BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Preaching to the choir ...

Nearly a decade back, I was “in a mood” and decided that I needed to get up to speed with all the current anti-theist thought out there, and ordered in a bunch of books … while I'd gotten to quite a few of them at the time, I eventually hit a “meh” point, and these started to drift down the “to be read” piles. This is one that I got back then (new in hardcover at retail, even), but only got around to reading a month or so ago. I'm sort of embarrassed to admit that part of the reason this went so long without my getting to it was that, when I was in the thick of my job hunt, part of me “didn't want to get on Santa's naughty list” just in case there was some bronze-age sheepherder's vision of a vindictive Sky Father up there who'd get mad at me for reading stuff saying he didn't exist. Sort of a Pascal's Wager deal there, but after cranking out nearly 3,000 resumes over a 7 year period, I figured “how much worse could the job search get?” … if there IS a God, were he to “smite” me, it would be a blessed release at this point and provide life insurance funds to my family while I'm still covered!

Anyway, I finally got around to reading the late Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, and figured that today was as good as any for getting into the review. One thing I found frustrating here was that Hitchens would get into really engaging territory, and look like he was about to produce some pithy bon mot that I'd be able to quote for you here, but pretty much every time roll into a long digression riffing on the point that I was wanting to highlight. While this didn't mar the flow of the reading, it was frustrating when I was eager to drop in a “gotta use this” bookmark.

While there is no indication that this was a compilation of previously existing pieces, the chapters are sufficiently self-contained that the book does read more like a collection of pamphlets on assorted rants against religion than one coherent narrative arc. So, I'm afraid that I'm going to seem to be “cherry-picking” here through the chapters, in an attempt to find quotes illustrative of where the author's taking his arguments. Oh, and sometimes his prose gets a bit florid, as is somewhat exemplified by the end of this quote from early in the book, which otherwise fairly concisely (following a rambling bit about the certainty of death and the implausibility of any afterlife) frames the book's main thesis:
We believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion. And we know for a fact that the corollary holds true – that religion has caused innumerable people not just to conduct themselves no better than others, but to award themselves permission to behave in ways that would make a brothel-keeper or an ethnic cleanser raise an eyebrow.
Speaking of Pascal, Hitchens compares him with C.S. Lewis, and notes “... the appalling load of strain they have to bear. How much effort it takes to affirm the incredible!” … which he follows (after a brief side trip to the Aztecs' daily human sacrifices), with the rather arch “How much vanity must be concealed – not too effectively at that – in order to pretend that one is the personal object of a divine plan?”.

I mention the Aztec reference above to suggest how much of the narrative in these chapters is not overly linear, with the author pulling in items seemingly off the top of his head … which, while perhaps engaging in a chat over a pint, makes it tough to extract bits here. This results in one of the most telling chapters, “Religion Kills”, not having any of my little bookmarks in it … despite being gripping, informative (Hitchens had been all over the world as a corespondent, and had a lot of eye-witness material to a wide array of horror stories where he “could sense that religion was beginning to reassert its challenge to civil society”), and truly shocking.

Interestingly, “Religion Kills” is followed with a brief chapter about pork (subtitled “Why Heaven Hates Ham”), and, I suppose, religious dietary restrictions in general. While this visits a range of items, some quaint, some brutal, the most illuminating (for me, at least) tidbit of info here is that the delightful culinary tradition of the charcuterie platter arose from the Spanish Inquisition (no, I didn't expect that either) as a way to ferret out the less-sincere among forced Jewish and Muslim converts, by presenting them with a splendid array of pork products, and gauging their reactions. Or, as he puts it: “In the hands of eager Christian fanatics, even the toothsome jamón Ibérico could be pressed into service as a form of torture.”.

