Review: God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens

6 comments

God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens book cover
God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007) is Christopher Hitchens's vitriolic attack on organised religion, which, in his own inimitable style, he argues, is ignorant, intolerant, and detrimental to the progress of culture and science. Hitchens is a champion of reason and logic – revelling in the wonders of nature and the curiosity of mankind as we uncover more about the world around us. He argues cogently and compellingly that there is no evidence for a god or transcendent deity of any kind; dealing with more than just the Christian religion and discussing a great breadth of issues in sweeping arguments. Hitchens doesn't baulk the big targets either; engaging Islam, and individuals like Mother Teresa and Gandhi. How one reacts to his use of logic will likely depend on one's own position, but undoubtedly Hitchens's writes to provoke a response.

This is not a book to convert the theist, or even pander to the middle ground: this is a rampant polemic; an unrepentant attack on religion and Hitchens unloads with all his power and eloquence. Here the reader will not find a rigorous dissection of contemporary religion but instead an annihilation of its evils. Hitchens’s spite towards the practitioners of religious behaviour - the misguided dullards labouring under antiquated ideas and practices as he would have them – is both exhilarating and troubling. The barrage of attacks that Hitchens launches towards religious targets seems to leave little room for the frailty of humanity, never accepting an excuse for those drawn to spirituality seeking solace or to fill a hole within themselves. Hitchens response is simple: face the world in all its glory and horror – there is no shame in recoiling at its desperate condition, but do not let weakness and superstition allow you to bury your head in the sand and choose a comfortable lie over an uncomfortable truth. It is an unflinching and challenging stance.

In making his arguments, Hitchens disregards all vestiges of good within organised religion and seeks out only the poisonous elements – attacking them with unbidden vigour and incisive arguments. Often Hitchens writes about the extremes of religion and neglects the middle-ground: the comfortably religious who rub shoulders with the secular. This is fine, so long as one accepts God is Not Great as a less than rigorous look at religion. There is a sense that Hitchens occasionally gets carried away with his writing and extends an example or argument beyond the point of reason, but even those with an intimate knowledge of the subjects that Hitchens so dexterously manipulates to his own ends would be hard pressed to argue down his points. However, in describing the conflicts fought in the name of various religious groups, Hitchens intimates that without religions these conflicts would not have taken place. Given what is known of inter-group rivalry and identification, and indeed using Hitchens's own assertions that Stalinism and the North Korean regime could be considered secular dictatorships shaped into religious-type structures – it is clear that with or without religion, war and conflict will always exist – it is almost an inevitability of human nature. From Hitchens's discussion one would infer that he disagrees, just as he disagrees that the desire to find solace in the idea of a deity or transcendent divinity is also an innate human condition. This hardline will turn some readers off, as Hitchens’s arguments edge towards the fanatical.

Where his arguments are sometimes far-flung, Hitchens’s writing is brash, intelligent and in no way condescending to the reader – one can either keep up with his commentary and vocabulary, or lay his work aside. This is refreshing, and there is something reassuring about the wide range of life and literary experiences that Hitchens has to drawn on. Nevertheless, whilst it is easy for one to defer to his broader knowledge base and take his words as gospel, this, as is always the case, would be a mistake. Quite clearly religion does not poison everything – you'd be hard pressed to find even the most ardent anti-theist who believed that to be the case – indeed, although he may argue loquaciously for the opposite, even Hitchens would probably concede that there are many great deeds done in the name of religion. God is not Great then, is no intellectual dissection, it is a literate obloquy against the ills of religion by one of the most engaging commentators of the day.

I had fun with this one - I really enjoy Hitchens's combative style and the way in which he uses his immensley broad knowledge to great effect when making his arguments. There are perhaps more stringently argued cases for antitheism, but few can top Hitchens for sheer melodramatic and empassioned prose. Hats off Hitch, a fine and intelligent read. 


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6 comments:

CHE said...

My problem with authors like Hitchens is that they tend to be almost as 'evangelistic' about anti-theism as the zealots are about religion. As you rightly say, generalizing that all evil can be laid at religion's door is over-simplistic. I find that Bertrand Russell in "Why I am Not a Christian" takes a much better approach, although essentially touching on the same points. Great review.

Heather said...

Great review. I can't wait to dive into this one.

Matthew Selwyn said...

@ CHE

I actually don't have a particular problem with people putting their point across fervently, I do have a problem with people who are closed-minded on the other hand. My impression of Hitchens is of someone who loves a good argument, and who could defend either side of a point equally well. There's something of the pantomime about the way he makes his points - giving them a different quality to many writers.

Pleased you enjoyed the review, and thanks for the Bertrand Russell tip. I seem to have been getting through a fair few theological books lately.

Matthew Selwyn said...

@ Heather

Many thanks. It's a really enjoyable read - Hitch had such a fantastic talent for oratory and it really translates into his writing.

Sam (Tiny Library) said...

I agree, this is most definitely a book for atheists! I read it as an atheist but I have to admit I found it quite annoying. I didn't mind the combative style or his 'evangelical' atheism (that's what I was expecting) but felt his science was dodgy. I was studying neurobiology at uni when I read it and I know some of his science conclusions were plain wrong - he should have stuck to the historical/cultural stuff.

Matthew Selwyn said...

I'm sure I didn't spot anything like as many errors as a science student would have done, but I certainly felt that there were some iffy points. In the end I just decided to ignore my uneasy feeling whenever it arose, and just enjoyed it without taking it all too seriously :)