Thursday, January 7, 2010

God is Not Great

A friend convinced me that I should read Christopher Hitchens’s God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

The book is the case for the prosecution against religion and, as one would expect from Hitch, a crackling good read. And that religion poisons everything (it touches) is a more sustainable argument than those who claim that religion has some distinctive evil and so are driven to claim that Nazism and Leninism are also religions.*

Faith makes metaphysical claims that are not up for evidentiary critique yet are also claimed to be profound moral trumps. So religion makes profound metaphysical and moral claims way beyond any evidence to back it up—hence the enormous diversity of religious claims. Thus, it is not hard for Hitch to assemble a raft of inconsistencies, oppressions, contradictions, brutalities and simple falsities.

He also has a lot of fun depriving God of any capitalisation and referring to particular individuals (especially those making outrageous claims) as mammals. His basic thesis is that religion is entirely man-made and that explains its features, particularly its noxious ones.

Hitch’s history (including intellectual history) is a little erratic though. His claim that history could have easily occurred so that we wouldn’t get religion (or, at least monotheism) seems dubious. We are the religious animal.

Hitch reminds us, if overstates somewhat, that Christian destruction and suppression was responsible for some of the loss of Classical heritage. He misunderstands Nietzsche: it is not the Death of God in a metaphysical sense, but the Murder of God in a cultural sense that Nietzsche was talking about. Having misunderstood, Hitch then goes on to essentially make the very point Nietzsche was making (p.67).
He sometimes has better sense than his intellectual sources. Educated by Sir Karl Popper to believe theories have to be falsifiable (p.81) he then talks (as any sensible person would, but not a Popperian) of a scientific hypothesis being verified (p.86).

One feels that Voltaire was being ironic when he said that if God didn’t exist it would be necessary to invent Him, but Hitch takes him literally (p.96). His later argument that folk in the past—due to oppressive religious pressure—had to understate their scepticism has much merit, but I am not sure that changes the point.

Hitch accepts (p.102) the rather eccentric theories of Finkelstein and Silberman (that the Old Testament suddenly becomes reliable at the start of the divided Kingdom but is all made up beforehand), when a perfectly reasonable case can be made for the historicity of much of the Old Testament without affecting his argument one way or another.

He uses a narrow literalism to sneer about ‘Christ died for my sins’ when the claim is he, due to Resurrection, didn’t (p.143). The agony of the crucifixion is appalling, but the claim is also Jesus did not know he was going to be resurrected.

On slavery, Hitch notes Christian support for the institution, but seriously downplays Christian opposition. ( Wilberforce and his movement get ignored, for example.) He also makes the false claim that slavery became less profitable so even the British Empire got rid of it (p.177).

Hitch makes Sanjay Gandhi President when he was PM and Bandranaike was not President and was also not the first PM of independent Sri Lanka (p.199).

The burying alive of homosexuals by the Taliban (p.252) is not a new form of punishment, not even for homosexuals, it was part of medieval English law (though it is unclear whether the law was ever enforced). Some more historical errors by Hitch here.

Hitch is cheeringly unremitting in his crusade against religion, so he mounts a strong critique of Gandhi and the effect of his overt Hinduism as part of his attack on Eastern religion’s generally, including citing Zen At War.

Oddly enough, at one stage, Hitch’s somewhat erratic sense of history leads him to understate his case. Hitch argues (quite reasonably) that religion pioneered total rule. Indeed, so: it is an interesting exercise to work out what techniques of totalitarian social control were not pioneered by the Catholic Church. Show trials (auto-de-fe), heresy hunts, censorship, propaganda, agitprop (preaching friars), population culls (the Albigensian crusade) including ethnic cleansing (the Baltic crusades), targeting the “enemy within” (burning “sodomites”), terrorising torture (the witchcraft trials), commissars (Papal legates with crusading armies): the Church was there first.

There is not much of Hitch’s specific politics in the book, more a general outraged humanism, though that he distrusts the term invisible hand (p.221) is not surprising. Nor do I think that those with a deep philosophical grasp of religious thought will find much to trouble them.

That religious authorities have frequently behaved appallingly is much covered, as are the tawdry intellectual circumlocutions that they have foisted on people or encouraged people to engage in. Chapter Three, A Short Digression on the Pig or, Why Heaven Hates Ham is particularly delicious. Hitch is also very effective at conveying the wonders of science and the independence of morality from religion.

The impossible or profoundly unreasonable moral demands matched up with appalling metaphysical claims are nicely dissected. Particularly in his chapter on Religion As Child Abuse—from its overblown fearfulness about sex: circumcision is un-circumspectly critiqued.

Hitch also has a nice turn of phrase. The bad faith of the faith-based particularly made me chuckle. As did, in reference to North Korea’s President-for-eternity:
The afterlife is not mentioned in North Korea, because the idea of a defection in any direction is very strongly discouraged (p.248).
When he writes that:
Racism is totalitarian by definition: it marks the victim in perpetuity and denies him, or her, the right to make love or marry or produce children with a loved on of the “wrong” tribe … (p.251)
it occurred to me that another group had that treatment even more so. But, in monotheist cultures, anathematisation of the same-sex oriented is how people learn unrestrained bigotry.

Hitch is quite moving on the life of Spinoza and the painful development of resistance to religion and celebration of open thought.

Hitch could have done with a more historically-minded editor, but God is not Great remains a spirited and engaging read on the manifold sins of religion.

*I agree they have acted as substitutes for religion, but if there is no conception of the divine, it is not a religion.

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