Posted by: Andrew G | April 14, 2010

God is Not Great – Christopher Hitchens Part 2


In looking over Monday’s post, I realized I didn’t really give much of a summary on Hitchens’ points. I hope the following quotations address some of the missing ingredients, or if anything, demonstrate his style and  illustrate his convictions. He is committed to the daunting task of changing people’s minds through argument. I will ask you this though: is he successful or merely challenging?

(Even after editing, this is much longer than I first intended. The short pithy ones are worthwhile if you are only doing a quick scan. Otherwise, slog through or just skip to the end, depending of course on your whims…)

The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant from his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species. It may be a long farewell, but it has begun and, like all farewells, should not be protracted.

Religious faith is, precisely because we are still-evolving creatures, ineradicable. It will never die out, or at least not until we get over our fear of death, and of the dark, and of the unknown, and of each other. For this reason, I would not prohibit it even if I thought I could. Very generous of me, you may say. But will the religious grant me the same indulgence? (note – good of Hitchens to admit religion will likely never die out, but does he have to do it in this high-minded way?)

As I write these words, and as you read them, people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of all the hard-won human attainments that I have touched upon. Religion poisons everything.

… religion does not, and in the long run cannot, be content with its own marvelous claims and sublime assurances. It must seek to interfere with the lives of nonbelievers, or heretics, or adherents of other faiths. It may speak about the bliss of the next world, but it wants power in this one… And it does not have the confidence in its own various preachings even to allow coexistence between different faiths.

But the literal mind does not understand the ironic mind, and sees it always as a source of danger.

The nineteen suicide murderers of New York and Washington and Pennsylvania were beyond any doubt the most sincere believers on those planes. Perhaps we can hear a little less about how “people of faith” possess moral advantages that others can only envy.

The human papillomavirus (HPV) has long been known as a sexually transmitted infection that, at its worst, can cause cervical cancer in women. A vaccine is now available – these days vaccines are increasingly swiftly developed – not to cure this malady but to immunize women against it. But there are forces in the administration who oppose the adoption of this measure on the grounds that it fails to discourage premarital sex. To accept he spread of cervical cancer in the name of god is no different, morally or intellectually, from sacrificing these women on a stone altar and thanking the deity for giving us the sexual impulse and then condemning it. (note – a number of Hitchens’ illustrations take this form)

In Ireland alone – once an unquestioning disciple of Holy Mother Church – it is now estimated that the unmolested children of religious schools were very probably the minority. (note – Hitchens might have, but I have not checked into the source for the statement’s accuracy)

The ignorant psychopath or brute who mistreats his children must be punished but can be understood. Those who claim a heavenly warrant for the cruelty have been tainted by evil, and also constitute far more of a danger.

The connection between religious faith and mental disorder is, from the viewpoint of the tolerant and the “multicultural”, both very obvious and highly unmentionable. If someone murders his children and then says that god ordered him to do it, we might find him not guilty by reason of insanity but he would be incarcerated nonetheless. If someone lives in a cave and claims to be seeing visions and experiencing prophetic dreams, we may leave him alone until he turns out tot be planning, in a nonphantasmal way, the joy of suicide bombing. If someone announces himself to be god’s anointed, and begins stockpiling Kool-Aid and weapons and helping himself to the wives and daughters of his acolytes, we raise a bit more than a skeptical eyebrow. But if these things can be preached under the protection of an established religion, we are expected to take them at face value. All three monotheisms, just to take the most salient example, praise Abraham for being willing to hear voices and then to take his son Isaac for a long and rather mad and gloomy walk. And then the caprice by which his murderous hand is finally stayed is written down as divine mercy. (note – for some reason, I wrote in the margin beside this passage “ahhh, the art of interpretation…”)

Who but a slave thanks his master for what his master has decided to do without bothering to consult him?

I simply laugh when I read the Koran, with its endless prohibitions on sex and its corrupt promise of infinite debauchery in the life to come: it is like seeing through the “let’s pretend” of a child, without the indulgence that comes from watching the innocent at play.

… the fanatics are taken early from their families, taught to despise their mothers and sisters, and come to adulthood without ever having had a normal conversation, let alone a normal relationship, with a woman. This is disease by definition.

Christianity is too repressed to offer sex in paradise – indeed it has never been able to evolve a tempting heaven at all – but it has been lavish in its promise of sadistic and everlasting punishment for sexual backsliders, which is nearly as revealing in making the same point in a different way.

One of the very many connections between religious belief and the sinister, spoiled, selfish childhood of our species is the repressed desire to see everything smashed up and ruined and brought to naught. This tantrum-need is coupled with two other sorts of “guilty joy”, or, as the Germans say, schadenfreude. First, one’s own death is canceled – or perhaps repaid or compensated – by the obliteration of all others. Second, it can always be egotistically hoped that one will be personally spared, gathered contentedly to the bosom of the mass exterminator, and from a safe place observe the sufferings of those less fortunate.

Many religions now come before us with ingratiating smirks and outspread hands, like an unctuous merchant in a bazaar. They offer consolation and solidarity and uplift, competing as they do in a marketplace. But we have the right to remember how barbarically they behaved when they were strong and were making an offer that people could not refuse.

