Is religion harmful?
Are the fruits of religion on the whole more bad than good?
Would the world simply be better off without it, in all its forms?
Christopher Hitchens explores these questions and others in his 2007 book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. The author is sometimes associated with a worldview known as antitheism, defined in the book as the view that “none of the religious myths has any truth to it, or in it.” Yet his writing style, witty and eloquent, is offered in refreshing contrast to the disturbing realities he often presents, and his tone is that of the detached academic, even as his main argument in the work is that “religion poisons everything.” But while the breadth of the author’s knowledge is certainly impressive, and his argument is well-reasoned as far as it goes, I am reluctant call his views my own.
Hitchens begins the book, fittingly enough, with a laudatory portrait of his childhood teacher of religion, Mrs. Jean Watts. He describes Mrs. Watts as “a good, sincere, simple woman, of stable and decent faith,” and recalls admiring the breadth of her knowledge as a teacher of botany and Scripture. But he also notes the first moment when he began to question the wisdom of his beloved teacher’s Christian worldview. He quotes her as having said, “So you see, children, how powerful and generous God is. He has made all the trees and grass to be green, which is exactly the color that is most restful to our eyes. Imagine if instead, the vegetation was all purple, or orange, how awful that would be.” Hitchens relays somehow knowing, even at age nine, that “[t]he eyes were adjusted to nature, and not the other way about.”
Considering the nature of his point of view, Hitchens is often more conciliatory than one might expect. In one such passage, he writes: “When I go to the mosque, I take off my shoes. When I go to the synagogue, I cover my head. I once even observed the etiquette of an ashram in India….” His genial tone, coupled with the many refreshing witticisms such as “Heaven hates ham,” make the reading experience digestible and even entertaining. Yet Hitchens’ critique of religion is lengthy and thorough, extending to many groups, including Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Hindus, and Buddhists. Included in many are detailed descriptions of the various practices of female and male genital mutilation and various incarnations of institutionalized child abuse and pedophilia.
In the second half of the book, Hitchens highlights the three individuals from history whom he deems exemplary in their life’s work and legacy: Martin Luther King, Jr.; Abraham Lincoln; and Albert Einstein. This is all the more intriguing for the fact that all three of these individuals publicly professed belief in a force or entity they referred to as “God.” But as for Lincoln, Hitchens is probably correct to describe him as “a tormented skeptic with a tendency to deism,” and regarding Einstein, Hitchens is correct enough to describe him as a “genius” whose mission was “to spread the message of enlightenment and humanism,” yet who was nonetheless “[d]ecidedly Jewish.” Perhaps more provocative is his description of Dr. King, of whom he writes: “In no real as opposed to nominal sense was he, then, a Christian,” going on to say, “When Dr. King took a stand on the steps of Mr. Lincoln’s memorial and changed history…he did so as a profound humanist…his legacy has very little to do with his professed theology.”
In the last quarter of the book, Hitchens concedes the point that “secular totalitarianism has actually provided us with the summa of human evil,” and cites Hitler and Stalin as only the two best-known examples. He attempts to salvage his main point about religion by affirming that “a totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy” [italics original]. It’s a clever argument, but it begs the further question: if Hitchens’ critique of religion extends also to political systems such as Nazism and Soviet-style Communism, does it in fact extend to any organized worldview or philosophy, with or without reference to the supernatural? One wishes that Hitchens had spent some time in this book discussing the French Revolution, a period in which horrible atrocities were also committed, in the name of secular Enlightenment ideals such as liberty, equality, and fraternity.
God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens is a thoughtful and erudite critique of religion, coming from a largely enlightened worldview, and refreshingly lacking in malice or envy. Nevertheless, I am less than inclined to agree with the main thrust of Hitchens’ argument that “religion poisons everything.” My own view is that religion, like almost anything else, can inspire human beings to do either good or bad. For me the better version of Hitchens’ thesis might well be: “some religious people poison everything.”