Book Review: Hitchens – god is not great

This is a brief essay I wrote a few years ago in response to a book by the now-deceased critic of everything imaginable, Christopher Hitchens.

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS:  god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything [sic]
In the late 19th century, there was a very famous American intellectual named Robert Ingersoll, a lawyer, orator, and “aggressive agnostic,” meaning he was always looking for a public  opportunity to argue against faith. He died in 1899 and very few people in our day have heard his name.
In Germany there was a contemporary of Ingersoll’s named Friedrich Nietzsche who also liked to lash out at God and Christians. He is the one who gave us the phrase “Death of God” and thereby paved the way for one of my favorite posters:

“God is dead.”    – Nietzsche
“Nietzsche is dead.”     – God

Nietzsche succumbed to severe mental illness in his 40s, apparently caused by syphillus, but his ideas outlasted his mental capacities and he is still read and widely quoted today.
Now, after a century in which agnostics and atheists have had little hearing, aggressive challenges to religious faith are again speaking out and gaining a wide audience. Richard Dawkins, recently retired from his Oxford position as “Professor for the Public Understanding of Science,” published in 2006 a book called The God Delusion which has sold over two million copies to date. It is a direct denial of the existence of any god, as is this book by Hitchens.
The title and subtitle allow Hitchens no room for a balanced discussion, weighing the grayscales of life. Instead, he wants to paint reality in stark black and white. This is the mark, I thought as I looked at the cover, of an immature and insecure mind.
There is a double insult here. “God” is printed with a lower case “g,” assuring the potential reader that no respect will be shown to any sort of theology or faith. More seriously, it is a direct and deliberate provocation of Islam, in which the phrase “Allah is great” is very close to the heart of the Muslim’s faith. Such nasty provocation seems juvenile at best.
I have long been fascinated by the word “sophomore.” It is a joining of the Greek words for wisdom and foolishness. A sophomore is a “wise fool,” foolish for thinking himself wise. The sophomoric wisdom is little more than the ability to see flaws in other people’s ideas but the sophomore himself stands for little or nothing. Hitchens has made numerous flip-flops in his own thinking over the years, apparently not so much because of an ever-growing store of information but due to a lack of firm ground on which to stand.
Hitchens is currently battling throat cancer, which he says is fatal to 95% of its victims. Nonetheless he has told PBS interviewer Charlie Rose that, if possible, he would choose again his lifestyle of hard drinking and heavy smoking.
So here I sit with the unopened book before me, aware that all these thoughts – magnified by my own conviction that God indeed is great and worthy of infinite praise – will make it impossible for me to read the book dispassionately. I will be as biased in my reading as Hitchens was in writing the book.
But I begin reading and as I do so, I discover that Hitchens was nine years old when he began to doubt God and Christians. He was listening to Mrs. Watts, a warm and kind lady, affirm that it was good that God had made trees and plants green because this is so much more pleasant than if they were purple or orange. That is a nice thought but poor theology. Even a nine year old boy could see the flaw in her thinking. The truth, he thought, is that “The eyes were adjusted to nature, and not the other way about.” In other words, we would like whatever the Creator had done, if only because we get used to whatever seems normal and common to us.
That was insightful for a child. An adult, however, would likely find her popular theology of little significance. To the sophomoric mind any flaw is an opening to be exploited.
I decided to glance through the rest of the book, to see whether this childish story might be, in effect, the topic sentence for the whole book. Indeed it is. Hitchens is still reveling in his ability to pick holes in careless thinking. He is still angry at Mrs. Watts and at her God.
I haven’t been able to give myself to a careful reading of the book, not because Hitchen’s challenges are too great but because they are irrelevant. I passed through a similar phase when I was in high school, enjoying the ease with which one could disprove the existence of God. I had to admit, however, that it would be even easier to deny the existence of Socrates or Buddha. At the same time, I knew that, marshaling whatever arguments I might, the reality of God or Socrates or Buddha would never be determined by my ideas.
Ideas must reflect reality, not determine it. This, of course, is to say that Hitchen’s thinking shows the same flaw as did that of dear old Mrs. Watts. Just as she spoke as if the pleasure she found in green plants was proof that the Creator had done well, Hitchens speaks as if the displeasure he finds in religion is proof there is no god.
What impresses me most as I look through this book is that much of Hitchen’s negativity seems well founded. There are few arguments I see here that are groundless. Religious people really are flawed. Mrs. Watts spoke carelessly. Christians often are closed minded, arrogant, insecure, ignorant, self-righteous. I have spent my life battling such things in others and, just as truly, in myself as well. Unlike Hitchen’s, however, I cannot take the great illogical leap from the shortcomings of the believers to the non-existence of God.
Much of the wind is stolen from Hitchens’ sails by the simply observation that none of the flaws he despises are unique to religious folk. His subtitle, “How Religion Poisons Everything,” is silly. He is talking here about universal human failings, not religious ones. So I find his arguments actually address the frail goodness of humankind, not the existence of God.
It was interesting to see Hitchens compare his thinking to that expressed by Freud in his book, The Future of an Illusion, in which Freud argues that God is just a figment of human imagination. His proof? Simply that the Judeo-Christian concept of God is just what humans need. Do you miss the logic? So did I when I first read the book while in college. I well remember the conclusion which I wrote in a paper for a psych class: Freud most surely believes in God, for he could not have been so angry at a mere illusion.
A year later, I too came to believe in God, though I did so with thanksgiving, not anger. In the half-century since then, I have proven time and again that I cannot live up to my own understanding of the character and righteousness of God. That means, just as certainly, that I have proven many times over that I have strong cause to be grateful for the love and grace of God.
Praise be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior!

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About mthayes42

I am a retired pastor, interested in the Bible, cross-cultural ministries, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the current and past history of western civilization.
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2 Responses to Book Review: Hitchens – god is not great

  1. Dave says:

    Nice post. While I disagree with your conclusions about the existence of God, I find the eloquence of your writing and the positive tone refreshing. Kudos.

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