Standing Up to God

Jennifer Michael Hecht

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, by Christopher Hitchens (New York: Twelve Books, Hatchette Book Group, 2007, ISBN 13:978-0-44-657980-3) 307 pp. Cloth $24.99.

Given that you have already read reviews of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and are likely read the book, too, I am here to offer an unusually personal response. I have many conflicting reasons to favor or disfavor this book, not least that my book Doubt: A History was the source of some of the history in God Is Not Great, used wonderfully in places and sometimes in ways that are so maddening I can feel my fingernails grow. (And without even a footnote to it until the end, where there is a flurry of them.) So, having been asked to review, and feeling both appreciation and anger, I have decided to resist both, pretend I’m dead, and just say what I think about the text. My courage is emboldened by a little book called Letters to a Young Contrarian that’s sitting on my desk. It is, of course, Hitchens’s book, and everything about Hitchens screams out an invitation to challenge him if we think he’s wrong. So here is the scoop.

God Is Not Great has a driving argument, claimed in the subtitle and throughout the text: religion poisons everything. When I picked up the book, I was an atheist who did not believe that religion poisons everything. Did Hitchens convince me? Change my perspective? A little bit, yes.

This is a fun book to read. I admit that, for me, the fun was enhanced by scanning for my name. I’ve never met him, but Hitchens emailed me a few years ago (subject line: “Hitchens Here”) asking for a copy of Doubt, and I sent it. I’ll risk the obscurity of a Spinal Tap film reference (to an amp so powerful its volume dial does not stop at 10), because Hitchens has to be monitored for similar category errors. But, as I was saying, the book is entertaining. Hitch goes to 11.

There are explosive and compelling assertions throughout. One of his great themes is how humanity thinks it is so awesome—the mathematical mind, the ballet dancer on point, the perfection of a baby’s ear—but that we consider ourselves amazing is no information at all. That we think we are so amazing that someone would have to have made us is even less. God Is Not Great suggests celebrating that we are not so special. Hitchens writes: “It is immensely fascinating and rewarding to know that at least forty different sets of eyes, and possibly sixty different sets, have evolved in quite distinct and parallel, if comparable, ways,” and offers an amusing musing that, even his own baby daughter’s ears, though superior to your baby daughter’s ears, are not so amazing as to require a maker. Embarrassing our deep egoism and the way it can deform perception is something Hitchens is good at.

It’s also true that, many times in this book, Hitchens passes over into buffoonery. He paws religious communities for bodily ugliness, then sniffs his fingers and makes a face. Yes, we want to say, humanity stinks. Religion stinks noticeably, it is true. It freezes an era’s arbitrary virtues and then adheres to those while others follow new arbitrary virtues. Many people clearly enjoy living with two different scales of virtue, but religion encourages secrets, and secrets en courage moral free fall. That’s my opinion, so I agree with Hitchens: I think religion hurts more than it helps. When a religious leader shames others for desires he himself indulges in secret, it is a nasty betrayal.

Hitchens is good at showing where religion doesn’t live up to its claims of goodness. But why take on the unwinnable argument that we atheists are so much better at living than the religious are? After all, we are right on the big point. The minute we argue that the religious are morally inferior, that makes us the party claiming moral superiority. Hitchens’s argument against religion extends to ridiculing historical figures of stupendous courage, making disparaging moral judgments about Gandhi and dismissing Martin Luther King Jr.’s religion, as if it takes equal bravery to disparage them as it did for them to live their lives. I think the way he writes about such people is wrong. Still, to quote a classic line that matches Hitchens’s tastes: I’d rather have him in the tent, pissing out than out of the tent pissing in. (That’s LBJ on J. Edgar Hoover.)

