Sunday 5 December 2010

God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens

And now a return to regularly scheduled programming!
I chose to read this book because even though I'm not at all religious myself, I've always been fascinated by religion.  My fiance is a secondary school religious education teacher so he's always recommending books about religions from all perspectives. 

Synopsis: Hitchens aggressively takes on religion, attempting to demonstrate that it is "man-made, dangerously sexually repressive and distorts the very origins of the cosmos" (from back cover).  He puts forward the theory that religion has caused profound damage to society at all levels.

Score: 3 out of 5  for quality of writing but 2 out of 5 for quality of arguments.

Before I share my thoughts on this book, I should probably explain the viewpoint I read it from.  When I said in the introduction that I am non-religious, I meant that I have never been exposed to religion personally at all - I was not baptised/christened and can count the times I have been to a place of worship on one hand.  No one in my family is religious either and I didn't miss it growing up.  I was taught instead to treat others as I wished to be treated, to be respectful and to realise that life can be tough, and sometimes it's bad luck, and all you can do is be ready for it and make the most of the time you have.  I didn't even meet a strongly religious person until I went to university at 19 and became friends with an Orthodox Jew.

So I was kind of in the middle with this book.  I have no bone to pick with religion myself; I do find it hard to understand why people are religious but each to their own as long as they aren't bothering me.  Hitchens in his book had a completely different attitude - I've read Dawkin's "The God Delusion" as well and Hitchens makes Dawkins look like a moderate!  I can only describe Hitchens' views as militant/fundamentalist atheism, in that he sought to make everything the fault of religion without acknowledging any of the good religious people have done or even that religious people can't be lumped together as one homogenous entity.  And that seriously weakened his arguments for me.

Hitchens also approached the topic from a mainly literal/historical perspective, which would have been fine if he had stuck with it, but he also veered into the scientific arguments.  The problem with this was that he made some mistakes - I know enough biology to know that his conclusions about ears were wrong, and if you're going to write such a controversial book, you better make sure your facts are straight!

In places his conclusions were too simplistic.  Concerning American slavery, he basically argued that religion caused slavery - correct me Americans if I am wrong, but whilst religion may have defended slavery for a while, there was more to it that that.  Societies the world over have taken slave from conquered areas since the dawn of time.  Hitchens was bending over backward to show that "religion poisons everything" when he would have been much more convincing if he had argued "religion makes things bad, sometimes" or "religion can prolong bad things".

That's not to say that all of his arguments were weak.  It has been historically well documented that parts of all the major religions have been man-made (Council of Nicea etc), and when Hitchens stayed with history or culture, he was on strong ground.  His sections on the use of condoms in Africa and Muslim protest against vaccinations were also very effective.

So overall, a mixed bag.  There were some good points struggling to get out but Hitchens was just too angry and a bit fundamentalist.  I can definitely see why some atheists argue that he gives them a bad name.


  1. Interesting review & I'm glad that you stated your viewpoint early on with respect to everyone. I'll have to do something similar when I read & review The God Delusion (collecting dust on the TBR shelf now). Have you read the Hawkins book? It would make for a great comparison review...maybe I should try both.

  2. @Teacher/Learner
    Yeah, I stated my viewpoint because I think reviewing a book like this is so dependent on a person's actual beliefs.

    I hope you enjoy the God Delusion. I didn't agree with a lot of it but found it to be well writed and strongly argued.

    And I really want to read the Hawkins book too. I really respect Hawkins so hope his book is engaging.

  3. Great review, I share your religious view point (or rather, lack off) but I've never had the patience to read such books. It is an extremely interesting subject, but I don't deal too well with fundamentalism.

  4. @noiashui

    Yes, he was a bit fundamentalist. I would say Richard Dawkins is easier to read in that regard.

  5. It is interesting why some people need religion and some don't-- why some people believe in a higher power and some don't.
    I was exposed to sporadic religion as a child but it never really took-- My views are similar to yours in several respects-- actually my views are in a constant state of flux-- BUT I'm always bemused by religion and completely offput by fundamentalism of any kind. Funny and too bad that Hitchens would be as nutty with the fundamentalism as the evangelicals or the taliban.

    I've wondered about this book before-- Interesting as the subject is, like Noiashui, I rarely read this sort of book. Thanks for discussing it.

  6. Nicely balanced review. I like this from your synopsis - "He puts forward the theory that religion has caused profound damage to society at all levels." I agree with that to a great extent because if you look at history or even our present times religion is the cause for much tension. Here in India, religion seeps into every single action of yours and it's hard to keep it at bay for someone like me who is not religious at all. So many riots and clashes happen only because someone did not like someone else's temple! Ah, well....

  7. @Lesa

    I find that interesting too. I personally think that to grow up very religious, you need to be exposed to a lot of religion as a child. If you're not, you just don't need it in the same way. And I'm always bemused too by it - when my Jewish friend was telling me about the clothing restrictions it definitely bemused me.

    And living with a religious education teacher definitely helps with these kinds of book recommendations! I thought "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins was pretty good, if you wanted somewhere to start.

  8. @Birdy

    Whilst I agree that religion is to blame for lots of things, I think there are always other reasons - like the Israel/Palestine conflict, that is about religion, but not solely. Take religion away and people would still fight and kill each other.

    I live in a peaceful, secular society though (UK), so my experience is completely different to yours. It's a shame it's causing so much tension in your society.

  9. "Take religion away and people would still fight and kill each other." - Agree!

  10. Read The God Delusion, because I've enjoyed other books by Richard Dawkins, such as the blind watchmaker & the selfish gene. So I was interested to hear what he had to say & in the end I found his arguments for the most part compelling.
    Ps. Coming from a slightly different angle, my mother was a hippy of sorts, & dabbled with most religions of one form or another whilst I was growing up, leaving me nonplussed & ambivalent to religion in general.

  11. @parrish lantern
    I agree about the Dawkins book. I think he does get a bad press, although I much prefer his scientific books to his religious ones.

    I personally believe that for most people, to become religious as an adult you need to be bought up with a strong, consistent religion as a child.