Christopher Hitchens’ book (God is not great, London, Atlantic Books, 2007) is so high on emotion and extreme language and so low on accuracy that it is hardly worth reading, but it has, I understand, been widely read, so I shall seek to do a proper critique of it.
For some reason Hitchens turned against religion at school. He followed the example of a fellow pupil who refused to kneel and pray (p. 285). It is interesting to speculate why he became so bitterly opposed to religion. His emotive overstatements suggest he may have experienced some deep hurt associated with religion. Throughout the book he omits the capital G from “God” which is rather childish. He feels that no religion can give satisfactory answers to his criticisms (p. 3). He regards C S Lewis’s work as “dreary and absurd” (p. 7). Billy Graham is, he says, an anti-Semite who preaches absurd sermons (p. 32). St Francis is a “mammal who was said to have preached to birds” (p. 69).
He is certain that religion is man-made (p. 10, 52) and doesn’t realise that one can only “prove” religion is man-made by assuming what one is seeking to prove, i.e. that there is no God. He thinks religion is “ultimately grounded on wish-thinking” (p. 4), but this does not account for the challenge to sacrifice and self-discipline which is an integral part of Christianity.
He believes that attempts to reconcile religion and science are ridiculous failures (p. 64). All arguments for the existence of God are “feeble-minded inventions” (p. 70).
He claims that faith cannot stand up to reason (p. 63). This is so patently false as to be ridiculous. There are millions of Christians – including many scholars and scientists – who take rational considerations very seriously and can give a good, reasonable defence of their faith.
Hitchens writes that religion is an infantile search for comfort and reassurance. Any of his children knows more about the natural order than the founders of any religion (p. 64). Religion doesn’t explain anything of significance (p. 282). Hitchen’s faith in the superiority of scientific knowledge to all other knowledge is an unsubstantiated major assumption. How can he prove it objectively?
To cap it all, he then lapses into paranoia when he writes that religious people are planning to destroy him. He adds: “Religion poisons everything” (p. 11).
Religion, he says, is so uncertain of itself that it can’t tolerate different faiths (p. 1) and it interferes in the lives of unbelievers. However, I would respond that it is no part of Christianity to seek power over people or to force religious views onto them. But it is legitimate respectfully and without manipulation, to seek to share good news with those who do not yet believe it.
EMBARASSING MISUNDERSTANDINGS OF CHRISTIANITY
Hitchens’ rather puerile misunderstandings of Christianity are somewhat embarrassing. He questions why we must praise God incessantly, which he regards as “servile” (p. 3). He does not understand that Christianity is a relationship of love with God, hence constant adoration is perfectly reasonable and appropriate.
On at least six occasions he asks why Christianity is so negative towards sex, which raises the possibility that this contributed to his rejection of religion in his youth. He seems unaware that sex is treated as a beautiful gift of God in Scripture – see, for example, the Song of Songs. Religious people have sometimes misrepresented the teaching of Scripture, wrongly implying that sex is “dirty” or shameful. But one cannot criticise the Bible which is foundational to Christianity, for the misrepresentation made of its teaching.
He also seems to assume that most Christians are creationists (e.g. p. 4) which, though clearly untrue, suits his purpose of rubbishing religion. However, many Christians accept that evolution is the method God used to bring about life, the universe and everything. There is no contradiction of science in such a view.
Hitchens then makes the amazing statement that Christians believe that Jesus “did not really die at all” (p. 143). This can safely be dismissed as a rather embarrassing example of his ignorance. On the contrary, Christians believe that Jesus really did die. He fully suffered death and a terrible death at that.
He goes on to describe the idea of the atonement as God inflicting torture and murder on his son in order to impress humans (p. 209) and that Christians hold the immoral belief that this absolves human beings of responsibility.
Again Hitchens does not understand even the basics about Christianity, including the vicarious suffering of Christ. God, incarnate in Jesus, decided in his infinite love to enter into the pain and suffering, which failing human beings have brought upon themselves, in order to redeem them. In this he shows his love and compassion for them. He also satisfies his perfect justice (required by his utter holiness) by bearing in himself the serious consequences of human wrongdoing. By rights humanity should take those consequences but God provides a way of forgiveness and eternal acceptance for those who trust him, believe that he has done all this, and express their gratitude. The New Testament teaching on hell refers to the consequences which those who knowingly refuse this rescue operation choose for themselves. There is no absolving of human responsibility. If I know that God entered into that suffering because of human sin, including mine, to redeem us, then I deeply recognise my responsibility and will live a life of gratitude to and love for God, seeking to please him through good behaviour.