God Is Not Great is most useful when Hitchens tells us where he’s been and what he’s seen. As a result of a life in journalism, he has traveled widely, and includes here many vignettes of his meetings with religious people, major and minor, all over the world. For me, this constitutes real information. We have some sense of the predispositions of the man; but, that said, he’s spent considerable time in the company of the people under discussion, joining groups and staying a while. Organized human quests for the spiritual have had ample opportunity to seduce Christopher Hitch ens. They failed spectacularly. This news will forever be a colorful checkmark in the “No” column under the heading “Is the religiously ordered life a delicious escape from pain and competition?”

It isn’t only the rituals and anti-intellectualism that fall flat for Hitchens. In case after case, he doesn’t like religious people: the leaders are lying liars, and the followers are followers, convinced that the trip through darkness into light can be approximated by dimness. You want to hope that, when decision making gets shut off, something else gets turned on. Our man in the field says he didn’t find it to be so. I have read a great deal about enlightened people, but, in my actual experience, I cannot claim to have encountered a consistent correlation between those who study wisdom in a religious context and people who are actually wise. So this is something we can learn from Christopher Hitchens: taking into account how hostile and obnoxious he can be, we can calculate back and conclude that a normal rationalist, home from all these trips and drinking beer with you at your kitchen table, might well confide that, despite the respectful dispatches sent home, in truth, none of it was ever really that impressive. It always seemed like half-crazy liars leading the broken and the untutored out to a pasture full of cow patties. (While right next door there is a doctor’s office and an art museum.) I try to give the benefit of the doubt to everyone, but this book, in this aspect, has influenced me to trust my gut a little more when it tells me that there are universal values that are secular and that they are better, yes, better, than the religious ones.

Almost everything else in the book is general knowledge plied by a smart guy with sneers and snorting. As so many reviewers have said, Hitchens doesn’t know much about religion through history or about what most Americans really believe, and his guesses are so simple that you think, “Wow, this guy thinks other people are stupid.” When I ask believers, in warm conversations, why they believe in God, they never say, “Oh, I believe everything my parents ever told me and I trust ancient texts written by nomads and weirdos.” They say that they choose to believe. They like life better with God in it. For me, life is better without God, but my point is that believers very often know that they are making an absurdist leap in the name of love and meaning.

Throughout history, there have been two kinds of attacks on religion. One mocks religious fables and the behavior of individual representatives, and the second considers the most subtle religious conclusions—and decides that they aren’t true. Hitchens’s is the first kind. He is not noticeably aware that the second kind exists.

The first type of atheist argument is meant to wake people from the hypnotic state of believing it all, from the big angry ghost god, to the virgin birth, to the special goodness of religious leaders. It is all obviously foolishness—clearly not at all how the world works.

The second kind is trying to figure out the workings of the universe and the human mind and heart. This kind is not trying to prove there is no God; it may even think religion is a nice part of people’s lives. This brand of atheist literature is free to ask, say, why someone with a mind like Augustine’s would decide that he believes in God or whether the universe was started by anything. In sharp contrast, Hitchens is so furiously unaware that other positions might seem true to people as smart as he is that he has to explain away the beliefs of Ben Franklin and Joseph Priestly by saying that theirs was “the childhood of our species”!

I believe that what “poisons everything” is tribalism, machismo, and greed. I think religion makes things worse a lot of the time, but I cannot casually dismiss something so beloved by so many of its members. This has been the position of philosophical atheists throughout history. Religion has been a great source of community, ritual, and meditation. I am a poet and believe in the transcendent, the sublime. Hitchens is explicitly hostile to the transcendent, but many wise people have thought it useful to name the way we feel out the outer edge of things—when we lose this usual world and feel the remarkably pleasant sensation of significance and union. Beauty and peace sometimes knock us into their own realm so that we see it was always there and that life is always electric with significance, union, beauty, and peace. This is one of the few perks of being human; how odd to hate it. Lots of philosophical atheists throughout history have decided that the common people’s belief in religious legends was their only metaphysics; religion was an easy way to contemplate death and consciousness, time and narrative, and better than nothing. A lot of wise atheists believe in philosophy and poetry; they believe in transcendent feelings; and they are okay with the fact that other people get their groove on through these crazy stories.

