God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens

19 Apr

This is a good book to explore some of the arguments around gods existence, the nature of religion and its effects on people.

The reader is left in no doubt as to his view given the subtitle of the book: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Not as good as watching the Hitch debate live mind. If after reading the book and watching him talk you can remain religious then you clearly must have a screw loose (I recommend the second link – he summarises the book in 10 minutes).

The Hitch (PBUH) calls himself an anti-theist rather than an atheist; a distinction I enjoy.

I heartily agree with most of what he says. I’ve noticed more and more the egregious lack of morals in the biblical stories and the principles espoused therein. Although most Christians (by necessity) cherry pick the nice bits and close their ears to the downright nasty bits, I think it’s important to point out the fact that it condones slavery, selling your daughter, rape, genocide, ritual slaughter of animals, human sacrifice and torture; whether that be to appease god or to punish non believers for all eternity. Indeed the idea that we have the choice to follow god, and then choose not to take that option then deserve the eternal damnation that Jesus first introduces, it is scandalous to claim the christian god is all loving, all powerful and all knowing. Further, if he already knows the future and the choices we will make, he has therefore created us knowing that we will make that choice. Pretty immoral.

And so if people truly do follow the claims of the belief system, and believe the bible to be the word of god, i.e. get a bit fundamentalist, then we’re in for a rough ride.

He argued that putting threats of eternal punishment behind these religious moral exhortations rather devalues them – surely we should do it out of a better motive.

And then christians can somehow claim that the morals and laws in society come from religion. (Granted some come from the church trying to maintain power and control.) In fact, in the fourth century, when christianity was being codified, they borrowed largely from the Stoics. I would argue that most decent laws come from our natural instincts as humans to figure out rules to work together as a society, i.e. we have a moral society not because of religion, but in spite of it.

I think The Hitch could have pushed this point more strongly in his book; he does this to great effect in his debates.

That said, most of the arguments were great, and added to the already big armoury of anti-christian arguments that are fairly obvious to anyone that takes the time to read even a small part of the bible with an open mind. He does it with wit and erudition without getting ranty and so it is an enjoyable and educational read.

His treatment of the assertion that atheistic regimes can also be pretty abhorrent (Russia, Cambodia, Nazi Germany et al) could have been stronger; he draws parallels between the ideologies of these regimes and religion and shows that religious people and organisations didn’t condemn then, and even supported them. He could have done a lot better than that, for example mentioning that Hitler was a christian and his interpretation of christianity was a central motivation for his antisemitism. He could have also used an argument that I prefer: mentioning that Hitler was a vegetarian and by the same ‘logic’ could say therefore vegetarianism leads to evil. Or he could have just shown this cartoon which says it nicely. “Saying that you believe in atheism is like saying you believe in maths. Hitler and Stalin didn’t go to war in the name of atheism, much like they didn’t go to war in the name of fractions or prime numbers.

Again, in his debates he puts forward the excellent two questions:

First, you have to name for me an ethical action or an ethical statement or moral action or moral statement made or undertaken by a believer that I couldn’t undertake or say, I couldn’t state or do. I haven’t yet had an example pointed out of that to me. In other words, that a person of faith would have an advantage by being able to call upon divine sanction. Whereas if I ask you to think of a wicked act undertaken by someone in the name of God or because of their faith or a wicked statement made, you wouldn’t have that much difficulty, I think, in coming up with an example right away. The genital mutilation community, for example, is almost exclusively religious; the suicide bombing community is almost exclusively religious; there are injunctions for genocide in the Old Testament; there are injunctions, warrants for slavery and racism in the Old Testament too. There’s simply no way of deriving morality and ethics from the supernatural. When we come to the question of the absolute, well, the most often cited one is the Golden Rule, the one that almost everyone feels they have in common. The injunction not to do to others as you wouldn’t want them to do to you. This doesn’t in fact come from the Sermon on the Mount or from Christianity, or it doesn’t originate with it. It’s certainly adumbrated by Rabbi Hillel, a Babylonian rabbi, and it’s to be found in The Analects of Confucious, too.

