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the complete review - religion
god is not Great
general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author
- US subtitle: How Religion Poisons Everything
- UK subtitle: The Case against Religion
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B- : messy presentation overwhelms his arguments
See our review for fuller assessment.
No consensus, and all sorts of objections
From the Reviews:
- "At their best, his indictments are trenchant and witty, and the book is a treasure house of zingers worthy of Mark Twain or H. L. Mencken. At other times, his impatience with the smug denial of the self-righteous gets the better of him, and then he strikes glancing blows at best, and occasionally adopts a double standard, excusing his naturalist heroes for their few lapses into religious gullibility on the grounds that they couldn't have known any better at the time, while leaving no such wiggle room for the defenders of religion over the ages. But these excesses are themselves a valuable element of this wake-up call." - Daniel C. Dennett, Boston Globe
- "Christopher Hitchens’s new book, God Is Not Great, is the most recent and in many ways the most engaging of these exercises, displaying a range of reference and a degree of energy, wit, and learning that the others conspicuously lack. Correspondingly, however, its flaws go much deeper. (…) Shorn of the culture we have, a culture nurtured and preserved by monotheistic religion, his proffered utopia amounts to just another invitation to barbarism. Hitchens here shows himself to be more credulous and sentimental -- and much more insidious --than any of the religious mythmakers he so earnestly despises." - Sam Schulman, Commentary
- "Anyone expecting a masterful demolition of all things sacred will be disappointed. Bullying and shallow, God Is Not Great is a haute middlebrow tirade, a stale venting of outrage and ridicule. Beneath his Oxbridge talent at draping glibness in the raiment of erudition, Hitchens proves to be an amateur in philosophy, an illiterate in theology, and a dishonest student of history. Too belligerent to be nimble and too parochial to be generous, the once-captivating Hitchens demonstrates why he has forfeited any claim on our attention. (…) I'm sure this act plays to rave reviews in the Beltway and Manhattan, but Hitchens is just too acidulous and unfair to pull it off here. (…) Hitchens's command of philosophy is as dubious as his account of science. All too often his pose of encyclopedic learning rests on namedropping and straw men. (…) On theological issues, Hitchens is even more at sea." - Eugene McCarraher, Commonweal
- "Mr Hitchens makes the untestable case that the world would be better off without religion altogether. Stupid religious people would stop fighting stupid religious wars and a new enlightenment would ensue. The book is entertaining, meandering and at times disingenuous. (…) What is missing from the book is much sense of what a world without religion, or one that had not had religion in it, might look like." - The Economist
- "This book is not only a polemic against literalism; it is an attack on any accommodation between religion and science, faith and progress. (…) But the problem with Hitchens’ thesis that religion poisons everything is how to explain those who use it to do good. (…) Hitchens says that Stalin understood his people’s religious superstitions and mimicked them. So King wasn’t really religious and Stalin was. If that sort of intellectual and moral shabbiness is to your taste, this book should be too." - Michael Skapinker, Financial Times
- "Hitchens has written a book that is seriously harmful, not because of his attack on religion, some of it deserved, but because he will divert people away from the real problem: which is we human beings, both religious and irreligious." - Richard Harries, The Guardian
- "If there is a flaw to this book, it is that Hitchens's atheism sometimes takes on a misanthropic tone. (…) The book is full of pin-pricks of sanity and hope like this. Every child stuck in every "faith school" should be bought a copy. A campaign to put this glittering anti-theist tract on the national curriculum -- alongside the Bible, the Koran and the other insufferable staples of "religious education" -- should begin here." - Johann Hari, The Independent
