Review and Essay: god is not Great; On Secular Heresy
Last month, I read god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens. I found it engaging and entertaining, and I would recommend it to anyone who is an atheist, agnostic, or freethinker. There is one kind of person above all that I think would love this book, and that person is not really an atheist or freethinker. She is that person you hear saying “I’m not a fan of organized religion” though she may espouse some faith in a deity, she considers the Second Estate cumbersome, self-serving or straight up corrupt. Hitchens does not offer a strong argument that god does not exist. He argues that it is ridiculous to follow the major religions, and leaves open the question of whether some prime mover exists or not (though he repeatedly states that such a deity is unnecessary and irrelevant).
Hitchens does an excellent job of bashing organized religion. He establishes quickly that the holy texts are man-made, that god (he does not capitalize the word) is man-made as well, and that religion exists to propagate and serve itself. The bulk of the book is about the clear human origins of religion, and if that interests you, read god is not Great, because he does it with flair (you should also read Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman– review forthcoming). He is especially acute on Mormonism and Islam, comparing their origins to the great detriment of Mormonism by exposé; and Islam by parallel. Furthermore, he claims that no sane person could wish for the words of the bible to be true. It’s so full of inhuman cruelty that one wonders how anyone can call it the “good” book (see The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible). The torah and quran are, he demonstrates, even worse. All three are riddled with twisted and contradictory rules that can only be interpreted for the sheep by their appointed shepherds. He argues that you can take any holy book and pull out only the humanist messages, and form a nice liberal faith from it; but you’re no more faithful to the “true meaning” in your own exegesis than the right-wing clerics that find in those texts justifications for war, bigotry, oppression and hate. Actually, he argues that even the New Testament seems to have more of the latter than the former, word for word.
He moves on to develop a deep argument that religion poisons everything, and is responsible for great depredations and hatred (Beirut, Belfast, Bombay – he has a humorous section on “cities starting with B”). Religion opens people up to arguments from authority and tradition that are incontrovertible due to the ineffable nature of god and the spiritual authority of clerics. Christ, for instance, creates rules against thoughtcrime; and Paul is very picky about enforcing the Christian rules on sex. No better way to control people than to make public rules against mental sins and private acts.
He argues that great humanistic words and works of religious men (e.g. MLK) are just that — humanist. (On MLK, he cites the bible’s support of slavery and racism; and its repeated denouncement of adultery — so King’s humanist achievements were great in a secular perspective, but not clearly supported by scripture; while his personal life was turgid with sin.)
Hitchens mostly leaves atheist reasoning from science and logic to Dawkins; but he shows that as science has pressed forward with solid explanations of nature, God has been pushed back. He predicts that religion will never truly go away because as much as science can prove, it will never be able to address the question of whether some undetectable part of us goes on after we die, living on clouds, playing harp with people in white robes and looking down on our grandchildren with smiles. The fear of death will always be around, and few people can stand the thought of their death being the end of them. (It’s not! as he and I both argue: We live on through our deeds and our children, so we have to do good deeds and raise healthy, successful children. What better moral commandment can there be?) But I digress.
God used to bring storms until someone discovered fronts, convection, etc. God used to bring disease, until someone discovered germs. God used to bring lightening until Benjamin Franklin published the design for a lightening rod. God used to be the creator of man, until evolution was established as the cause. At this point we have no need for a “prime mover” or first cause in our theories. The god of the gaps is a luxury that helps people conquer their fear of death for most liberal Christians in the West. Hitchens does not confront those people, and says that if he had a magic wand and could eliminate all belief in a deity today with it, he would not do it, because it serves that one, comforting purpose for them.
