Posted by: Andrew G | April 12, 2010

God is Not Great – Christopher Hitchens


Christopher Hitchens is as much a personality as he is a writer. I have watched a few of his talks, a few of his debates and maybe one or two of his interviews before getting to this book.  So, while reading I could hear in my head his accent and inflection steeping each page with his flavor of wit. I think it affected my impression of the book, for I feel this book is as much about its author as it is about “How Religion Poisons Everything.” He has been an editor, contributor and critic for Vanity Fair and other magazines. He is a prominent figure in the “New Atheist” brand and has several books to his name that explore such figures as Thomas Paine, Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger and Mother Teresa.  I think critic really is the best word for him – his gifts are analysis and evaluation.

In offering a personal opinion (wildly unrelated to the scope of this book review, really), I think it might be difficult to be a friend to Hitchens. I get this sense he would simply and fearlessly call you on every hypocritical act you do and every inconsistency you hold dear (regardless of his own foibles, should he have any). But, if by some grace he he did think of you as a friend, his loyalty would be serious and his attacks upon your enemies would be fierce.

Technical Bits

Hitchens draws from a wide scope of resources — from Ladies’ Home Journal to Plato’s Dialogues to government websites to C.S. Lewis to Malcolm Muggeridge to newspaper websites to even himself (of course). It’s a brilliant appr0ach, really. This is how the modern mind works, in my opinion. Smarty-pants school-type people don’t have a monopoly on good thought. In fact they never did, but it’s taken a while for the secret to get out. Hitchens has a set of  stethoscopes on the pulses of a lot of different readers, and he really enjoys being able to go from one style of criticism to another with his  fluid writing. He has quite a heavy vocab, though, and he isn’t afraid to let fly.

The book is less than 300 pages and can be a quick run of a read. It is broken into 19 chapters with title-names that range from whimsical (A Short Digression on the Pig; or, Why Heaven Hates Ham) to blunt (Religion Kills) to suggestive (Does Religion Make People Behave Better?)

This book is a demonstration of the fun Hitchens has with words. Some sentences are long and winding and careful in leading the reader to the author’s point. But when he wants to punch you, you feel the jab in three or four words.


Hitchens is certainly taking stabs at what he feels is a gross injustice upon humanity. There is a sense from Hitchens’ writing that he has felt personally offended by the abuses of religion and abuses of authority within religions.  But, if Hitchens is going to be offended about anything then he is certainly going to take it more personally than maybe he needs to, it seems.

The subtitle, “How Religion Poisons Everything” is really what the book is about. The title, “God is not Great” is just a clever way to market the thing. Hitchens in fact seems to have no real beef with God whatsoever. And I would consider this another brilliant move by Hitchens. Atheist or theist, it is a difficult and overly egotistical chore to criticize the unknown with any accuracy. Opt for the easier targets when given the choice.

Hitchens does not spend a lot of time going deep, but he does cover many of the wide issues, historical and modern, in world religions. Earlier I mentioned that when he wants you to feel his punch, he gives it to you quick. However, while reading the book I kept feeling as though these were strafing blows and not finishing strikes. It’s almost as if Hitchens has taken a cue from the ancient Mongol cavalry of Ghenghis Khan — keep cutting at the enemy’s flanks until the body caves in upon itself. And at the moment when the enemy collects its breath and is ready for rebuttal, change your direction, deflect and taunt from a safe distance until another opening is available. I don’t think Hitchens has the technical or theological or scientific backgrounds to take the spear deep into the heart of those he wishes to criticize for the killing blow, but he had made it clear that he can keep his head on his square shoulders and his butt on his agile horse.

I remember watching one of his talks on television with my parents. Hitchens was going step-by-step through the inconsistencies of the Old Testament’s versions of a moral code. He was focusing on Mosaic Law and the Ten Commandments.  Hitchens was demonstrating how the law appeared in many different forms and was focused not on morality but on property and subservience and so on. My dad commented afterward something to the effect that “Everything he said was brought up 50 years ago when I was in Theological College.” A similar thought kept coming up as I went through this book. Hitchens is putting together some ideas that really have to be addressed, but a lot of this has been said before. These fights have already been fought. Maybe not in today’s public arena, but certainly there are fields stained with these arguments already.

I’m playing with these battle ideas because of Hitchens’ own final words:

We have first to transcend our prehistory, and 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. “Know yourself,” said the Greeks, gently suggesting the consolations of philosophy. To clear the mind of this project, it has become necessary to know the enemy, and to prepare to fight it.

And this is my personal ho-hum about the book and Hitchens, to an extent – he isn’t offering any satisfying solution, yet. To be fair, this book is a call to arms rather than a tender for a reconstruction project. Hitchens is doing what Hitchens does best, so I can’t fault him on that. But in the end I don’t know if the reader is going to find much new from this book. It’s a great read, it’s a fun way to catch up on the criticisms of institutionalized religion, or to sharpen your teeth if you are on either specific side of the conflict. It is not a great antidote, however, to the poison it describes. Hitchens would rather gather the hunting party to kill the beast than collect a sample for the lab or even dress the weeping wounds.

I will continue with God is not Great on Wednesday with some quotations and a final wrap-up.

Here is a link to the google sample of the book.



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