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This week I begin my review of Christopher Hitchens, “God is not Great,” the third of the big three in the current crop of atheist books. In some respects, Hitchens’ offering is much better as it seems to have a deeper understanding of religion, than Sam Harris’ The End Of Faith, or Richard Dawkins’, “The God Delusion”, but it is much more uneven as serious argument is suddenly marred by outbursts that are little more than cheap shots, hatred and at times bigotry.
Still Hitchens arguments, while often better stated, share many of the same problems I have already discussed in my reviews of Harris’ and Dawkins’ books. For example, early on in chapter One Hitchens attempts to describe what atheism is, or at least, what it is not.
“Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason… we do not hold our convictions dogmatically: the disagreement between Professor Stephen Jay Gould and Professor Richard Dawkins, concerning “punctuated evolution” and the unfilled gaps in post-Darwinian theory, is quite wide as well as quite deep, but we shall resolve it by evidence and reasoning and not by mutual excommunication.” (pg 5)
Now there are several problems is this passage. First I have to admit that I find this somewhat amusing for a rather abstract reason. At various times in the history of Christianity something referred to as negative theology has been popular. Negative theology is the attempt to describe God by saying what he is not, as in statements such as God is not a created being. One of the criticisms of negative theology is that such negations ultimately say very little if anything. Which is somewhat how I felt after reading Hitchens definition of atheism; as the more I read it, the less it seemed to say.
The book is for the most part too personal, too anecdotal, to function as argument; one comes away with a good sense of Hitchens’ beliefs on the subject, and some of the reasons for them, but is unlikely to have one’s own views changed. Indeed, one senses that this is due to the author’s deep pessimism regarding the possibility of bridging the gulf between skeptics and believers — a pessimism that renders the reading of the book a somewhat discouraging experience.
The book is an impassioned cri de coeur. It seems as if it was written out of passion, and quickly, with little revision or self-critical scrutiny. One admires the genuine moral outrage that motivated and animates it, but cannot help but wish the author had been less blinded by that outrage to some of its faults and limitations. Individual sentences are frequently vague and sometimes downright inscrutable; and while Hitchens makes many good points, he rarely manages to make them in a way that is pithy or memorable (the banal title is only the first example of this).
Moreover, the book tries to do too much, attempting to take on the three major monotheisms and non-theistic alternatives, while also attempting to address a variety of general issues (religious violence, religion’s metaphysical claims, the influence of religion on behavior, etc.) in about 300 pages. One comes away from almost every chapter thinking one has been granted only a selective view of the topic; and as the selection was made by someone who is obviously partisan, the real issue raised is one of fairness.
Indeed, if believers tend to be closed-minded with respect to challenges to their views, the same can be said of Hitchens, who tends to bolster his dismissal of religion by assuming or defining away anything positive one might say about it.
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