I have an unhealthy fascination with Christopher Hitchens and his arguments. His debates, his articles, his anthologies keep me coming back. Although he and I have obvious disagreements, I’ve been captivated by his style. Hopefully my disagreements with him are with his actual professions and not with a caricature of his professions. So, I’ve decided to read God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and to blog my experiences with the book and my running responses and commentary.
Over the course of the next month, I’m hoping to take the book, one unmeasured portion at a time. At nineteen chapters, it will be quickly paced, not leaving much time to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.” However, I’m hoping to be quote-heavy and leave lots of references for me to come back to over time.
Please note that I am not attempting to raise a formal refutation or argument against Hitchens’s claims. There are a number of places where he and I are in agreement but a great many more where we do not. One would be in error to find more here than personal notes and evaluation of a book that has a place in an important and ongoing conversation.
All of these posts will be given to the God is Not Great category for my own reference.
Chapter 1: Putting it Mildly
Hitchens’s opening anecdote on Mrs. Jean Watts encapsulates my own interest in his writing. Mrs. Watts was his grade-school teacher in Dartmoor, England, sometime in the late 1950s. He identifies right away the “national authority [that] supervised the teaching of religion (This, along with daily prayer services, was compulsoary and enforced by the state.) (2)”
Of course, he refers to “the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law” in the UK, Anglicanism. As a clergyman of the Anglican Communion, I see right away his focus on the church of which I am a member, the Protestant confession that I share, the Christian creed which I hold dear.
Toward the end of the chapter, Hitchens says, “My particular atheism is a Protestant atheism” (11). However, he has been clear about this since page one. A cursory glance at the proper nouns gives away that he is interested largely with Christianity in the West. He names, for example: Blaise Pascal, C. S. Lewis, Moses, Saul of Tarsus, Church of Rome, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Augustine, Aquinas, Newman. All of these names have significant place within Christianity.
In one place he notes that “serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by” (5) a list of five authors. Two of them were heavily influence by the Church of England, William Shakespeare and George Eliot (she attended the Church of England most of her life although rejecting its teaching). Two others were Russian Orthodox , Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I know very little about Friedrich Schiller so I make no claim on his beliefs, but four out of five isn’t bad.
Two questions come up for me here. First, why value Shakespeare and Schiller over Moses and Paul? I can’t see particular reasons to prefer one over the other. The choice appears arbitrary, but he may return to this later.
Second, when picking alternatives to religious approaches to “serious ethical dilemmas,” why pick a strong majority of writers influenced by religious approaches and cultures? It would seem that his point would be made more strongly by choosing more clearly non-religious writers.
Even when concerning science, philosophy and literature, Hitchens names Marx, Hegel, Crick, Dawkins, Hawking, Freud and Orwell. All of these are figures of Western European thought. It would seem that Americans and non-Westerners have no place in the discussion.
There are a few references outside Christianity and Western Europe. These include: Maimonides, an ashram in India, Koranic and Talmudic thought, “Wicca and Hindu and Jain consolations” (13). Still, the bulk of his concern is quite narrowly focused on Western Protestantism and intellectual traditions.
His claim, “Religion poisons everything” (13, emphasis his) is the closing remark of the first chapter. Perhaps a better claim would be that “the Protestant Reformed religion as by law established poisons everything in Western Europe.”
As an aside, the problem of the establishment of religion began to be addressed in the American experiment, for which he has no interest. In many places, establishment of religion has had critics since the Enlightenment and twentieth-century trends in, say, the Church in Wales demonstrate that the day of establishment is already passing. Many Christians and other religious recognize the dangers of the establishment that victimized him and others as a child and agree that it has had many poisonous effects.
Thankfully, he does pose “Four Irreducible Objections to Religious Faith” (4) which are quite substantive:
- “It wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos”
- “because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism”
- “it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression”
- “it is ultimately grounded on with-thinking”
The charges are serious and not frivolous, but will wait for the next post. To the next in the series.