Friday, June 01, 2007

god is Not Great

Our book today is the newest eruption from Christopher Hitchens, "god is Not Great." (that lowercased 'g' is the conceit of the author, not a Stevereads typo)(and those of you who thought it WAS a Stevereads typo, who thought such a thing as a Stevereads typo was even POSSIBLE, are hereby banished FORE'ER from our site).

There are few guilty pleasures more guilty or more pleasurable than reading Hitchens when he's got a bee in his bonnet about something. His expose of Mother Teresa, "The Missionary Position," prompted on virtually every page the same kind of involuntary laughter that greets an audible fart in church service. And his lethal little dagger of an indictment, "The Trial of Henry Kissinger," was muckraking at its finest.

This time around, he's after bigger game than diminutive future saints or corpulent war criminals: he's attacking organized religion, all of it, in all its forms and denominations. The subtitle of his book is "How Religion Poisons Everything."

He never gets around to demonstrating how religion poisons, say, a beautiful sunset or a note-perfect episode of "The Simpsons" (he sure as Hell never demonstrates how religion poisons his bank account since this book achieved its current status as a bestseller ... God works in mysterious ways, we presume), but in the meantime it's pretty consistent fun watching him play punch-ball with a whole herd of sacred cows.

His overall thesis, the positive side of it anyway, is that humanity might once have needed religions to make sense of such things as earthquakes or plagues or thunderstorms, but that in the intervening millennia that need has evaporated in the bright light of science. Now that we know what causes earthquakes and thunderstorms, we don't need to invent gods - and enable the sadistic rules that humans think up to serve them - to explain them.

This is silly, barstool stuff, true, but thought-provoking nonetheless. It's no good telling a Masai tribesman (to say nothing of the average educated American, seeking solace over the death of a loved one, or even seeking to account for the beauty of a tidewater sunrise) to repose the deepest trust of his soul not in gods but in genes. Paris might be worth a mass, but it isn't worth a molecule.

The single most refreshing thing about Hitchens as a writer is that he isn't ever stupid; he knows as well as anybody the amount of codswollop in what he's saying. He's exaggerating to make a point, something we've been known to do from time to time here at Stevereads.

His point being that organized religions universally make their adherents do horrible things, not only to non-believers but also to themselves (along this line he takes a spirited swipe at the Jewish custom of circumcision, calling it barbaric and asserting, a little oddly, that it's physically harmful; as one critic rather hilariously pointed out, this last bit would come as a surprise to the Jewish community, which is thickly populated with a) hypochondriacs, b) doctors, and c) worrying mothers).

He's certainly got no shortage of examples in our sorry old world, and he hits them all - nutcases, fanatics, terrorists, all the usual suspects are eviscerated with a fine rhetoric sharpened on daily-encountered idiocy.

In fact, given the plentitude of his legitimate targets, the frequency with which he picks on cheap, easy targets is a little discouraging. The world is and always has been full of religious abuses - but despite that, Hitchens more than once takes the easy bait, or else fudges the facts. Like when he writes:

"On February 14, 1989, my friend Salman Rushdie was hit but simultaneous death sentence and life sentence, for the crime of writing a work of fiction."

No matter how despicable the Rushdie fatwah was, this is putting it rather simply. After all, it wasn't just a simple, innocent 'work of fiction' - it was a novel at least in part intentionally designed to give offense to Islam. That it succeeded in a way disliked by the author isn't entirely Islam's fault. As the divine Rumi says, only a child can innocently tickle a bull.

Likewise Hitchens can sometimes be, shall we say, questionable on his scriptural interpretation (had he been raised Irish Catholic, like any decent person, this wouldn't be an issue). Take for instance his gloss on the Christian resurrection:

"The extra claim not to have 'really' died makes the whole sacrifice tricky and meretricious. (Thus, those who say 'Christ died for my sins' when he did not really 'die' at all, are making a statement that is false in its own terms."

To put it mildly, this kind of misses the point. In the Christian mythos, Jesus does indeed die - not with air quotes but in horrible reality, nailed to a beam of wood and spitting up blood for three hours. The thing that Hitchens can't allow here is the very point of the story: instead, for him, if a person dies and then comes back, they must never have died in the first place.

But the central tenet of the Christian mythos - call it nonsense if you want, but be accurate about it, for Christ's sake - is that Jesus was human and died, graphically and protractedly. And then came back. And then came back. No use writing an anti-Christian book if you're not going to get that right.

But then this isn't just an anti-Christian book, it's an anti-religion book. Hitchens wants humanity to completely forsake the primitive doctrines that have dictated its behavior for the last seven thousand years. No doubt he's looking at the latest CNN reports when he says 'this arcana need no longer define us; we're all better than this.'

"god is Not Great" is an imperfect manifesto, but then all manifestos are imperfect. This tired old world could do with a rest from the errands of the gods, so we here at Stevereads are allowed to hope Hitchens's vision is the right one. But even so, with so many sunrises still to account for, we'll wait and see.


beepy said...

"had he been raised Irish Catholic, like any decent person"

Pure Stevereads gold.

beepy said...

You know, I've never met any religious person quite as pushy and intent on spreading their doctrine as an atheist. I used to work with this guy who constantly badgered me about how stupid I was to believe in God. Daily he would assail my borders with his little atheist bombs. If I'd been a country, I'm sure that he would have invaded. I don't get his attitude and I don't get Hitchens.

Lots and lots of people go through their lives doing good based on their religious beliefs. Lots of other people keep to themselves about it. Why is it always the evildoers cloaking themselves in religious belief that are pointed out and made to represent the rest of us?

Gianni said...

I remember a quote my theater teacher used to drill into her students so that the good actors' heads wouldn't get too big... "You're only as good as the worst people around you." Meaning, of course, it doesn't matter how much you sell your actions on the stage, people will always notice the fuck-up more. In this case, I'd like to offer the following guide to religions: "As a religion, you're only as good as the people willing to kill in your name." I know you don't like the fact that Hitchens focuses on the terrorists and child molesters that dominate the news as opposed to the true saints who do good things with their religion as grounding. However, these fuck-ups are the ones people pay attention to.

beepy said...

Good point, Gianni.

Another Hitchens glitch is something that was brought up on OpenLettersMonthly by the talented Amanda Bragg. In addition to completely misinterpreting the whole death thing of Christ, he also takes a shot at the Ten Commandments. Apparently, according to Miss Bragg, he can't believe that the Jewish people had never figured out that murder is wrong until given the Ten Commandments. He totally misses the point. The excitement of these laws is not that they were a religious symbol but that they were a political symbol. Imagine a people coming out of slavery, years and years of being under foreign rule, and recieving a set of their OWN laws. We did the same thing on separation from England and it WAS a cause for celebration. The Ten Commandments were not just a way of saying "We are a religion and this is what we believe" but a way of stating "We are an independent people and this is what we believe." Chris should sit down and think a bit before he starts to rant.

Anonymous said...

Hah, I read this and I agree; he was inaccurate many times. Although I am pretty anti-religion as well, I mostly enjoyed the book for his humor. (As do I enjoy yours!) Anyways, the part where you were talking about Jesus's death: yeah he lived; he died. But the coming back part only "happened" if you believe it did. I do wonder what science has to say about this.