Christopher Hitchens has spent some time in journalism: a book reviewer for the Times, a staff writer for the New Statesman, chief foreign correspondent for the Daily Express, a regular columnist for the Nation, and a regular writer for Vanity Fair, Harper’s, and Atlantic Monthly. As a foreign correspondent and travel writer, he has written from more than sixty different countries. He is also the author of such books as Letters to a Young Contrarian and Why Orwell Matters. Hitchens now takes on a subject of growing discussion and debate in a time when the number of atheists in the United States, as well as the rest of the world, is apparently growing either because they are abandoning all religion or they are simply “coming out” and admitting to their atheist beliefs. A short time ago “atheist” was a hated label for one to admit to having, but now with a slew of atheist and anti-religious books, including Richard Dawkins’ God Delusion, Sam Harris’ End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, to name a few, with no doubt many more to be published; Hitchens addresses a subject that is slowly creeping into mainstream media (Dawkins made Time’s Top 100 Most Influential People list this year) and becoming a commonplace conversation in many households across the country.
What I find quite uncanny, having read most of the books mentioned above, is how each author avoids covering the same examples and details when discussing the same subject matter. The authors find new and different ways of exposing the futility of religion and pushing forth their atheist beliefs. Hitchens joins the ranks here in presenting a new side to a growing subject matter. What makes God is Not Great different is that while many of the other books calling for the end of religion gloss over the different faiths of the world, they ultimately focus on Christianity, being the largest and most visible faith in this country; Hitchens doesn’t hold back and has chapters not just on Christianity and its various denominations, but also extensively attacks the Muslim religion and its denominations, Buddhism, Mormonism, as well as small religious sects around the world such as Shintoism and Jainism.
Hitchens puts his journalistic background to good use here in citing many different examples of how each religion causes more pain and suffering than good. In most cases, these are examples that feature situations that Hitchens was either involved in or learned about it while in that specific country. He best illustrates this in the second chapter of the book when he talks about serving on a panel with Dennis Prager – one of America’s notorious religious broadcasters – who challenged him to responding yes or no to a simple question: Hitchens was to imagine himself in a strange city one evening whereupon he saw a group of men coming towards him; the question is would he feel safer or less safe if he was to learn that they were coming from a prayer meeting? Hitchens then spends the next five pages explaining specific situations from a list of places simply beginning with the letter “B”: Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem, and Baghdad. In each city, he gives examples of why he would not feel safe, and in so doing covers the world’s major religions.
Daniel Lazare of the Nation in the May 28th issue in the article “Among the Disbelievers” (http://www.thenation.com/doc/20070528/lazare) discussed the different atheist and anti-religious books mentioned above. Lazare’s problem with all these books is that when religion is done away with, there is nothing but an “empty vessel” to fill the vacuum. The point needs to be made here for all these authors who wish to see religion become less prominent and less powerful, and to be made clear to Lazare, which is this: the Dawkins, Dennetts, Hitchens, and Harris of the world don’t need something to fill the absence of religion. With science and empirical evidence, they have all the answers they need, and when a new scientific theory comes along with evidence to cancel out the old theory, then it is replaced, and science changes. The point that Hitchens repeatedly makes is that one big problem with religion is it being based on beliefs and ideas that were made and written down long ago, in some cases over thousands of years ago, when the world was an ignorant and very different place with very few true answers to everything. In the year 2007, it seems inconceivable that so many people in the world have complete and unquestionable belief in ideas and thoughts that were made in a time when thunderstorms and earthquakes could not be scientifically explained.
Hitchens ends God is Not Great with this ominous statement: “We have first to transcend our prehistory, and escape the gnarled hands which reach out to drag us back to the catacombs and the reeking altars and the guilty pleasures of subjection and abjection. ‘Know yourself,’ said the Greeks, gently suggesting the consolations of philosophy. To clear the mind for this project, it has become necessary to know the enemy, and to prepare to fight it.”
AUDIOBOOK VERSION: In some ways, the audiobook version of God is Not Great can be considered the superlative version by some. Christopher Hitchens, like Richard Dawkins, is originally British, who moved to the United States in 1981; nevertheless as all proud English do, his accent is still strong, his lip still “stiff and upper.” So when one listens to the thoughts and ideas, the hopes and dreams from Hitchens with his own words, the power and empathy comes across the speakers or headphones and one is hypnotized in some ways with the calm voice speaking clearly and intellectually about the state of religion in the current world. At the end of each chapter and section, there is a small string piece to perhaps clear one’s thoughts or to give one time to contemplate on what they have just been told. When the author is the reader of their own audiobook, one should also seek out that version and in that way they get the most out of the book.
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Originally written on June 9th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.