If one must have faith in order to believe something, or believe in something, then the likelihood of that something having any truth is considerably diminished. The harder work of inquiry, proof, and demonstration is infinitely more rewarding, and has confronted us with findings far more “miraculous” and “transcendent” than any theology. (note – I thought this was an interesting re-use of the words)

It is because we evolved from sightless bacteria, now found to share our DNA, that we are so myopic.

From a plurality of prime movers, the monotheists have bargained it down to a single one. They are getting ever nearer to the true, round figure. (note – Cute, Christopher, cute…)

We must also confront the fact that evolution is, as well as smarter than we are, infinitely more callous and cruel, and also capricious. (note – careful, let’s not make it into a demon…)

On the Ten Commandments: No society ever discovered has failed to protect itself from self-evident crimes like those supposedly stipulated at Mount Sinai.

Then there is the very salient question of what the commandments do not say. Is it too modern to notice that there is nothing about the protection of children from cruelty, nothing about rape, nothing about slavery, and nothing about genocide? Or is it too exactingly “in context” to notice that some of these very offenses are about to be positively recommended?

On Prophetic writing: If it should seem odd that an action should be deliberately performed in order that a foretelling be vindicated, that is because it is odd. And it is necessarily odd because, just like the Old Testament, the “New” one is also a work of crude carpentry, hammered together long after its purported events, and full of improvised attempts to make things come out right.

… religion arouses suspicion by trying to prove too much.

All religions take care to silence or to execute those who question them (and I choose to regard this recurrent tendency as a sign of their weakness rather than their strength.)

On Muhammad: It was noticed even by some of his wives that the Prophet was capable of having a “revelation” that happened to suit his short-term needs, and he was sometimes teased about it. (note – again, I haven’t thoroughly checked the source on this…)

Mecca is closed to unbelievers, which somewhat contradicts its claim to universality.

… exceptional claims demand exceptional evidence.

The colossal volcanic explosion at Krakatoa in the late nineteenth century provoked an enormous swing toward Islam among the terrified population of Indonesia. All the holy books talk excitedly of floods, hurricanes, lightning, and other portents. After the terrible Asian tsunami of 2004, and after the inundation of New Orleans in 2005, quite serious and learned men such as the archbishop of Canterbury were reduced to the level of stupefied peasants when they publicly agonized over how to interpret god’s will in the matter. But it one makes the simple assumption, based on absolutely certain knowledge, that we live on a plant that is still cooling, has a molten core, faults and cracks in its crust, and a turbulent weather system, then there is simply no need for any such anxiety. Everything is already explained. I fail to see why the religious are so reluctant to admit this: it would fee them from all the futile questions about why god permits so much suffering. But apparently this annoyance is a small price to pay in order to keep alive the myth of divine intervention.

What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.

Shakespeare has much more moral salience than the Talmud or the Koran or any account of the fearful squabbles of Iron Age tribes. (note – well, minus the anti-Semitism and anti-lawyerism… ok, really I just don’t have that much affection for Shakespeare, but that’s me…)

There are days when I miss my old convictions as if they were an amputated limb. But in general I feel better, and no less radical, and you will feel better too, I guarantee, once you leave hold of the doctrinaire and allow your chainless mind to do its own thinking.

Jesus, it is true, shows no personal interest in gain, but he does speak of treasure in heaven and even of “mansions” as an inducement to follow him. Is it not further true that all religions down the ages have shown a keen interest in the amassment of material good in the real world?

In March 1826 a court in Bainbridge, New York, convicted a twenty-one-year-old man of being “a disorderly person and an imposter.” That ought to have been all we ever heard of Joseph Smith, who at trial admitted to defrauding citizens by organizing mad gold-digging expeditions and also to claiming to possess dark or “necromantic” powers. However, within four years he was back in the local newspapers (all of which one may still read) as the discoverer of the “Book of Mormon.”

Determined women like this [Mrs. Harris] appear far too seldom in the history of religion.

Phenomena can be explained in biological terms. In primitive times, is it not possible that those who believed in the shaman’s cure had a better morale as a result, and thus a slightly but significantly higher chance of actually being cured? “Miracles” and similar nonsense to one side, not even modern medicine rejects this thought. And it seems possible, moving to the psychological arena, that people can be better off believing in something than in nothing, however untrue that something may be. (note – wow, but maybe this is as far as Hitchens is willing to go?)

A young black pastor names Dr. Martin Luther King began to preach that his people – the descendants of the very slavery that Joseph Smith and all other Christian churches had so warmly approved – should be free. It is quite impossible even for an atheist like myself to read his sermons or watch recordings of his speeches without profound emotion of the sort that can sometimes bring genuine tears. Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written in response to a group of white Christian clerics who had urged him to show restraint and “patience” – in other words, to know his place – is a model of polemic. Icily polite and generous-minded, it still breathes with an unquenchable conviction that the filthy injustice of racism must be borne no longer.