Hitchens believes that the claim by believers to know what God demands of us is “sheer arrogance” and “stupidity” (p. 11). However if one believes in God why should there be any difficulty in believing he can communicate in some detail with human beings? Nevertheless no believers claim to know everything.
He sums up the Christian message as obeying rules and commandments in order to qualify for heaven (p. 15). Clearly he does not understand the very heart of the Christian Faith, namely that it isn’t obeying rules and commandments which qualifies us for acceptance by God but rather a relationship of personal trust in God. We do not and cannot deserve an eternity of bliss and repose, but it is a gift of God to those who believe.
According to Hitchens, “religion looks forward to the destruction of the world” (p. 56). Actually, the New Testament looks forward to the redemption of the world, including the non-human creation (Rom 8:19-23).
SILLY CRITICISMS OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
He regards the New Testament as “evil” and contrived long after the events it claims took place (p. 110-111). His view of the New Testament is clearly inaccurate and rather neurotic. He then states that the authors of the Gospels “cannot agree on anything of importance.” He instances the Virgin Birth (mentioned in two gospels, but one cannot argue from the silence of the other two) the genealogies of Jesus (he understands nothing about ancient genealogies). It really is ludicrous to say that the gospel writers “cannot agree on anything of importance.” It is self-evidently untrue. The fact that they have not been harmonised in detail by some editor adds to their credibility. Eyewitness accounts often don’t tie up in detail. Many Christians do not accept the idea of the gospels being inerrant, but all Christians agree that the New Testament is a reliable record of the facts that really matter, namely matters closely related to the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus and about salvation. None of the instances raised by Hitchens is of great significance.
He then claims that no-one has ever explained “the contradictions and illiteracies of the New Testament” (p. 115). Hitchens here is simply wrong. Many scholars have addressed the questions about the New Testament, which are normally over secondary issues, in ways which are intellectually respectable and convincing.
He concludes that the Gospels are certainly not literal truth (p. 120). I could not find Hitchen’s logical, rational and scientific evidence for this rather silly piece of wishful thinking.
More than once Hitchens tries to make capital out of the fact that the exact date of Jesus birth is not known. He claims that most Christians believe Jesus was born in about AD 4 (e.g. p. 59-60). This is inaccurate. The fact is that most Christians believe he was born about 6 BC. He seems to think this undermines the gospel account which doesn’t mention a date anyway. What does it matter if people living after Christ (not the New Testament) got the BC-AD dating system slightly wrong?
He speaks with great respect for Professor Barton Ehrman who made the “astonishing” discovery that the resurrection story in Mark was added much later than the rest of the Gospel (p. 142-3). Professor Ehrman must also be a remarkably ignorant man if he has been astonished to find recently that the end of Mark’s Gospel is likely to be a later addition. This has been generally known and accepted by scholars for many years. This is not the case for the other gospels.
Hitchens believes that the first disciples “could not have been ‘Christians,’ since they were never to read those later books in which Christians must affirm belief, and in any case had no idea that anyone would ever found a church on their master’s announcements. (There is scarcely a word in any of the later-assembled Gospels to suggest that Jesus wanted to be the founder of a church, either) p. 114. Hitchen’s confusion and ignorance here is quite breathtaking. Jesus’ disciples did leave us a record and they were Christians because they trusted in Jesus, not on the basis of their libraries! And Jesus clearly stated he would build his church.
Hitchens seems to make much of arguments from silence, e.g. Mary doesn’t mention the Virgin Birth or the angelic visitation so, he thinks, these events obviously didn’t happen. This is an unreasonable argument. Then he seems to think that the fact that Mary had other children is a problem for Christians. It may be for some who want to defend the extra-biblical belief in her perpetual virginity, but not for all.
He states that St Paul expresses both fear and contempt for women (p.54) yet Paul is quite clear that women are equal to men (Gal 3:28), just as Jesus showed great respect for women, e.g. his talk with the Samaritan woman at the well and women play a major part in the story of his life, including the resurrection accounts.
