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David Lucifer
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Christopher Hitchens: God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
« on: 2007-05-12 14:00:01 »
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Christopher Hitchens: God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
http://select.nytimes.com/preview/2007/05/13/books/1154674855341.html

In God, Distrust
By MICHAEL KINSLEY

GOD IS NOT GREAT
How Religion Poisons Everything.
By Christopher Hitchens.
307 pp. Twelve/Warner Books. $24.99.

Observers of the Christopher Hitchens phenomenon have been expecting
a book about religion from him around now. But this impressive and
enjoyable attack on everything so many people hold dear is not the
book we were expecting.

First in London 30 or more years ago, then in New York and for the
last couple of decades in Washington, Hitchens has established
himself as a character. This character draws on such familiar
sources as the novels of P. G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh and Graham
Greene; the leftist politics of the 1960s (British variant); and of
course the person of George Orwell. (Others might throw in the
flower-clutching Bunthorne from Gilbert and Sullivans Patience, but
that is probably not an intentional influence.) Hitchens is the
bohemian and the swell, the dashing foreign correspondent, the
painstaking literary critic and the intellectual engagé. He charms
Washington hostesses but will set off a stink bomb in the salon if
the opportunity arises.

His conversation sparkles, not quite effortlessly, and if he is a
bit too quick to resort to French in search of le mot juste, his
jewels of erudition, though flashy, are real. Or at least they fool
me. Hitchens was right to choose Washington over New York and
London.

His enemies would like to believe he is a fraud. But he isnt, as the
very existence of his many enemies tends to prove. He is
self-styled, to be sure, but no more so than many others in
Washington or even in New York or London who are not nearly as good
at it. He is a principled dissolute, with the courage of his
dissolution: he enjoys smoking and drinking, and not just the
reputation for smoking and drinking although he enjoys that too. And
through it all he is productive to an extent that seems like
cheating: 23 books, pamphlets, collections and collaborations so
far; a long and often heavily researched column every month in
Vanity Fair; frequent fusillades in Slate and elsewhere; and
speeches, debates and other public spectacles whenever offered.

The big strategic challenge for a career like this is to remain
interesting, and the easiest tactic for doing that is surprise. If
they expect you to say X, you say minus X.

Consistency is foolish, as the man said. (Didnt he?) Under the
unwritten and somewhat eccentric rules of American public discourse,
a statement that contradicts everything you have ever said before is
considered for that reason to be especially sincere, courageous and
dependable. At The New Republic in the 1980s, when I was the editor,
we used to joke about changing our name to Even the Liberal New
Republic, because that was how we were referred to whenever we took
a conservative position on something, which was often. Then came the
day when we took a liberal position on something and we were
referred to as Even the Conservative New Republic.

As this example illustrates, among writers about politics, the
surprise technique usually means starting left and turning right.
Trouble is, you do this once and whats your next party trick?

Christopher Hitchens had seemed to be solving this problem by
turning his conversion into an ideological Dance of the Seven Veils.
Long ago he came out against abortion. Interesting! Then he
discovered and made quite a kosher meal of the fact that his mother,
deceased, was Jewish, which under Jewish law meant he himself was
Jewish. Interesting!! (He was notorious at the time for his
anti-Zionist sympathies.) In the 1990s, Hitchens was virulently, and
somewhat inexplicably, hostile to President Bill Clinton.
Interesting!!! You would have thought that Clintons decadence the
thing that bothered other liberals and leftists the most would have
positively appealed to Hitchens. Finally and recently, he became the
most (possibly the only) intellectually serious non-neocon supporter
of George W. Bushs Iraq war. Interesting!!!!

Where was this train heading? Possibly toward an open conversion to
mainline conservatism and quick descent into cliché and demagoguery
(the path chosen by Paul Johnson, a somewhat similar British
character of the previous generation). But surely there was time for
a few more intellectual adventures before retiring to an office at
the Hoover Institution or some other nursing home of the mind. One
obvious possibility stood out: Hitchens, known to be a fervid
atheist, would find God and take up religion. The only question was
which flavor he would choose. Embrace Islam? Too cute. Complete the
half-finished Jewish script? Become a Catholic, following the path
well trodden by such British writers as Waugh and Greene? Or most
daring and original would he embrace the old Church of England
(Episcopalianism in America) and spend his declining years writing
about the beauty of the hymns, the essential Britishness of village
churchyards, the importance of protecting religion from the dangers
of excessive faith, and so on?

Well, ladies and gentlemen, Hitchens is either playing the
contrarian at a very high level or possibly he is even sincere. But
just as he had us expecting minus X, he confounds us by reverting to
X. He has written, with tremendous brio and great wit, but also with
an underlying genuine anger, an all-out attack on all aspects of
religion. Sometimes, instead of the word religion, he refers to it
as god-worship, which, although virtually a tautology (isnt object
of worship almost a definition of a god?), makes the practice sound
sinister and strange.

