Book Review: God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens

As you will no doubt be aware, Hitchens sadly died at the end of last year. His death robbed the world of its most caustic critics. In this, arguably his most famous book, the focus of his ire is here turned to “religion”.

Prior to reading this, I had read a couple of reviews including this where Tom Wright talks briefly about the excerpts of the book he was given. Wright points out the existence of, though fails to detail, factual errors which Hitchens makes, particularly with relation to Anglicanism, a subject which Wright is something of an expert on.

Here’s a summary of the book by chapter:

Chapter 1: Putting it Mildly

He wastes little time in building up a head of steam, launching into an opening tirade of immense magnitude. He is keen to instil in the reader the notion that he is not an outsider looking at religion, but rather that he has had a good taster of many faiths, as well as being a regular converser with religious friends. This, of course, is a way of ensuring that the foundation of the book is an appeal to the argument from authority.

Hitchens never attempts to define religion. Instead, he uses sweeping generalisations. The whole opening salvo is based on cherry-picked examples which, though damning, are extrapolated beyond where there is available evidence. So his concluding statement that “religion poisons everything” is revealed as gross hyperbole, when the evidence presented can only go so far as supporting the much more reasonable assertion that “some aspects of some religions poison some things”.

Chapter 2: Religion Kills

Here, Hitchens gives some anecdotal evidence of why he believes religions are inherently violent, though the case he makes is not as strong as the chapter title suggests. It contains a revealing passage, where Hitchens recounts an interview he did with an American broadcaster in 2001, when he was given the following scenario: “I was to imagine myself in a strange city as the evening was coming on. Toward me I was to imagine that I saw a large group of men approaching. Now – would I feel safer, or less safe, if I was to learn that they were just coming from a prayer meeting?” this question is now reasonably well known; partly because of Hitchens’ witty response where he limited himself to cities beginning with the letter ‘B’ but also because it reveals nothing about the danger posed by people coming from prayer meetings and everything about the prejudices of the person being asked the question.

Chapter 3: A Short Digression on the Pig: or, Why Heaven Hates Ham

This is just a couple of pages focusing, reasonably enough, on Judaism and Islam and their aversion to the pig and products we derive from it. Rather than actually attempt to answer the implied question in the title, the chapter amounts to little more than, “Look at this people. Aren’t they silly?”

Chapter 4: A Note on Health, or Which Religions Can Be Hazardous

One of the better chapters, this looks at instances when “religion” has engendered such a powerful belief in aspects of healthcare as to lead people to wrong understandings of medicine, sometimes with adverse consequences. This is something I, and many christians I know, support; though the portrait painted by Hitchens does emphasize the bad minority with little more than a nod towards the good majority.

Chapter 5: The Metaphysical Claims of Religion Are False

This is a very short chapter in which the content does little to support the assertion of the chapter title. He states as fact the half-truth that “religion” is necessarily based on a pre-scientific understanding of the world (he contradicts this in a later chapter) and then goes on misuse Ockham’s razor to argue that because scientific philosophy doesn’t need god, that there is no god.

Chapter 6: Arguments from Design

This is a difficult chapter to summarise. On the one hand, Hitchens is reasonably good at pointing out some follies that are held by creationists, though the chapter is suffused with the sense that his understanding is based on a particular Americanised brand of creationism; one that is nowhere near as pervasive in countries with coastlines on less than 2 distinct oceans.  While he attempts to pick a fight with christianity, it is rather an odd imitation of christianity. It’s rather like saying you are going to pick a fight with Muhammad Ali and then wandering into Madame Tussaud’s.

Chapter 7: Revelation: The Nightmare of the “Old” Testament

As might be expected from the title, this is Hitchens taking on the 39 books of the Old Testament (OT), though he suggests it is rather disparaging of christians to refer to it as such. Implicit within it then, this is as much a dig at Judaism as it is at christianity. He mostly focuses on Genesis, but the critique is far too short and narrow in scope to be of any value.

Chapter 8: The “New” Testament Exceeds the Evil of the “Old” One

With the Jewish backdrop to christianity ‘dealt with’ Hitchens then turns his Sauronic eye to his (mis)understanding of christianity. As with the OT, Hitchens’ scope is extremely limited. He fails to engage with most of the New Testament writers or with any countless numbers of theologians who he dismisses contemptuously. But if we are to take to heart the “golden rule” then it must have been Hitchens’ intention for this chapter to be tossed aside just as lightly.

Chapter 9: The Koran Is Borrowed from Both Jewish and Christian Myths

After looking at Judaism and christianity, the next natural target would be Islam, and Hitchens duly obliges. In spite of the dubious claims of Islam, in particular surrounding its origins, Hitchens doesn’t make the best case against it here. See, for example, Tom Holland’s recent tv programme for channel 4 on the origins of Islam.

Chapter 10: The Tawdriness of the Miraculous and the Decline of Hell

Again, the title is misleading, as Hitchens doesn’t really talk about hell. As for miracles, he rightly debunks one but then makes the logical fallacy of supposing that all alleged miracles are as easy to refute. He again resorts to Ockham’s razor but oversteps the mark by taking what should be ‘highly unlikely’ to mean ‘impossible fancy.’

Chapter 11: “The Lowly Stamp of Their Origin”: Religion’s Corrupt Beginnings

This should have been one of the best chapters in the book. After all, if you can provide good evidence that Mohammed was the author of the Q’uran rather than its reciter, or if you can demonstrate categorically that Jesus was not resurrected, then the basis of Islam and christianity would be gone. Instead, he mostly looks at Mormonism and attempts to deceive the readers into thinking that all “religions” begin in the same way.

