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On Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great

This review of the German edition of Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great appeared in Die Welt. Translated by Russell Berman.

There is always something edifying about attending an execution, especially if it’s not a human but an idea that is being dispatched from life to death. In God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens—for weeks on the bestseller list in the US and the UK—religion is devastated. One has to give it to Hitchens who, as executioner, does a thorough job. First he slips the noose of natural-scientific reason around the neck of piety. Then he lets it quarter itself on its own contradictions, before boiling the pieces in the oil of his righteous anger. Finally he shoots it through with the bullets of logic and, just in case, he lets the guillotine of irony fly down on its neck. Do recall that this is not about religious fundamentalism or fanaticism but rather religion as such. All, truly all, are meant and are buried alive: Catholics, Protestants, Muslims—whether Shiite or Sunni—Hindus, Buddhists, Osho-faithful and, last but not least, Jews as well, to whom Hitchens, with his Jewish mother, belongs at least in the sense of descent.

He is probably the smartest thinker of his generation of baby-boomers in the English-speaking world. He grew up in England, but left early for America where he has enjoyed a brilliant career as a journalist. For many years a Trotskyist, he was a star of the radical Left, fighting against Evil in the incarnations of Henry Kissinger and Mother Teresa, until September 11, 2001, when he was forced to recognize that “forces of reaction” had attacked the US. Suddenly he found himself close to George W. Bush, at least as far as the “War on Terror” went. His erstwhile comrades have never forgiven him this betrayal, but he doesn’t seem to care.

Basically Hitchens directs four accusations at religious faith: it misrepresents the origins of man and the universe, it therefore combines a maximum of subservience with a maximum of egotism, it is the source of a dangerous sexual repression, and it is based ultimately on wishful thinking. Of course, Hitchens concedes that there have been a handful of admirable believers—Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Martin Luther King, for example—but they have been admirable primarily due to their humanism not their religion. According to Hitchens, religion is “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.” [1]

According to Hitchens, the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, is one long nightmare, in which a cranky god thrones over a chosen people that he incites to genocide. The New Testament may even be worse, since the allegedly so mild-mannered Jesus preaches the punishments of Hell. He regards the Koran as a plagiarism, and that’s the best that can be said about it. Eastern redemption religions are hardly as peaceful as their supporters claim—just consider the bloody chaos in Sri Lanka or the Dalai Lama’s reign of terror in Tibet.

But was it not precisely the atheists of the twentieth century who persecuted millions? After all the Gulag was a project of godless Communism; and Hitler was hardly in love with the Tables of the Law from Sinai, with their eternal commandments and prohibitions. But according to Hitchens, religion is to blame in these instances as well. According to him, Communism—with its rigid hierarchy and infallibility illusion—simply imitated the priestly kingdoms of antiquity. Every totalitarian state is—for Hitchens—basically a theocracy. And the Catholic Church stood shoulder to shoulder with fascists, be it in Austria, Hungary, or Slovakia, where a Nazi puppet regime was even led by a cleric (Josef Tiso). To be sure, the Church did have some reservations about the Nazis; but this did not prevent it from signing a concordat with the Hitler regime in 1933.

Moral furor traces glowing paths on the spiritual horizon of this book, for example when Hitchens grows irate over child abuse in the name of religion; but his ferocious indignation does not turn him into a fanatic of atheism. It is quite enough for him to have the faithful burn down each other’s churches, mosques, and synagogues. Even though he respects religious customs—taking his shoes off before entering a mosque, etc.—he insists: religion poisons everything. Case is closed. Operation successful. God is dead.

But it is in the nature of the theme that after this intellectual execution, a resurrection follows, as unexpected as unavoidable. Because Hitchens is basically wrong, if not in every detail then certainly in the main question.

My first objection to his thesis that piety poisons everything may seem weak. If religion is truly an evil, why could it motivate so many to great artistic accomplishments? Somewhere Hitchens mentions in passing that he loves Mozart’s music (which speaks for him). But what about Mozart’s requiem: only a cold-hearted fool could not be gripped by the profound religious seriousness that resounds there. And the spectacular mosques built by Muslims in India? The opening of Bach’s Saint Matthew’s Passion? His Chaconne in D minor? And finally: what about that anthology of Hebrew writings, marketed for centuries with the Greek name “Bible”? The Joseph story that Thomas Mann retells expansively in his best novel? What about the grandiose and shattering Book of Job, the dark wisdoms of Solomon, the anti-racism of the prophet Amos, the sermon of justice of the most unhappy prophet, the seer Jeremias? Hitchens finds in the Bible only a good phrase or some nice verse, here and there, but nothing more. In general, he finds nothing of quality in it. Given his evident literary sensibilities, it is difficult to believe him on this point.

