Author and journalist Christopher Hitchens has in his 58 years traveled it seems about everywhere, and has amassed a thorough knowledge of the world today and its history. Of the writers who have recently published works assailing religion, including Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and Sam Harris (The End of Faith,) Hitchens may be the most literary. Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and Harris has a degree in philosophy and is working toward a doctorate in neuroscience.
It is not easy to "peg" Hitchens into any particular hole. While he is an avowed atheist and opposes the Bush administration's fundamentalist leanings, he is not clearly a political liberal and supports the U.S. incursion into Iraq. Hitchens has elucidated his hatred for what he calls "fascism with an Islamic face" but harbours a visceral dislike of Bill Clinton, owing to what Hitchens believes were a number of glaring failures during Clinton's tenure in the White House, not to mention character flaws in Clinton, the man.
In God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Hitchens has put together an intelligent and methodical dismantling of religion. He opens with the story of a childhood teacher, a Mrs. Jean Watts, who inadvertantly brought Hitchens' own belief to a crashing halt by first exalting nature as God's great creation saying "So you see, children, how powerful and generous God is. He has made all the trees and grass to be green, which is exactly the color that is most restful to our eyes." But then, much to young Hitchens' consternation she continues, "Imagine if instead, the vegetation was all purple, or orange, how awful that would be." At age nine, Christopher Hitchens knew that his teacher had "managed to get everything wrong in just two sentences. The eyes were adjusted to nature, not the other way around."
This seemingly minor event sent Hitchens on a life-long journey of revelation regarding all things religious. As he matured, he found many things regarding the existence and nature of God just didn't ring true. He wondered "Why, if god was the creator of all things, were we supposed to "praise" (Hitchen's quotation marks) him so incessantly for doing what came naturally? … If Jesus could heal a blind person he happened to meet, then why not heal blindness? … With all this continual prayer, why no result?"
When Hitchens was thirteen, the headmaster of his school during a "no nonsense talk" with Hitchens and some fellow students stated, "You may not see the point of all this faith now,…but you will one day, when you start to lose loved ones." At this Hitchens was indignant. "Why, that would be as much as saying that religion might not be true, but never mind that, since it can be relied upon for comfort. How contemptible."
At length Hitchens arrived at : "…four irreducible objections to religious faith: that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking."
From these assertions, Hitchens sets out to illucidate just how "religion poisons everything. "In Chapter 2, entitled 'Religion Kills,' he reminds us of the deadly history of religion, from monstrous biblical genocides to mass graves in Bosnia. He recounts religious inspired horrors from Belfast to Beirut, Belgrade to Bethlehem. And, oh yes, Baghdad. Hitchens chose to limit his illustrations to some of the "Bs." Obviously, he could have continued, ad nauseam, through the alphabet.
Hitchens sets off on this tour of religion's murderous past with a query: Why does [a belief in god] not make its adherents happy?" Why, indeed! He asserts that religion…"cannot be content with its own marvelous claims and sublime assurances. It must (Hitchen's italics) seek to interfere with the lives of nonbelievers, or heretics, or adherents of other faiths." This interference more often than not leads to catastrophic destruction and mass murder all in the name, and for the glory of a god.
Moving on, Hitchens touches on religion's ever and ongoing war with science and technology, and its resistance to change in general, the false claims of religious metaphysics, the ludicrous arguments for "intelligent design."
He takes on the Christian Bible, first the Old Testament – filled with the rage of a jealous god and his murderous vengeance – a read not for the faint of heart, and then the New Testament, which Hitchens characterizes as a mostly discordant and contradictory mish-mash of altered or non-history noting that virtually all of it was written well after the supposed life of Jesus.
The Koran Hitchens describes as an even greater mish-mash of borrowed anecdotes and commentaries. Islam, Hitchens contends, "builds upon its primitive Jewish and Christian predecessors, selecting a chunk here and a shard there… a rather obvious and ill-arranged set of plagiarisms, helping itself from earlier books and traditions as occasion appeared to require." He goes on to say that Islam "makes immense claims for itself, invokes prostrate submission… as a maxim to its adherents, and demands deference and respect from nonbelievers into the bargain. There is nothing – absoulutely nothing – in its teachings that can even begin to justify such arrogance and presumption."
Eastern traditions do not escape Hitchens' scrutiny. Many may be surprised to read of Hindu suicide bombers and militant Buddhist death squads in Sri Lanka.
He examines religion as a source of child abuse, citing genital mutilitation in the form of male circumcision, the excision of female labia and clitoris, and sexual abuse of altar boys by Catholic priests.
Hitchens takes a look at failed secular societies, namely Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. The focus here is how, in both cases, religion, per se, was replaced by nationalism, pointing out, though that in neither case was traditional religion completely eradicated. It is interesting as Hitchens notes that the first diplomatic accord made by Hitler after his rise to power in 1933 was a treaty with the Vatican.
Chapter 18, 'A Finer Tradition: The Resistance of the Rational' studies religious traditions' history of locking horns with rational thought from the likes of Socrates to Spinoza, David Hume to Thomas Paine, Immanuel Kant to Albert Einstein down to Lenny Bruce, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Joseph Heller.
In conclusion, Hitchens calls for a "renewed enlightenment" to counter the dangerous and stultifying effects of religion; how acceptance of religious dogma deadens curiosity and thought, that to "choose dogma and faith over doubt and experiment is to throw out the ripening vintage and to reach greedily for the Kool-Aid."
He cites the dangers posed by religious radicals owing to their desire for ultimate conflagration, pointing out that Iran represents "a version of the Inquisition … about to lay hands on a nuclear weapon," that we are nearing the "moment when apocalyptic nihilists coincide[d] with Armageddon weaponry." stressing how imperative it is to recognize the reality and nature of this threat and to counter it however possible.
"We have first to transcend our prehistory, and escape the gnarled hands which reach out to drag us back to the catacombs and the reeking alters and the guilty pleasures of subjection and abjection … it has become necessary to know the enemy, and to prepare to fight it."