It almost seems like he rushed the latter part of the book. Most though was very good and stuffed full of great arguments and quotes. I particularly loved “if triangles had gods their gods would have three sides”.

Suffice it to say that if you are in any doubt as to whether to pursue the believers route, or have the misguided view that religious values are somehow good for society, then have a read and be disabused of those notions.

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2 Responses to “God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens”

  1. Eleanor April 24, 2012 at 3:46 pm #

    Thought I’d have a watch of the 10 minute clip which you said summaries the book. I must admit it wasn’t what I expected. Having a large screw with Christian written all over it rattling loose in my head I expected him to at least wave a screwdriver in its general direction. Perhaps the book takes a different approach, but I found his performance to be more entertainment for anti-theists by an anti-theist rather than a rational proposition aimed at debunking Christianity or religion. The picture he painted of a tyrannical god wasn’t even a straw man of God. It looked more akin to an effigy of the devil.

    I guess it’s not surprising he’s come to the conclusions he has. With a large part of Christianity supposed to believe in a doctrine of destruction or eternal torture for non-believers and religion being misused throughout history for evil ends, anti-atheists have had half their work done for them.

    But the Bible offers salvation for all. It’s written there in black and white: http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1%20Timothy+2:3-6&version=NIVUK. Where does it say so clearly non believers will be punished forever? Nowhere I can see. So where does the idea come from? Church leaders in the Dark Ages used selectivity and misinterpretation to suit their own agenda. People followed blinded through fear, ignorance and, as time passed, tradition. And some probably even rubbed their hands with glee thinking how they can use it to their own advantage. And isn’t that how evil gets into any system, religious or otherwise, how ever high its ideals? Through deception, ignorance, blind following and those who will use whatever means available to justify their corrupt ways or inflict evil on others.

    The thing is, if the Bible is a revelation from God should Christians really be cherry-picking God’s Word? No! Take it all or leave it all. And should they really be putting their own personal interpretations on it? Surely not! So it needs to be read, not just with an open mind (that on its own is like having no bouncer on the door at a nightclub – anyone can walk in and make trouble) but also with a reasoning mind and an honest heart. Who wants deception walking in either? Taking each verse read and understanding it in its proper context, in harmony with the whole and in light of God’s character of infinite love, wisdom, justice, power. Because, if God doesn’t posses those characteristics, is he the kind of god a decent human being wants anything to do with, is he even a god at all?

    When the Bible is read in this way, atrocities such as genocide, slavery and child sacrifice are condemned, a consistent moral message is given and the doctrine of eternal torment is dispatched to the everlasting fire from where it came. God’s plan of salvation and blessings for all becomes clear. The opportunity for every single person that has ever lived, whether they believed or not, whether they’d even heard of Jesus or not, to divest themselves of imperfection, to live everlastingly in a world free from pain and misery, a world full of love, joy, happiness and good things beyond what we can even imagine.

    You may not believe in God. You may not accept the Bible as revelation from God. You may with perfect reason say that what some Christians believe is false. You may, quite rightly, object to the way religion has been used to deceive, gain power, justify and even promote some of man’s inhumanity to man. But if, like Christopher Hitchens, you believe that monotheists have to believe in tyrannical, unloving god who has no idea on how to stop humans behaving badly then you have been deceived.

    Can a Christian rationally argue against evolution by saying he can’t see fishes turning into birds? Can an anti-theist rationally argue against God by turning him into the devil? Whatever system or beliefs one is trying to uphold or bring down, is deceiving self or others through cherry picking and misinterpretation really the right way to go? The trap of ignorance, blindness and deceit has brought evil on humanity for far too long. Use reason, seek the truth and above all keep a good and honest heart. Because without that, you’re in for a bumpy ride. (But I think you knew that already.)

  2. 5i5i April 26, 2012 at 1:30 pm #

    Now, where did I put my screwdriver?

