Thursday, 4 September 2014

God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens, a review

After my last entry, a review of a book written by a heathen, I thought it would be fun to make my next entry also a review of a godless sinner book, especially given world events. Let us not waste time discussing the "no true Scotsman" fallacy when it comes to Israel's foreign policy or the ambitions of ISIL and get straight to the review.

Usually I am reluctant to use any labels that identify me with the other unbelieving, non-religeony types and find popular atheism often alienating and divisive as well as damn right hoity-toity; I hope it was clear in my last entry that I am particularly keen to distance myself from Richard Dawkins' particular brand of atheism for example. I once saw a t-shirt in rough trade that said "Too stupid for science? Try religion" yet I feel the words "science" and "religion" could easily be reversed there; people put faith in scientists and clever-sounding-people without really understanding what they're getting at (appeal to authority) whilst I have met plenty of clever people who are also religious. So to my great relief, "God is not Great" by Hitchens is not a foot-stamping book of scientism full of strawmen that I frequently see lobbied at religious (i.e. bringing up dinosaurs when many believers do not actually subscribe to "creationism" at all) but rather a critical assessment of religion in history and an evaluation of how religious literature was compiled.

Hitchens introduces the book with a couple of anecdotes from his religious schooling before exploring a wealth of atrocities committed in the name of religion which was a bit like shooting fish in a barrel; you don't need to tell me that bad things have been done by religious people - just take a look at the news - but I guess it was interesting to hear about some things I wasn't already familiar with. When religion is not killing people directly, Hitchens explores how it can have a deleterious effect on health drawing on incidents such as when Muslim clerics in Nigeria declared a fatwa against the polio vaccine. What really comes across from these chapters is that the late Christopher Hitchens dedicated a large part of his life to criticising religion because he genuinely cared and saw the harm it does. This is really important as I feel the motivation of some prominent atheists is just to win arguments and make religious people look stupid.

Several chapters are dedicated to examining the scholarly integrity of religious texts and Hitchens makes the case that the holy books of the Abrahamic religions are all inconsistent, works of plagiarism that have been tampered again and again over time. I won't lie, for a simpleton like me these chapters were fairly difficult to read. Hitchens was a smart man and I found myself using the dictionary several times over but at least I learned lots of new words. One thing he said perhaps made me call into question the validity of these chapters in that he claimed that there is "little or no evidence for the life of Jesus" - even a smelly heathen like myself has always understood Jesus to have existed, perhaps it was drummed into me by teachers but Wikipedia (please forgive me) references several texts saying that "The theory that Jesus never existed at all has very little scholarly support". So who knows?

My personal favourite chapter was "The "Case" Against Secularism" where he explores the horrors committed under regimes with no religion such as the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. As someone who believes that religion is responsible for a large amount of evil in the world I was keen to get some good comebacks for when people ask me "but what about Hitler?" Hitchens details eloquently how the Catholic church was complicit in Hitler's rise to power and how the vatican helped Nazi criminals escape the Nuremberg trials providing them with contacts, money and documents. As for the Soviet Union, Hitchens postulates that the cult of personalities that spring up under such regimes are attempts to replace religion with "infallible leaders who are an infinite source of bounty" as opposed to negating it. It might have been the case that such states were only possible because they suppressed existing religious beliefs, so the worship came out in other forms, as opposed to actually educating the population and encouraging scepticism and a more organic process of abandoning religion.

Overall it was an interesting read, though I struggled with large swathes of it. I found his argument that religion is entirely man-made extremely convincing, but I will leave you with this quote from his book.

"The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species."

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