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May 25, 2007

Hitchens’s newest diatribe is far from Great

“Why [should] he that has nothing to write…desire to be a writer?” Samuel Johnson once asked in his review of a book that endeavored to prove the existence of God. Though Johnson was an ardent Christian, he sensed that the book’s likely audience would already consist of theists who needed no special efforts at conversion, and that the book lacked a credible occasion for being.

The exact same question may be asked about the new book by Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. The only difference is, of course, that the choir Hitchens preaches to consists of atheists and agnostics, and then only those of a particularly nasty and belligerent attitude.

Though I am far from being a believer in any religion, there is nothing that makes my eyes roll like an atheist who is in love with nothing but his own exquisite powers of reasoning—the sort who loves to hate anyone who might have the temerity to profess faith in some higher power. While they revel in the self-congratulatory title of “free-thinker,” the truth is that they are as single-minded in their supposed “anti-dogmatism” as any fundamentalist nutcase, like the late Jerry

Hitchens’s devotion to the creed of free-thinking leads him into absurdities and flat-out sophistries that are simply frightening when you consider how many people actually buy his “public intellectual” shtick. Hitchens can’t even address a simple objection, such as the idea that believers have, on occasion, contributed positive things to humanity. When he confronts the example of Reverend Martin Luther King, for instance, what does Hitchens do? He denies that King was ever a Christian. It’s right there on page 176, in case you’d care to see this astonishing feat of chicanery for yourself.

So much for King; not even he can stop Hitchens from proclaiming that “a glance at the whole record will show…that person for person, American freethinkers and agnostics and atheists come out for the best.” “Person for person” is an extraordinary claim, which means that if we can think of even one counter-example, one agnostic or atheist who has done more evil than good in this country, then Hitchens’s little theory fails. OK, I’ve got one: How about Karl Rove? Yes, President Bush’s cynical exploiter of evangelical fanaticism is, indeed, one of those saintly agnostics we’re supposed to venerate.

Not that the brilliant Hitchens would have any objection to the electoral fruits of Rove’s tactics, since Hitchens has been Bush’s enthusiastic apologist all throughout his misbegotten war. Speaking of Iraq, what is the cause of all those pesky problems over there? Religion, of course: The Shia-Sunni divide “succeeded in creating an atmosphere of misery, distrust, hostility, and sect-based politics….Religion had poisoned everything” (his italics). Thus, Hitchens ignores the real cause of the chaos—America’s failure to provide basic security for the country it decimated—and scores a twofer, absolving his fellow war supporters of responsibility for the mess they created while getting in the all-important swipe at religion. (All theists, by the way, are lumped together as one big target by Hitchens, from the pacifist Society of Friends all the way to al Qaeda. For him, there is no distinction.)

Given his fellow war supporters’ unflappable ability to divorce themselves from reality, it isn’t surprising to find Hitchens repeating transparent rumors and falsehoods about the religions he attacks. For instance, Hitchens parrots as fact the legend that Orthodox Jews conduct sexual intercourse through a hole cut in a sheet. A few seconds of Google research are sufficient to refute that tired old myth, the absurdity of which has even been lampooned on TV, in a classic episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Aside from the distortions, fallacies, and falsehoods of God Is Not Great, the reader is constantly driven back to that original question: Why is this book necessary? David Hume has already delivered to posterity a near-decisive attack upon the foundations of received religion. When religion continues to flourish more than two centuries after Hume, how can this collection of half-truths and sophistry—written, I might add, in Hitchens’s usual embarrassing attempt at the “elevated” prose style of the 18th century—contribute anything of lasting value?

I tried, I really tried, to read all of God Is Not Great, but I just couldn’t. It would have been no different if I were reading a book by the unbearable Sean Hannity, with whom Hitchens has more in common than he dares to think. Give me the light of Hume and Johnson any day over damned, derivative Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens has given us a thoroughly unpleasant book.