Hitchens’ God Not So Good

Christianity has often profited
from listening to its severest
critics. Voltaire, Feuerbach,
Nietzsche, Freud, Camus–all
have perceived and expressed uncomfortable
truths about religion,
truths that believers needed to hear
even when they were combined with
much that was unpalatable. On
the evidence of this desultory and
sophomoric diatribe, Christopher
Hitchens will not be joining that
select company of Christianity’s
benefactors. He will no doubt be
relieved to hear it.

Hitchens, the British-born American
pundit, has always cultivated the image
of a fierce and contrarian debater. Long
a lion of the left, he broke ranks politically
with his colleagues by attacking
Bill Clinton and later by supporting the
American invasion of Iraq.
God Is Not Great
An early entry
into the religion wars came with his
scathing attack on Mother Teresa of Calcutta,
tastefully titled The Missionary Position.
Now he joins fellow evangelists of
unbelief Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris,
and Daniel Dennett in an all-out attack
on religion as intellectually vacuous,
morally bankrupt, and politically pernicious.

Like his hero H. L. Mencken, Hitchens
can often be a delight to read, both
for his wit and for his savagery, even
when one deplores his views. Also like
Mencken, however, there is often less to
Hitchens than meets the eye; on closer
inspection, his arguments tend to unravel
and his evidence turns squidgy. In God Is
Not Great, his wrath against religion waxes
so hot that he can barely focus on a line of
thought long enough to complete it. In
places, the book seems to lurch from one
non sequitur to the next.

For instance, in Chapter 6, “Revelation:
The Nightmare of the Old Testament,”
the reader expects a carpet-bombing
of Yahweh’s strange commands and
genocidal furies, and we do get a little of
that. Inexplicably, though, a third of the
chapter (104-106) is devoted to evidence
for the non-Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch.
Hitchens seems to think this will
come as shattering news to believers; it is,
of course, neither news nor shattering.
Similarly, although “The New Testament
Exceeds the Evil of the Old One,” according
to the title of Chapter 7, he hardly finds
much evil there, dwelling instead on random
“contradictions and illiteracies.” To
pad out his material he is reduced to dropping
another bombshell–that the story
of the woman taken in adultery in John
8 was probably not part of the original
gospel (120-122). This stunner he takes
as a juicy revelation from Bart Ehrman’s
Misquoting Jesus, although he could have
found it in any copy of the Revised Standard
Version of the Bible–if he had bothered
to look.

Nor can he be bothered to check
facts, so that few pages go by without an other howler. Most are inconsequential,
although they don’t inspire confidence in
his grasp of the field. A few matter; for example,
when he attributes to Thomas Aquinas
the phrase “I am a man of one book”
(presumably Hitchens assumes the Bible
is meant), when what Aquinas said was “I
fear a man of one book.” Because Hitchens
assumes that Aquinas was a mere biblicist,
he never bothers to recognize, much
less interact with, Aquinas’s sophisticated
view of the relationship between faith and
reason. It is enough to note that Aquinas
held erroneous views of reproductive biology
in order to dismiss him as a religious
crank, even though those views were
widely shared in the pre-microscopy era,
and were in any case not derived from his
religious beliefs. Augustine is similarly
dismissed as “an earth-centered ignoramus,”
apparently on the assumption that
his fellow fourth-century Romans had all
made the transition from Ptolemy to Copernicus,
and only Augustine refused to
look through Galileo’s telescope (63-64).

This is just childish, and no stylistic
elegance can disguise its silliness.
But one need not read far into the book
to realize that Hitchens’s view of religion
is frozen in adolescent pique. In the first
chapter, he relates how his doubts about
religion began at the tender age of nine,
when he saw through a bit of lame natural
theology offered by his Bible teacher, Mrs.
Watts. There soon followed in his mind
an avalanche of questions, which he accurately
calls “childish and faltering,” but
which he nonetheless blandly asserts to
have been “insuperable” and “inescapable”
(3). What some would regard as an invitation
to move toward a deeper and richer
understanding of the faith was for him a
motivation to reject the whole racket with
revulsion and contempt.

That’s fine, but then he should not expect
the resulting tantrum to be received
as reasoned argument. Without any indication
that Hitchens has read widely
among a religion’s best thinkers and
thought carefully about their ideas, that he
can distinguish between nuanced and naïve
versions of theology, that he possesses
even the minimum of empathy needed to
enter into someone else’s understanding of
the world, and that he does his homework before he spouts off, why should anyone take him seriously?.

David Timmer is professor of religion at Central College
in Pella, Iowa.