As appalling atheists, we recently covered Richard Dawkin’s much celebrated, if controversial, the God Delusion. This week, it’s the turn of the great Christopher Hitchens (1949 – 2011), an Anglo-American journalist, critic, author, and numerous other things, who was renowned for his confrontational style of debate, mammoth memory, sense of humour, and dry wit.
God Is Not Great, as you’ll be able to tell from the title, is his assault on religion. Boy, he doesn’t hold back! Dawkin’s book sets out a more scientific driven case against organised religion and why a deity is an extreme improbability, Hitchen’s argument is based on readings of major religious texts and how these are anachronistic, dangerously repressive, and how religion ultimately damages humanity and its future. If you are religious, then, this one will offend you, but whilst God Is Not Great may be caustic, it is also brilliantly written.
God Is Not Great
Released a decade ago, the full title includes the addendum: How Religion Poisons Everything. Naturally, atheists will flock to a book title such as this, but Hitchen’s wish was for the wider world to read his book and consider it logically. This isn’t entirely possible, of course, and the man certainly had a horde of individuals who wanted him wiped off the face of the planet.
Hitchens is in competitive form from the first paragraph and things don’t stop until the book ends. He regarded religion as a totalitarian belief, stating it 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: organised religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience."
Crucially, Hitchens (as with Dawkins) lays down the claim: “Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it.” We’ve seen online in comments sections how many individuals believe atheists are psychopaths masquerading as human beings, but this is simply born out of ignorance. Your average atheist goes about his or her life as normal and is morally sound, if not more so, which for Hichens meant they were free from deeply anachronistic beliefs which should have been ditched generations ago:
"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 for 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."
There’s no real need to go into further detail – if you’re intrigued, go and have a look. It’s a provocative and intelligent argument Hitchens puts forward, but we don’t think it’s as strong a case as his peer Dawkins meticulously pieced together; God Is Not Great does remain an essential modern text all the same. The fact it arrived shortly after the success of the God Delusion in 2006 would suggest Hitchens wished to capitalise on the newfound acceptability to have a go at God.
He was already famous, and notorious, in debating circles for his views on religion, and this was his chance to get all of his ideas into one book. Still, it’s worth noting Dawkins’ book was critically acclaimed, whereas God Is Not Great received mixed reviews, with some accusing Hitchens of resorting too regularly to borderline ad hominem and anecdotes to support his claims. We found it terrifically entertaining, however, so give it a go if you’re intrigued.
As mentioned earlier, Hitchens was a gifted public orator with an uncanny ability to remain level-headed, cool, calm, and collected in any situation. This was essential as, due to his confrontational style, he left many of his opponents in debating arenas around the world quite literally fuming and roaring their heads off. Hitchens, to his immense credit, was able to then calmly respond with further insights or shrewd comments. The clip above includes a selection of his many moments – the man is much missed.