Hail him, hate him, Christopher Hitchens has been one of the great polemicists of modern times. He is as close to Mencken when it comes to employing flair to debunking the pretentious claims of religion as anything else this century has thus far produced. He simultaneously inspires and inflames through his passion whether expressed with oratorical flourish or via the aperture in his quill. His much publicised treatise against the greatness of god, written some years before the cancer that currently afflicts him began its war of manoeuvre, is replete with all the vintage vigour we have come to expect of this exemplary writer.
It is not one particular god that Hitchens has in mind but the religions that over the years have created their own version of god which they have sought to inflict on everyone else. Christians, Jews, Muslims are not left unpicked, nor are some of the sects that are offshoots from the major religions. Intelligent Design is ridiculed with wit and panache. As are those Jewish Rabbis of Hasidic fundamentalism who sexually assault children by biting off their foreskins, on occasion infecting the children and causing fatalities as part of some quaint but dangerous religious ritual disgracefully not criminalised by US law. His perspective on religion is captured in one striking line where he tackles the old murderous bible:
The Bible may, indeed does, contain a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride price and for indiscriminate massacre, but we are not bound by any of it because it was put together by crude uncultured human mammals.
For those who interpret this hate filled tome literally, Hitchens has a pithy phrase: ‘rightly are the simple so called.’
Hitchens is to holy men what pesticide is to insects. These people, when they had the power, would specialise in determining how long a human could be kept alive while being roasted by some Vicar of Christ. Holy men always have to be listened to or else; they insist upon it. It is their god-given right to assail us with their hectoring and demand that we abide by what they tell us. Even if we do not practice their religion, rest assured they will practice it on us, with or without our consent. Our opinions on the matter are simply opinions that don’t matter. Holy men don’t have something as trivial as an opinion; theirs is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Hitchens makes a point that gets to the heart of religion. It must seek to interfere with the lives of non-believers: ‘the true believer cannot rest until the whole world bows the knee.’ But it is more than that; it must also trespass on the space of fellow believers of a different faith. Religion is chronically incapable of minding its own business.
In support of his observation that holy men cannot brook people choosing to ignore them Hitchens draws attention to the malign delight experienced by the religious believer when disaster strikes. It is revenge delivered by their sky daddy because the world would not listen to them:
When the earthquake hits, or the tsunami inundates, or the twin towers ignite, you can see and hear the secret satisfaction of the faithful. Gleefully they strike up “you see this is what happens when you don’t listen to us”.
Hitchens sees religion as a poison and illustrates this by pointing out how religions have campaigned against the polio vaccine in Nigeria or AID-curbing condoms in Africa; deadly diseases that can be either cured or combated by science but are accelerated by religion. The Catholic Church would rather see Africans dead than condom sporting. But the fallback position is that people don’t really have to be dead. By discarding their condoms those who will physically expire from AIDS have the offer of everlasting life. Hitchens rightly concludes from this that Christianity is like voodoo or vampirism in its need for some version of the undead to sustain it.
Again, rightly are the simple so called.
Religion does not like being put in its place, always seeking a lofty status from where it can preach on high to others who might not want to listen to any of it. But its power to intrude has been pushed back by democratic secular sentiment to a point where much of it now has to abandon its essence and instead masquerade as a people friendly commodity.
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 making an offer that people could not refuse. And if we chance to forget what that must have been like we have only to look to those states and societies where the clergy still has the power to dictate its own terms … to pass laws forbidding people to insult its omnipotent and omniscient deity, or even his prophet.
The public can come away from God Is Not Great with an understanding of how important secular freedom is; that religion where it appears civilised is always as a result of pressure from without and rarely as a consequence of a change of heart on the part of the men of god.
In the midst of his polemic Hitchens is often witty. He brings a wry smile to the face in asking why the Almighty can do no better than make himself known to past illiterates in the wastelands of the Middle East, areas already rife with superstitions, prophets and deranged holy men pronouncing themselves the son of god. As Pat Condell might say, desert gods for desert people; but we don’t live in deserts and have no need of desert gods.
But how easily such things spring up. This is highlighted by Hitchens’ treatment of Mormonism. When Joseph Smith, a convicted fraudster, decided on his next scam, the Book of Mormon, even he could not have foreseen the vast reservoir of human credulity that was just waiting to be fished from by any angler with an angle. Mormonism was ‘a plain racket’ that ‘turns into a serious religion before our eyes.’ There is nothing particular to Mormonism, however, which would set it apart from other religions as a racket. All religions are racketeering enterprises where the buyer is duped into parting with something in return for nothing. Give me your money or surrender your autonomy and you can be the future owner, after you are dead of course, of a ranch on Jupiter - that type of thing.
Hitchens captures the sheer fantasy of Christianity in quoting CS Lewis:
A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg. Or else he would be the devil of Hell.
My view, go worship a poached egg. With a bit of salt they are tastier than wafers. But then the Church of the Poached Egg is likely to meet a challenge from the Church of the Fried Egg which in turn will give rise to a church of the Scrambled Egg. All egging their supporters on against the other. Now we know the true significance of the Easter Egg.
God Is Not Great is a book that any witness taking a courtroom oath could honestly swear upon.
Christopher Hitchens, 2007. God Is Not Great. Atlantic Books: London.