Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Book Review: God is Not Great

“Credulity may be a form of innocence, and even innocuous in itself, but it provides a standing invitation for the wicked and the clever to exploit their brothers and sisters, and is thus one of humanity’s great vulnerabilities.  No honest account of the growth and persistence of religion, or the reception of miracles and revelations, is possible without reference to this stubborn fact.” -page 161

    It was the success of this book that first made me aware of Christopher Hitchens, though it was various footage of him in debates and readings that made me really take note, made me a fan if you will.  So, it is a bit odd that I’ve only just gotten around to reading God is Not Great, after his autobiography Hitch 22, his massive collection of essays Arguably, his book about the process of death by cancer Mortality, and others.  The book stands as a kind of clarion call for people of reason to shake off their placating politeness and collectively call BS on the aggressive, pervasive, divisive, and morally bankrupt purveyors of the ultimate bait-and-switch scheme, religion (you give me money and power now, and when you’re dead you’ll get some vague reward).  And as you might expect from Hitch, it is full of wit and rage.

    As usual, he spares no fool.  Be it the media monster and champion of suffering (not for those who suffer, but for their suffering) Mother Teresa, or blowhard fools like Pat Robertson, or imams, priests, and charlatans of all stripes, he is on the attack.  And he uses the greatest tools of the trade.  He uses evidence, history, logic, and the most damaging weapon of all, the words of the holy texts and of their followers.  Is there a book more obviously cobbled together, disjoined, and nonsensical than the Bible?  Well, perhaps the Koran.  Both draw heavily on the Torah, which is itself a patchwork mess.  Claims of historic merit are at best dubious, and more frequently patently fraudulent.  Connections to historic places and people are often wildly inaccurate or incongruous, but that doesn’t stop the faithful from dubbing them proof of authenticity.  And when considering how many generations (frequently centuries) after the supposed events anything at all was written down, can even those less than air tight connections be seriously considered.

“Who--except for an ancient priest seeking to exert power by the tried and tested means of fear-- could possibly wish that this hopelessly knotted skein of fable had any veracity?” -on the horrors of the Old Testament, page 103

    Reading the Bible, the Torah, The Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, or any text with spiritual lessons or claims of the divine, it should be obvious to all but the most painfully unaware that these books are as much the product of humans (men, specifically), as the plays of Shakespeare, the poetry of Homer, or the music (elevating as it may be) of Beethoven.  The rampant bloodletting, petty local squabbling, complete lack of understanding of the world outside of the knowledge of the original readers, and total lack of knowledge of the workings of the world and greater universe should make perfectly clear that there was no mystical revelation, no angelic dictation, just the fevered imaginings of savage men bent on power and scared of death.  No amount of rape, theft, child murder, genocide, or general awfulness is too much, it seems for the righteous.

“If one must have faith in order to believe something, or believe in something, then the likelihood of that something having any truth or value is considerably diminished.  The harder work of inquiry, proof, and demonstration is infinitely more rewarding, and has confronted us with findings far more ‘miraculous’ and ‘transcendent’ than any theology.”  -page 71

    And one can easily compare this century’s UFO mythology with any of the major religions.  It relies on vague stories, shoddy evidence, faulty logic, esoteric writings, and an understanding of the universe that relies on faith instead of reason.  And, like the major profits of old, heavenly forces reveal themselves to illiterate yokels on the fringes of society or beyond.  In a world full of well read, literate people, beings wishing to bring their ‘truth’ to the world find people of limited resources and capability.  That’s just poor planning.  Like with the concept of Intelligent Design, it requires that these cosmic forces are either cruel and deviant devils, or blind idiots (I guess a creature evil enough to make people in a specific way, only to condemn them for being that way might be F-dup enough to put the eye together backwards, put too many teeth in our heads, and have waste come out of our mating organ).

“Many religions now come before us with ingratiating smirks and outspread hands, like an unctuous merchant in a bazaar.  They offer consolation and solidarity and uplift, competing as they do in a marketplace.  But we have a right to remember how barbarically they behaved when they were strong and were making an offer that people could not refuse.” -page 67

    I’ve always liked talking with, or listening to people much smarter and well read than myself.  Gleaning wisdom and knowledge, and finding new books to read or what have you.  Reading Hitchens feels like sitting down to great dinner conversation, and it’s led me to check out many things, and will continue to do so (one of these days I’m going to try Wodehouse).  But it was pretty sweet when he referenced a book I’d actually read already.  I think it’s the first time outside of one of his book reviews (for a Harry Potter novel) that it’s happened.  I read Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus: the Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why several years ago.  A fascinating book.  It was like listening to Dennis Miller back when he was funny (remember the 80s?) or the boys on MST3K, when you manage to catch an especially clever or obscure reference, you feel just that bit more cool, even if it is only for a moment.  Whenever I read Hitchens I feel like I’m learning something, but I also feel inspired to go out and learn more when I’m done.  That is the mark of a great teacher, and I’ve been lucky enough to have many of those (only a very few of them involved in my formal schooling).