And this leads to Hitchens’s weakest argument. He claims that atheists—in contrast to believers—don’t have to stare into the Torah to find edification; instead he and his ilk have works of literature, since Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Schiller, Dostoevsky, and George Eliot treat complex ethical themes better than mythical moral stories of the sacred texts—so he asserts. And with that, he shoots himself in the foot. Since all the writers he cites as examples depend deeply on the Bible. To be compelling, Hitchens’s argument would have to be purged of any Judeo-Christian influence. It would run something like this: “Homer, Ovid, Horace, and Virgil treat complex ethical conflicts better than the Old and New Testament.” Hardly however a tenable claim (Homer’s Iliad or Ovid’s Ars Amatoria as moral guides?)

There is an even stronger rebuttal to this book. Hitchens constructs an absolute opposition between religion on the one side and scientific thinking on the other. He spends many pages pummeling creationism and “intelligent design” with the hammer of healthy skepticism. Yet if religious faith is the natural enemy of science, how come so many natural scientists were religious? The monk Johannes Kepler, the deeply pious Isaac Newton, the monk Gregor Mendel, who discovered laws of heredity when crossing peas in the cloister garden? What about the Abbé Georges Edouard Lemaître, the originator of the Big Bang theory, to which some physicists initially objected because it seemed too theological (“Let there be light!”)? Hitchens might objects that all these scientists ceased to be religious faithful at the moment when they began to work scientifically. This claim might be just barely tenable in a philosophical sense—but it contradicts all psychological experience. No one, not even a schizophrenic, falls neatly into two logical parts. On this point, a basic weakness of Hitchens’s book becomes visible. This clever thinker cannot understand that Jewish monotheism is something unique and ultimately paradoxical: a religion that is critical of religion. The Hebrew Bible begins with a blasphemy. God created the original chaos, in contrast to the pagan gods who emerged from it. And on the fourth day, He set sun, moon, and stars in the heaven, as a sign for times, days, and years. In other words, the planets and stars, which in the rest of the Middle East were worshiped as deities, were nothing more than lamps and clocks.

This was an act of enlightenment. In its wake, man could face creation freely. He was no longer compelled to appeal to it with magical (and often bloody) rituals; he was not forced to fall prostrate in front of every tree nymph or river god. His head was clear enough to marvel at creation—an admiration we find everywhere in the Psalms—and to study its laws with the art of astronomy.

Hitchens’s obstinate misunderstanding of the story of Abraham and Isaac is particularly irritating. He repeatedly refers to the monstrosity that according to the Hebrew Bible a father was prepared to sacrifice his son to the glory of God. Hitchens claims that by piling the wood and binding his son, Abraham proved he was familiar with the process, even before he took the knife in his hand to slaughter him like an animal. For Hitchens, this is an atrocity; but for all his outrage, he nearly forgets the point of the story, that in the end Abraham did not kill his son. Hitchens just does not get it: far from grounding the practice of human sacrifice, the story terminates it drastically.

This might all sound like the book is all wrong and superfluous. That is not true. In the end, every believer on the planet would have to concede in a moment of honesty to have felt the tug of doubt. At the same time, there is probably no atheist (be it a Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, or Hindu atheist) who has never wondered about whether there is more beyond us. Or even just a question mark. Philosophical discussions between believers and unbelievers have never been more necessary than now when religion is being used so terribly as a pretext (or cause?) for violence. Hitchens’s book reminds us that for such discussions to take place, there has to be some disarmament on both sides. The members of the religious camp have to cease treating secularists as less moral than themselves—the atheists have to stop thinking that believers are less intelligent.

Notes

1. Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve Books, 2007), p. 56. The German edition is Der Herr ist kein Hirte: Wie Religion die Welt vergiftet, trans. Anne Emmert (Munich: Blessing Verlag, 2007).

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