Chapter 12: A Coda: How Religions End

This looks at the end of once sect in particular, rather than any thorough study. The point of this chapter is rather elusive, as is any sense of a well thought-through argument.

Chapter 13: Does Religion Make People Behave Better?

The question posed bears little to no resemblance to the contents of the chapter.  Instead, he takes a few “religious” people and points out that they are fallible humans. This would seem quite reasonable to do, except that Hitchens contrives to make this a case against religion. Full of non-sequiturs, it is a wonder that this managed to get published.

Chapter 14: There Is No “Eastern” Solution

Hitchens clearly was aware that the bulk of ire had been directed towards the three Abrahamic monotheisms. But as this was supposed to discredit all religions, though Hitchens still fails to define what he means by the term, it was necessary to include a quick pop at some of those ideas that come from the other side of the Ural Mountains.

Chapter 15: Religion as an Original Sin

Here, Hitchens circles round to have another go at christianity. Clearly, he forgot some points when wrote chapter 8. He demonstrates his failure to even attempt to understand christian theology, as he clearly picks out some elements of the gospel, omitting those that would undermine his case, and state without evidence or reason that it is immoral.

Chapter 16: Is Religion Child Abuse?

Hitchens makes a few cases here, none of which get close to even attempting to answer the question posed by the chapter’s title. He opens with a look some ideas of “hell” – falsely assuming universal agreement on the subject. From here, he denounces circumcision and prohibitions on masturbation, before a surprisingly short few paragraphs on child abuse in the catholic church, though he statement that “we are talking about the systematic rape and torture of children” fails spectacularly to have any sense of proportion. Yes, any instances of abuse are vile and to be condemned, as is any attempt at hiding it, but it is not reasonable to suppose that it was in any way orchestrated abuse dictated from the powers that be to carry out the abuse in the first place.

Chapter 17: An Objection Anticipated: The Last-Ditch “Case” Against Secularism

Here, Hitchens presents a fine counter-argument to some arguments. As noted earlier, he does seem a little muddled about what is atheism and what is secularism, though he does acknowledge at the end of the chapter the existence of secular christians and Jews. The argument that seems to have been put to him is roughly this: “well, if you think religions are so bad, look at non-religious regimes such as Nazism and Communism and the atrocities they committed.” Hitchens rightly notes the complicity of some organised religious institutions in the rise and toleration of Nazism, but he makes a logical flaw by inferring this as being representative of all religion. Apart from that, though, this is a good chapter that makes a good case for secularism, though as with the rest of the book, it is spoiled by over-use of hyperbole.

Chapter 18: A Finer Tradition: The Resistance of the Rational

By this point, Hitchens was clearly starting to run out of steam. The chapter looks a little at some philosophers including Spinoza, Kant and Hume. The chapter consists of little more than summaries of their viewpoints with the odd quotation thrown in. Hitchens credits them as the giants upon whose shoulders he perches, before he suddenly remembers he hadn’t criticised Hanukah and Christmas – and duly remedies this.

Chapter 19: In Conclusion: The Need for a New Enlightenment

Hitchens’ invective finishes with a plea for a rejection of religion, which he mistakenly conflates with the idea of enlightenment, to be taken out of the realm of lofty philosophy and to be taken up by the masses. While enlightenment, freethinking and sceptical enquiry are, of course, to be encouraged, to imagine that these equate to Hitchens’ own brand of intolerance would be a blunder indeed.

The back cover states that “God Is Not Great makes the ultimate case against religion.” If this really is the ultimate case, then “religion” need have nothing to worry about. The book is a fantastic (or rather, fantastical) example of rhetoric trumping reason. For every assertion made without providing any supporting evidence, Hitchens gives the reader a dazzling turn of phrase, loaded with wit and acerbic humour. As far as presenting a sober, insightful and devastating critique on the many different religions, their various ‘flavours’, nuances, history, beliefs and practices, this book is an unqualified failure.

This should be obvious to any reasonable-minded person, and it would be a sad indictment indeed if anyone were to be brought round to Hitchens’ own intolerant view on the basis of this piece of writing which falls well below the journalistic standard which he lived up to earlier in his career. To give such a verdict on the book, though, should not be seen as an attack upon atheism itself. To do so would be to fall into the very same trap of logical fallacy that Hitchens falls into from almost every conceivable angle. There are many reasons why someone may choose to be an atheist, many of them reasonable, many of them not. Hitchens presents us with a compendium of arguments falling squarely in the latter category.

If you have read thus far, you will have noticed a particular turn of phrase used throughout. This has not been particularly kind or gracious. As such, one may think something along the lines of “[look at this christian. He’s read something that has challenged his faith, and this is reaction to cognitive dissonance.]” I will forgive you if you have thought something like that. When I review books, I want to give you the best possible impression of what it is like to read the book in question. While I disagreed with Hitchens and found him sloppy in his fact-checking and logic, this is but one aspect of the book. So I chose to make my review mirror his turn of phrase with loaded rhetoric in order to make a point. So if you have enjoyed the sharpness of my own tongue in this review then you may well enjoy God Is Not Great. On the other hand, if my harsh phraseology has given you a bad taste in your mouth, then you can only expect more of this if you pick up the book to read it.

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6 responses to “Book Review: God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens

  1. Sean O'Sullivan

    This book helped me during my de-conversion from Catholicism (a long process which started when I was about 7 and ended at about 29). I’m grateful that Christopher Hitchens wrote it. He is a little harsh at times but it’s what the subject needs I think.

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