Apparently God Is Not Great

Oh crikey, I’m really gonna do this- I’m gonna criticise the great Hitch online! God help me!

god-is-not-greatRight- let’s start off with a confession- I’m an agnostic- so if you think I’m coming at this from a super religious perspective, you would be wrong. But I will also happily admit that I have never been a fan of the “angry atheist” shtick- to my mind, a militant atheist is as bad as the most proselytising zealot- and boy is this book in that vein.
Let’s face it, huge amounts of this book are purely negative– while I’m not the kind of person that praises religion, I cannot denigrate it for everything ever. Even for things where religion could be given some credit, Hitchens reveals his own extreme biases by claiming that these were not valid thoughts or by claiming credit belongs elsewhere. This can most clearly be seen in how often he argues relimartin-luther-king-jrgious people weren’t really religious. Now my first instinct was “does it matter?!” but my second thought was “ye wot?!” I mean- why would you spend time trying to convince us that Martin Luther King was not religious- when by his own accounts, he was! It just doesn’t make sense! Hitchens’ point here is that “high moral character is not a requirement for high moral gains”- which I would agree with- but why did he have to pick a preacher to illustrate this point? Why deny King’s religion? It’s bizarre.
Bmaimonidesut this obviously ties into the often used atheist argument that “all intelligent people are atheists”. Well, sorry but that’s not only incorrect, it’s terribly fallacious. It is an appeal to authority to say “everyone worth their salt agrees with me”. I mean, even if it were correct, which it isn’t, it wouldn’t prove you right. And it doesn’t prove anyone wrong either. Much as Hitchens would like to think it does. Because, he’s oddly obsessed with Maimonides being wrong because he was religious- despite the fact that Maimonides was ahead of his time in his contributions to science- he’s not exactly the ideal candidate to denigrate religion.

Everything is made to fit with Hitchens’ foregone conclusions. This is never truer than with his analysis of the bible. Because boy does he fundamentally misunderstand religious texts. There are plenty of ways you can criticise religious texts- but for some reason militant atheists always go for the fables! As Seinfeld put it:

Well, in my case it offends me as a student of literature! Let’s start with the most obvious and most popular criticism- the story of Isaac being sacrificed. How many times have I heard people say that this is god being infanticidal? Firstly, he’s not a child- if you do the calculations he’s about 36 (based on the fact that Sarah dies immediately after at 127) and his father’s well over 100- so this isn’t exactly child abuse and Isaac would have to be willing in this whole story. But that’s just on a literal level. On a more important level (for a literature student) they are misinterpreting what this actually means. Because the whole message of this story- if you read the end, where morals are usually found- god intervenes and stops Abraham from doing it. This is obviously a message saying *hey, I know human sacrifice is a thing right now, but I don’t want you to do it anymore!* For me, Hitchens’ interpretation that this story shows god is in favour of child sacrifice is as foolish as deciding the lesson in Aesop’s fable “The Tortoise and the Hare” is “tortoises are effing cheats”. It’s an illogical misreading and shows why you shouldn’t go in with blatant biases.

Now to Hitchens’ credit, he does briefly touch on how religious texts can be beautiful– but to be honest it seems a little contradictory after his tirades and comes a little too late. Especially since he spends so much time arguing things that can be proved wrong with a little context. For instance, as is popular with most atheistic arguments he picks out the seemingly inflammatory line an “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth”- now I could excuse him for not looking at context… if he hadn’t just mentioned the context. There is an explanation for this that is actually rather less gruesome than he supposes. That particular section is talking about compensation. Unfortunately for bloodthirsty folk out there, this passage isn’t literal- the boring facts are that the idea is that you value someone as a slave with an eye and then without it and then you pay the difference in compensation. Maybe this seems like I’m nitpicking, cos, well, I am. But I expect intellectual rigour from my non-fiction reads and this is just one of many examples of where it is lacking.

quranIn fact, this book focuses on the details a lot of the time instead of the overarching principles. For instance, his entire criticism of the Quran is that it is borrowed. Now as someone who has read the Quran this would certainly not have been my starting point. I appreciate that he later goes on to talk about the difficulty of religions resisting translation and consequently avoiding interpretation is something that should make you suspicious. Likewise he touches on the newness of the religion and the fact that it has not yet undergone a reformation. But as I said, he does not make this the focus. Nor does he talk at length of the plethora of other criticisms you could make. Instead he essentially goes “I’ve proved Christianity wrong- and Islam is basically same- so job done”. What a lazy, reductive argument.

