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:
A visitor to Belfast is asked if he is a Protestant or a Catholic? He replies that he is an atheist. The inquisitor pauses, then asks: Are you a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist?
Mr. Hitchens insists a friend of his underwent this very inquisition. Oddly, several friends of mine swear that friends of theirs (or their cousins, or their in-laws, but never themselves) also were asked these questions, although my friends’ friends, or their in-laws, invariably were Jewish, and so were asked if they were Protestant Jews or Catholic Jews. I regard this story as literally apocryphal. For Mr. Hitchens, it is part of the Creation story, a true statement of religion’s corrupt origins.
But surely the story, true or not, shows us that the conflict in Belfast was—what a joy to talk about it in the past tense—about labels, not about theology. Those labels, those divisions, were nurtured by the British Empire, which saw religion as a nifty way to keep the locals at each other’s throats. In Ireland, India and the Middle East, British civil servants did their best to encourage homicidal tensions between Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Muslims, and Muslims and Hindus. The ensuing carnage throughout the old empire might, at first glance, prove Mr. Hitchens’ thesis. A closer look, however, would demonstrate something else again: That human beings screw up religion, not the other way around.
To Mr. Hitchens’ everlasting credit, he plays no favorite—he bashes all religions, and even some revered religious leaders. (One is tempted to argue that he has no sacred cows, but we ought not to go there.) His terrible swift sword slashes away at the failings of Jews, Christians, Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists alike. This is satisfying, in a perverse way, because generally Jews and Christians bear the brunt of attacks from Western secularists, while Islam is protected by the tenets of political correctness and Buddhism is tolerated as a benign spiritual club—Unitarianism with yoga.
During or around the Gulf War of 1991, I was part of a panel discussion with a prominent liberal activist and author with whom I had an enjoyable private conversation, and so will not reveal her name. (She surely didn’t expect to be quoted a lifetime later.) We discussed the left’s history of anti-Catholicism, prompting her to note that she had recently attended a demonstration at St. Patrick’s Cathedral to protest the Vatican’s refusal to ordain women. Afterwards, these indefatigable cultural warriors were to move on to the Saudi Arabian consulate, where they would protest the Saudis’ ban on women motorists, which they justified by a chapter or verse in the Koran. This prohibition was in the news at the time, I believe, because the U.S. military in the Gulf agreed to abide by the restrictions.
According to my panel-mate, many of the pro-ordination protesters refused to join the second demonstration in favor of women drivers in Saudi Arabia. “We can’t condemn them,” they said. “That’s their culture.”
Hmmm. All these years later, the left’s antipathy for Western religion and its refusal to condemn militant Islam—indeed, its attempts to justify militant Islam as the understandable outgrowth of U.S. foreign policy—has only gotten worse. As one of the nation’s oldest graduate students, I regularly see the contempt that today’s humanities students hold for conventional Christianity and Judaism. One can pretty much say whatever one wishes about Jews and Christians, but to criticize Islam is to be accused of cultural imperialism—believe me, been there, done that. So goes debate in academia.
For that reason, I suspect it will be some time before Mr. Hitchens is welcome on some of our more ideological campuses, for he can be as impatient with secular cant as he is with religious dogma. Not for him the cultural-leftist theory that militant Islam is merely an expression of authentic culture and thus beyond the judgment of oppressive-minded Westerners. He has traveled too widely, read too broadly, to ignore what is in plain sight.
For example, he cites the fatal effects of Islamic dogma in northern Nigeria, where polio had been, at last, conquered. Until, that is, “a group of Islamic religious figures issued a ruling, or fatwa, that declared the polio vaccine to be a conspiracy by the United States (and, amazingly, the United Nations) against the Muslim faith,” he writes. “The drops were designed, said these mullahs, to sterilize the true believers. Their intention and effect was genocidal.”
Polio returned not only to Muslim Nigeria, but to the Arabian peninsula, brought by pilgrims, and to other African nations. What in the name of God is going on here?
Pretext, that’s what. The mullahs in northern Nigeria may claim to be acting on behalf of the faith, but in fact they are despots who, like any other, seek absolute control over the peasantry. Does this prove that Allah is not, in fact, great? Nope. It proves that human beings are capable of unspeakable evil.
Many are the crimes committed in the name of God. But then again, many are the crimes committed in the name of peace. In the name of progress. In the name of the people. In the name of The Cause, whatever it may be. Mr. Hitchens faults religion for providing clerics, charlatans, fakirs and mullahs with pretext. And well he might. But if we are to calculate the balance sheet of religion by the behavior of its adherents, what are we to make of those whose sense of justice is informed not by Das Kapital, but by the Torah; not by the sayings of Chairman Mao, but the writings of John Paul II?
Religion drives people to commit murder. Religion likewise inspires people to place themselves in harm’s way for the sake of others. Do we need religion to act with charity and kindness? Mr. Hitchens says no.
Now there’s a leap of faith.