Hitchens is an old-fashioned village atheist, standing in the square
trying to pick arguments with the good citizens on their way to
church. The book is full of logical flourishes and conundrums, many
of them entertaining to the nonbeliever. How could Christ have died
for our sins, when supposedly he also did not die at all? Did the
Jews not know that murder and adultery were wrong before they
received the Ten Commandments, and if they did know, why was this
such a wonderful gift? On a more somber note, how can the argument
from design (that only some kind of intelligence could have designed
anything as perfect as a human being) be reconciled with the
religious practice of female genital mutilation, which posits that
women, at least, as nature creates them, are not so perfect after
all? Whether sallies like these give pause to the believer is a
question I cant answer.

And all the logical sallies dont exactly add up to a sustained
argument, because Hitchens thinks a sustained argument shouldnt even
be necessary and yet wouldnt be sufficient. To him, its blindingly
obvious: the great religions all began at a time when we knew a tiny
fraction of what we know today about the origins of Earth and human
life. Its understandable that early humans would develop stories
about gods or God to salve their ignorance. But people today have no
such excuse. If they continue to believe in the unbelievable, or say
they do, they are morons or lunatics or liars. The human wish to
credit good things as miraculous and to charge bad things to another
account is apparently universal, he remarks, unsympathetically.

Although Hitchenss title refers to God, his real energy is in the
subtitle: religion poisons everything. Disproving the existence of
God (at least to his own satisfaction and, frankly, to mine) is just
the beginning for Hitchens. In fact, it sometimes seems as if
existence is just one of the bones Hitchens wants to pick with God
and not even the most important. If God would just leave the world
alone, Hitchens would be glad to let him exist, quietly, in
retirement somewhere. Possibly the Hoover Institution.

Hitchens is attracted repeatedly to the principle of Occams razor:
that simple explanations are more likely to be correct than
complicated ones. (E.g., Earth makes a circle around the Sun; the
Sun doesnt do a complex roller coaster ride around Earth.) You might
think that Occams razor would favor religion; the biblical creation
story certainly seems simpler than evolution. But Hitchens argues
effectively again and again that attaching the religious myth to
what we know from science to be true adds nothing but needless
complication.

For Hitchens, its personal. He is a great friend of Salman Rushdie,
and he reminds us that it wasnt just some crazed fringe Muslim who
threatened Rushdies life, killed several others and made him a
virtual prisoner for the crime of writing a novel. Religious leaders
from all the major faiths, who disagree on some of the most
fundamental questions, managed to put aside their differences to
agree that Rushdie had it coming. (Elsewhere, Hitchens notes tartly
that if any one of the major faiths is true, then the others must be
false in important respects an obvious point often forgotten in the
warm haze of ecumenism.)

Hitchenss erudition is on display impressively so, and perhaps
sometimes pretentiously so. In one paragraph, he brings in Stephen
Jay Gould, chaos theory and Saul Bellow; pronounces the movie Its a
Wonderful Life engaging but abysmal (a typical Hitchens aside:
cleverly paradoxical? witlessly oxymoronic? take your pick) in the
way it explains to a middlebrow audience Heisenbergs uncertainty
principle; and winds down through a discussion of the potential of
stem cells. Nevertheless, and in spite of all temptations, he has
written an entire book without a single reference to Sir Isaiah
Berlin, the fox or the hedgehog.

But speaking of foxes, Hitchens has outfoxed the Hitchens watchers
by writing a serious and deeply felt book, totally consistent with
his beliefs of a lifetime. And God should be flattered: unlike most
of those clamoring for his attention, Hitchens treats him like an
adult.

Michael Kinsley is a columnist for Time magazine.
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Re:Christopher Hitchens: God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
« Reply #1 on: 2007-07-06 12:53:40 »
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I have always been a fan of Christopher Hitchens. Too many speakers are afraid to break from their respective side of the political spectrum. It takes a lot to criticize Mother Teresa, especially the way he has.

I disagree with a lot of his anti-theist ideas. He is right about his ideas on theocratic fascism, but religion is to sociologically important to be swept aside the way Hitchens would want it to.
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Re:Christopher Hitchens: God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
« Reply #2 on: 2007-07-07 12:40:07 »
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But while Hitchins is wrong about most things, on this score (and "Mother Theresa") he is correct if not quite as vociferous about it as he should perhaps be. "Religion poisons everything." Including the ability of many of those perverted by it to recognize the depths of irrationality under which they labor.

