Tuesday, 14 September 2010

God is not Great, Christopher Hitchens

God is not Great, Christopher Hitchens
Atlantic: £8.99
This book has become one of the leading texts of modern atheism – second only, perhaps, to Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.  It is not a new publication (it first appeared in 2007), but it seems fitting to return to it on the occasion of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the land of Tyndale, Knox and Cromwell.  I’m afraid that this is not going to be a sympathetic review.  Reading this book can be regarded as an upmarket version of listening to one’s slightly tipsy brother-in-law – the one who’s got a way with words but likes the sound of his own voice a bit too much – holding forth at a dinner party about what a load of dangerous nonsense religion is, while dropping the names from time to time of books that he’s read.  The other guests maintain a slightly uncomfortable silence and hope that the dessert is going to arrive soon.
Hitchens doesn’t just stand for a generic atheism – his is very clearly a middle-class liberal English atheism (even as an American citizen, he retains a broad streak that is as English as Orwell or Greene).  It is the secularism of J.S.Mill and Bertrand Russell, a decent, cultured non-creed which seeks to exchange the parish church for the art gallery, Cramner for Shakespeare and holy communion for an agreeable lunch.  He explicitly wants the book to persuade religious readers to embrace nonbelief, but yet much of his florid prose is directed against targets outside his very specific cultural constituency, and it is far from clear who he is going to convince.
The book doesn’t seem apt to persuade the sort of educated, semi-agnostic Church of England types who would be the natural candidates to join Hitch in the Tate Modern instead of attending Sunday service.  They would probably have heard most of his arguments before anyway, and would agree with many of them.  Hitchens seems more interested in attacking the follies of past and present-day fundamentalists, biblical literalists and other assorted bigots – but I doubt that many creationists, jihadis or Hasidim have read the book and gone on to join him in his genteel Putney of the mind (or even read the book, full stop).  Conversely, the serious-minded and well-informed reader who espouses a more subtle variety of religiosity is likely to find that Hitch is not very interested in getting to grips with her kind of faith.
If Dawkins the scientist is an atheist in the nineteenth-century Darwinian tradition, Hitchens the man of letters is more of an Enlightenment chap.  The book at times has a distinctly eighteenth-century air, and it actually concludes with a call for a new Enlightenment.  The overarching narrative that underlies its polemics is one that would be immediately recognisable to Edward Gibbon, Thomas Jefferson or Thomas Paine.  Religion belongs to the childhood of the human race.  Long ago, it helped us to explain otherwise baffling and frightening phenomena, but this function has now been supplanted by the more reliable disciplines of physics and medicine.  Religious bigotry and delusion have inflicted enormous physical and mental suffering on humankind.  Fortunately, although we may never succeed in eradicating religious belief, it is no longer intellectually credible, and we have ready antidotes to hand in the forms of reason and science.
One might answer this well-worn narrative with the equally well-worn observations that the past century has been the bloodiest and most chaotic in human history and that this is largely attributable to the horrors that resulted from followers of various non-religious and anti-religious credos making use of modern scientific technology.  The Enlightenment narrative cannot easily accommodate the rise of these genocidal tyrannies, which sought by turns to stamp out traditional religion, to reduce it to a position of useful subservience, and to replace it with secular objects of belief and devotion: the state and the nation in the case of fascism and nationalism, pseudoscientific racism and the leader-cult in the case of Nazism, and a pseudoscientific and profoundly atheistic theory of historical progress in the case of Marxism.
Hitch, being a clever guy, is well aware of this critique, but his reponse is unconvincing.  He tries to link the fascist and Nazi regimes to Christianity, and to Catholicism in particular, but as historical analysis this is thoroughly inadequate (for proper treatments of this subject by historians, see Michael Burleigh’s Sacred Causes and the relevant chapters of Richard Evans’ The Third Reich in Power).  He further attempts to redefine totalitarian regimes, particularly communist ones, as merely new forms of religion – but this manoeuvre is transparently circular.  It would be more honest to conclude that it is ideology in general that is dangerous, not religion specifically – an insight that Hitch actually comes quite close to but disappointingly fails to develop.  One might add that the discourse of enlightened scientific progress challenging primitive and dangerous delusions, while no doubt tenable in Tom Paine’s day, is grimly laughable in the year 2010.  Again, Hitchens shows some awareness of this, but not enough.
Hitchens’ discussion of the intellectual objections to the existence of God is fairly competently executed and quite unoriginal.  The sections on evolution and the cosmos will contain little that is new for the well-informed reader, and anyone wanting stronger scientific fibre would be better advised to go to Richard Dawkins.  It may be noted that Hitchens shares Dawkins’ awe and wonder at the majesty of the universe, though he is perhaps a little more ready than his fellow antitheist to entertain the occasional rather dark and nihilistic thought about a world without God.
