Sunday, July 7, 2013

A Pierre Corneille Book Review: Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" (2007) [UPDATED]

(This is a review I posted on Goodreads a while back.  I have edited it.)

This book is not great.

Hitchens indulges in the most simplistic caricatures of religion and in the process undermines atheism. I'm not an atheist, but if I were, I would be upset that someone had offered a portrayal of atheism so fragile that it would have been considered (rightly) a straw man if a polemicist of faith had advanced it.

But it's actually not as much about atheism, or "humanism" as Hitchens sometimes describes it.  It's about being against religion. What's puzzling is that he doesn't seem to define religion.  Or rather, his definition of religion seems to be that which is irrational and bad. If a "religion" or a religious practice, or a religious person, advocates or performs something Hitchens considers good, then that's not religion talking.  It's instead a nascent humanism that runs counter to the religious.

Sometimes, Hitchens simply overdoes it.  At one point he bemoans a misgynistic prudery he claims resides in all religions.  For example, young woman, he says "will be taught that her monthly visitation of blood is a curse (all religions have expressed a horror of it),..." (bold emphasis added)  His end notes are unclear exactly how he arrived at that conclusion I rendered in bold. I guess we are to assume that after his exhaustive study of goddess religions, present-day goddess cults, Wiccan religions, (or Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and Muslims, for that matter) he has definitively failed to find even one religion that does not express horror of menstruation.

Is he only engaging in hyperbole?  That's a tricky question, and I'll admit that I have a tendency to seize upon others' hyperbole when they make an argument with which I disagree and then accuse them of making a too-expansive claim when all they're doing is trying for emphasis.  In short, hyperbole is always usually often sometimes lost on me.  At the same time, if your goal is to critique a set of practices that appear to reach throughout most (all?) of human history and most (all?) localities on this earth, with the historical and geographical diversity that entails, then maybe you shouldn't say "all" when you mean "most," "never" when you mean "not always," or "it" when you mean "a variety of approaches to life and the cosmos that for convenience or for more compelling logical or philosophical reasons we might agree fall under one category (religion) of being human."

Hitchens doesn't seem to grasp that compiling a list of bad things some religious people have done is not an argument in itself against religion. He also needs to demonstrate that religion, as religion, necessarily compels such bad actions. At one point he seems to recognize this. He states (p. 185), "I do not say that if I catch a Buddhist priest stealing all the offerings left by the simple folk at his temple, Buddhism is thereby discredited." Yet so much of his book consists of documenting instances equivalent to priests stealing the offerings, followed by his claim that these instances offer dispositive proof against religion.

That quotation about a wayward Buddhist priest is an example of Hitchens's recourse to false concessions. Smart enough to recognize that readers will raise certain objections, he claims to acknowledge these objections and thereby give the impression that he has accounted for them.  But these occasional and rare acknowledgments are preceded and followed by examples of him neglecting the concession. For instance, in the chapter in which he tries to rebut "the case against secularism"--and in which he gainsays, minimizes, and fundamentally ignores the case some religiously inclined people have made and continued to make for secularism--he concedes some of the faults of "humanism."  Some "humanists," he admits, supported that murderous Stalin, and another he mentions wrote a favorable review of Hitler's Mein Kampf. "Humanism has many crimes for which to apologize," Hitchens writes. (p. 250) "But it can apologize for them and correct them, in its own terms and without having to shake or challenge the basis of any unalterable system of belief."

I'll leave aside my doubts about whether an "ism" has the agency to apologize for anything and point out that in that comment, Hitchens thereby neglects the possibility that some people who confess a religion actually recognize and celebrate changes in doctrines, or adopt hermeneutic traditions that require multiple elaborations on basic tenets of belief, themselves subject to a high level of scrutiny. These types of religious traditions are anything but "unalterable."

