Christopher Hitchens
God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
Twelve, 2007
307 pages, hardcover, $24.99
ISBN 978-0-446-57980-3
Reviewed by Gary McGath
Copyright 2007 by Gary McGath

God Is Not Great is not great. But it is pretty good.

The number of books in the past year making the case against religion has been very impressive. The books themselves haven't always been so impressive; last year I read The End of Faith and found it disastrous. God Is Not Great is much better. It makes its case rationally, maintaining a benevolent spirit yet not pulling any punches. Yet it's also a frustrating book, too open to valid counterattacks.

Hitchens covers a lot -- really too much -- in a relatively short book. His main focus is on the crimes which have been committed by the various religions of the world, and the psychological damage they have done. His gives the most coverage to the monotheistic religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, but covers the religions of the East and some minor religions as well.

Those who are familiar with critiques of Judaeo-Christian religion from Thomas Paine to George Smith won't find much that's new here. He presents the standard, valid arguments against the ideas of original sin and atonement by sacrifice. He notes the horror of Abraham's intended sacrifice of his son, along with some of the many outrages in the Old Testament.

The discussions of other religions are more interesting, at least for someone like me who doesn't know as much about them. For instance, I hadn't known that under Caliph Uthman, well after Muhammad's death, one of the circulating variants of the Quran was declared the standard and all others were destroyed; this makes it impossible to tell how well the existing book matches what Muhammad proclaimed.

I'd been vaguely aware there is racism in the Book of Mormon, but hadn't known that the Mormon Church excluded black people from the clergy on scriptural grounds, until it received a new "revelation" in 1978 (not 1965 as Hitchens says). Religion being a taboo subject in politics, this hasn't been raised as a political issue in Mitt Romney's campaign, although he was an adult member of the church before 1978 and, according to a Slate article, isn't on record as ever having objected to its racism. A member of a secular organization which recently advocated white supremacy would be under heavy questioning, but anything's OK if you claim God personally approved it.

The discussion of the Vatican's accommodation with fascism and, to a lesser extent, with Nazism is also informative. The Lateran Pact of 1929 set up a mutually supportive relationship between the Church and Mussolini's government. One of the first acts of Pope Pius XII was to send a flattering letter -- in 1939!-- to "the Illustrious Herr Adolf Hitler." Hitler and Mussolini, both Catholics, were never excommunicated.

Hitchens readily acknowledges the good acts of individual religious people. He warmly praises Martin Luther King and William Lloyd Garrison. He admires "Dr. King's namesake" for setting "a standard for intellectual and moral courage" in 1517, though correctly noting that Luther "went on to become a bigot and a persecutor." His portraits of the courage shown by various religious and non-religious people are among the most attractive parts of the book.

But the book really tries to do too much in too little space. Those who already agree with Hitchens need no persuading. Those who don't won't be convinced without more detailed support of specific claims, including answers to counter-arguments. It makes sweeping statements about "religion," even when only some sects are guilty. For instance, not all religions believe in the doctrines of atonement and eternal punishment; the notion of an eternal Hell is distinctively Christian in origin. In Chapter 15, he ascribes these ideas to religion in general, though elsewhere he notes that it's a Christian idea.

There are enough minor errors to give a sense of sloppiness. He refers to "the god Buddha" at one point, though Buddhists don't regard their founder as a deity. He seems to think Nietzsche meant "God is dead" literally. He claims it's generally accepted that "if Jesus was ever born it wasn't until at least AD 4," though I don't know of a single modern source that places his birth any later than 4 BC. These aren't major blunders, but when challenging widely held views, you have to be more rigorous than that.

Hitchens is sometimes weirdly Freudian. He attributes too much to repressed sexual desires, and tentatively supports the idea of a universal "death wish." He blames priestly child abuse on "sexual innocence," a term which is hideously inappropriate even in its most euphemistic sense.

I can recommend God Is Not Great with reservations. If you're a serious religious believer who somehow came upon this review, it will challenge ideas you might never have questioned. If you're already a religious skeptic, it will probably add to your understanding in some areas. But if I were looking for debating materials, I'd check anything it says against more carefully argued books.

Last revised June 19, 2007

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