This year marks the tenth anniversary of the publication of God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by the late Christopher Hitchens. I wrote a blog post about it at the time which I reprint below.
God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything is the latest from Christopher Hitchens, and one of the more popular of the recent spate of atheist bestsellers. “That’s ridiculous,” says my wife. “Everything poisons religion!” The voice of a believer, to be sure, but she has a point. The main flaw of this book is that Hitchens creates a category called “religion” into which he dumps everything he doesn’t like, and a category called “humanism” to encompass everything he does like. So Martin Luther King was not actually inspired by his faith, but Hitler was supported by the Church, and Stalinism was its own religion.* Ergo, religion is bad. Nice! Hitchens constantly refers to Ockham’s Razor, apparently unaware that William of Ockham was a fourteenth-century English Franciscan who was an important scholastic theologian. Peter and Rosemary Grant spent thirty years on the Galapagos Islands observing finch beak evolution; “who could wish that they had mortified themselves in a holy cave or on top of a sacred pillar instead?” Not I – but I will say that I’m also glad that armies of anonymous medieval monks patiently copied out manuscripts, as a service to the Lord, so that we could read them today, and I’m also glad that Gregor Mendel, the Austrian monk, did his pea-plant experiments so that we could know learn about genetics. Do they get credit for what they’ve done? Or were they just humanists without knowing it?
That’s not to say that the book is a bad read. For every solecism (The Passion of the Christ did not seek “tirelessly to lay the blame for the Crucifixion upon the Jews,” “Vulgate” does not mean “vernacular”; Wyclif and Coverdale were not killed for translating the Bible [nor was Tyndale, for that matter – it was his marginal notes that were found heretical]; etc.), there are ten clever, witty turns of phrase, all strung together in that lucid, vituperative Hitchens style. It’s just, as I say, there are some fundamental problems with the whole thing. Hitchens claims that he had been writing the book “all his life,” and indeed much of it reads like an essay by a very smart high school student. He has a chapter debunking the creation myth of Genesis, and another excoriating the Gospels for not agreeing with each other. (You don’t say! Well, there goes my faith.) He also goes on and on about religion’s repression of sexuality, making me wonder just what sort of upbringing Hitchens had. If only religion didn’t lay guilt trips on us about our sexual desires, then we would all be so much happier! But who even takes such instruction to heart anymore? And surely even he recognizes that sex is dangerous? Do what comes naturally and cheat on your girlfriend – even if she’s an atheist, chances are she’ll be upset. Hit on your atheist students and your atheist self might still get fired by your secular college administration. We don’t need religion to be moral, as he constantly tells us – but we don’t need religion to have good reasons for repressing our sexuality either.
I’ve been thinking a bit more about the gauntlet that Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, and now Hitchens have thrown down to religion as such. The first of these authors is very keen on the idea that religion is an evolutionary social adaptation shared by all members of Homo sapiens, and closely allied to our capacity for language.** I am prepared to believe this, although I don’t draw the same conclusion from it that he does. Dennett would have the exposure of this fact be enough to condemn religion for all time – we have now “broken the spell.” But if it is so intrinsically a part of us (on a macro scale, of course – individual “capacity” for religion varies by individual) then can we just dismiss it out of hand? Not that I’m obsessed with sex or anything, but: I can surmise that female attractiveness is just a trick that nature is playing on me in order to get me to procreate. I don’t think it’s entirely a social construction that young women at the height of their fertility also tend to be the most sexually desirable. Does this mean that we are to give up sex, except for procreative purposes, because we “know better”? Or do we simply try to tame the excesses of sexual desire, hem it in with social custom – by encouraging monogamy, proscribing relationships between adults and children, and banning public courtship beyond a certain stage of undress, but by otherwise leaving consenting adults to act as they wish in private? The latter is of course the more practical (and humane) avenue to take… and I would also apply the principle to religion. Western society is significantly less religious now than it ever has been, and who knows, maybe rising standards of living and increasing discoveries about our evolutionary makeup will cause it to die out eventually. It seems though that religion keeps showing a remarkable tenacity and longevity. This is why I can’t accept Hitchens’s claim that it “poisons everything” or Dawkins’s that it constitutes child abuse. It seems to me that the best thing is to try and channel it in constructive ways, encouraging forbearance, loving your neighbor, community service, and good music, and discouraging self-righteousness, exclusivity, meddling in public school curricula, etc.
* It seems to me that Hitchens has turned Marxism on its head. Rather than religion being a (false-conscious) mask for economic conflict, now economic (and other) conflict is at base religious.
** Although a biologist colleague of mine (a secularist as far as I can tell) says that evolutionary “storytelling” is now much out of fashion among serious evolutionary biologists – unless you have proper data, you can’t just say that “x” is a product of natural selection for “y” reason. It could be just “random crap,” the result of random but harmless mutation or genetic drift – the source, current thinking holds, for many observable characteristics of a given species.