god Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens (Book Review)

‘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.


The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (Book Review)

One of the major criticisms/compliments that reviewers the world over level at The God Delusion is that it’s almost impossible to read it without becoming exasperated at some point. I find this rather baffling. To have one’s views challenged, proven to be wrong, or in my case, supported (for once!) with such eloquence, such zeal, such passion and indeed such compassion is an enlightening and exhilarating experience. While Richard Dawkins makes no bones about his work being both an attack on religion and a concerted effort to make religious people change their minds, one must not forget that there is a considerable slice of the human population who will also benefit enormously by it: the atheist on the street. Who is he? He is not a philosopher or a scientist, and has thought his way into atheism pretty much on his own steam. He has seen the atrocities committed in the name of the God and is incapable of believing in a God that demands such things from his followers. Alternately he has trouble believing that God can exist in a world that’s such a horrible place. He has enough common sense and knows enough about evolution to know that creationism is bullshit, but doesn’t really understand the huge heights that evolution and natural selection can soar to and what they can tell us about humanity; about ourselves. This is the kind of person that will benefit most from this book, because it gives his ideas a true raison d’être. The God Delusion is a glorious hymn to the beauty of our world and of our universe, and a pitiless unmasking of the cronyism, brainwashing, abuse, narrow-mindedness and alarming, pointless cruelty that lies at the very heart of religion and that has a devastatingly negative impact on those who practise it.

The God Delusion is a meticulously well-argued, well-researched and fiercely well-written book that addresses the hugely complex question of whether or not God exists in a rational, objective, crystal clear-cut and mercifully unconfused way. In Dawkins’ long-time experience as an academic, writer and atheist, he has had every possible angle of the opposite side’s case patiently argued with him, obligingly sent to him, screamed at him, thrown at him and scorched onto his retinas in the most awful hate mail one could imagine; and he uses all this to structure a book that covers every aspect one could possibly think of in defence of the Almighty’s existence, debunking every argument from mankind’s need to derive comfort from a higher power, to the absurd belief that religion is linked to morality, curving round to the pettier squabbles of the creationist playground (‘Stalin and Hitler were atheists! What have you got to say about that?’). All of this is accomplished by science, science that pulls off blindfolds, opens windows and lets in the light, science that is responsible for more aspects of human life and behaviour than most of us could imagine in the whole course of our existence. It is also especially important that Dawkins puts forth his astonishingly complex and convincing argument as to the scientific invalidity of God’s existence in the book’s central chapter ‘Why there is almost certainly no God,’ before he proceeds to tear the Bible and then religion in general to shreds; this because the reader is not first blinded by a long discussion of the horrors once perpetrated and that are still perpetrated in religion’s name, of the poisoning of minds, of the ruining of innocence and of the architecture of intolerance. We start with lucid, if impassioned analysis and discussion. We get indignant, horrified and just plain pissed off later on. This way, we first understand why God does not exist. We then understand why the notion should not even be countenanced in any civilised society.

This doesn’t mean that the book constitutes a lot of crazed anti-religious rambling. On the contrary, while Dawkins’ blood does boil at the treatment of women and children in the Bible (as well as all the genocide, infanticide and rape that are par for the course), he expresses great admiration for its more beautiful passages, such as the Song of Songs, declaring that the Bible should not be completely obliterated: we should just read it like the mythology it is. He is also ridiculously well-read in creationist literature and cites such works at length and in context, thus increasing both the strength of his argument as well as its objectivity.

The God Delusion is a great read that resembles waking up: powerful, brave, enlightening, the equivalent of a strong light piercing a general state of fogginess. It’s a brilliant academic work, but the language is clear, concise and moving, making it accessible and enjoyable both to the scientifically challenged and to just plain ordinary people. It’s the kind of book that everyone should read, and that would change the world completely if everybody did.