Oh crikey, I’m really gonna do this- I’m gonna criticise the great Hitch online! God help me!
Right- 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 religious 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.
But 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.
In 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.
Overall, 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
So are you familiar with Christopher Hitchens’ work? What are your thoughts on it? Let me know in the comments!