God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
By Christopher Hitchens
Twelve Publishers, 307 pages, $24.99
A former priest with whom I’m friendly tells a story of the day when he realized he was no longer cut out for a Roman collar. He and his immediate superior, a monsignor, were arguing about how to handle a parish matter that required a choice between idealism (i.e., expanded services to parishioners) and pragmatism (i.e., the expenditure of cash money).
My friend thought the solution was obvious. “Monsignor,” he said, “what would Jesus do?”
The monsignor did a double take. “What,” he sputtered, “does Jesus have to do with this?”
After reading Christopher Hitchens’ polemic, God Is Not Great, I’m left with a variation on the monsignor’s question. What does God have to do with any of the crimes, abuses, brutalities and other atrocities which Mr. Hitchens offers as proof of heavenly mediocrity?
Mr. Hitchens expends over 300 pages of energy to argue that religion screws up everything. Richard Brookhiser, assessing the role of religion in the post-9/11 world, made a more subtle point in a piece in this newspaper several years ago. Religion, Mr. Brookhiser wrote, offers comfort to many and pretext to a few. Mr. Hitchens chooses to focus his moral indignation on the few while ignoring the many.
Nearly every theme in Mr. Hitchens’ book—the hypocrisy of holiness, the irrationality of blind faith, the criminal righteousness of true believers—can be countered by an illustration of the ways in which religion ennobles human activity. One such recent counter-narrative was written by a Jesuit friend of mine named James Martin, whose book bore a title almost as shocking as Mr Hitchens’: Searching for God at Ground Zero. Mr. Hitchens and others might cite 9/11 as evidence of religion’s murderous pitfalls. Father Martin, who worked with rescue personnel at Ground Zero in the aftermath of the attacks, came to a different conclusion: He found love and decency in the smoking ruins of the World Trade Center, and attributed that discovery to the presence of God.
Ah, but where was God when those monsters crashed airplanes into the towers? So might Mr. Hitchens counter Father Martin, and rightfully so. I don’t have the answer, and I’m guessing neither does Jim.
Mr. Hitchens, however, believes he does have the answers: Since time immemorial, human beings in their ignorance have placed their faith in fairy tales about miracles, virgin births and angelic dictation of holy books. Thus did the world become a vale of tears.
Mr. Hitchens has compiled a prodigious litany of profanities committed in the name of the sacred. For that reason, any religious person would do well to read Mr. Hitchens—there is never a good reason not to, in any case—as a reminder of the ways in which religion indeed offers pretext not only to suicide bombers, but despots, lunatics and control freaks the world over.
But if Mr. Hitchens wishes to inspire mass conversions to secular humanism, he might well have sought to appeal to the better angels of those who, well, believe in angels. Mr. Hitchens, however, displays little faith in the faithful. He tells of serving on a panel with a religious broadcaster who asks him to imagine himself in a strange city as night falls. A group of men approaches. Would Mr. Hitchens feel more safe or less safe knowing that the men have just come from a prayer meeting?
The broadcaster surely believed he had trapped his God-denying antagonist, but as countless debaters have learned to their chagrin, one does not so easily win points against Mr. Hitchens. He replied that the question actually was not hypothetical, that he had been in Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem and Baghdad. “In each case I can say absolutely, and can give my reasons, why I would feel immediately threatened if I thought that the group of men approaching me in the dusk were coming from a religious observance,” he writes. And that, he notes, was just a list of cities beginning with the letter “B.”
A fair point, one might say, given the histories of those wounded cities. But is it? I have been to only one of the places on Mr. Hitchens’ B list—Belfast. I was there for a July 12 extravaganza when Protestants paraded through Catholic neighborhoods and sang nasty songs about the Pope. But I came away from this display convinced that the so-called religious conflict in Ireland had nothing to do with God and everything to do with the holding and wielding of power. The Presbyterians of Northern Ireland objected to Catholics not because the latter believed in transubstantiation or filled their churches with graven images. The conflict there was about power and patronage, not the Papacy.
Mr. Hitchens cites a plainly apocryphal story from Belfast as evidence of yet another way in which religion ruins everything; worse, Mr. Hitchens insists that the story is both true and a local joke: