The irrelevance and dangers of religion

Christopher Hitchens: god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Twelve Books, 2007

Synopsis: Religion is, on overwhelming balance, a force for evil in the world. It is unnecessary, malevolent, and impedes mankind’s march towards truth and a livable future. Time to rid ourselves of it.

Christopher Hitchens, the current pretender to the throne of the independent and skeptical intellectual first occupied by Mencken in about 50 years ago, does not pull his punches in this extended essay. He sees no value in religion at all – “religion poisons everything”:

One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody – not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms – had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as comfort, reassurance and other infantile needs.) Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion, and one would like to think – though the connection is not a fully demonstrable one – that this is why they seem so uninterested in sending fellow humans to hell. (p. 64)

The man can write. And read. He analyzes the old and the new testament, the koran, and every other religion in between, including those long dead and those yet rising. For all of them, he shows how their foundations are built on sand – “fabricated non-events” – and have been changed up through the ages to suit the agenda of clergy and state. Hitchens speaks from first-hand experience: He has traveled widely, has been seen as a god himself (in Turkey), and was a witness against the beatification of Mother Theresa, showing how one of her purported miracles was due to new technology and old-fashioned journalistic gullibility and wishful thinking.

Hitchens systematically smashes each claim religion may have on our lives: Religion kills more people than it saves, it can be hazardous to your health, its claims to holiness and history are false (the three large monotheistic religions are largely plagiarized from other, older religions and each other), has nothing to offer when it comes to explain why the world is here and how it got started. It does not offer moral guidance – he argues that chances are people would behave more morally and ethically if they were sure this was the only life. God did not make man in his image – man made god in his.

The recent resurgence of fundamentalist religion, be it Christian or Muslim, has nothing to offer either:

Until relatively recently, those who adopted the clerical path [as a state form] had to pay for it. Their societies would decay, their economies contract, their best minds would go to waste or take themselves elsewhere, and they would consistently be outdone by societies that had learned to tame and sequester the religious impulse. […] Faith-based fanatics could not design anything as useful or beautiful as a skyscraper or a passenger aircraft. But, continuing their long history of plagiarism, they could borrow and steal these things and use them as negation. (p. 280)

Hithchens calls for a new Englightenment. Rather than the sordid and brooding atheism of Dawkins and Dennett and their establishment of a new grouping called “brights” (which, I assume, means fighting religion on its own terms, rather than those of rationality), he takes the more optimistic view that fighting religion no longer is the job for the outlandishly brave and superhumanly principled: This is an age where you can argue against religion and be safe. Not popular, perhaps, but relatively safe. The world moves forward, the new tools of analysis and knowledge dissemination mean that it gets harder and harder to misinform:

Religion has run out of justifications. Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, it no longer offers an explanation of anything important. Where once it used to be able, by its total command of a worldview, to prevent the emergence of rivals, it can now only impede and retard – or try to turn back – the measurable advances that we have made. Sometimes, true, it will artfully concede them. But this is to offer itself the choice between irrelevance and destruction, impotence or outright reaction, and, given this choice, it is programmed to select the worse of the two. Meanwhile, confronted with undreamed-of vistas inside our own evolving cortex, in the farthest reaches of the known universe, and in the proteins and acids which constitutes our nature, religion offers either annihilation in the name of god, or else the false promise that if we take a knife to our foreskins, or pray in the right direction, or ingest pieces of wafer, we shall be “saved.” It is as if someone, offered a delicious and fragrant out-of-season fruit, matured in a painstakingly and lovingly designed hothouse, should throw away the flesh and the pulp and gnaw moodily on the pit. (p. 282-3)

Mr. Hitchens is not an easy read, but he is very enjoyable. His references and examples go wide and deep, he has read everything and refers to it with little explanation and sometimes little context. But his searing wit, mercilessly logical chains of argument, and illuminating illustrations comes down on the better side of something that could have become a rant with any other writer. This is not a hastily composed monologue or an unconnected series of articles – Hitchens has been writing this book all his life, and will continue to write it.

Now if he would only make the next version include an equally powerful argument against alternative medicine and New Age superstition….

Highly recommended. If you are religious, you need this book to understand what you are in for (and what you need to surmount if you really want to believe.) If you are not, read it for pleasure and to stock up on arguments. In any case, read it for the language and the power of logic and learning.

PS: Here is a fun account by Hitchens himself about the book tour. Heaven forbid (there we go again) I would have to argue against him in any debate….

PSPS: Here is a great interview/radio debate with Hitchens, from WBUR Boston.

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