PUERILE CRITICISMS OF JESUS
Maybe Hitchens intends to upset Christians with his deliberately provocative and disrespectful comments about Jesus. Actually, they show him in a somewhat pathetic light, as a barrack room philosopher. One could almost say, a bit of a Philistine in this respect.
He says the sayings of Jesus vary between being “innocuous,” “fanciful wishful thinking,” “unintelligible,” “absurd” and “immoral.” (p. 117). He thinks the analogy between humans and lilies (which is actually about God providing for those who trust him, as many have proved) and other sayings are a sheer waste of time. He totally misses the point of Jesus’ conversation with the Canaanite woman, which far from being contemptuous and racist (as Hitchens alleges) was a subtle way of drawing out the woman’s faith. Jesus commends her, saying “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour” (Matthew 15:28).
He calls Jesus a deranged prophet. He is, of course, free to do this. But, if he is wrong he could have a good deal of explaining to do one day!
Hitchens criticises Jesus for forbidding people even to think about coveting goods or to look upon a woman in the wrong way. He thinks the commandment to love one’s neighbour as oneself is too extreme and difficult to be obeyed because humans are not made that way – it is impossible (p. 212-3)
He confuses temptation and sin. Of course people will be tempted by covetousness and sexual desire. That will be a real experience. But the fact is that Christian Faith can help the individual to refuse to entertain that temptation or to fall to it in practice. Hitchen’s deterministic view of humans not being constituted to love their neighbour as themselves is sad. Again there is much evidence that, by the grace of God, people can obey that commandment.
Hitchens asks if Jesus could heal blind people then why didn’t he heal all blind people. At least this is a more serious question which I have addressed in my paper “Why do the innocent suffer?”
UNFAIR SELECTION OF EXTREME EVIDENCE
Another major weakness of this book is that Hitchens selects extreme examples in order to try and substantiate his rather hysterical conclusions.
He instances religious violence in Belfast (p. 18), Beirut (p. 19), the “Lord’s Resistance Army” (p. 189), the Rwanda genocide (p. 190) and the fatwah against Salman Rushdie (p. 28). He refers to extreme fundamentalists such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell (p. 32). He claims that Robertson’s father had said he couldn’t support civil rights for black Americans because the Bible forbids it (p. 179). I don’t know the truth of this story but it is hardly typical of Christianity and the Bible doesn’t teach that.
He also lists “born again” US Air Force cadets who were persecuting Jewish and agnostic cadets (p. 33), Muslims who regard polio vaccine as a conspiracy by the US and the UN against Islam, Catholics who claimed all condoms are secretly punctured to spread AIDS (p. 45) and Jehovah’s Witnesses who oppose blood transfusions (p. 51). He claims that religion is very often necessarily hostile to medicine (p. 47), he also refers to James Ussher who believed the universe was created on Saturday October 22, in 4004BC, at 6.00pm.
He claims there have only been a handful of religious leaders who have been humanitarian (p. 27) This is simply misrepresentation. The vast majority of Christians are against “fanaticism and the cult of death” and are very altruistic.
A more significant argument raised by Hitchens is that those Christians who believe God ordered the process of evolution make him responsible for the wastefulness, failures and dead ends of the process. He points out that 98% of species which have existed are now extinct and he describes evolution as callous, cruel and capricious (p. 87-88). See my paper “Does God regularly intervene in the world”
Hitchens goes on to criticise the idea that religion causes people to act in a more kindly or civilised manner and seems to imply that the opposite is true (using extreme examples) (p. 192). Because Hitchen’s book is basically an expression of emotive propaganda he refuses to acknowledge that the vast majority of Christians are decent people who do a great deal of good in the world. As a passionate propagandist he concentrates on religious hypocrites and misguided extremists and then extrapolates from this that religion is a bad thing. No balanced and sensible person will accept such an unreasonable argument.
He acknowledges that secular atheist regimes have committed crimes and massacres but he quickly goes on to point out that often the church has co-operated with them – the Catholics sympathising with fascism (p. 235, 237), the Russian Orthodox supporting the czarist regime (p. 234).
Hitchins concludes that there have been as many fools who have believed in God as there are who don’t (p 254). The latter is a rather dangerous statement to make when he has written such a ranting, inaccurate and unbalanced book in favour of atheism.
© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction