December 2007By Anne Barbeau Gardiner
Anne Barbeau Gardiner, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She has published on Dryden, Milton, and Swift, as well as on Catholics of the 17th century.
god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. By Christopher Hitchens. Twelve (an imprint of Warner Books). 307 pages. $24.95.
In the title and throughout his book god is not Great, neoconservative Christopher Hitchens uses the lower case "g" for God. Not surprisingly, Jupiter, Isis, Krishna, and Buddha, et al. get a capital letter. Silly, yes, but it is a sign of his hostility toward, and his desire to disparage God. Hitchens caricatures the worship of the Almighty as squirming in miserable consciousness of one's sins and of contemplating life as only a short interval before eternity. No Christian Church could exist, he declares, if "human mammals" (he loves to call us "mammals") had not been fearful of "the weather, the dark, the plague, the eclipse, and all manner of other things now easily explicable." Hitchens claims that religion arose during our prehistory to meet an infantile need for reassurance. Such weakness makes him laugh, but what he finds insupportable is our "pride" in thinking that God "cares" for each of us and created the world with man "specifically in mind." He wonders why we imagine our lives could be "of absorbing interest to a supreme being." Then, strange to say, he answers his own question and makes this startling admission: "One of the many faults in my design is my propensity to believe or to wish this, and though like many people I have enough education to see through the fallacy, I have to admit that it is innate." Innate! So Hitchens feels in his heart an inbuilt propensity to turn to a God he can trust, but he stubbornly fights it with his head. He even refers to his being designed. This is a huge admission.
Although he scorns the worship of God, Hitchens himself bows low before science and nature. He says that the scientists Darwin, Hawking, and Crick are more "enlightening when they are wrong, or when they display their inevitable biases" than any "person of faith." One might ask how they can be enlightening when wrong. This sounds like blind worship. He then invites us to adore evolution as our creator and so curb our pride: "you can be properly humble in the face of your maker, which turns out not to be a who,' but a process of mutation with rather more random elements than our vanity might wish." He revels in nature's cold indifference to the human species, for it offers a striking contrast to a caring divine Providence. He insists that evolution is not just "smarter" than us; it is "infinitely more callous and cruel, and also capricious." Even so, he wants us to know that atheists do not wish to deprive us mammals of "consolations." No, sir. To compensate for the loss of a supernatural faith, he urges us to look through a telescope and gaze upon the extinctions of stars, something far more "chaotic and overwhelming and forbidding" than anything we can ever read about in the Bible. Apparently, he thinks that gazing upon dying stars will console us for what, in his mind, is our own imminent annihilation.
At the exact middle of the book, Hitchens confesses that he too once had a "faith," and he kept it for much of his life. Although abandoned now, this faith lingers on, in a sort of half-life. With regard to the God of the Bible, however, he assures us from the opening pages that he has been a complete atheist from the age of nine. His parents baptized him in the Anglican Church, but they never "imposed" any religion on him, for his father had disliked his Baptist upbringing and his mother had cast aside her Judaism. Attending Methodist school left no imprint upon him, nor did his joining the Greek Orthodox Church (to please his in-laws) when he was married the first time. The ceremony for his second marriage was officiated by a Reform rabbi who was a "lifelong homosexual."
Hitchens admits he had a faith for "a good part of my life," albeit a "secular faith" that has now been "shaken and discarded, not without pain." He had embraced Marxism at an early age (he does not tell us the year), a form of "materialism" that functioned like a religion, for it had a "messianic" element, "martyrs and saints," "schisms," "heresy hunts," and "mutually excommunicating rival papacies." He belonged to the sect that followed Leon Trotsky, and he still reveres Trotsky today as a prophet, noting that the biography by Isaac Deutscher is fittingly titled The Prophet. Hitchens confides that he has not yet quite abandoned his "faith": "For a good part of my life, I had a share in this idea that I have not yet quite abandoned." What made him cut his moorings was the realization that the "heroic period" of Marxism was over, along with its "intellectual and philosophical and ethical glories." His Marxist "alternative" to religion, he complains, had turned "comparably dogmatic," but what can one expect from something invented by the "close cousins of chimpanzees"? Even so, he sometimes feels the loss of his "old convictions" like pain in an "amputated limb." He assures the reader that he is "no less radical" for the change. He remains an all-out materialist, only his allegiance has shifted from Marxism to Darwinism.