Hitchens's eagerness to defend "humanism," "atheism," and "secularism" against the charge of immorality betrays a certain weak spot. Having indulged in the classic logical fallacy of overgeneralizing from a set of examples in order to make a broad claim about the whole, he wants to defend atheism against the charge that it leads to atheist-inspired atrocities such as one might attribute to Stalin, Hitler, and Mao. Part of his defense is that in some ways Stalinism, Hitlerism, and Maoism operated as religions. Yet another part of his defense is some discourse like we see above ("at least humanism can apologize").  But a sufficient argument could have been: just because some atheists do bad things doesn't mean that all atheists do, nor does it mean that they did the bad things because of their atheism. I would buy that argument. Heck, I do buy that argument. In fact, a lot of religious people of good will (and their apophatic fellow travelers like me) buy that argument.

One review I read notes the logical leaps and hints at the falsehoods, but says Hitchens's book still works "as a polemic." Does it?

To answer that question, we need to define the role a polemic is meant to serve. One role is to get people talking about whatever the polemicist has written, or to put it differently, to set the terms of the debate. Here, I think Hitchens succeeds to some degree. My own review here is not the first nor the best argument against Hitchens's books and the other works of the "new atheist" movement. Hitchens was already famous and he got even more famous when this book was published.  But this book gave him, probably, a greater fame than he would otherwise have had (it was how I first heard of him at any rate, and I've now read some of his other books, none of which is as atrocious as this one). People from all over (including at one point Tony Blair) debated him and thereby offered a recognition of his argument as something worthy of being debated. In my own small way, I'm doing the same thing in this blog post.  (For a better, more systematic critique of the "New Atheism" by a more talented author, you can consult, for free, Aphaniptera's Against the Irreligious Right at this link.)

Yet a good, or successful, polemic, in my view, has another role: to argue persuasively for a point, so persuasively that 1) it encourages people already inclined to agree to take action based on what is written, or 2) it compels the reader who is not inclined to agree to concede certain key points, to rethink the position they started out believing, or perhaps to offer their own defense and make their own position stronger.

As for "1," maybe Hitchens's work does this. I know of at least one person not given to extremist, question-begging views (Tod Kelly at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen) who admires Hitchens for his aggressive advocacy of atheism in the face of what, to him (Kelly), is an overwhelming societal disapproval of atheism.

But what is the "action" that is to be taken, and to what end? Hitchens is not clear. At one point, he aligns himself (without acknowledging the alignment) with a large number of religious persons from all backgrounds when he says he doesn't mind other people being religious as long as they don't impose their faiths on others. At another point, such as in his chapter where he asks whether religion constitutes child abuse (his answer: yes), he implies that the state ought to take more aggressive stances against liberty of conscience. My inference from what he wrote here might be debatable.  I'm not sure I recall him ever coming out and suggesting that the state take children away from religious parents. But to raise the issue of child abuse is, in my opinion, to put such discussion as a legitimate policy to be considered.

As for "2," what theistically-inclined person, who is honest and willing to entertain counterarguments and evidence that contradicts his or her religious views, would be compelled to make concessions to this polemic? Inasmuch as thoughtful religionists usually have already conceded that people sometimes do very bad things in the name of religion, or (somewhat more damning) that religion sometimes inspires people to do bad things, I have trouble finding one among them who would be moved by this polemic. There are, of course, fanatics who will dispute even these concessions--and my invocation of the "honest and willing to entertain" theist is probably a question-begging insistence that the fanatics are easily identifiable and separable from the tribe.  And who knows, maybe it's possible that I sometimes am of the fanatics' party without knowing it.  But an appeal to reason--and Hitchens no doubt saw his book as fitting in the tradition of other polemicists like Thomas Paine--is not designed to convince fanatics.

So we're left with where we started: the assertion that religion is bad and that atheism is good, buttressed by the assumption that humanism (however defined, so long as we define it as "good") is necessarily incompatible with religion.

Update 7-9-13:  My spelling is not great!  The original title to this post mentioned Hitchens's subtitle as "How Relition Poisons Everything."  I have corrected the error.I've also clarified some of the language in the post.

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