Friday, June 01, 2007


God is not Great is yet another contribution to a popular series of anti-religion rants. This genre was initiated in 2004 by an undistinguished author named Sam Harris. His work, The End of Faith, apparently set other atheist minds to thinking, “If a Stanford graduate student can write a popular religion-bashing book, surely I can do better.”

One might have thought that the renowned biologist Richard Dawkins would improve on Harris’s anemic contribution to a debate whose philosophical luminaries include Antoine de Condorcet, Auguste Comte, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Such, however, wasn’t the case—as I noted last December in my review of The God Delusion. Unfortunately, most of the faults that attend Harris’s and Dawkins’s works also apply to Christopher Hitchens’s 286-page oeuvre.

Among other irritants, Hitchens’s chatty apologia for European secularism is peppered with insults directed toward intellectual adversaries. (C.S. Lewis’s writings are “dreary and absurd,” Malcolm Muggeridge is a “silly British evangelist,” and Intelligent Design arguments amount to “well-financed propaganda” on behalf of a “puerile tautology.” On the positive side, one can say that Hitchens is a better stylist than his skeptical competitors and that he utilizes a broader literary and cultural palate than Harris or Dawkins. Philosophically, however, God is not Great is as shallow as its predecessors.

This philosophical lassitude is exhibited, first of all, by Hitchens’s tendency to shift focus from his advertised thesis—that “religion poisons everything”—to the idea that there is no god, then to the idea that many religious claims are historically dubious. Moreover, the author seems to believe that a sound conclusion about the consistent effect of religion can be established via a list of particulars. Employing this standard, an advocate could “prove” (a word Hitchens uses more often than a Karl Popper disciple should) any proposition for which numerous examples can be adduced. Given the fact that Hitchens has 5000 years of history from which to cherry-pick, it would be astounding if he couldn’t assemble a long train of examples in favor of whatever thesis he cared to promote. Such logical gaffs indicate that Hitchens’s subtitle represents no more than a rhetorical flourish to generate market buzz.

Strictly speaking, what Hitchens wants to argue is that religion regularly makes things worse than they would be if most folks adopted his own perspective—that there is no god, that natural science provides the only philosophical answers rational folks require, that evolution (understood as a process of random change “directed” by nature’s survive or perish judgments) is the sole cause of human development, and that a morality consistent with the ideals of Jefferson and Franklin can rest on these materialist premises. Given this monumental task, it’s surprising that Hitchens devotes ten pages of his first substantive chapter to “proving” that bad religious dudes inhabit six cities that begin with the letter B. In this way the author “refutes” the idea put forward by talk-show host Dennis Prager that most folks would be glad to know that the strangers approaching them in a dark alley had just attended a bible class.

Other “proofs” Hitchens offers for the proposition that “religion poisons everything” are these: the case of child-evangelist, Marjoe (two pages); the dubious revelations of Latter-day Saints founder, Joseph Smith (eight pages); the Messianic pretensions and recantation of Sabbatai Sevi (four pages); a pastiche of alleged Old Testament barbarisms (eleven pages); and an anti-kosher chapter titled “Why Heaven Hates Ham” (five pages). This list of topics provides a sample of the gadfly journalist’s modus operandi. While genuine philosophical questions are occasionally posed, they are never analyzed rigorously and systematically. Witty remarks and tendentious put-downs constitute all the discussion Hitchens typically deems necessary to establish the truth of propositions he never seriously questions.

By contrast, a scholarly analysis of religion’s historical impact would acknowledge that societies prior to the twentieth century were suffused with religious belief—thus making it impossible to isolate religious from nonreligious effects. Consequently, the tacit assumption that Thomas Jefferson would embrace similar ideals, absent the Christian society in which he was raised, becomes sheer speculation. Indeed, the only way to test Hitchens’s religion thesis is to compare modern atheistic or secular regimes with their historical predecessors. Yet this is just the comparison Hitchens carefully avoids.

