Saturday, March 29, 2008

Christopher Hitchens' "god Is Not Great": Book Review

Christopher Hitchens' "god Is Not Great": Book Review

This will be a daunting book to summarize; placed in necessarily reduced and redacted form March 31st on Amazon, my review will open me up to the usual array of cranks ready to rate me as "unhelpful" not for the contents I respond to so much as the fact I differ from their own perceptions. However, much more than Sam Harris' "The End of Faith" or Daniel Dennett's "Breaking the Spell" (both earlier reviewed by me on Amazon; I still haven't read Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion," but it's next), Hitchens brings vast literary, political, and historical erudition to the "oldest argument in the history of mankind." Obviously, from his ironic riposte that serves as his title, not to mention the added barb of the hectoring subtitle ("How Religion Poisons Everything"), he joins the recent resurgence in prominent publicists for the cause of the renewed, atheistic, secular Enlightenment.

He quotes (lapsed Jew) Heinrich Heine, from nearly two centuries ago, in an attack on religious obscurantism: "In dark ages people are best guided by religion, as in a pitch-black night a blind man is the best guide; he knows the roads and paths better than a man who can see. When daylight comes, however, it is foolish to use blind old men as guides." (43) The eloquence Heine displays has been mirrored in Hitchens; both acknowledge the efficacy of past guidance by religion, but they insist upon its present obsolescence. The core of his argument, although to me it remains often buried under willfully gleeful rhetorical attacks on if not straw men, then rows of scarecrows against the fears of oblivion and the specters of liberty, is that humanism can fend for itself free of any obligation to theology.

If Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Martin Niemoller stood up to the Nazis, they did so less out of an obligation to their mute religious superiors than a humane, rational opposition against tyranny. These clerics put their fellow men and women before demands of idolatry to a totalitarian state; the claims that fascism or communist regimes prove the dangers of atheism shrivel when the very nature of these brutal systems imitate those of theocracies. Countering Chesterton's observation that rejection of God leads one to believe not in nothing but in anything, Hitchens asserts that religion itself paves the dangerous path that directs people towards credulity.

This for me became the heart of his argument, but it is left until the end of the seventeenth out of nineteen chapters before Hitchens engages fully in the humanist apologetics that take on the familiar charge that in the absence of God, everything's morally permitted. Hitchens trusts us enough that we can act ethically. Better to let religion pursue its wheedling approach in the competitive global marketplace, he suggests, and to contrast its present humbler hucksterism with its past imperious dominance over any who dared to oppose its dictates in myriad, competing, and equally damning manifestations. Hitchens appears to assume that repressing religious expression, intriguingly, will be as dangerous as encouraging it, given the failures of Stalinism to do so, and the mimicry that death cults of purportedly atheistic despots have fallen into in their rule by absolute terror.

The extremes of Albanian or North Korean cults of worship, he warns, demonstrate that "the religious impulse-- the need to worship-- can take even more monstrous forms if it is repressed. This might not necessarily be a compliment to our worshipping tendency." (247) As a former Trotskyite, he also tells of his own encounters with the dangerous secular sects of prophets, deterministic texts, mad purges, and endless squabbles for transcendent truth. He knows the seduction of a "total solution," and admits this impels religion "even at its meekest" as it depends on "faith which must be to some extent blind, and in which all aspects of the private and public life must be submitted to a permanent higher supervision."

Critics charge Hitchens as wielding too blunt a club, too awkward a blunderbuss. But, here his nuanced sentence shows what elsewhere his argument may have trampled in his haste to overcome the multifaceted theological enemy. Even the more liberal practitioner, if he or she's truly a believer, must bow before the eye in the sky as a pre-requisite for one's adherence to the spirit and the letter of the divine law one chooses to accept in its fine print. Hitchens masterfully exposes how many monotheistic magistrates manage to keep their charges in a state of perpetual uncertainty, as the (man-made accretion of) laws contend and contradict one another, and there's always more rules to obey beyond those one already does. The impossibility of meeting such higher standards given our weak natures made by the same Creator wrenches humans, according to Hitchens, into dispiriting contortions.

Hitchens chillingly evokes how he knows what it's like "to have to sing everlasting praises" after a visit to Kim Il Sung's Orwellian satrapy. Reasoning that "modern secular argument" avoids any "ban on religious observance," he nods to Freud's "The Future of an Illusion." Until we get rid of our fear of death and our need for wish-fulfillment, there's no escape from religious reflexes. Hitchens directs our gaze to what we can witness, and holds hope there for wonder. Yet, can we find comfort in contemplating the double helix? What about the cancer cell?

For Dennett-- whom Hitchens briefly considers-- this underaged tendency to find patterns in the ineffable may account for an evolutionary advantage in earlier societies, for this fear in the gods may have impelled people towards more altruistic, less selfish, more beneficial, and less harmful behaviors. For Hitchens, he sharpens Ockham's Razor. No explanations need be multiplied beyond necessity. So, why fall back on what illiterate herders or half-wit scribes invented to explain our world thousands of years ago? We can turn to science, and where religion ends, philosophy begins-- as with alchemy vs. chemistry, or astrology vs. astronomy. This sensible appeal to logic remains one of his strongest sections. He mulls over Spinoza, Pierre Bayle, Tom Paine, and Charles Darwin as pioneers in publicly-- if necessarily at times given the dangers of honest doubt or denial-- challenging the outmoded dogmas and fanciful doctrines. (He tends to muddle atheism with non-belief, and leaves out Thomas Huxley, who coined "agnosticism." Colonel Ingersoll's placed within the camp of naysayers rather than non-knowers by implication.) Hitchens also reveals the limits of what we can divulge from the hidden minds of past skeptics, for many necessarily must have kept their doubts entirely secret, for their survival.

