Chapter 2: Religion Kills
1. Moving on to C
Hitchens quickly moves into an anecdote about a conversation with Dennis Prager. “I was to imagine myself in a strange city as the evening was coming on. Toward me I was to imagine that I saw a large group of men approaching. Now–would I feel safer, or less safe, if I was to learn that they were coming from a prayer meeting” (18)? (Prager has responded that he was misquoted in the book, and Hitchens has responded, &c.)
Hitchens answers, “No,” as he has personally been in situations where seeing people coming from a “prayer meeting” is threatening to him. He names Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem, and Baghdad. He writes that this is “just to stay within the letter ‘B.’”
It’s cute rhetoric, of course. He’d like me to imagine that he has six dangerously religious cities for every letter of the alphabet. Perhaps a filing cabinet at home with 156 folders of how religions have destroyed civilization.
In thinking of “C” cities, I come up with Chicago, Columbus, Copenhagen, Corsica, Cologne, Canberra, Cardiff and Chernobyl offhand (hardly cities that routinely burn out blocks at a time in the name of sectarian violence). Only Cairo really comes up as a city that would fit Hitchens’s criteria. Again, witty rhetoric without a lot of substance.
2. Lots of anecdotes
He writes a series of narratives, probably drawing on his journalistic experience but also on his friendship with Salman Rushdie. Each of the “B” cities is taken in turn and he describes religiously-fueled violence that many, faithful and faithless, have rightly denounced.
Page 23 engages the similarity of the virginal conception of Jesus to other supernatural stories. No mention is made that Christians might have noticed this before him and have dealt with the question.
He continues to give his litany of religious sins. He is right: religious people are guilty of awful things of which we ought to repent.
3. Religion’s evil discredits religion; religion’s good credits humanism.
In all the cases I have mentioned, there were those who protest in the name of religion and who tried to stand athwart to the rising tide of fanaticism and the cult of death. I can think of a handful of priests and bishops and rabbis and imams who have put humanity ahead of their own sect or creed. History gives us many other such examples, which I am going to discuss later on. But this is a compliment to humanism, not religion (27).
This argument is one-sided. Hitchens presents no evil done apart from a religion and anything constructive done by a religious is a credit to, say, the “nebulous humanism” of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He cannot conceive that some Christians didn’t thunder “joyously about the prospect of winning the Muslim world for Jesus” (34).
The only representatives for American Christianity are Billy Graham, Fred Phelps, Charles Stanley and Timothy LaHaye (35). They are all Baptists and only represent a minority strain within that creed.
Post hoc ergo propter hoc: take away religion and might there still be violence? Red Sox and Yankees? Soccer hooligans? Texas vs A&M? What other cause might there be?
4. “And so it goes on” (36).
He re-iterates his thesis several times: Religion poisons everything. Other poisons may appear to come from other sources, but you’re only fooling yourself–it’s actually from religion. Poison only begets poison. Hitchens’s second chapter depicts a world without any repentence, reconciliation or forgiveness.
King Jehoiakim burns Jeremiah’s scrolls ( Jer. 36), Christian converts in Ephesus burned sorcery scrolls (Acts 19) and Martin Luther burned his canon law texts. It’s time to turn away from that, but Hitchens’s world would not allow for that change.
“The true believer cannot rest until the whole world bows the knee,” he writes (31). Indeed. But to turn to the Prayer of Manasseh, the bowing of the knee is repentant, not servile:
Now therefore I bow the knee of mine heart, beseeching thee of grace. I have sinned, O Lord, I have sinned, and I acknowledge mine iniquities: wherefore, I humbly beseech thee, forgive me, O Lord, forgive me, and destroy me not with mine iniquities.
Could it be that the bowing of “the knee of mine heart” be the beginning of poison’s antidote?
5. A sympathetic writer.
At the end of this chapter, my assessment is that Christopher Hitchens is a sympathetic person. In his journalistic experience, he has seen the worst of the worst of religious violence since 1970. Police officers, lawyers and judges often report that they have so much contact with criminals, they quickly forget that good and law-abiding people exist.
Hitchens’s situation so far seems much the same. He has seen so much religious evil with such horrible power and frequency that it is inconceivable for a religious voice speak for peace, truth and goodness. I wonder if he recognizes this about himself. His disillusionment may be toilet paper stuck to his shoe: he isn’t aware it’s there, but everyone else in the room can see.