The god of Moses would brusquely call for other tribes, including his favorite one, to suffer massacre and plague and even extirpation, but when the grave closed over his victims he was essentially finished with them unless he remembered to curse their succeeding progeny. Not until the advent of the Prince of Peace do we hear of the ghastly idea of further punishing and torturing the dead.

… a high moral character is not a precondition for great moral accomplishments. (note – I really like this. It’s simple enough to be a mantra, and still achievable for human beings, while not being a license necessarily for do-whatever-you-feel-like stuff. It focuses on the possible action, not the team you play for.)

When Dr. King took a stand on the steps of Mr. Lincoln’s memorial and changed history, he too adopted a position that had effectively been forced upon him. But he did so as a profound humanist and nobody could ever use his name to justify oppression or cruelty. He endures for that reason, and his legacy has very little to do with his professed theology. No supernatural force was required to make the case against racism.

… to reject the belief is by no means to profess belief in nothing.

Children who have felt cruelty know very well how to inflict it. (from an elder of the Acholi people – note – one of the simplest and most nightmarish truths of the human condition. And all the more reason we must make this world safer for them.)

“What is the reflection of a mind discarded?”

Hitchens on Buddism: A faith that despises the mind and the free individual, that preaches submission and resignation, and that regards life as a poor and transient thing, is ill-equipped for self-criticism.

On Abraham’s burial site: To this day, religious people kill each other and kill each other’s children for the right to exclusive property in this unidentifiable and unlocatable hole in a hill.

An easy way to spot an inhumane killer was to notice that he was guided by a sincere and literal observance of the divine instruction.

An offering of a virgin or an infant or a prisoner was assumed to appease the gods: once again, not a very good advertisement for the moral properties of religion.

The Dalai Lama tells us that you can visit a prostitute as long as someone else pays her. (note – what??? I couldn’t even find a source cited for this one. Any help with this one would be greatly appreciated.)

… one may choose to be altruistic, whatever that may mean, but by definition one may not be compelled into altruism.

The obsession with children, and with rigid control over their upbringing, has been part of every system of absolute authority. It may have been a Jesuit who was first actually quoted as saying, “Give me the child until he is ten, and I will give you the man,” but the idea is very much order than the school of Ignatius Loyola. Indoctrination of the young often has the reverse effect, as we also know from the fate of many secular ideologies, but it seems that the religious will run this risk in order to imprint the average boy or girl with enough propaganda. What else can they hope to do? If religious instruction were not allowed until the child had attained the age of reason, we would be living in a quite different world.

… not all conceptions are, or ever were, going to lead to births.

… it is useless to look for consistency in the covenants that people believe they have made with god.

All that the totalitarians have demonstrated is that the religious impulse – the need to worship – can take even more monstrous forms if it is repressed. This might not necessarily be a compliment to our worshipping tendency.

Our species will never run out of fools but I dare say that there have been at least as many credulous idiots who professed faith in god as there have been dolts and simpletons who concluded otherwise.

… there is nothing to be feared in death, and in the meantime all attempts to read the gods’ intentions, such as studying the entrails of animals, are an absurd waste of time. (note – I somewhat agree. There is nothing to fear in death unless you put something there yourself.)

Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it.

Religion has run out of justifications. Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, it no longer offers an explanation of anything important.

It is within the compass of the average person. The study of literature and poetry, both for its own sake and for the eternal ethical questions with which it deals, can now easily depose the scrutiny of sacred texts that have been found to be corrupt and confected. The pursuit of unfettered scientific inquiry, and availability of new findings to masses of people by easy electronic means, will revolutionize our concepts of research and development. (note – no offense, Chris, I’m with you somewhat… but if you use vocab like this, the average person will likely tune you out and go off seeking something more comforting and easy… we are our own worst enemies, after all…)

Recommendations and Final Thoughts

I’m a little rundown and weary after this book. Imagine a short but intense session on a cycle machine — you didn’t hurt your knees at all, but you certainly burned the calories and worked some good muscle groups. The exercise of this book is worth it if you are up for it. The religious folk might get pretty offended by some parts, and feel all the more awkward by the end. Christopher Hitchens holds nothing back but by the end seems to suggest we can all be pals… if you are willing to see things his way or at least let go of absolutism. Those already on his side will likely get more out of this book and feel all the more vindicated because of it.

Sorry about the mess.



  1. Hey there cousin,
    I enjoyed the read; thank you for much food-for-thought.
    Hope you are both doing well and are enjoying this gorgeous day of spring and the newness it brings. Will you be by soon?
    Take care and keep growing,
    Rose Naomi

    • Hi Rose!

      It’s good to hear from you! Yea, the weather is making all things brighter and beautiful now.

      I was hoping this book-review stuff would help, but I didn’t really plan out how much time and work it would take. If people are getting something out of it, then I’m glad to keep it up. Serve, serve, serve, as my dad would suggest. I just may need help managing my time is all… 🙂

  2. Hi Andrew,

    Yes, you sure do have your work cut out for you! Your teacher’s training (studies) are deftly displayed in your reviews – I like to read your views and because my motto is ‘Lifelong Learning I welcome each new email received from you. Keep ’em coming!

    Thanks again,
    Rose Naomi


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