note on which his case against religion ends.
In his opening chapter, Hitchens provides a brief summary of the origins of his secularism. As a nine-year-old grade school student, Hitchens listened indignantly as one of his teachers, in a moment of religious fervor, confused photosynthesis with chromotherapy by suggesting that God had made the Earth’s vegetation green because of that color’s calming effect on human eyes. This epiphany of unbelief soon blossomed into a more sophisticated opposition toward the claims of religion, which he soon determined faced four irreducible objections: They misrepresent the origins of humanity and the cosmos, they are servile and solipsistic, they are the cause and result of dangerous sexual repression, and they rely ultimately on wish-thinking.
(The entire section is 1,873 words.)