Hitchens also decries the terrible deeds that religion and religious people have committed for their beliefs. Crusades, witch burnings, 9/11, Gaza, the IRA, “condoms are murder weapons” (that was Mother Teresa — see Hitchens on Slate, and so on and so on. He also addresses the big counterargument (“But Stalin! Hitler! Pol Pot!”) as well, but not how I would have liked. This is my biggest beef with Hitchens, because his defense of reason is to demonstrate that these supposedly atheist regimes were religious. Hitler is an easy one, with his mad pseudo-paganism and paranoid delusions about Jews. North Korea is similarly easy, with Kim Jong-Il and his father being foretold by signs and portents. He is weak on Stalin, who he said deified his form of Communism to the point where he found it justified to kill millions for his utopian faith. This is because the argument he makes is weak: Hitler may have been a madman, but his Nazi engineers certainly committed atrocities using the powers of science and reason, which failed to provide an ethical bulwark against the holocaust (the Christian churches were similarly impotent, as Hitchens and I both like to point out). North Korea, I will grant, is a theocracy (Hitchens: “necrocracy”) but it operates largely as a secular dictatorship.
Criticism: On Secular Heresy
Hitchens holds that if you tallied up the scores, atheists would come out the clear winners for peace and humanist leanings, but would still have a lot to answer for. But he admits there’s no way to tell that for two reasons: a) Atheists have been persecuted (burned, tortured, exiled etc.) for the majority of human existence; and b) There’s too much subjective interpretation. In short, he’s saying theocracy is bad; separation of church and state is good; hierarchical, authoritarian churches — justified by scripture — are bad; but this implies that democratic churches that stay out of politics are OK. The United Methodist Church (UMC), for example, is at least as forward thinking as California, with a lot of support for same sex marriage, but a majority of conservatives keeping it from becoming policy through a democratic process. They have a democratic governance and respect reason as the way to understand God (here I capitalize, because I’m paraphrasing a church’s doctrine; though I admit it’s pretty arbitrary).
Here is my biggest criticism of the book. The problem I see with the “theocracy bad” argument — and Hitchens does not address this well at all — is that atheists give logic and evidence for their beliefs, which can be examined and challenged through reason and science; but religions do not. Again, the UMC is my example. Here’s what they said to justify their respectably democratic ruling not to perform same sex marriages: “…the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Not Christian logic. Not because there is a logical reason not to, supported by evidence from nature, biology, genetics, neuroscience, et cetera; but because of some words from an ancient, supposedly divinely-inspired text. You can’t address “because God said so” with logic and evidence; god is literally, avowedly, and practically ineffable. Not even the church that holds that reason is necessary to understand god employs it when it comes to assuming power over our personal lives.
We can’t argue with reason and evidence against the UMC’s statement — only with our personal exegesis. No matter how faithful you are, you can’t possibly believe that God is going to appear on Larry King Live and answer some questions to clarify his position for us; or materialize to debate us on the ethics of his pronouncements at Oxford; or respond to the accepted scientific findings on the subject in an article for Behavioral Neuroscience. You can choose to believe the UMC’s majority interpretation of “Christian teaching” and obey the pronouncement; or you can try to replace the church’s commandment with your personal heresy. (Yes, heresy is what it’s called when your beliefs conflict with — or you profess to change — the orthodoxy.)
Granted, in a more democratic church like the UMC, disagreement and change from within is at least possible. Heretics get outvoted, not burned at the stake. I respect that things have evolved in a more humanistic direction, but it’s still going to be an argument about “what God meant” not “what is ethical according to reason and based on the facts of nature.” A Methodist would have to have the audacity to say to the conclave “You are wrong about what God meant.” Is that really how we want to debate and establish our human ethics? Arguing the millennium-old secondhand intentions of an unknowable prime mover?
Because it comes down to exegesis, the direction of religious policy is guided by interpretation; not rational thought, free of arguments from tradition and authority. So religion is more prone to authority and slower to divest itself of primitive (traditional) bigotry and irrationality, compared to a secular belief system. Stalin executed heretics in the Soviet Union for under a half a century — the Catholic church burned heretics for over half a millenia. I think Hitchens’ defense of reason is more of a dodge or spin than a solid argument. I don’t mean to dissociate atheists from Stalin (though I wish I could), but to say that the mechanism for challenging Stalin’s secular beliefs is a lot easier because his beliefs aren’t justified, ultimately, by a high cleric’s unknowable god and inerrant text. Even in a more liberal and rational sect, as I argue, it boils down to ipse dixit / ipsa dixit.