God Is Not Great – Christopher Hitchens
For those of you who have never heard of the recently deceased Christopher Hitchens (probably those in the UK), he was a journalist and commentator with a long career and publications in a number of left-wing periodicals. He is also pissed off. He followed in a line of professional atheists which include Richard Dawkins and Dan Dennet. Where Dennet is, to an extent, conciliatory and pragmatic and Dawkins smart but red-faced, Hitchens is haughtily fuming.
Being atheist myself, it is not difficult for me to understand the succinctly made points propounded by Hitchens in God Is Not Great. Whilst bringing some focus to the debate, he does not really touch upon any new philosophical ground – anybody who has suffered at the hands of the faithful and is articulate can make exactly the argument here made. But that is exactly one of Hitchens points – it should not be difficult or opaque to see through the veil of truth to the dishonest kernel at the heart of organized religion. Those of us that have anger towards religion will find it reaffirming to read Hitchens’ brutal dismemberment of the moral and historical basis for religion. Even if you don’t it is still difficult, if not impossible to refute his arguments.
My issue with this book is largely on a point of style – much as with the man himself. However, there is one point of fact that gets my back up. He targets not merely religion, but ‘belief’ in general stating that “Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith.” I don’t think that this is a philosophically defensible position. Science itself knows fine well that it is but an approximation to reality, and not reality itself. Further, science has well-known limits. Reason can go in many directions based on beliefs, and indeed Hitchens spends the entire book stating his beliefs.
His claims that he “would be quite content to… ‘respect’ their belief [in] the Koran [if only] they in turn leave me alone” comes across as insincere and seems more to be attempting to conceal (badly) a form of seething hatred. This indicated by using inverted commas to qualify the word respect. If you have heard or seen him in debate this aspect only becomes clearer (as is also true of Richard Dawkins). His rants in support of war in Iraq reveal something a bit worrying. Ultimately, I don’t believe either of these ‘antitheists’ would ever admit to this desire to be right and see religion wiped out entirely because doing so would swiftly lead to a philosophically indefensible and rapid cognitive dissonance . It would also be, in a sense, tyrannical – something which Hitchens rails against.
If Hitchens honestly intended to change the minds of those of faith – which he claims – then he is going about it the wrong way. Vitriol has only the effect of immediately closing the (previously open) mind of those against whom it is directed. So, as is so often the case in the religion/secularism debate, this becomes an example of preaching to the converted – gaining no ground for secularists, and perhaps even losing some.
All said and done, however, I have to admit that I would rather share the world with a lot of angry secularists like Hitchens and Dawkins than with angry and irrational theists. At least in that case, I have some chance of convincing them they could be wrong.