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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Christopher Hitchens' "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything": An Amazon Review and Discussion

On June 6, 2007, I posted an Amazon review of Christopher Hitchens' "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything." I titled my review "No Wonder So Many People Believe in God." I include the full text of my review of Hitchens' book, below.

The review generated a lively discussion that continues even as I write these words, five years later. I participated in the discussion at first but then I dropped out. Participation became too time-consuming.

I tried to convey something like the following message via the Amazon page:

"I dropped out of this discussion and I apologize for that.

'Save Send Delete' offers the best argument I have in response to many of the atheist points made here. I have a blog devoted to the book. It's easier for me to address questions posted to a centralized location than to continue to return to internet venues like this and others where I have contributed over the years."

Amazon deleted my post.

I wrote to Amazon. I received several replies. They all read like missives from a Kafka novel about a dystopian regime where robots attempt to discern the smallest particle of incorrect thought in the furthest reaches of the human mind. At first I thought these were automated responses, but then I noticed that the Amazon-bots were misspelling my name. Real people were sending me these messages? How sad.

The messages communicated the following, "We don't care what explanation you offer. We KNOW you've been bad, bad, bad, and we are going to continue to delete your posts."

So, I gave up. If anyone from the Amazon discussion found his or her way here, I admire your perseverance. Maybe we can talk here.

Below please find the full text of my Amazon review of Christopher Hitchens' "God Is Not Great."


If "God Is Not Great" is the best argument for atheism, it's no wonder that so many believe. There is much wrong with this book. Given the word limit on Amazon reviews, one can only scratch the surface.

Hitchens' style: So many names are dropped you need an umbrella. Hitchens rubs elbows with glamorous people; he reads famous writers. On the other hand, Hitchens refers, repeatedly, to anyone who believes in God as a "yokel." This patina of sophistication shielded by venom intimidates some into deferring to Hitchens as a great mind.

Namedropping equals leftovers. Hitchens innovates no paradigm in relation to his, and humanity's, grave concern – ending religiously-justified atrocity like 9-11. Given this, it is egregious that Hitchens does not mention works that have responded to criticisms he quotes. For example, he rehashes John Cornwell's accusations against Pope Pius XII, without ever mentioning Ronald J. Rychlak's or David G. Dalin's refutations of Cornwell. This approach – airbrushing out of his picture anything that weakens his point – would not be possible in a volume published by a reputable academic press. So much for scholarship.

Hitchens' method is the classic one of prejudice: create an enemy, an "other"; insist that all members of this category are an undifferentiated mass; voice an entrenched bigotry – people of faith are stupid, hypocritical, and evil; scapegoat this other as the cause of all the world's problems, and then "support" this construct with decontextualized anecdotes.

Hitchens conflates Hinduism, Judaism, Shinto, Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism. Obvious facts prove this false: Jews, for example, don't proselytize, and, therefore, constitute less than one percent of the world's population. Male to female ratios are skewed in Muslim countries like Pakistan, where conditions mitigate against female survival. The Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Book of Mormon: very different books. But, in Hitchens' construct, all are undifferentiated.

Then Hitchens voices, about this undifferentiated "other," bigoted stereotypes, using the classic imagery of prejudice that associates the scapegoated "other" with subhuman life forms. In an appearance with David Horowitz promoting this book, Hitchens equated persons of faith with plague-bacilli-ridden, sewer-breeding rats.

To "prove" bigotry true, Hitchens, rejecting the scientific method, cites anecdotes. Hitchens repeats as true the slander that Jews have sex through holes in sheets. Hitchens fills his reader's mind with pornographic images in relation to the Jewish practice of circumcision.

The Christian Rev. Martin Luther King, as Hitchens mentions in one anecdote, was, indeed, a plagiarist, and a rabbi did, indeed, give a child VD via circumcision. Neither of these true anecdotes, though, sums up the most important truth about MLK, Jewish ritual, or faith. MLK played an irreplaceable role in the Civil Rights Movement, and that is more important than his failures. The Talmud is a vast document that has been the foundation of a people, Jews, who have contributed greatly to mankind, and that is more important than one rabbi's crimes.

Hatemongering, though, snips out isolated, true anecdotes, *decontextualized*. If you Google Hitchens' most inflammatory claims, about MLK, for example, chances are the first website you find will be Stormfront, a white supremacist site. And quoting isolated verses from the Talmud has long been the anti-Semite's favorite tactic – visit the David Duke website. No, Hitchens is not a supremacist. Yes, he uses the same tactic as they.

Hitchens, in reporting anecdotes about the failures of persons of faith, never cedes that faith has been the sine qua non – the indispensable element – in much that humanity cherishes. For example, Hitchens mocks the founder of Mormonism – easy to do – but fails to mention the awesome achievements of Mormonism, as chronicled by scholar Harold Bloom.

At the same time, Hitchens refuses to acknowledge the failures of organized atheists and atheism. The largest pile of corpses in human history was left by atheist, scientifically-inspired "reformers:" Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot. In a shameless and transparent ploy, Hitchens claims that Stalin, et al, were religious! By that "logic," up is down, war is peace, and hate is love. How convenient.

As a solid critique of faith, "Not Great" is toothless. Devastating critiques of faith: Carroll's "Constantine's Sword," Collins' "Language of God," Bawer's "Stealing Jesus," Garry Wills, Daniel Boyarin, Rachel Adler, Ali Sina, Brian Victoria, William Wilberforce, the 88th psalm. For a heart-wrenching, take-no-prisoners, fully invested critique of the failures of religion, read Jesus Christ. Excepting Ali Sina, a former Muslim, these authors – Jews, Catholics, Evangelicals, Buddhists, are *still* persons of faith, and they have authored soul-rattling critiques of their religions.

Hitchens' anecdotes of badly behaved persons of faith – his *entire bag of tricks* – have already been addressed, and acted upon by . . . persons of faith. Collins, a Christian, doesn't just go after Intelligent Design rhetorically – he is a key DNA researcher. Wilberforce, an Evangelical, didn't just critique the irreconcilability of Christianity and slavery, he devoted his life to ending slavery.

In the plus column: Hitchens, unlike so many published writers today, knows how to construct a sentence. And he is, weirdly, endearing. He is like the child – in the very best sense – in all of us who recoils when he discovers that revered figures have feet of clay. MLK plagiarized. Recoil! These recoils have resulted in Hitchens checkered ideological history. He is a former Trotskyite; currently he's a red-white-and-blue, Iraq-quagmire-cheerleading, chicken hawk – a harsh term but an accurate one – neo-con. And, by his own admission, he is drunk all the time, to help him deal with his disappointment in his fellow mortals.

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