- "(N)ot only has the anti-religion case never been put so well, so comprehensively or so definitively as in this razor-sharp book, but much is added to it here from the joint resources of Hitchens' wide first-hand acquaintance with the personalities and effects of religion in our tumultuous world, from his formidable range of reference, and from his sheer acuity of intelligence. (…) It is hard sometimes not to be withering about the absurdities and evils of religion, and Hitchens is not one to mince words. But his book is not a rant, any more than a report of the crimes of the Inquisition or Pol Pot would count as a rant. Hitchens accumulates a devastating case, and only the blindest and most determined refusal to concede to reason could allow a defender of religion to come away from reading his book without very big -- with Hitchens I say insuperable -- questions to answer." - A.C.Grayling, Independent on Sunday
- "Religion may yet be a gift from God, but interpreting and using it for good is an achievement, one for which it’s our privilege alone to keep on trying. To that end, Hitchens is guilty only of kicking up this quintessence of dust and seeing, or trying to see, what it’s really made of." - Stefan Beck, New Criterion
- "Christopher Hitchens, in his book God is Not Great, has conflated religion with tribalism. (…) This book refuses to deal with the nuances of religious thought. (…) Hitchens, unequipped to deal with other expressions of religious belief, tries vainly to argue against their authenticity. (…) Hitchens, in common with a group of anti- religious writers including Sam Harris, author of Letter to A Christian Nation, confuses the irrational with the non-rational. (…) The danger, which Hitchens fails to see, is not Islam or Christianity or any other religion. It is the human heart -- the capacity we all have for evil. (…) Hitchens's arguments are the mirror image of those used by the fundamentalists he despises. He embraces a self-serving and simplistic view of the world." - Chris Hedges, New Statesman
- "Nearly every theme in Mr. Hitchens’ book -- the hypocrisy of holiness, the irrationality of blind faith, the criminal righteousness of true believers -- can be countered by an illustration of the ways in which religion ennobles human activity. (…) Mr. Hitchens has compiled a prodigious litany of profanities committed in the name of the sacred. For that reason, any religious person would do well to read Mr. Hitchens (…..) But if Mr. Hitchens wishes to inspire mass conversions to secular humanism, he might well have sought to appeal to the better angels of those who, well, believe in angels. Mr. Hitchens, however, displays little faith in the faithful." - Terry Golway, The New York Observer
- "(T)his impressive and enjoyable attack on everything so many people hold dear is not the book we were expecting. (…) Hitchens is an old-fashioned village atheist, standing in the square trying to pick arguments with the good citizens on their way to church. The book is full of logical flourishes and conundrums, many of them entertaining to the nonbeliever. (…) Whether sallies like these give pause to the believer is a question I can’t answer. And all the logical sallies don’t exactly add up to a sustained argument, because Hitchens thinks a sustained argument shouldn’t even be necessary and yet wouldn’t be sufficient." - Michael Kinsley, The New York Times Book Review
- "The tangled diversity of faith is, in the event, no obstacle for Hitchens. He knows exactly which varieties of religion need attacking; namely, the whole lot." - Anthony Gottlieb, The New Yorker
- "This is Hitch versus God, slugged out to the bloody death. (…) On the evidence of this book, Hitchens has spent too much time around religion, not too little. Like an ex-smoker who grows to loathe the habit more than those who have not tasted nicotine, he abominates God with the zealotry implicit in dictatorial faith. Anyone who has grown up in the shadow of hellfire evangelism will recognise some answering echo here. This is a papal bull for the non-believer. (…) Science and reason have all the answers, but the spiritual solace they lack is also missing in an encyclical whose many qualities include no shred of tolerance or doubt. Hitchens's book will be manna to the converted, but his explicit aim is to win believers to his cause. I doubt that he will reclaim a single soul." - Mary Riddell, The Observer
- "Like a greedy man at the buffet overfilling his plate, Hitchens spends God Is Not Great heaping iniquity after iniquity on the three central monotheistic faiths for the role they have played in history. At times this can lead to indiscriminate censure. (…) Although the book is largely accurate in its indictment of religion's poor historical record and generously equips the reader with an abundance of fun facts that can then be used to stone the pious (…) it adds almost nothing new to the case against God. (…) Watching a man of his intellect and learning go to work on the indefensible crassness of religious fundamentalism is rather like watching a vainglorious father running rings around his young son in a game of soccer. Hitchens might have engaged with the nuanced, less easily ridiculed faith of William Blake or Simone Weil, thinkers in whom he would have found worthy opponents. But instead he confines himself to picking apart fundamentalism, and we are the less enlightened for it." - Giles Harvey, Salon