The next chapter deals with issues of health, and how religion rather predictably messes up even the most positive attempts at improving people's lives. He he notes a UNICEF program that was trying to eradicate polio. This was moving along quite well in India until a group of Mullahs decided that the drops (the treatment was a couple of drops of liquid on the tongue – but had be be administered twice) were a “conspiracy by the United States to sterilize true believers”. This rumor (and eventual fatwa) spread to Africa (particularly Nigeria) and then all across the Muslim world. Oh, those crazy Muslims, you say? Well, this comes in close parallel with the Vatican's “President of the Pontifical Council for the Family” who put out warnings that “all condoms are secretly made with many microscopic holes, through which the AIDS virus can pass”, creating massive surges in AIDS infections in countries like Brazil, Nicaragua, Kenya, and Uganda … with some Catholic Cardinals asserting that women who die of AIDS rather than use condoms are “martyrs”! Needless to say, a good deal of the “health” restrictions pushed by religion deal with sex … and Hitchens lists off a litany of quite disturbing examples. He starts a section here with:
Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive towards children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience.
… yet he suggests that in the heart-of-hearts of the religious the opposite is true, noting that the “church father” Tertullian promises that “one of the most intense pleasures of the afterlife would be the endless contemplation of the tortures of the damned.”.

Next comes the rather directly titled “The Metaphysical Claims of Religion are False”, which features at its start a list of assorted quotes, including Ignatius Loyola's “We sacrifice the intellect to God.” and Martin Luther's “Reason is the Devil's harlot.” … and Hitchens does not seem to be in a mood to “play nice” with a whole roster of historical religious notables whose writings bear the marks of the basest credulity on one hand, and vile manipulation on the other. He contrasts these with notable scientific thinkers, and the likes of Jefferson and Franklin, who, despite being deists, “managed to seize a moment of crisis and use it to enshrine Enlightenment values in the founding documents” of the USA. There are several superb runs in this, but aren't quite of the quotable variety (although the line “the pathetic vestiges of this can still be seen in modern societies”, when referring to times and places where “the clergy has the power to dictate its own terms”, is too rich to not pass along here!). One thing he does use to highlight the differences between the religious and scientific sides is: “today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion”.

He spends a good chunk of the book in a chapter dealing with evolution vs. “design”, which is, perhaps, more combative than others as the idiots pushing religious delusions are still very much on the forefront of assorted “culture wars”, thus providing extremely tempting targets for Hitchen's attacks … and he shreds many of the designists by name here.

Next comes the subject of the Bible, divided, naturally, into two chapters: “The Nightmare of the Old Testament” and “The Evil of the New Testament”. This starts off with a dissection of the Ten Commandments (“the monarchical growling about respect and fear, accompanied by a stern reminder of omnipotence and limitless revenge”), and delves into the horrors of that tribal document (although, not to the extent where it is eviscerated elsewhere). Similarly, he does a fairly broad-stroke review of what H.L. Mencken described as “a helter-skelter accumulation of more or less discordant documents”, pointing out the more egregious idiocies believed by so many in the New Testament. Pointedly, Hitchens frames this review:
The contradictions and illiteracies of the New Testament have filled up many books by eminent scholars, and have never been explained by any Christian authority except in the feeblest terms of “metaphor” and “a Christ of faith.” This feebleness derives from the fact that until recently, Christians could simply burn or silence anybody who asked any inconvenient questions.
While Christian fundamentalists have been largely stripped of their more lethal reactions (institutionally, at least), the Muslim world is still quite enthusiastic about torturing, murdering, and enslaving those who offend its evidently rather delicate sensibilities. These would, no doubt, be much abused by the chapter “The Koran Is Borrowed from Both Jewish and Christian Myths”, which gives you a good sense of the subject matter. Of course, having just detailed what a hot mess those mythic traditions are, you can imagine what the Muhammadan mash-up looks like in Hitchens' view. Of course, one of the main problems here is the murderous nature of the faith:
Not only did Islam begin by condemning all doubters to eternal fire, but it still claims the right to do so in almost all its dominion, and still preaches that these same dominions can and must be extended by war. There has never been an attempt in any age to challenge or even investigate the claims of Islam that has not been met with extremely harsh and swift repression.
Hard to live long enough to become the “Muslim Martin Luther”, I suppose. One of the aspects that Hitchens focuses on here is the inconvenient bit about how nearly all the early figures in Islam were illiterate, and yet cobbled together a book which is supposedly “the final revelation”. The hadiths are even more muddled, with illiterate hearsay reporting illiterate hearsay, going back through various repetitions. The author notes there were some actual scholars involved, such as Bukhari, a compiler living nearly a quarter of a millennium after Muhammad, who sorted through 300,000 “attestations” and determined that 200,000 of those were “entirely valueless and unsupported”, eventually whittling the remaining 100k down to a collection of 10,000 … but, still:
You are free to believe, I you so choose, that out of this formless mass of illiterate and half-remembered witness the pious Bukhari, more than two centuries later, manage to select only the pure and undefiled ones that would bear examination.
… with the result including “great chunks of more or less straight biblical quotations”.

