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August 21, 2007 |

By Miscellaneous | Books | August 21, 2007 |

Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all: God is a dream, a hope, a woman, an ironist, a father, a city, a house of many rooms, a watchmaker, someone who left his prize chronometer in the desert, someone who loves you — even, perhaps against all evidence, a celestial being whose only interest is to make sure your football team, army business or marriage thrives, prospers and triumphs over all opposition. Religions are places to stand, look and act, vantage points from which to view the world.

… Neil Gaiman

It was the crude, adolescent edginess of the book’s title that initially irritated me, but the swaggering, low-blow, punch-to-the-brain-pan-prose nailed my anger to a couple of wooden planks and left it to harden in the hot sun. Don’t get me wrong. I love a clever right-to-the-nitty-gritty title. I also appreciate confrontational, controversial viewpoints that break apart accepted ideas and paradigms. That salty word stuff keeps humanity (and Pajiba) humming. Unfortunately, despite all fervent claims to the contrary, Christopher Hitchens’ recent book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything spends too much time validating those who already share his viewpoint and congratulating them heartily for doing so. In fact, a more appropriate title would have been Atheists Are Awesome: How To Insult Everyone Stupid Enough To Believe In God.

Maybe, just maybe, I could have excused Hitchens’ title as a largely cheap, but successful marketing ploy to reel in both the righteous and the righteously angry. Maybe I could have forgiven the shock schlock approach if the book had actually been an unapologetic attack on God, religion and faith. I know I could have considered Hitchens’ mostly brilliant and current event-heavy arguments more willingly had I not read the following in a letter from the editor: “In this logical, ecumenical and frequently witty book, Christopher Hitchens provides the essential arguments for those who believe the world will be a better and safer place if we embrace science over superstition and informed reason over blind and destructive minds. It is our pleasure to share with you an early copy of God Is Not Great. We pray it will change some minds.” Surely Hitchens’ editor is not mocking the very people whose blind, destructive minds he “prays” will change? Obviously, this book was meant to find the most purchase with a specific audience, but to write it in a way that will ostracize and insult the opposition before the argument has even been made suggests that you are simply preaching to a ready-made choir. And that’s … well, that’s boring.

In the very first chapter of God Is Not Great, Hitchens immediately weakens his novel’s intent with explanations and warped apologies. “[Religion] will never die out, or at least not until we get over our fear of death and of the dark and of the unknown and of each other. For this reason, I would not prohibit it even if I thought I could.” He then states, “Thus the mildest criticism of religion is also the most radical and the most devastating one. Religion is man-made. Even the men who made it cannot agree on what their prophets are or redeemers are or gurus actually said or did … and yet the believers still claim to know! Not just to know, but to know everything.” And finally, he promises to follow religious observances as he must and will continue to do so without “insisting on the polite reciprocal condition — which is that they in turn leave me alone. But this religion is ultimately incapable of doing. As I write these words, and as you read them, people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of all the hard won attainments that I have touched upon. Religion poisons everything.

Wait, so religion is something that humans, by default, will always cling to and Hitchens, who has just written a book officially against religion, would not eradicate it even if he could? And though the title of his book states God Is Not Great he admits in the first 12 pages that religion is man-made and it can’t really be agreed upon, even in religion, that God is really anything at all. Then Hitchens whines that he is beholden to follow religious customs while existing under constant attack from religious influence in the world? When the power of these initial arguments combine, Hitchens becomes less like Captain Atheist and more like Captain Pointless. Blame religion freely and live up to the fervor of your title! Tell me how all people, not just awesome atheists, can take your lead, Mr. Hitchens, and replace their religious faith with ardent admiration of literature, music, George Orwell and Thomas Jefferson! You brag about taking soul sustenance in human creation — in fact, suggest that everyone should do it — but explain religious faith as a necessity that will linger as long as humans exhibit their essentially human traits. Take pride in smashing something just to see it broken, Mr. Hitchens, or suggest an alternative, but do not hand me flinching bravado and call it truth. The novel’s implied disclaimer is that only stupid (read: religious) people will not agree with the argument, but that they cannot help being so low and unworthy. Then again, this is the same Mofo who called Mother Teresa a cunning, famewhore. A civil approach to theological debate is not something he seems capable of.

The hypocrisy continues when Hitchens describes his own superlative levels of tolerance. While waiting alone in a train station he felt instantly comfortable when a crew of repairmen — “all of them were black “— entered the same tunnel. Religion, however, has been “an enormous multiplier of tribal suspicion and hatred with members of each group talking of the other in precisely the tones of the bigot.” These points, though arrogant, are perhaps valid until Hitchens refers to Christians as “yokel creationist fans.”

Worse: He calls It’s a Wonderful Life abysmal. Now, that’s true sacrilege.

But here’s the rub: Despite all my previous bitchin’, I learned a lot from the book. Christopher Hitchens may be a vain, self-congratulating misanthropist who likes to hear himself talk, but once you get past the juvenile one-upmanship and name-calling, God Is Not Great deftly questions and comments on the current lay of the political and religious land. There is some sense, after all, in the argument that, if one religion is the right one, then the rest must all be wrong in certain respects. Hitchens is also right to combat the notion that morality wouldn’t exist without religion. Indeed, when he dulls the super sharp serifs and speaks softly, Hitchens’ has a real-deal chance at eliciting progressive dialogue between believers and non-believers. It’s a crying shame he’s so in love with his own dirty edges.

Constance Howes is a book critic for Pajiba and a graphic designer living in Philadelphia. Her hobbies include making out and messing shit up. In short, she’s a firecracker. She blogs over at I Love You in the Face.

Talk Dirty to Me

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens / Constance Howes

Books | August 21, 2007 |

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