Hitchens devotes special attention to the Bible and the Qur'an.  He is predictably scathing about the Old Testament.  Of the Ten Commandments, he says that “[i]t would be harder to find an easier proof that religion is man-made”.  As a biblical critic, though, he is something less than an amateur.  He makes some reference to archaeology in the Holy Land, but beyond this he seems larely ignorant of the vast scholarship (from Jewish, Christian and secular perspectives) on the literary and historical aspects of the Hebrew Bible.  He thinks it sufficient to quote his old friend Thomas Paine on the Torah while ignoring the likes of D.N.Freedman and Jacob Milgrom.  He rather ostentatiously claims to believe that the New Testament is even worse than the Old.  He knows a little bit more about the relevant scholarship here: he has read one of Bart Ehrman’s books.  It does not reflect well on his judgement that he flirts heavily with the notion that no such person as Jesus even existed, a wholly frivolous idea that goes against the consensus even of non-religious scholars.
Hitchens is on his strongest form when he is discursing on the crimes and follies that he attributes to religion.  He has a valid point here, but, characteristically, he can’t resist over-egging the pudding to the point of indigestibility.  He chooses, for example, to see conflicts like the break-up of Yugoslavia as essentially religious wars.  Their more mundane political and social drivers are downplayed.  Serbian soldiers stuck images of the Virgin Mary on their rifles, so they must have been true believing Orthodox Christians.  Ethnic cleansing was actually “religious cleansing”.  Conversely, religious people who involve themselves in humanitarian and relief efforts are actually acting in accordance with the secular ethics of the Enlightenment.  This is another example of Hitchens' shameless circularity.  In another part of the book, he notes that "Christian" art and architecture and "Islamic" science were created in part by unbelieving individuals, but this provokes no reflection on his part as to whether those Serb soldiers might have been killing and maiming for reason of something other than devotion to the Virgin.
This is audacious stuff.  The degree of selective blindness is genuinely surprising in a journalist of Hitchens’ experience.  The extent to which he is betrayed by his prejudices is clearest in his treatment of Northern Ireland.  People in that unfortunate part of the world did not plant bombs in shopping centres because they were devoutly religious and were aggrieved that the other side was unsound on the doctrines of transubstantiation and sanctifying grace.  The Troubles were a dirty little tribal feud over who was to have political and economic power in a small corner of north-eastern Ireland.  Participants on both sides identified with their respective religions as part of a broader package of national, ethnic and cultural identities.  Some were sincerely religious, others (most explicitly on the Republican side) were sincerely irreligious.  Most seem to have imbibed in a general way their tribe’s religion as part of their cultural heritage without taking it especially seriously on a doctrinal or spiritual level.  IRA gunmen were Catholics only in the same sense as the Corleones were.
Leaving aside the horrors of warzones, Hitch is convinced in more general terms that religion does not make us better people.  But he doesn't go anywhere near the bona fide scholarship on this - instead, he contents himself with a few individual examples.  Martin Luther King was a good guy, but not because he was a Christian; Mohandas Gandhi (who, he reveals, is “sometimes known” as Mahatma) was an overrated religious reactionary.  A.J.Ayer was a better egg than Evelyn Waugh.
Hitchens' prose style is sometimes gratifyingly elegant, sometimes genuinely witty, and at other times self-indulgent and overdone.  His fluency is not in doubt, but he can be a little too rich for the blood, a bit like Stephen Fry on an off day.  He is not above the odd cheap trick, like overusing scare quotes and insisting on spelling God with a small g.  From time to time, he shows signs of a tin ear.  He describes child abuse by Catholic priests with the phrase "no child's behind left”.  Of pigs, he observes that “their tendency to random and loose gallantry is often painful to the more fastidious eye”.  Hitchens the mature stylist is sometimes less in evidence than Hitchens the pompous bore.  Not that his prose is dull, I hasten to add.  It is rarely lacking in vigour, and there are a number of intresting anecdotes, including a darkly amusing story of an episode in which he was mistaken in Sri Lanka for an incarnation of the guru Sai Baba.
Admirers of Hitchens’ work will know that he is not a man afflicted by self-doubt or false modesty.  He feels able to patronise world-class thinkers with whom he disagrees, including Thomas Aquinas and Isaac Newton.  He has a disturbing willingness to repeat with misplaced confidence old anti-Christian myths: scholastic theologians used to debate how many angels could dance on the head of a pin; the early Christians repudiated classical Greek learning (and the Arabs, thank goodness, kept it safe); the Catholic Church opposed the introduction of zero into mathematics.  There are other small errors of fact.  T.S.Eliot was an Anglican, not a Catholic.  De Valera was the prime minister of Ireland in 1945, not the president.  It would be pedantic to make a fuss about such things, though.
The book’s biggest problem is a lack of real meat.  Other popular atheist writers bring something particular, something substantive, to their work.  Richard Dawkins brings a deep knowledge of evolutionary biology.  Dan Dennett brings a specialist knowledge of philosophy, as do A.C.Grayling and Julian Baggini.  Hitch is little more than an interested amateur with an idiosyncratic literary style.  He has no particular USP beyond his anecdotal experiences of religion as a journalist.  The book is little more than a collection of sometimes elegantly expressed but generally unoriginal arguments and observations penned by someone with no very obvious qualifications for writing it.  If you want to read a serious book about atheism, this unfortunately isn't it.