Sadly, though, for many people, religion is self-centered magic, and it’s aggravating as hell. This is why it is fun to read someone with a wicked tongue talk about the awful things religious people do and the stupid things people believe (things that are not merely wrong but make it harder to learn how to seek truth). Hitchens is hilarious at times, and there are a lot of insights. He is great on pig prejudice in religion: he insists that our old story about trichinosis does not match the evidence (you just cook pork well, after all) and that it was our similarity to the pig that gave us the willies about eating it. Some times we think religious rules and that the reasons of the the religious are wisdom embedded in legend, when they are in fact just random opinion embedded in legend.

Also compelling is his vision of the death-wish aspect of religion and politics. “There can be no doubt that the cult of death and the insistence upon portents of the end proceed from a surreptitious desire to see it happen, and to put an end to the anxiety and doubt that always threaten the hold of faith.” I find it entirely convincing. I also like Hitchens’s meditative re minders that, whatever a guy’s title, he’s still an animal, a brother of beasts. I like how doggedly he shows us that Jesus had a worldview that was comically focused on farm life and small-town sights. It is what unschooled folk would understand, sure, but it’s really funny when you take a step back and look at the events of Jerusalem, 30 c.e., and see the tiny little size of it. It’s salutary to read hot prose recalling that the records kept in the Qur’an and the Bible are: “an account of vicious quarrels between a few hundred or sometimes a few thousand unlearned villagers and townspeople, in which the finger of god was supposed to settle and determine the outcome of parochial disputes.”

Hitchens’s favorite words are piffleyokel, plagiarized, mammal, sadist, and grotesque. With that list, you have met the man. He has no respect for anything he doesn’t (already) believe. It is a little sad, because respect is what helps us learn new things. It has to be plausible to you that the information you have now is incomplete and that others know things you would be wiser to learn. Hitchens slams even his best historical friends, rather than consider building a credible point of view wherein the inconceivable might be conceivable.

Too much attention is given to the idea of botched circumcision in various forms. And did Hitchens have to take my rewrite of the Hanukkah story (I tell it from the secular Jews’ side) and be so insipidly hostile to the holiday? He calls it “vapid and annoying,” “shameless” and “pathetic.” Well, that’s it—I’m not inviting him over for latkes. (Latkes are fried potato pancakes, we serve them on Hanukkah, hot with cold sour cream and applesauce. We drink wine and spin little tops and eat chocolate coins. Religion does not poison latkes.) Hitchens muses about how nice it would have been if Judaism had died in its little Middle Eastern cradle—be fore Jesus came along. He apparently thinks that Europe in the centuries after the collapse of the Roman Empire would not have found another dynamic way to organize tribal bloodshed. It is a strange way to add your voice to those who have wished away that particular religion.

In God Is Not Great, geniuses throughout time are indicted for personally failing the author by being too weak-kneed to say out loud that they believed what he believes. It never occurs to him that he might be missing something. (Many fine, rational minds have concluded that the world is so strange and our ability to know things so illusory, that it doesn’t matter if people want to muddle through the world with all sorts of things personified.) He tells us that every one of his heroes fails to be brave enough to admit to the truth that is Hitchens’s version of materialism. I think I would pass the Hitchens test. I believe in nothing supernatural. I’ll go farther than Hitchens: I don’t even believe that “We cannot know.” I know psychological projections when I see them, and, as sure as I am that there is no purple monster in your kid’s closet (even though kids have reported such things for as long as anyone can remember, and even though your kid is good as gold), I’m equally sure that there is no God. I agree with the work of Schopenhauer and Oliver Sacks, both of which announce their authors’ atheism but suggest that our minds are constructing the world we “live in.” But I also agree with some people who said that they did believe in God, like Spinoza and Einstein.