Hitchens imagines that the hottest topic among Christians today is eternal damnation. He laments that "tens of millions of children" are damaged by being told that their "impure thoughts" lead to everlasting torture, a teaching he calls "wicked in the extreme." He is very proud that his own children are "uninterested" in sending their fellow man into that "sadistic" punishment prepared for "sexual backsliders." It seems that the doctrine of Hell is what makes Hitchens dislike the New Testament far more than the Old. The God of Moses at least was finished with His enemies once they were dead, but "the Prince of Peace" warns of a "further punishing and torturing the dead" in Hell, without any appeal.
Hitchens argues that the doctrine of Hell proves all by itself that Christianity is a man-made religion. He recalls that John the Baptist revealed the Son of God as the one who would condemn those who reject Him to "everlasting fire," and then Hitchens gripes that he is supposed to have the free will to reject Christ, yet is threatened with "an eternity of torture" if he does. He has already thought up what he will say if he ever faces condemnation after death. Just as the atheist Bertrand Russell, when asked what he'd say if he died and faced God, replied that he would complain that the "evidence" God supplied was not enough, so Hitchens would reply that he assumed God (small g) would prefer an "honest and convinced unbelief" to hypocrisy and bloody worship but then he adds, "I would not count on it."
It is precisely because he equates Christianity with the doctrine of Hell that Hitchens can categorically deny that Martin Luther King Jr. was a Christian. He asserts with some vehemence that since King at no point threatened those who reviled or injured him with punishment in the next world, he could not have been a real Christian. He then praises King effusively along atheist lines: "This does not in the least diminish his standing as a great preacher, any more than does the fact that he was a mammal like the rest of us, and probably plagiarized his doctoral dissertation, and had a notorious fondness for booze and for women a good deal younger than his wife. He spent the remainder of his last evening in orgiastic dissipation, for which I don't blame him." Besides this, Hitchens says of King that his inner circle consisted entirely of "Communists and socialists," which shows he was a "humanist" and no Christian.
As Ronald Knox once said, those who try to get rid of Hell are usually "concerned to provide us with some substitute for it, some future terrors which will at least make us stop and think," for we humans are not satisfied with "mere uplift and optimism." This is precisely what Hitchens does. In place of the Hell of damnation, he offers us the epicurean hell of annihilation. He lingers fondly upon the great "dyings out" in which 98 percent of the species that ever existed became extinct, and dwells on the plagues and calamities when nature seemed to have "turned against human existence." Such meditation gives him a frisson and so he bows low, acknowledging the utter insignificance of man in the face of a cruel, random, and brutally material cosmos. What delights him is that the annihilations he contemplates can be turned into arguments against a divine Designer, as when he gloats: "the sun is getting ready to explode and devour its dependent planets like some jealous chief or tribal deity. Some design!" He meditates on "the whirling, howling wilderness of outer space" with its "titanic explosions and extinctions" and "shiveringly" concludes that there is no trace of "design." The future will bring not just his personal death, but "the death of the species and the heat death of the universe." Despite providing us with these horrific visions of universal annihilation, he then has the temerity to complain that the Christian Apocalypse betrays a "repressed" and childish desire to see everything "ruined and brought to naught."
Hitchens's main argument in this book is that atheists, in comparison to believers, are superior in morals. He boasts that even though atheists "do not believe in heaven or hell," they commit no more "crimes of greed or violence than the faithful." In fact, he adds, "if a proper statistical inquiry" were made, they would be found to be "more moral than Christians." He nevertheless admits that atheists find the command to love one's neighbor as oneself much "too extreme"; they can only go as far as the Golden Rule and treat others as they would wish to be treated.
In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, atheists in England, France, and Holland often made the very same argument, that their morals were superior to those of believers. It was more persuasive back then, before they had ever had a chance to set up their own bloody regimes and exterminate those who wouldn't march behind them in lockstep. Hitchens seems completely blind to the incalculable carnage caused by atheists in the 20th century, for he insists over and over that only the morals of believers fall "well below the human average" and that "the worse the offender, the more devout he turns out to be." He even makes such an outrageous claim as that "charity and relief work" came out of the Enlightenment and that the chances of a man of faith being on the side of decency and humanity is "as good as the odds of a coin flip."