- "(O)ne doesn't get the sense that the primary purpose of God Is Not Great is to change the minds of the faithful. 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." - Troy Jollimore, San Francisco Chronicle
- "He’s a grand rhetorician, and his double-barrelled shotgun of a book is high entertainment. (…) All this stylish unfairness and wit is tremendously good fun. As with Voltaire, his scornful laughter is a powerful weapon. But as with Voltaire, his demolition of traditional religion is finally missing something, which you find, say, in the poetry of Thomas Hardy: a sense of the deep psychic wound caused by the rupture with our immediate past and our forebears when we wave goodbye to our religion; and the subsequent pathos of our post-religious cosmic loneliness." - Christopher Hart, Sunday Times
- "(A) thundering 300-page cannonade; a thrillingly fearless, impressively wide-ranging, thoroughly bilious and angry book against the idea of God, the practice of religion and the vast majority of the planet "stupid" enough to believe. It's a call, too, in an age of flourishing fundamentalisms, for a new Enlightenment, a call partially lost in the demolition. (…) This is easily the most impressive of the present crop of atheistic and anti-theistic books: clever, broad, witty and brilliantly argued, it takes on in one volume the scientific rationalist refutation of God found in Richard Dawkins, and the contemporary political objections found in Sam Harris, and adds the arguments and thoughts of thinkers as disparate as Freud, Hume and H.L. Mencken among many others. Rather than target one weak point hard, Hitchens goes hard at them all (…..) That said, for all the entertainment and gleeful scorn, Hitchens himself is sometimes just too much." - Matt Buchanan, Sydney Morning Herald
- "Rumbustious, freewheeling and funny, God Is Not Great marks a welcome return to form by the old stalwart. Hitchens is the eternal rebel schoolboy, confounding the dim-witted chaplain with unanswerable questions." - Edward Skidelsky, The Telegraph
- "Hitchens makes two different claims: that people created god or the gods, and that religion is, on the whole, a bad thing. Most readers have probably made up their own minds about the first argument, but I'd guess that few people whose belief in a deity has survived exposure to other ways of thinking will be talked round by this book. Hitchens is clearly writing in a hurry, using Google and whatever sources he has at hand. As a result, he makes mistakes and misses opportunities that no self-respecting primer in atheism should." - Christopher Tayler, The Telegraph
- "(A)n unrelenting enumeration of religion's sins and wickedness, written with much of the rhetorical pomp and all of the imperial condescension of a Vatican encyclical. (…) Hitchens says a lot of true things in this wrongheaded book. (…) What Hitchens gets wrong is religion itself. (…) I have never encountered a book whose author is so fundamentally unacquainted with its subject. In the end, this maddeningly dogmatic book does little more than illustrate one of Hitchens's pet themes -- the ability of dogma to put reason to sleep." - Stephen Prothero, The Washington Post
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Attacking organised religion can be like shooting fish in a barrel: the feeble foundations of the most popular religions (never mind all the long since superseded ones) and the horrific actions people have taken and continue to take in the name of their faith make for very big, very soft targets.
Unfortunately, in god is not Great Christopher Hitchens can not resist the scatter-shot approach.
He jumps around from example to example, barely attempting to put together any coherent argument, making for an exhausting and not very satisfying read.
One sympathises with his sense of outrage, and his frustration.
Religion and god-belief are, after all, phenomenally silly things.
Unfortunately, they are also taken very seriously by very, very many people.
Part of what Hitchens wants to convey is that this is a very bad thing: religion poisons everything, he claims.
Absolutes like that are problematic.
Few readers are likely to agree, finding at least some positives in religion, from the comfort it can provide believers to the art it has inspired, and even Hitchens acknowledges that believers do do good -- but Hitchens argues that religion is not a prerequisite for any of the positives, and that its basis is necessarily bad.