Hitchens then takes a side trip into considering the concept of Hell, and how it's manifested in various relgious traditions, how it was developed, and how useful it has historically proven for those running religions, along with how “tawdry” most miracles are when actually examined. This is followed with a chapter on the beginnings of religions, starting off with a quote from Sigmund Freud: “Where questions of religion are concerned, people are guilty of every possible sort of dishonesty and intellectual misdemeanor.” In this the author looks at “Cargo Cults”, the Mormons (which he notes has similarities to Islam in their “miraculously delivered” documents), and the one-time child evangelical star Marjoe Gortner, who famously developed a film in the early 70's exposing the vileness of the “religious revival” scam. This is followed by a brief “coda” chapter on “How Religions End”, primarily looking at a handful of assorted the-world-is-ending cults from various points in history.

The next chapter asks “Does Religion Make People Behave Better”, with a long listing of examples of religion being either the justification or vehicle for the most appalling behavior. From Thomas Jefferson having to negotiate with ambassadors of the Barbary (pirate) states … before sending the Marines to Tripoli … to issues with the British leaving India, and Hitchens' own experience in Bosnia, there are some fascinating historical bits here. Most telling, though, is an exchange between a noted humanist and a prominent Bishop … the former claimed that “he saw no evidence at all for the existence of any god”, to which the latter animatedly responded with the rather telling “Then I cannot see why you do not lead a life of unbridled immorality!” – clearly implying that the churchman would, if not for his “imaginary friend” constantly looking over his shoulder, be some licentious reprobate! {Penn Jillette has a great take on this as well}

At this point the book turns East, and has a go at “Eastern Religions”, which don't fare much better than the Major Monotheisms. The following chapters look at how almost any religion is going to be fundamentally flawed, ask “Is Religion Child Abuse?”, and religion's “last ditch” arguments against secularism. This has these choice bits:
If I cannot definitively prove that the usefulness of religion is in the past, and that its foundational books are transparent fables, and that is a man-made imposition, and that it has been an enemy of science and inquiry, and that it has subsided largely on lies and fears, and been the accomplice of ignorance and guilt as well as of slavery, genocide, racism, and tyranny, I can most certainly claim that religion is now fully aware of these criticisms. It is also fully aware of the ever-mounting evidence, concerning the origins of the cosmos and the origins of species, which consign it to marginality if not to irrelevance.

… it is interesting to find that people of faith now defensively to say that they are no worse than fascists or Nazis or Stalinists. One might hope that religion had retained more sense of its dignity than that.

For most of human history, the idea of the total or absolute state was intimately bound up with religion. … The slightest infringement – of a holy day, or a holy object, or an ordinance about sex or food or caste – could bring calamity.
This latter chapter goes on through quite a lot of material, showing how, in nearly every case, most “secular totalitarian states” were working hand-in-hand with the religious institutions of the day. Fascinating, but ugly, stuff here.

The book concludes with two chapters somewhat looking forward, “The Resistance of the Rational”, and “The Need for a New Enlightenment”. The former takes a look at philosophy (“Philosophy begins where religion ends, just as by analogy chemistry begins where alchemy runs out, and astronomy takes the place of astrology”), starting with Socrates and others of the ancient Greeks, and meanders through various traditions up through the centuries. The latter takes a look at the world around us (or at least that of a decade ago), and cries out for more sanity. One key quote here is “Religion has run out of justification.”, and closes with the warning: “it has become necessary to know the enemy, and to prepare to fight it.”.

Needless to say, despite my caveats regarding the difficulties of extracting elements to illustrate this for the review, I was quite engaged with God Is Not Great, and would recommend it to all and sundry (although the more preachy types might want to have antacids on hand). It appears that the hardcover edition I have is no longer in print, but the 2009 paperback is out there, with the on-line big boys having it a discount bringing it under ten bucks (oddly, there aren't many quality used copies of the hardcover out there, but “good” copies can be had for around a buck plus shipping).

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Tags: book review

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