Thursday, September 6, 2007

Book Review: "God is Not Great"

Book Review: “God is Not Great”, by Christopher Hitchens, 2007.

Christopher Hitchens is unfortunately best known for being a former leftist who endorsed Bush’s invasion of Iraq. A little of the reason for this might be found between the lines of this book. The invasion is barely addressed. In one paragraph Hitchens says it would give the Iraqi people some ‘breathing space” from the religious and bloody dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Unfortunately, probably because of this blindspot, he does not address the religious ‘rationale’ behind the U.S. invasion of Iraq in this, a book on the negative effects of religion. You’d think it would be appropriate. No one wants to talk about the dead dog they buried in their back yard of course.

Hitchens was a Marxist at one time. Eating at Trotsky’s bountiful table paid off, and now he has been declared one of the top “public intellectuals” in the world. He survived in the form of an extremely opinionated and strict liberal. While not as good a writer as Sam Harris, nor as scientifically clear as Richard Dawkins, two other prominent atheists, Hitchen’s strength is his intellectual consistency, and his familiarity with the Bible, Christian thinkers and contact with various religious people. He recently appeared on many news talk shows to put forward his views against religion. Atheists appearing on TV are a rarity in the U.S. It is a hoot to see Hitchens on CNN talking to the befuddled and clueless anchors about their most cherished myths.

"Religion Kills"

Hitchens points out the many ways religion can kill. There is the obvious - fomenting religious wars or religious hatred that leads to violence. Then there is the religious love of the apocalypse, especially in both Christianity and Islam. Then the anti-scientific or anti-sexual religious fanaticisms that promote leader worship, AIDS, pregnancy, circumcision, infibulation, polygamy, male chauvinism and oppose pork, condoms, flu shots, sex education, medical care, science, evolution and abortion.

Faith less

Hitchens sketches the intellectual battle between religion and reason over the centuries. The question of religion, of course, is the beginning of philosophic discourse. It seems religion has lost this philosophic slug fest. Intellectually, in the present day, religion has no real standing. From the Greeks - Socrates, Epicurus and Democritus - to the enlightenment intellectuals like Spinoza, Voltaire and Hume, and to our present day - there are so many anti-religious intellectuals that the fight against the obscurantism of religion is like punching a helpless bag of bony lies. From what I can tell, no top philosopher or writer in the West in many years has endorsed religion, except perhaps the children’s writer C.S. Lewis. And a poor writer he was. Hitchens is especially good illuminating the distant fabrications that make up both the old and ‘new’ testaments, pointing out that the latter is really not all that new. He scours the indoctrination of children with the terrors of ‘hell” as child abuse. He does not spare Islamic or Hindu fundamentalism. Or even the supposedly ‘enlightened’ religions of the ‘east.’ He has sections on the supposed ‘anti-religion’ and actually anti-life attitudes of Zen, or the Buddhist religious hierarchy that enthusiastically backed Japan in World War II. He even nails Mother Teresa and the Dahli Lama, two supporters of theocracy beloved by liberals everwhere.

Islam and Hinduism

In one of this most useful thoughts, he describes how the Indian independence movement lead by a non-secular figure like Mahatma Gandhi actually pushed away Muslim Indians, and helped set the stage for the partition of India from Pakistan, and the bloodbaths of Lahore and other cities. He also explains the cults of Stalin and Mao to be similar to religious fervor, and structured in much the same way as fundamentalist religious movements. He celebrates the freeing of the Jews from the religious ghettoes of the world, which allowed world class intellectuals like Marx, Freud, Kafka, Einstein and others to flourish outside the hold of the archaic temple. His omission of Trotsky of course is telling, like an embarrassing uncle.

Hitchens, like many others, declaims the absence of a true Islamic ‘reformation’ or 'enlightenment', which has allowed it to rule civil society in many countries in which it is believed, to the detriment of the faithful. Without a civil alternative, such as exists in more secular societies, citizens are not even free to openly question the foundation of Islamic belief itself. They could loose their life, job or social standing if they do. There are certainly Christian theocrats in the United States who secretly admire just that, and back our military as “God’s army.” However they don’t yet have the internal kind of bloody power invested in the mullahs in Iran or Saudi Arabia. The Republican Party, as Kevin Phillips has pointed out, is attempting to be that theocratic party and the Christian fundamentalists are using it as such.

Saudi Arabia is the heartland of Islam and a true theocracy, It is the source of most of the 9/11 bombers and the birthplace of Al Qaeda. The Saudis are long-time funders of political fundamentalism, from the promotion of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the 50s to the anti-Soviet fighters in Afghanistan in the 80s. Saudi Arabia is still religiously ruled over by the strict Sunni Wahhabi sect, who are no less backward than the Shiite mullahs around Ayatollah Khomeini in declaring “holy war.” And this ‘holy war’ is not necessarily against imperialism, but against other religions, and even others within their own religion. Yet the Saudis are a key ally for the United States, recently receiving $20B in military aid, because they sit on a rapidly diminishing sea of oil and are opposed to Shiite Iran.

And so the Bible thumpers prop up the Koran thumpers.


As an intellectual, Hitchens sees more insight into the human condition in Shakespeare than the primitive arid backwater verses of the Bible, Torah or Koran. He would rather quote true intellectuals and scientists like Einstein than frightening religious writers like St. Augustine. So I will end with a quote from the former included in Hitchen's book. Einstein wrote:

“It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”

Hitchens equates religious thought to the childhood of the human race. The measure of our growth and the survival of our species will be determined by how far we leave religion behind, and embrace reason and science. The question is if this can be done in the context of capitalism - but that is another story.

And I bought it at MayDay Books!
by Red Frog, 9/6/2007