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Review of Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

Mohammad Akram Gill

God Is Not Great, another addition to the recently growing literature against religion and God, is quite different in style from Sam Harris' The End of Faith and Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. Hitchens seems needlessly overabrasive with regard to theism and theists, and his aggressiveness seems to mar the appeal of this book. The following observation of Thornton McCamish underlines my point:

It may be true that fewer Australians attend church than ever, says Dr. Carole Cusack, chairwoman of the department of studies in religion at the University of Sydney, but Australians still view being religious positively. "If somebody says they're religious, it means they have principles and morals." The reverse seems to apply to atheists. "I think if you just say I'm an atheist," says Dr. Cusack, "people assume that you despise religion. People somehow think atheism is linked to being derisory."

The tone of Hitchens's book is definitely derisory. In this author's opinion, one should demonstrate the irrationality of religious belief without being derisive, arrogant, or imposing. Hitchens, himself, has corroborated this view in his acknowledgments, where he writes: "The voice of Reason is soft. But it is very persistent." Unfortunately, he lost sight of this reasonable approach while putting his book together.

At places in his book, he has also overstated the facts. For example, in chapter 4 he writes, "An official of Pakistan's AIDS Control Program told Foreign Policy magazine in 2005 that the problem was smaller in his country because of 'better social Islamic values.'" There may be grounds to challenge and refute this claim. but the argument that Hitchens has used is factually wrong. He continues, "This, in a state where the law allows a woman to be sentenced to be gang-raped in order to expiate the 'shame' of a crime committed by her brother." The law in Pakistan doesn't allow any rape or gang rape; the punishment for rape is death (which may arguably be too harsh). The gang rape to which the author alludes did occur and there was a national (and international) outcry against it. The law enforcers (the notoriously corrupt Police Department) had looked the other way when it happened.

Similarly, Hitchens mentions the sordid practice of dowry in Hindu culture. He writes, "Hindu child-brides in India are flogged, and sometimes burned alive if the pathetic dowry they bring is judged to be too small." This is true but it has nothing to do with the Hindu religion or any of their gods. This is a social malpractice and it is not very common. It is usually motivated by greed. Hitchens goes overboard again when he condemns female circumcision. He writes, "Across a wide swathe of animist and Muslim Africa, young girls are subjected to the hell of circumcision and infibulation." The problem with this observation is that this abominable practice predates Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and it is not sanctioned by the Bible or the Quran. Again, it's an ancient cultural relic. It is not practiced in the majority of Muslim countries because it never belonged to their cultures.

In chapter 2, Religion Kills, Hitchens discusses the various wars and battles that were waged in the name of religion. However, he has not mentioned the two World Wars in this context, which were fought mainly for political (and nonreligious) reasons although Hitler had singled out the Jews for extermination in the Second World War. Nonetheless, religion is divisive and breeds interfaith hatred.

Hitchens' arguments for justifying the Iraq War are facile and out of place; the Iraq War doesn't belong in this book. Saddam was not the only tyrant in his time for which reason the U.S. should have invaded Iraq. Remember, the main reason for the Iraq invasion was the false belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

In his debate with Hitchens, Rev. Al Sharpton (The New York Times, May 8, 2007) also drew attention to this weakness in the book. Sharpton said, "You made a very interesting analysis of how people use or misuse God, but you made no argument about God Himself. And attacking the quote-wicked-unquote use of God doesn't at all address the existence of God or nonexistence of God." Hitchens discusses the question of God's existence, but it is so mixed up in other things (which Sharpton mentioned) that, on the whole, the real thrust is not highlighted. Yet, in some places in the book, this thrust is palpable and visible. The chapters on the Old Testament, New Testament, and Quran, deal directly with the existence of God. They demonstrate that the scriptures are not divine and are written by human hands.

After providing the evidence from history and archaeology in chapter 7, Old Testament, Hitchens quotes from Thomas Paine:

... that these books are spurious, and that Moses is not the author of them: and still further, that they were not written in the time of Moses, nor still several hundred years afterwards, that they are an attempted history of the life of Moses, and of the times in which he is said to have lived; and also of the times prior thereto, written by some very ignorant and stupid pretenders several hundred years after the death of Moses; as men now write histories of things that happened or are supposed to have happened, several hundred or several thousand years ago.

This removes the foundation from the structure of the Abrahamic religions.

Hitchens concludes this chapter by observing:

Moreover, the context is oppressively confined and local. None of these provincials, or their deity, seems to have an idea of a world beyond the desert, flocks and herds, and the imperatives of nomadic subsistence. This is forgivable on the part of the provincial yokels, obviously, but then what of their supreme guide and wrathful tyrant? Perhaps he was made in their image, even if not graven?

In my opinion, the author should have followed the first chapter, the Introduction, with the chapters on the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Quran to facilitate, at the very beginning, the reader's appreciation of the real context of his book.

Hitchens is persuasive in his appeal to reason when he writes:

Why, if god was the creator of all things, were we supposed to "praise" him so incessantly for doing what came to him naturally? ... If Jesus could heal a person he happened to meet, then why not heal blindness?

Yes, why indeed?

Overall, God Is Not Great contains an abundance of valuable information pertinent to the author's main thesis but, unfortunately, it is commingled with other irrelevant verbiage.

§

Overall, God Is Not Great contains an abundance of valuable information pertinent to the author's main thesis but, unfortunately, it is commingled with other irrelevant verbiage.

Unfortunately, the title of the book is inappropriate. The title implies that god exists and contends that he is not great. Even if god is not great, does it not imply that he exists? Greatness of an object can only be considered and discussed when the object actually exists. Apparently, the author chose the title from the inscription of "Allah-O-Akbar" ("God is great") on the Iraqi flag. "Allah-O-Akbar" is a frequent refrain in the Quran along with the other ninety-eight attributes of Allah. For the sake of argument, if god is not great is he omniscient? This is another attribute of Allah in the Quran. The answer from an atheist's viewpoint is "no," because god does not exist. The title of the book leaves room for such questions while they should not arise because the book negates the existence of god altogether.

It's apt to conclude this review with the author's words from chapter 18, as follows:

"Doubt, skepticism, and outright unbelief have always taken the same essential form as they do today. There were always observations on the natural order which took notice of the absence or needlessness of a prime mover. There were always shrewd comments on the way in which religion reflected human wishes or human designs. It was never that difficult to see that religion was a cause of hatred and conflict, and that its maintenance depended upon ignorance and superstition. Satirists and poets, as well as philosophers and men of science, were capable of pointing out that if triangles had gods their gods would have three sides, just as Thracian gods had blond hair and blue eyes."




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Published:
  2007-05-22

Categories:
  Atheism, Christianity, Book Reviews

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