I think one of the first points when I realised I was going to have huge problems with this book was when Hitchens said “we have dealt with the macro, now let’s look at the micro”- and I thought- “really? I don’t remember you doing that…?” Because while I can actually give Hitchens’ some credit for some of his discussions on minor issues– for instance his Mother Theresa chapter is solid stuff- I would argue he doesn’t go into larger debates as much as he could. I would not say I came away satisfied that he had challenged the macro at all.

christopher_hitchens_crop_2Overall, Hitchens’ distilled some good ideas in a not very good book. So many concerns were never addressed and a lot of his arguments were poorly executed. Now since I listened to the audiobook for this, I’d say it was pretty enjoyable to just listen to Hitch speak- but while he does have a lovely voice, as a non-fic read, it probably would have been better for me if I’d had some citations.

On the whole, I’d recommend this just so you can listen to Hitch’s voice and the lovely piano extracts in between chapters. But not for much else- I think I preferred watching him debate.

Rating: 2½ bananas

half bananahalf banana half banana

So are you familiar with Christopher Hitchens’ work? What are your thoughts on it? Let me know in the comments!

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34 thoughts on “Apparently God Is Not Great

  1. daleydowning says:

    I’m not familiar with this guy, but I tend to avoid flat-out atheists; as someone with a set of beliefs myself (and tolerance for other religions), they just make my blood boil, and I’d much rather not have anything to do with them.

    Anyway, I really think a lot of the points you brought up are very accurate in proving the fact that atheists belong to a rare group of people who can often disprove their own argument *by their own argument*. For example, the “I’m looking at this religious moral tale through a modern, non-religious lens, and therefore declaring it completely wrong,” without bothering to analyze the history, the context, the spiritual point of the tale/parable etc. “Islam borrowed from other religions” – yeah, no kidding – and so have how many other religions/cultures borrowed from each other through the centuries? Big whoop. That does not make a whole set of spiritual beliefs invalid. And as for people’s religion not mattering when it came to their motivations for doing things in life – that makes about as much sense as saying “I drank a lot of coffee but I don’t need to use the bathroom now”.

    Good for you for not being afraid to go against the grain when you have perfectly legit talking points! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Ah I can understand that.Yes definitely, not all atheists/agnostics are like this, but there is a weird tendency for what are mostly called “militant atheists” and those belonging to atheism + who seem intent on making non-belief a part of their identity. It doesn’t make my blood boil- I just think they’re wrong 😉
      Thank you- yes, that tends to be one of my biggest points of contention- I just like people to be accurate in their debate! Some of their arguments make me wince! Yeah exactly- it doesn’t prove anything. hahahaha that’s a brilliant way to sum it up!! A lot of the time while he was debating whether Einstein was an atheist or a deist I was thinking “And….? Would it matter?!” It’s just not relevant!
      haha thanks! Glad you think so! 🙂

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      • daleydowning says:

        Yeah, I also don’t like it when people insist on debating something that either makes no difference…or if it directly contradicts something a person stated themselves. Einstein would have called himself mostly a deist, but he was Jewish, but he felt that didn’t completely define his personal beliefs/spiritual views. And taking it from the horse’s mouth is always best.

        Liked by 1 person

        • theorangutanlibrarian says:

          Yeah absolutely- that’s the issue with a fallacious argument- it goes absolutely nowhere! Yes, I’d say that too- I think that’s the starting point atheists use, but then it devolves into “well I reckon that means he was an atheist”. Definitely agree- I prefer to take people at their word!