Hitchens attacks every religion on the planet as immoral, but the Catholic Church seems to be his favorite target. He condemns her as guilty of "complicity with the unpardonable sin of child rape." He's perfectly happy, he says, if a priest is a "promiscuous homosexual" (this is no sin in his eyes), but "even the most dedicated secularist" can "safely" call the sexual abuse of a child a "sin." Now, to prove how superior he is to recent Catholic offenders, Hitchens protests that he would consider committing suicide if he were wrongly suspected of such a sin: "if I was suspected of raping a child, or torturing a child, or infecting a child with venereal disease, or selling a child into sexual or any other kind of slavery, I might consider committing suicide whether I was guilty or not." What, guilty or not? Doesn't he realize that suicide in this case would be tantamount to an admission of guilt? Thus do atheists reason, for as St. Paul says, their "senseless minds" are "darkened" by a refusal to thank and honor God (Rom. 1:21).
Hitchens uses the clerical sex scandals to come in for the jugular. The fault lies not in individual priests, he explains, but in the perennial teachings of the Catholic Church regarding sexual morality: "This is not the result of a few delinquents among the shepherds, but an outcome of an ideology which sought to establish clerical control by means of control of the sexual instinct and even of the sexual organs." He then claims that Pope John Paul II's "apologies" are proof "that the church had mainly been wrong and often criminal in the past."
Now, the strangest part of this book is chapter 17. In this far-out chapter, Hitchens tries to answer the charge that atheists like him, when in power, have been as immoral as believers. He phrases the accusation like this: "is it not true that secular and atheist regimes have committed crimes and massacres that are, in the scale of things, at least as bad if not worse?" No, he replies, not at all. Atheists are nowhere near as bad as Christians, for this simple reason: The apparently atheistic regimes of the Communists were in fact "religious" movements. Yes, religious. He turns all the bad atheists into believers-in-disguise. The remaining good atheists, whom he calls "humanists" and "secular pluralists," turn out to have been virtually invisible in history. Presto, virtually all atheists are now exonerated from blame. So give them a chance!
I can imagine how Hitchens would fume if we were to turn the tables on him and use the same argument to exonerate our fellow Catholics. We might argue in this manner, that all the Catholics who ever committed great crimes in history were only apparent or nominal believers, for they were, in reality, atheists-in-disguise. Presto, all Catholics are exonerated.
In his defense of the superior morals of atheists, Hitchens cites Orwell, saying, "A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy, and its ruling caste, in order to keep its position, has to be thought of as infallible." Orwell is using an analogy, but Hitchens takes him literally and points to Calvin's Geneva as the "prototypical totalitarian state" that led to Stalinism and Maoism. He tries to prove Communism was indeed a religion by pointing to its cults of personality and the "depraved indifference to human life and human rights." He makes an exception for Lenin and Trotsky, for they were "certainly convinced atheists who believed that illusions in religion could be destroyed by acts of policy and that in the meantime the obscenely rich holdings of the church could be seized and nationalized." The rest, however, perverted a perfectly good atheistic revolution and turned it into an "alternative religion, with connections to myths of redemption and messianism." In a society steeped in "superstition," it was easy, he says, to replace Christianity with the worship of "infallible leaders who were a source of endless bounty and blessing." To this cult was added the "search for heretics," the "mummification of dead leaders," and the vision of a "Radiant Future" that would "justify all crimes." The upshot is that Hitchens exculpates atheism completely for the deaths of over one hundred million people and blames religion instead for the crimes of Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, and the other Communists. Talk about sleight of hand!
In expounding the superior morals of atheists, Hitchens repeatedly defends such things as abortion and all forms of sexual experimentation, including masturbation and homosexuality. He ridicules the idea that sperm and eggs, when united, "have souls and must be protected by law," and says it is "fatuous" to call homosexuality "unnatural" or make masturbation a sin, since our species was "designed to experiment with sex." Note well that he ridicules the idea of design in evolution, but he somehow knows for sure that humans are designed for sexual experimentation. What makes him fighting mad, though, is the sight of "sexual innocence" in mature adults (read: faithful nuns and priests). He just can't wait for religion to be banished: "Very importantly, the divorce between the sexual life and fear, and the sexual life and disease, and the sexual life and tyranny, can now at last be attempted, on the sole condition that we banish all religions from the discourse." What does he mean, banish all religions? Are believers to be silenced by force or by coercive laws handed down by the likes of him? Hitchens can't wait for society to "escape the gnarled hands which reach out to drag us back to the catacombs and the reeking altars and the guilty pleasures of subjection and abjection." His use of the word catacombs makes it clear that the Catholic Church, and her wise perennial teachings on sexual morality, is the chief target here.