Which reminds me: Hitchens finds himself one hero, one paragon of bravery: Einstein. But Hitchens is in error. There is an Einstein quotation where he clearly rejects “a personal God”; but this denial only exists in a single, private letter. You’ll also notice the qualifier “personal.” The strongest evidence of Einstein’s atheism is that, when asked about religion, he spoke of his rhapsodic awe for the beauty of the cosmos. These paeans to physics were pointedly not religious, but they were distinctly phrased to be compatible with spiritualism. In general, Einstein spoke warmly of Judaism, respectfully of religions as actively good things, and even brought out Spinoza’s God (which was just the universe, unfolding) as his own. Further, Einstein did not abhor the God idea enough to bother scrupulously keeping it out of his comments on physics. In rejecting quantum mechanics, Einstein said, “God doesn’t play dice.” I wouldn’t have said it, even though it sounds so poetic, but he did.

Hitchens uses the rare examples I found where Einstein hints at atheism and takes them as evidence that Einstein commonly said such things. This thought ful genius of less than a century ago chose a different solution to these issues. So, just as a purely analytic problem, could it be true that everybody’s an idiot except Hitchens and me? I looked into the matter with some care and found that people could believe in God without it having the meaning that it has now, indeed, without it adding anything to the universe; and many people choose to believe, usually quite consciously, just because they want to, just because they can. They know the world has meaning, which, of course, it does, and this is how they were raised to interact with that meaning.

Having defended religion a bit here, let me say that, overall, for me, it comes out bad. For one, many people are scared of a scrutinizing, invisible being. I have an urge to awaken them, but even if I were sure it was the right thing to do (and I’m not), a direct attack is messy. Freud and Marx thought that, if we fix the real problems of the world, belief in God would disappear on its own. Sounds right to me. Cosmopolitan, educated places are clearly associated with secular life. If we share the wealth, our side gets stronger, I think. There is a history of things working that way.

So, in many areas of thought, God Is Not Great is not great. For me, if your yardstick measures Gandhi and finds him morally wanting—and all you are doing is writing a book—you ought to be straightforward about your sources. There are cases where I spent ages studying primary sources to create a narrative (and I cite my secondary sources!), and it is odd to see such narratives without attribution by someone with the temerity to breezily call Isaac Newton a plagiarist, with zero context or explanation, for no reason to do with his argument. Newton figured out light! Does the calculus ring a bell? Gravity (with a nod to Hooke’s contribution)? Indicting honest people for crimes you freely allow yourself is not great. Hitchens does cite my Doubt: A History in regard to his final chapters, but, for a guy who calls Martin Luther King Jr. a plagiarist, Hitchens use of others’ work here is a bit appalling. In my case, consider what a powerless, broke, hardworking person he chose to steal from. More universally, Hitchens’s rants sometimes make unbelievers look like chumps, as if we all don’t understand what it is we are arguing against. And that’s why so many atheists have been tough on it in the press.

All that said, the contribution made here should not be underestimated. We may take it for granted from him, by now, but Hitchens’s capacity for critique is rare: it is often difficult to even remember to question society’s favorite people and ideas. When Hitchens does it, whether or not his argument convinces, we are reminded to ask the questions, and to speak truth, to the best of our ability, no matter whom you might enrage. (Letter received.) It is exceedingly important that secular Americans continue to monitor the role of religion in this country. In that sense, above all, God Is Not Great is very good, and I urge you, nay, exhort you, to buy two copies and give one away.

Jennifer Michael Hecht

Jennifer Michael Hecht is the author of seven books, including "Doubt: A History' (HarperCollins, 2003) and the poetry books 'The Next Ancient World' (Tupelo Press, 2001) and 'Funny' (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005).

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, by Christopher Hitchens (New York: Twelve Books, Hatchette Book Group, 2007, ISBN 13:978-0-44-657980-3) 307 pp. Cloth $24.99. Given that you have already read reviews of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and are likely read the book, too, I am here to offer an unusually personal …

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