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Kourtni @ Kourtni Reads says:

    This is a great review! I think I actually bought this a few years ago (when I was, admittedly, in my militant atheist phase which I have very thankfully grown out of and am honestly quite embarrassed of lol) but I never read it. And honestly, I’m not sure if I ever will. The stuff you mentioned about MLK would really annoy me – why on earth would you try to argue that a reverend is not religious?! That just doesn’t make sense.

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Thank you so much!! I can understand that- I never went full on militant atheist, but did consider myself an atheist- I think I’ve mellowed a lot now. Yeah that was a really weird bit- I couldn’t understand why he did that at all- it really didn’t stand to strengthen his argument!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Lolsy's Library says:

    I had a few friends who are hard core Atheist and it’s really hard to hang out with them or talk to them. I’m an agnostic too, so I have no problem with if you believe or not. I just honestly find it harder to hang out with them than my religious friends. I know they’re religious, but I never feel uncomfortable being around them. I think they are all really intelligent as well. When I think about it, I don’t even really hang out with them that much anymore,lol
    I think I’d hate reading this book, it’d feel like I was having to listen to Atheist friends all over again,lol

    Liked by 1 person

  4. joelendil says:

    Great review! Fallacious arguing is one of my pet peeves. I read quite a few theology and biblical studies books (I’m a pastor and, apparently unlike MLK, “religious” 😀 ), and have just about given up reading polemical books by Christian authors because they so often lack true understanding what “those heathens/heretics/infidels” believe. Setting up and knocking down straw men might make an author feel good about themselves and impress less discerning readers, but is intellectually dishonest (or at least lazy).

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Thank you!! (haha yeah- I have no idea what he was playing at arguing MLK wasn’t religious) Yeah exactly- that’s a good point! Being intellectually dishonest may make people feel good about themselves, but it won’t exactly win any “converts” who are actually interested in the truth

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Donna says:

    Fantastic review! Never heard of the guy! I would never have picked this book because I’m leery of anything touching the religious side of everything. It looks like this book IS on the wrong side on many levels! Religions have its issues but it definitely is not to blame for everything or just plain wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Chris C Barnett says:

    Great review which rang very true with my experiences of the book. I think both Hitch and Dawkins have a lot of interesting things to say about religion but I never understand their desire to ‘convert’ the religious. It seems to me that the world would be quite a lot nicer if we let everyone believe what they want – I ,for example, am convinced that wearing a particular pair of underpants makes me a better footballer and am very happy with my convictions. – He did have a good voice though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Thank you!! I’m glad you felt that way (and that I’m not the only one who thinks this in general!) Hahaha good!! We should all have beliefs wet hold dear! Although mine are more the traditional “don’t walk under the ladder” sort… (Actually, tell a lie, I have to do exams with a specific brand and type of pen- even though I have done just fine in exams when by since fluke I didn’t have it- still it’s something I hold by!) Ahh yes he did!!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Streed's Reads says:

    My God, this is a brilliant post!

    You eloquently addressed so many topics in your review of his book. Your ability to be so even-handed in your criticism speaks volumes for your literature-driven perspective. The majority of my perspective, when reading anything about religion, surprisingly does not always come from my religious studies degree…more life experience. I appreciated so much of what your ideas were in this post. One of my favorite comments: “a militant atheist is as bad as the most proselytising zealot.” The same thing applies to customer (or patient) satisfaction surveys, the extreme opposite ends had much more in common (imagine one-star compared to five-star) than the star ratings in the middle. It had to do with intensity and key drivers to satisfaction. This applies to many things/behaviors in life. You perfectly captured that behavior in this truly brilliant review.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Aayush Priyank says:

    I think God being infanticidal was due to the Egypt thing of killing babies if they didn’t have lamb blood or some weird thing. And come on. I’m sure you’d prefer a Militant atheist to a Militant Islamist (if that’s the proper word) any day.
    I don’t agree with all atheists are intelligent, though it’s a fairly reasonable assumption to say they have more skepticism.
    I haven’t watched or read much of Hitchens, but I did take an instant liking to one of his quotes, which is currently my blog tagine. People have good sides and bad. Sometimes, atheists go aggressive to put religion on the defense. It’s kinda like karma, you know. Back in the day, atheists were literally burned on stakes. These days guys like Dawkins go around figuratively burning theists

    Like

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Well he specifically referred to Isaac being sacrificed- which is what I referred to in my argument.
      And despite my two reviews, I don’t have an especial problem with militant atheists, I just disagree with some of their ideas and arguments (as I’ve mentioned before, I’m an atheist/agnostic myself). Nor would I put it on a par with Islamism, but obviously I don’t have to agree with them just because I oppose Islamism- that’s a false equivalence.
      I just don’t feel comfortable making broad statements about large groups of people without evidence.
      And I actually mentioned in this post that I am a fan of Hitchens (I can be a fan of someone without subscribing to everything he says)- but usually he is not so militant about his beliefs- in fact this was a quote from him that made me respect him a great deal:
      “I hope I’ve made it clear that I’m perfectly happy for people to have these toys and to play with them at home, and hug them to themselves and share them with other people who come round and play with the toys. That’s, absolutely fine. They are not, to make me play with these toys. I will not play with the toys. Don’t bring the toys to my house. Don’t say my children must play with these toys. Don’t say my toys, might be a condom, here we go again, are not allowed by their toys. I’m not going to have any of that.”
      He usually has quite a libertarian approach to religion. However, I feel like in this book he let his emotions get in the way of his arguments (not a bad thing in fiction, but a problem in non-fiction) I recommend watching in debate as opposed to reading his book, because I think his oratory skills are excellent, but that this was flawed, that’s all.
      As for the last point, I don’t think that’s always a positive thing. A lot of the time I don’t think there’s anything positive to be gained by doing this. Unless they’re negatively impacting your life, it’s a little unnecessary. Plus I’m very wary of ideologically driven agendas.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Aayush Priyank says:

        Well, exposing your arguments to conflict rather than keeping them to yourself helps determine authenticity of ideas. It is only through a conflict of ideas that truth emerges. I’ve had a chapter on JS Mill, so I’m a bit influenced by his views on truth and stuff. To be fair, Mill used arguments to claim freedom of expression, while I’m taking the perspective of need for expression. Ofc if someone isn’t sharing his own views, no need to lecture them about yours. But if I see someone spreading any kind of information, I challenge them, in order to see if there’s any truth in it, and how that truth can be incorporated into my own arguments to improve my understanding of a concept or an idea.

        Like

  9. newscluesandafewblues says:

    Poor old Christopher. His deep seated disgust at the ways institutionalisted religion has manipulated a myth to hoodwink generations of whole communities relies on shock, gravitas and stone cold realism. When he insinuated that MLK was not really a Christian I believe he may have been alluding to the context of the man and his determined struggle for equal rights towards African Americans. Any sane , rational person knows that if there was a god, the barbaric, violent and socially accepted norms of American society would never be tolerated. MLK understood innately that an appeal to Christian religion was the only vehicle he could hope for to appease the might of established supremacist values.

    Like

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Sorry this got caught in my spam filter. You are entitled to your opinion, I just tend to take people at their word, hence I take MLK’s word for it that he was a Christian. I don’t see the need to indulge this kind of speculation, but be my guest.

      Like

      • newscluesandafewblues says:

        That’s fair enough. People use the term Christian as a generic term to infer all sorts of personal acclamations for personal ends be they ethical or contrary. I am sure the many pederasts harboured under this banner or the Conquistador justification for slaughtering the Incas would have been viewed as a Christian indulgence. No, just as these monstrous acts can use the term Christianity to further their ends so can MLK use it to enhance the position of the negros in American society. It is this expedience that Christopher may have been referring to. Accepting criticism is the hallmark of intelligence rejecting it is a step backwards.

        Liked by 1 person

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