It may surprise the reader to know that Hitchens utters a series of dogmatic pronouncements in this book with as great a sense of authority as any modern pope has ever wielded. To begin with, he tells the "yokel" Christians who accept evolution, provided God is directing it, that they make God "a blunderer, who took eons of time to fashion a few serviceable figures and heaped up a junkyard of scrap and failure meanwhile." Thus saith Hitchens, only chance need apply for director of evolution.
Turning to the Bible, he finds it plain as day that Genesis is a human invention. Why? Because man is given "dominion" over all creatures without any mention of dinosaurs, marsupials, or bacteria. It's clear to Hitchens that none of the events in Exodus "ever took place," that the story was "made up at a much later date," and that all the "Mosaic myths" can be safely "discarded." All this in tones of infallibility. The Pentateuch, he asserts, is "an ill-carpentered fiction," and the entire Old Testament a "hopelessly knotted skein of fable" exploded by "the sciences of textual criticism, archaeology, physics, and molecular biology." That's that.
Turning then to the New Testament, he ridicules everything from the "tawdry myths of Bethlehem" to the "deranged fantasies" of the Apocalypse. He doubts Jesus existed, and declares in his usual pontifical voice that "parthenogenesis is not possible for human mammals," and that belief in the Virgin Birth is "proof that humans were involved in the manufacture of a legend." He jeers that the Ascension and Assumption prove how "Levitation plays a vast role in Christian fantasy." He dismisses as false the promise that we will be "saved" by ingesting "pieces of wafer," and attacks the Resurrection (in his inimitable logic) for canceling out the Redemption: "the action of a man who volunteers to die for his fellow creatures is universally regarded as noble. The extra claim not to have really' died makes the whole sacrifice tricky and meretricious." These are typical blasphemies, of which there are examples on every single page.
For all his swaggering, however, one has to wonder about Hitchens's education. I will give only a couple of examples of his errors, though his book offers a great number. He wants us to believe that the early Christians despised ancient pagan philosophy and actually "burned some [books], suppressed others, and closed the schools of philosophy, on the grounds that there could have been no useful reflections on morality before the preaching of Jesus." This betrays a gross ignorance of the ancient Church Fathers, who greatly valued the classics precisely for what they taught about morality. Just a quick glance at the index of the old Oxford edition of the Ante-Nicene Fathers reveals that, even before A.D. 325, and in a few selected works, the Primitive Fathers cite Homer over two hundred times, and Plato nearly as often.
Hitchens claims that Lancelot Andrewes was in London in 1665 during the Black Death and recounts how the Anglican archbishop noticed how the plague struck believers and nonbelievers alike. Surely Andrewes could not have noticed anything in 1665, since he had died in 1626. I find it surprising that anyone educated in England could place Andrewes in the Restoration era. But the following historical pronouncement is a real howler: Hitchens states that Protestants in Maryland in the late 18th century were "prohibited from holding office." No, sir, it was the Catholics, who had founded Maryland and had offered everyone freedom of conscience, who were soon persecuted for their religion and treated for generations like second-class citizens by the Protestants.
Perhaps, like most Marxists, Hitchens willfully neglects history. I once heard Irving Howe declare solemnly at a public lecture that nothing of importance had been published before the middle of the 19th century. After hearing this, I was no longer interested in what he had to say. I suppose any would-be revolutionary wants to start history over from an arbitrary Year One. It's the quick, easy way to get rid of Christian civilization, but it is also the way to usher in complete and merciless barbarism.
Understandably, Hitchens deeply resents the two Psalms in Scripture that begin with the line, "The fool says in his heart, there is no God'" (14:1, 53:1). This is his angry retort to Scripture's rebuke: "the odds rather favor the intelligence and curiosity of the atheists," than those of believers. Of course, he is perfectly free to think so, but I, on the basis of his book, will never bet on it.