When people do and say insane and aggressive things not caused by religion, in most of the world they are given appropriate treatment (in the US they are given handguns and employed by the Post Office I understand). Why do you want to make a special exception for religiously inspired insanity and aggression? Looking at our history, genocide has  also been sociologically important, but we don't condone that these days  except when the victims are largely Muslims. It is possible to change - and change quite quickly.

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With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion. - Steven Weinberg, 1999
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Re:Christopher Hitchens: God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
« Reply #3 on: 2007-07-07 13:11:29 »
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You remind me of one of the Chinese Communists in 7 Years in Tibet. The one that steps on the Buddhist's art (that they made for the communists to welcome them), smushes it on purpose and says those exact same words. "Religion is poison." Clearly the Religious in that example were the poison.  Which I myself consider to be quite silly.

Regards

Bass
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Re:Christopher Hitchens: God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
« Reply #4 on: 2007-07-08 08:09:25 »
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You are quite wrong about me you know.

If I were to "smush" somebodies work it would be for aesthetic reasons. Art is art irrespective of the source of inspiration. And I consider an unerring discriminator of civilised behaviour vs brutality being the preservation of that which cannot be replaced.

You might be wrong about the Chinese Communists too. Certainly this possibly allegorical "Communist" seems to have told the truth - although I very much doubt any such person would have spoken in English, so your claim that he used the same words appears likely spurious. It is worth recalling that American and British stupidity and a disastrous serious of diplomatic errors lead to the religious monarchy of Tibet inviting the Chinese in, in order to protect them against the invasion and colonization they thought - with good reason - was being planned by the West. The fact that this was a case of the mice inviting a cat into their home to defend them from the fox does not mitigate our role in the debacle - or support the imputation of a religious motivation to the Chinese crushing the welcome signs underfoot as they "reoccupied their historically Chinese suzereignty".

Of course, the greatest "destroyers" of the creations of others have not been the communists (The Soviets preserved - carefully and often at great cost - religious art in museums throughout their territories, and although the communist Chinese did do their utmost to eliminate their own heritage, this was part of a program of anticulturalism and suppression of "elitist academia" rather than an anti-religious movement). It wasn't even the Muslims (despite the damage their dislike of representational art work has caused to ancient monuments including the role that it played in the obscenity of the Taliban demolishing the the Rock-cut Buddhas of Bamian (more directly motivated by indignation at the obscenity of the West's offer to pay for the preservation of the statues while Western imposed sanctions were causing over 1 million surplus deaths amongst Afghan children - but we didn't bother to report that.). No, the greatest destroyers of the works of others - by far - are the Christians, whose proud record at attempting, largely successfully, to erase civilizations for religious reasons include:
  • The Library of Alexandria - three times.
  • The Early Egyptian Monotheists and Gnostic descendants
  • The pre-Hellenics and Hellenics
  • The Coptic Christians
  • The Cathars and Albigensians
  • The Jews of Europe
  • The Jews of Spain
  • The Moors (and with them the repeated erasure of ancient documents carefully collected in the great Moorish Universities)
  • The Incas and Mayas

And of course, the demolition of Parthenon, caused by the Christian Greeks using it as a store house, and the Muslim Turks using it as a target has to be classed as being as great a crime as the non-religious, but completely unnecessary American demolition of the Abbey of Montecassino during WW II (the Germans, out of respect for the buildings and art works contained in them had not occupied them despite the tactical advantage it would have conferred on them - and had notified the allies that this was the case).

Hermit
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With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion. - Steven Weinberg, 1999
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Re:Christopher Hitchens: God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
« Reply #5 on: 2007-07-09 14:20:34 »
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Hermit, I would perhaps suggest a little "reading between the lines". The art itself was irrelevant. The people were also irrelevent. The only point is that he was completely anti-religious and yet he was the poison, not the Buddhist monks. You must tell me what it's like to see the world in black and white as you seem to. I fear that I myself am unable to.

Also, Seven Years in Tibet is a movie. They were speaking English.

Regards

Bass
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Re:Christopher Hitchens: God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
« Reply #6 on: 2007-07-09 16:31:10 »
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Ah, more fictional supposition masquerading as fact. I guess I missed that cue when I tried to deal with it seriously.

Never forget that one man's poison is another man's nutrients. And vice versa. Just as one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist, or to put the same thing differently, one person's founding father is another person's insurgent.

As for your attempting to accuse me of seeing the world in monochrome, well, I guess that Freud is proved right yet again. The delusional do tend to project. A lot.

Have fun.

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With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion. - Steven Weinberg, 1999
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Re:Christopher Hitchens: God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
« Reply #7 on: 2009-06-27 23:09:16 »
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Having not read the book I cannot rationally comment on it, but having read Hermit and Bass discussing it I would seem to smile... So does projection take place on a strictly subjective or objective level

Having read the book now I can only say that everyone should...

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"Funny goggles and Frankenstein, what real science should be!"
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