Friday, 21 January 2011

God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens

Lowdown: A thorough review of what is bad with religion and why humanity needs to abandon it.
As I am writing this it looks like Christopher Hitchens is going to leave this world rather prematurely, to quote Hitchens himself, while cancer is getting the better of him. For a while now Hitchens has been a character I would look up to: granted, I disagree with him on many things, from the second war in Iraq to the value of Wikileaks; yet Hitchens is a person you can learn a lot from even in disagreement because of his sharpness. You can trust Hitchens’ opinion, whatever it may be, to be based on fact and reason; disagreements can only come through slight differences in personal interpretation of the facts we all do according to our private set of values and our world views.
Having never read anything longer than an article by Hitchens I thought the time is now right for me to plunge into a book of his. God Is Not Great seemed like the most natural choice for me to start with for the very obvious reason this is not a subject about which I am going to have any arguments with Hitchens.
God Is Not Great is, in effect, a single great speech regarding all that is bad with religion. You can even call it a rant if it wasn’t for the rich language Hitchens lays his case down with; if anything, the language is overly rich with Hitchens sending me to the dictionary at record frequency. You have to hand it to him, though: Hitchens is pretty thorough in making his point. He goes through the history of religion, the contradictions all religions have, the morality issues of religion, the way religion has tampered with humanity’s proper development, and much much more. Although Hitchens starts the book by saying the god he’s protesting against is the Protestant one, having been raised as such, Hitchens does not deal with that god alone but rather deals blows to all three major monotheisms as well as to the religions of the East that seem to be a hit with so many disenchanted Westerners looking for alternatives. Given my ignorance on matters of the East this has been my favorite part of the book, a part where I learned a lot about Ghandi, the Dalai Lama and the religions they represent – Hinduism and Buddhism. I learned enough to appreciate these religions suffer from all the same maladies “our” religions do. To others who may seriously think the East knows better than the West, I am sure reading these chapters of Hitchens’ book will bring much enlightenment.
Perhaps the best way for me to communicate what the God Is Not Great experience is like is through comparing it with its closest sibling and one of the best books I ever had the pleasure of reading, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. In The God Delusion Dawkins uses rational to dismantle religion and demonstrate the value of atheism in what I consider textbook demonstration of how ideas should be scrutinized. Dawkins is often accused as shrill but his God Delusion is anything but: sure, many a religious person would find it offensive, but the only possible source of their offence would be the book “daring” to discuss ideas they prefer left sheltered. In contrast, Hitchens is not as elegant: he hands religion one blow after the other while showing no mercy. Hitchens is as shrill as one could be while still keeping to well laid arguments from reason.
Between them I prefer the much more elegant God Delusion. That said, it has to be noted that both cover very similar subject matter and conclude identical conclusions. It also has to be said I liked God Is Not Great a lot for what it is, a case study in well laid aggressive rhetoric and a detailed case against religion, laid out as if Hitchens himself was the district attorney in the case against religion. The God Delusion user friendliness is aimed at showing believers the truth; God Is Not Great is a book that would punch believers in the jaw and knock them down in the first round. God Is Not Great takes it for granted that its reader is inclined towards atheism, otherwise it would leave the reader feeling like an idiot, ignoring the option the reader is merely ignorant.
As I read God Is Not Great Hitchens’ style grew on me. Researching his arguments and the evidence he uses to support them shows there is a lot of merit in some of the more controversial stuff he says, like the not so charming aspects of the Dalai Lama or Ghandi that are well kept secrets in the admiring West. I learned a lot and thoroughly enjoyed this rough, exhilarating ride. I also learned to appreciate Hitchens: the guy is probably one of the sharpest debaters one could ever meet.
Overall: Presenting a case against religion in a manner different to Dawkins’ is not necessarily bad. Not bad at all! Actually, it’s quite exciting and thrilling with much to learn from, fully deserving 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Barring an improbable recovery, it is a great pity we will not be seeing more like this from Hitchens.

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