Here again he comes up against the problem of absolutes: the easiest way of tackling religion is to take it at face value, and if taken literally and consequentially -- as some fundamentalists of all the major faiths do -- religion does come off as pretty ridiculous.
The Bible, as Hitchens goes to considerable lengths to point out, is a muddle of conflicting stories and lessons and contains a lot of very bad ideas.
Many believers, however, cherry-pick their religions, going along, more or less, with what what they can or find agreeable and ignoring the inconvenient nonsense, and not concerning themselves with all the contradictions such an attitude brings with it.
This, of course, drives opponents of religion such as Hitchens nuts: most major faiths are, after all, absolutes, insisting they are the one true faith, and it doesn't make much sense for believers to only
'believe' them so far.
No one doubts that
a fundamentalist faith can be bad for society as a whole -- since it allows for only one (usually pretty ridiculous) 'truth' -- but what of all those Sunday-believers who seem to show some common sense regarding at least some of the issues on which their faith's stand is too absurd to countenance ?
Hitchens does have some fun at the contortions religions go through in adjusting to modern reality -- such as the convenient Mormon "revelations" that allow for a change of course when the old one has become untenable (a sleight of hand that one might wish more religions would adopt ...) -- but the absolutes seem inescapable.
In examining the demands and functions of religion Hitchens does make some good points: "The essential principle of totalitarianism is to make laws that are impossible to obey", he argues -- noting also that as a consequence many religions become "spiritual banana republics", allowing those who fail to follow the commandments to buy their way out of trouble, leading, of course, to endemic corruption.
This role of religion, in controlling people and accumulating and exercising power, is perhaps its most dangerous consequence; Hitchens does a decent job of showing that, but, as with everything else in the book, he gets drawn away on tangents even as he makes this argument.
Part of Hitchens' frustration is also to be found in the fact that people are so damn gullible.
How can anyone believe this stuff ? he wonders all the time, bringing up example after example of how yet another basic part of religion X or Y doesn't stand up to any sort of questioning or closer examination.
Even in its foundations most religions are obviously built up on previous ones; so, for example: "Islam when examined is not much more than a rather obvious and ill-arranged set of plagiarisms, helping itself from earlier books and traditions as occasion appeared to require."
And he certainly has a point that you have to wonder about any religion (meaning practically all religions) that won't even permit you to question its foundations -- as once it has that 'word of god'-seal of approval it apparently has to be taken on faith, even where the transmission or the actual text itself hardly convinces as being of supernatural origin.
Hitchens offers all sorts of personal anecdotes, and he certainly has had a wide range of experiences, and he has gotten around.
But that, and his discussion of a large number of religious issues, make for a mess of an argument.
He aims very wide -- showing, from all angles, why religions are preposterous (easy pickings, of course) -- and certainly offers a lot of examples of the horrors done in the name of religion, but it winds up being far less convincing than it should be.
He notes that the Academy Award-winning TV preacher exposé Marjoe showed all the tricks and cons that are used, by someone who was "both a victim and a profiteer", and yet: "has made absolutely no difference at all", and it is hard to imagine this book making much difference either.
In far better presentation Sam Harris' Letter to A Christian Nation makes a stronger case, while in its (somewhat) narrower focus Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion
is also a more useful book.
Hitchens does offer -- here and there and everywhere -- proper objections to all sorts of aspects of religion, from the misguided and dangerous attitudes towards sex to their ridiculous foundations, and he does show, again and again, what terrible consequences all this has, but all these parts don't add up to much of a whole.
Most of the objections are familiar, and if some of the examples (and the way they are put) are more colourful than usual they are still not effectively presented in any way that is likely to lead a believer (or a sympathiser) to re-think their attitude.
As for readers who agree with Hitchens, they'll wonder what the fuss is about as he keeps stating yet more of the obvious.
Certainly, his call for "a renewed Enlightenment" is one that one wishes would be heeded, but it seems unlikely that this book will help pave the way.
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god is not Great:
Other books of interest under review:
- See Index of books dealing with Religion
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About the Author:
Anglo-American author and journalist Christopher Hitchens has written numerous books.
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© 2007-2009 the complete review
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