Chapter 9: The Koran is Borrowed from Both Jewish and Christian Myths
“One must proceed in the same spirit of inquiry to what many believe is the last revelation,” namely, the Koran. Indeed, the “same spirit of inquiry” is followed, and the pattern of the previous two chapters is repeated. He cites only two texts. Most of the information he offers on the Koran could be found, impartially, in an encyclopedia article (e.g., it cannot be properly translated from Arabic). He repeats his anger at the fatwa on his friend Salman Rushdie and laments that no Cranmer can ever touch the Koran as he did the Bible.
To cite Dennis Ritchie’s forward to the UNIX Hater’s Handbook, “Like excrement, it contains enough undigested nuggets of nutrition to sustain life for some. But it is not a tasty pie: it reeks too much of contempt and of envy. Bon appetit!”
Chapter 10: The Tawdriness of the Miraculous and the Decline of Hell
Before beginning this chapter, I’ve looked ahead to the footnotes to see what’s to come. I’m already dreading it, as the only two notes are critical books on Mother Teresa, one of them is his own. That said, he can give details on any number of miracles in many religions and drops names like David Hume and quotes people like Trotsky, so the notes don’t tell all.
In not unusual fashion, Hitchens goes for the expected target: the resurrection of Jesus. He immediately refers to Bart Ehrman’s “most astonishing finding” that there are two endings to Mark’s resurrection story. Hitchens clearly has read Ehrman’s 2006 book Misquoting Jesus but fails to give any attention to textual scholarship. To Hitchens, this finding belongs only to the past year’s scholarship from Ehrman. There’s not a hint that the eminent Bruce Metzger published on this topic fifteen years earlier. Nor the fact that the discrepancy is noted between major writings like Irenaeus (ca. 150, lacking the addition) and Codex Alexandrinus (5th century, with the addition). Again, Hitchens fails to see that Christians have known the textual problem for centuries and yet the religion has not come tumbling down.
Critical nerdiness aside, Hitchens has some clarity in relating the process of Gospel-writing to his own experience in journalistic reporting, “I even read some stories in print under my own name which were not recognizable to me once the sub-editors had finished with them” (144, emphasis his). News regularly undergoes many editorial rounds before finalization and yet the integrity of the story is not drawn into question on those grounds. It took me a few minutes to notice that he’s gone all over the map without saying much against the miracle of the resurrection itself.
In one page he sweeps from a clear comment into UFOs, William of Ockham and vitriol for Mother Teresa. For several pages he recycles stories from his other book in which he rejects miracles attributed to Mother Teresa. She has an obsessive power over him that he can’t get out of.
Hitchens rightly points out that miracles are not simply “disturbances in the natural order,” but that they are favorable disturbances in the natural order. He goes on to remind us that Krakatoa, the 2005 Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina are not termed miracles because of their unfavorableness. He does move on to the worst of the worst, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, and their disgusting interpretations of the events. Hitchens says that “everything is already explained” when we remember that we live on an unstable planet with turbulent weather. Yes, that does explain why those things happened. What meterology and geology don’t supply is a voice about how to act when these things happen. Robertson and Falwell have their feeble response to “repent” in order to prevent future disasters. Plenty of religious, however, spoke for compassionate action that no weather reporter or news anchor had been able to do.
The argument from authority gets deserved criticism before Hitchens brings in a personal question with more emotional weight behind it than the rest of the book so far.
As one who has always been impress by the weight of history and culture, I do keep asking myself this question. Was it all in vain, then: the great struggle of the theologians and scholars, and the stupendous efforts of painters and architects and musicians to create something lasting and marvelous that would testify to the glory of god?
Not at all. It does not matter to me whether Homer was one person or many, or whether Shakespeare was a secret Catholic or a closet agnostic (150).
But there is a great deal to be learned and appreciated from the scrutiny of religion, and one often finds oneself standing atop the shoulders of distinguished writers and thinkers who were certainly one’s intellectual and sometimes even one’s moral superiors (151).
In a page far more tender than usual for Hitchens, he expresses wonder at Mozart’s music, as he is curious if it is heaven-sent. Hitchens closes on his strong suit: literature. He is a well-read man and an expressive writer. “There are days when I miss my old convictions as if they were an amputated limb” (153). As I remember from earlier in the book, I’m feeling sympathetic to a man who I strongly disagree with and who, at times, I just can’t stand.
That said, he has gone far off course of his argument against the miraculous and has said almost nothing about “the decline of hell” promised in the chapter title. He expresses wishful thinking that the reader’s faith has been so far undermined but, at the rate the argument is going, I’m not finding his work effective.