God is Not Great: first impressions and thoughts on book and author

I’m three chapters into God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, by the late, atheist debater and journalist Christopher Hitchens, and I’m getting a few distinct impressions of the author’s overall argument and personal qualities.

At the end of the first chapter of this book, I wrote, “So far, I’ve found this book alternatingly entertaining, saddening, thought-provoking, wise, foolish, absorbing, and irksome (sometimes several of these at once). I can’t wait to continue.” That remains true.

A few initial thoughts:

Who was Hitch really mad at?

It seems his original gripe was with 20th-century, British-American, pietistic, ideologically-driven, shallow, pseudo-Christian religion, of the kind that is commonly seen in the U.K. and U.S.A. today (and about which there’s certainly plenty to criticize). I sense his complaint started there (very legitimately) and grew with his experience to encompass all forms of legalistic, domineering religious belief and practice (of which there’s been no shortage in world history).

He accurately sees and rightly repudiates much that is vile, regressive, and unjust in many religious people, factions, and organizations across the world.

Are “religious” conflicts religious?

In any conflict in which the opposing sides have claimed different religious denominations, Hitch seems to automatically assume that religion must have been at the heart of the conflict (or at least an intensifying factor). I mean conflicts like the Roman Catholic Croats vs. the Orthodox Serbs, or the Northern Irish Protestants vs. the Southern Irish Catholics.

I have a problem with that automatic assumption: it seems plain to me that, in cases like these, religion has been completely assimilated into nationalism. As Hitchens says, “To be Croatian…is to be Roman Catholic.”

The transition from religion to religion-as-nationalism is easy, natural, and common, but I don’t think that’s because religion is predisposed to it: it’s because people are disposed to be nationalist and tribalist, and nationalists will seize on any difference at all to puff themselves up at the expense of the “others.” And once religion has become “baked into” a culture—once the form is everywhere and the substance is gone—then one of the most obvious differences between the nationalist’s culture and the “enemy’s” culture is their religion. So this too is chewed up by tribalists—and readily received by the outwardly religious who’ve lost any real substance of what their ancestors believed.

His doctrine

So far, he doesn’t strike me as having well understood the claims the Bible and Jesus Christ actually make about themselves and God. Then again, for all I know at this point, that could be because the people he most criticized didn’t well understand these things either.

His language

He was a commander of words, with a sharp and incisive mind—a true reporter’s eye and satirist’s wit. I’ve greatly enjoyed the quality of his writing.

His sweeping claims

So far, I’ve read at least one statement in this book that is plain bunk (there’s another possible one that I’m still holding in suspension of judgment).

The statement, from chapter 4, is, “The attitude of religion to medicine, like the attitude of religion to science, is always necessarily problematic and very often necessarily hostile.”

Always? Necessarily? This was too much for me. Did Hitchens honestly not know of the faith of Galileo, Kepler, James Clerk Maxwell, Michael Faraday, Copernicus, Mendel, or a host of other great figures in the history of modern science and medicine? Not even of very contemporary figures like Raymond Damadian, co-inventor of the MRI scan? What about Christian theologian and Oxford biophysicist Alister McGrath? Or even Dr. Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health and an evangelical Christian, whom Hitchens chose to supervise his medical care during his battle with esophageal cancer?

I mean no acrimony towards Hitchens in saying all this. The statement I’ve highlighted is simply exasperating. It puts me out of patience, as the old idiom goes.

I suppose the most charitable interpretation is that Hitchens grew up (as seems likely) in a pseudo-Christian community that discouraged and deplored science as a menace to faith; from there, perhaps he bought into the popular narrative that faith and science are inherently opposed. This blatantly false narrative is now so common that many people seem to think it self-obvious, and Hitchens may have been one of them.

Other impressions of Hitchens

In no particular order, it seems to me he:

  • had a fine aesthetic sensibility
  • was wise enough to wonder at the marvels of the universe
  • could be crude and vitriolic
  • was very well-read
  • was well-traveled and, if there’s anything to his brief sketches of his journalistic journeys (which I see no reason to doubt), physically courageous

Last words

Just to be clear, Hitchens and I would have disagreed on nearly every fundamental question of life, especially the question of who is Jesus of Nazareth.

All the same, had circumstances concurred, I think he and I could have been friends. At the very least, I would’ve enjoyed a chance to talk with him. I hope he had someone in his life to show him plainly, not in words and arguments but in deeds and manner, who Christ really is.

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