    Please don’t take my reply as a personal attack. I’m attacking the ideas in a book, the ideas that many people hold to and want to impose on all regardless of belief, hence my complaint. I can see, given the tenor of your message, that you don’t hold to all these ideas I’m going to point out. But I do think they need to be raised given that many people think the ethics of the bible are good for society.

    > “Where does it say so clearly non believers will be punished forever?”

    This christian site gives an overview of the idea of hell from the bible: http://bible.org/article/what-bible-says-about-hell. Here are a few choice quotes:
    – Matthew 25:46 “And these will depart into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
    – Mark 9:43 describes hell as “the fire that never shall be quenched”
    According to the text, many of these descriptions come from JC himself.

    > “should Christians really be cherry-picking God’s Word? No!”
    I am very happy that christians cherry pick from the bible. In fact I hope for it. Otherwise, if people take the bible literally then women have to stay out of contact with everyone when they are menstruating as they would be considered unclean (Leviticus15:19-24), those poor Sainsbury’s checkout people will have to be put to death for working on a Sunday (Exodus 35:2), and if anyone, even in your own family, suggests worshipping another god, they you’d have to kill them (Deuteronomy 13:6-10).

    And so it goes on.

    Then there is genocide: “Attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants” (1 Sam. 15:3)

    More genocide, but with rape: Moses tells the Israelites that they must kill all of the Midianites, with one exception: “Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man” (Num. 31:17–18).

    I agree that many have used christianity to their own advantages. However, you can take verses – in the context they were written – and justify all manner of atrocious behaviour, such as death for homosexuals (Leviticus 20:13).

    How can any of this be seriously interpreted “in light of God’s character of infinite love, wisdom, justice, power”?

    > “a consistent moral message is given”
    People then tend to fall back on the argument: ‘well, you must at least think the ten commandments are a good moral guide?’ Not I. As a society we tend to believe in individual culpability – you shouldn’t be held accountable for someone elses wrongdoing. Yet the second commandment includes the description of god as “a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 20:4). That’s not my kind of morality. The chapter following these commandments sanctions slavery.

    I could go on.

    The thing, is your idea of a god of “infinite love, wisdom, justice” is a great one. However that’s your decision of what god is (“if triangles had gods their gods would have three sides”). If you use that to filter out where this god sanctions selling your daughter (Exodus 21:7) then you are not sticking to the rule of “Take it all or leave it all”.

    I must say this again: this is your definition of god. You are projecting what you wish onto this supreme being. A definition that fits your morals, your ideals, your clearly caring, positive and loving personality.

    The problem is, that just doesn’t fit the god of the bible.

    > So do we have an “unloving god who has no idea on how to stop humans behaving badly”? (https://unfebuckinglievable.wordpress.com/tag/epicurus/). In fact surely the standard view is that he created us to choose whether to act badly or not. Otherwise where is free will? Unless you’re a Calvinist – i.e. there is no free will and god has already chosen who will go to heaven and who will not. Neither option is indicative of a god that wishes to keep people from suffering.

    Belief in god is fine if that’s your choice. Following christianity in the privacy of your own home, affecting not one else, I have no problem with. Taking some of the very positive messages from the bible, particularly the ideas from Jesus of love and self sacrifice, is great. But the idea that the christians that literally interpret the bible have any right to impose its messed up morals on society is what really makes me angry. That’s why I think it should be kept behind the doors of the church and not have such influence in the public sphere. Public debate is currently censored by christians. The fear of offending the religious stops us addressing so many issues (https://unfebuckinglievable.wordpress.com/2012/03/19/offence-and-censorship/). Policy is unduly influenced by christian views and the current government want more of this. Faith schools are divisive and bad for society; the church of England explicitly say they want to inculcate school children into their faith in the schools they control. And the church automatically gets its people into the House of Lords. They don’t speak for me, and they don’t even speak for the majority of christians.

    “The trap of ignorance, blindness and deceit has brought evil on humanity for far too long. Use reason, seek the truth and above all keep a good and honest heart.”

    Couldn’t agree more.

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