‘I have been writing this book all my life, and intend to keep writing it,’ says the late great Mr. Hitchens in his afterword, and so defines all that is extraordinary in god Is Not Great’s anti-theism. It’s a book that feels tremendously personal, but that makes a gorgeously passionate and aggressive testimony to our shared humanity. It is also intolerant, and I mean that as a prodigious compliment: intolerant of religion; intolerant of prejudice; intolerant of bullshit in all its forms. It doesn’t take refuge in the constant back-and-forth-and-utterly-boring croquet game of ‘this is just my personal opinion, but –’ that one so often hears among people seeking to avoid a good fight. There is none of the mincing of words and tiptoeing that one can normally hear clattering about in hallways when religious matters are being discussed somewhere nearby. Hitchens’ command of the English language is exquisite, and his demonstrable devotion to knowledge and to truth rivals that of the Enlightenment philosophers that he so deeply respects.
god Is Not Great is subtitled ‘How Religion Poisons Everything,’ and Hitchens goes about proving this in a variety of ways. Following the extraordinary but perfectly logical assertion that religion is man-made and not particularly divine, the first order of business is to utterly destroy the credibility of religions through their Holy Books, as well as through their origins. Hitchens refreshingly refuses to confine himself to the usual deserving suspects (The Old and New Testaments), but also takes on the contents and histories of The Koran (which he professes to be a plagiarised mess) and The Book of Mormon (apparently a complete fabrication by a petty criminal). Using a variety of sacred texts in this way gives the book’s central argument immense strength and succeeds in simultaneously frightening the life out of the reader and making him collapse laughing on multiple occasions at the sheer ineptitude and cobbling-together of nonsense that is now considered divine by billions of people worldwide. The sacred texts act as a kind of epicenter to Hitchens’ argument, which then ripples outwards into a monstrous circle of horrors: the untold misery that religion has caused when the sick and the dying have been indoctrinated to refuse treatment in its name, the blind, often fatal hatred that it causes and the way it has turned potentially decent men and women into guilt-ridden, intellectually-stunted, child-abusing, wife-beating, sexually-repressed, Armageddon-desiring megalomaniacs who believe the entire universe revolves around them and who cheerfully promise eternal hellfire and suffering to people, even young children, who so much as question this preposterous worldview. We learn of the (large) role played by Catholicism in the denouncing and rounding-up of Jews in France during the Second World War, and of the active role played by priests and nuns in ensuring the extermination of Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide. The notion that religion teaches morality is firmly and eloquently thrown out of the window through a masterful and moving discussion of the lives of Martin Luther King Jnr and Abraham Lincoln, and the notion that atheism corrupts receives the same treatment. Hitchens also demonstrates the boundlessness and originality of his magnificent brain in extending the argument that ‘religion poisons everything’ to Eastern religions and philosophies such as Hinduism and Buddhism, which are shown to possess just as many crooks, sadists and murderers as the unpleasant Western counterparts that they’re almost universally believed to be a refuge from.
But god Is Not Great isn’t just a well-written piling-up of the awfulness of religion; and, with rather diderotian logic, Hitchens doesn’t criticise without proposing an alternative. This alternative is secular humanism, the ‘New Enlightenment’ for which he calls in the book’s final chapter. It is the desire for the freedom to inquire and the freedom to be curious; for the freedom to learn, to acquire knowledge and to shake off superstition, to love and to make love to whom we choose and to entertain the possibility of being good people without the influence of a sinister dictator who expects us both to fear him and to love him unconditionally.
The book is beautifully written: scathingly vehement; fiery; passionate; incandescently eloquent; witty; flawlessly reasoned and well-researched, and while a lot of it is motivated by deep, livid anger, hatred and exasperation, all of which are visible in Hitchens’ style and choice of words, it is also motivated by love. This is what makes it all the more extraordinary, and all the more invaluable.
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