Far from conceding that fascism was a political byproduct of the loss of faith, Hitchens emphasizes that many religious individuals and institutions supported fascist regimes. He also notes, with satisfaction, that secular leftists opposed fascism more strenuously than religious leaders—neglecting to mention, of course, that this opposition was largely rooted in another monstrous ideology or that Stalin did far more than any religious leader to embolden Nazi Germany, thanks to Soviet leader’s pact with Hitler in 1939.

If these omissions aren’t enough to demonstrate Hitchens’s bad faith, the fact that he classifies communism as a religion of sorts should convince most objective readers of the author’s thumb-on-the-scales bias. (Sam Harris employs the same question-begging tactic vis-à-vis communism in The End of Faith.) With fascism and communism excluded from the secular camp, Hitchens hitches his atheist wagon to individuals like Einstein, A. J. Ayer, and Bertrand Russell. About the demographic death spiral currently confronting Europe or the abysmal decadence of post-modern culture, Hitchens has nothing to say—just as he uncritically assumes that a society educated to believe in a blind evolutionary process will produce at least as many altruists and democrats as a society that speaks of humans as “endowed by their Creator with…unalienable rights.”

Also unscrutinized by Hitchens is the ironic fact that his careless but still revered evolutionary process has produced an overwhelmingly religious species—suggesting that religion, even if untrue, passes the critical “survivor” test. Another unbroached irony involves Nietzsche’s assertion, partially seconded by Alfred North Whitehead, that science’s “will to truth” derives, ultimately, “from the flame which a faith thousands of years old has kindled: that Christian faith, which was also Plato’s faith, that God is truth, that truth is divine.”

In sum, Hitchens’s disjointed and disingenuous arguments put one in mind of the fellow who, criticized by a neighbor for returning a defective bucket, countered by claiming that the container had a hole in it when it was picked up, that the device was in perfect shape when returned, and that, finally, he’d never borrowed the stupid bucket.

One section of God is not Great did strike me as being different from all the rest. That segment (pages 151-153) concerned the dissolution of Hitchens’s own Trotskyite faith. The pathos of the disenchanted true believer is poignantly displayed in this confession: “There are days when I miss my old convictions as if they were an amputated limb.” Such wistful yearning for a place to stand is touching—provided one is able to separate Marxism (as Hitchens apparently can) from the scores of millions who died (and continue to die) because of the brutality of secular Marxist regimes.

In subsequent remarks Hitchens explicitly invites readers to jettison their dogmas, just as he did. The pain, he assures them, will subside in time. This lingering wound over lost faith probably accounts for the mean-spirited tenor of Hitchens’s work—and for the scarcely concealed contempt he displays toward those insignificant “mammals” who continue to indulge in the consolations of religious faith. Like an angry jilted lover, he wants everyone else to feel his pain.

In his book, Radical Son, David Horowitz describes, in greater detail than Hitchens, the dissolution of his Marxist faith—an enervating process that left a gaping hole where once stood an all-consuming purpose. Today, I suspect, that sense of loss still fuels Horowitz’s passionate desire to destroy his former ideology. By contrast, Hitchens’s spiritual vacuum has spawned a war on faith itself. And by putting himself in this faith-negating position, he achieves what Hegel termed “skeptical mastery”—a critical perspective that (in its Freudian version) reduces all other faiths to childish wishes and mass delusions. Only the skeptic’s convictions and habits are exempted from ridicule. (Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.)

There is certainly a place for skepticism in philosophy. Alfred North Whitehead offered his tribute to the activity via a memorable paean in Science and the Modern World:
“The common sense of the eighteenth century, its grasp of the obvious facts of human suffering and of the obvious demands of human nature, acted on the world like a bath of moral cleansing. Voltaire must have the credit, that he hated injustice, he hated cruelty, he hated senseless repression, and he hated hocus-pocus. Furthermore, when he saw them, he knew them. In these supreme virtues, he was typical of his century, on its better side.”

Whitehead concludes his comments, however, on a different note—one utterly foreign to Christopher Hitchens: “But if men cannot live on bread alone, still less can they do so on disinfectants.” One might charitably regard God is not Great as a mildly effective but largely obnoxious disinfectant.

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