    Lest one assume Hitchens only chastises and takes to task those religions more familiar in the West, he does go after several Eastern religions, like Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, Confucianism, etc. with both barrels.  Whether exposing the awful hypocrisy of the hereditary horror-show that produced the Dali Lama, or the cult of the god-king that produced the famous kamikaze and was supported by the Buddhist mainstream in Japan, or the sectarian violence between Hindu and Buddhists that still grips Sri Lanka to this day.  And he addresses a couple of the most common attacks on atheism, the Nazis and the Stalinists.  Getting past the problems with the Nazi argument (like that most Nazis were practicing Christians), both Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia were more like theocracies than any kind of ‘secular’ state.  They did not attempt to suppress religion so much as replace it with a worship and obedience of the state.  He goes into some depth about the complicity of various churches and religious organizations in the creation and maintenance of these monolithic states, including the support of the Catholic Church for several fascist regimes, including Hitler’s Germany (though he does mention some of those few who stood up, including Catholics, to those same evils).

“But an extraordinary number of people appear to believe that the mind, and the reasoning faculty - the only thing that divides us from our animal relatives - is something to be distrusted and even, as far as possible, dulled.” -page 198

    Perhaps his most bold, but in a way most important question (and chapter title) “Is Religion Child Abuse?” looks into the effects of religion, both physical and psychological on children and on the adults they become.  Not just the obvious stuff like institutionalized sexual abuse or genital mutilation, but the more subtle things like telling a kid his grandfather is in hell, suffering for an eternity, because he was a different religion.  Or of course, racism, the ancient partner in crime of religion.  I remember hearing constantly throughout my Catholic upbringing that those evil (fill in the blank with Protestants, Satanists, Homosexuals, etc.) tried to ‘get you while you’re young.’  And I remember even then thinking, ‘wait, isn’t that what you’re doing, too?’  And of course, it was.  The best way to produce adults who believe in this mumbo-jumbo is to force them to believe it when they’re too young and malleable and credulous to turn away.  Otherwise, if you let children get to the point where they’re more rational, there’s almost no way they’d believe much of the crazy stuff written in the various holy texts.  They’ve lived long enough to spot a con, to know a lie, to see a fantasy.  And they’ve certainly lived to the point where getting the tip of one’s penis cut off or vagina sewn up doesn’t seem like a good idea.

“This is not the result of a few delinquents among the shepherds, but an outcome of an ideology which sought to establish clerical control by means of control of the sexual instinct and even the of the sexual organs.  It belongs, like the rest of religion, to the fearful childhood of our species.” -discussing the horrors of circumcision, mandated celibacy, and sexual repression, page 228

    Though not my favorite book by Christopher Hitchens, nor his most readable, it is a worthy effort and hopefully a conversation starter.  It identifies what he believed to be the great enemy facing humankind, calls it out, and gives it a sock on the jaw.  The book works as something of a call to action for all those who feel that religions of all stripes have a lot to answer for, if not a lot of answers.  And that the denial of reality one must embrace in order to believe in the supernatural is inherently damaging to us as individuals and to society as a whole.  That morality and ethics exist in spite of (and some times as opposed to), not because of religion.  The greatest gift that Hitchens, Sam Harris, Penn Jillette, and Stephen Fry, among others have given people like myself is a sense of community and hope.  We are not alone in our desire to leave behind the damaging and stultifying beliefs of our ancestors in order to create a more just and viable future.  That the way to live need not be dictated by squabbling illiterates who lurked in the deserts of our distant past, but in rational exploration of the world that is.  There are others out there like me, who found no answers to the questions that really matter in myth anthologies written by greedy savages, or in the expectation of rewards and punishments in the hereafter.  I constantly hear people talk about how silly, strange, or unfounded the religious beliefs of other peoples are.  But these same people can’t see the silliness in their own.  My hat is off to the late Hitchens for pulling back those curtains just a bit, and shedding light on a great many shadowed things.

“Yet again it is demonstrated that monotheistic religion is a plagiarism of a plagiarism of a hearsay of a hearsay, of an illusion of an illusion, extending all the way back to a fabrication of a few nonevents.” -Page 280

God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
Author: Christopher Hitchens
Publisher: Twelve
ISBN: 978-0-446-57980-3


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