While much of this book engages in spirited, if not always measured, assaults on familiar topics that atheists often explore in demolishing religious claims, the value that Hitchens adds may be in two areas. First, unlike my encounters with Dennett and Harris in print, Hitchens manages to entertain, to toss hundreds of examples from his vast knowledge your way. These may not always hit their target. But, in their variety, energy, and vivacity, they keep you reading. Each chapter's wide enough to reveal another perspective from which to view the battle, while short enough to contain his point-of-view more or less coherently among the fog of intellectual war with the revelations that have enraptured billions.

One small example of his rhetorical ammunition: Hitchens ponders the three monotheisms competing and overlapping claims vis-a-vis "the apparent tendency of the Almighty to reveal himself only to unlettered and quasi-historical individuals, in regions of Middle Eastern wasteland that were long the home of idol worship and superstition, and in many instances already littered with existing prophecies." (98) Against such contradictory and illogical calls for obedience from scraps of scrolls compiled long after the holy men they claim to quote as eyewitness and verbatim accounts, Hitchens rejects their claims for obesiance as inapplicable to us centuries later.

He also condemns, if in less rigorous fashion given his ad hominem insults to the present Dalai Lama, the Eastern alternatives to fulfillment. (I was surprised by Hitchens' omission of the Dalai Lama's claim that he'd abandon the words of the Buddha if they were found to contradict those of scientific inquiry, or that the Lama keeps on his desk a model of the human brain. Such admissions might have complicated Hitchens' consideration of the Lama.) The contempt of the intellect and the cultivation of passivity rouse his ire. People placed-- as with the Bhagwan charlatan-- in a preaching-tent at whose entrance enjoins: "Shoes and minds must be left at the gate" (196) leave Hitchens with no respect for such retrogressive directions away from mental progress, let alone absent social gains. He warns that if the Bible bores us, that knowledge will not enter by the way of dissolution of our own "critical faculties." Such innocents "may think that they are leaving the realm of despised materialism, but they are still being asked to put their reason to sleep, and to discard their minds along with their sandals."(204) While I still disagree with his sweeping rejection of the Dalai Lama, Hitchens does remain more or less coherent, in a considerably wandering chapter, in at least providing a few cautionary tales about what happens when non sequiturs and effusions emerge through irrational proclamations and solipsistic attitudes that replace truth and logic.

Ultimately, the Golden Rule needs no God. We can live up to its message without cringing for fear of annihilation or excommunication today. Restraints on our own tendencies towards cruelty and injustice must be encouraged by our own example. While past and many present examples show religious people implicated in horrific crimes, those who resisted such atrocities may or may not, he argues from the complicity of the Catholic Church in Rwandan massacres, have been "faith-based." Religions started due to fanatics, but charity and relief work "while they may appeal to tenderhearted believers, are the inheritors of modernism and the Enlightenment. Before that, religion was spread not by example but as an auxiliary to the more old-fashioned methods of holy war and imperialism." (192) I'm not sure if this applies to Buddhists, or Quakers, in the same way as to Islam or most forms of Christianity, however.

This also raises a weakness in Hitchens that makes conflicts like those in Ireland or Africa or the Balkans reifications of confessional disputes, when the reality is that denominations became linked to ownership of real estate and tribal power under the ruler, in turn paying fealty to multinational political empires entangled with religious fiefdoms. The scope of this relationship exceeds the grasp of any short work for a popular audience. Of course, the endless bickering between Caesar and Christ, the overshadowing of shariah with caliphate, or aligning Judaism within Zionism raises countless complications; Hitchens does take on many of these maelstroms, but within the rather ambitious and scattershot array of examples he raises and considers, the nuances of this vexed subject become obscured in the force of his argumentative assaults.

I found one error, speaking of the Middle East. In citing the parable of the Good Samaritan, Hitchens claims that Jesus discusses a man who acted kindly without hearing of Christianity (obviously), "let alone having followed the pitiless teachings of the god of Moses, who never mentions human solidarity and compassion at all." (99-100) I leave the Mosaic content aside for experts to parse, but the Samaritans also followed the Pentateuch or the Five Books of the Torah; they did not follow the Prophets or later writings that comprised the Hebrew Scriptures. In his critique of the Dalai Lama Hitchens also misspells the surname of one of his "major donors," B-movie star Steven Seagal, on p. 200, less crucially.

In conclusion, Hitchens made me think. There's no easy solutions for the predicament that he argues has been placed in our path towards progress by religious unthinking. His call for a new Enlightenment based on the lack of justifications religions can summon up in our secular age for their relevance does appear inspiring, if quixotic. Yet, he is right: this liberation's finally open (at least in parts of the Post-Christian West and wherever in the privacy of one's mind readers elsewhere can seek intelligence from these pages) to all of us. Our ancestors had no choice but to submit, at least publicly. We, however, can seek literary, aesthetic, and scientific guidance towards individual liberty and self-realization openly.

Crucially-- although this point again's too often subsumed in the diverse and divergent realms explored here-- we can recover from our fear of the body. Hitchens typically if rather poignantly observes that one sin of the 9/11 bombers is that they died not only seeking virgins (unless that's a mistranslation as he suggests for as I paraphrase "crystal-clear white raisinettes") but as virgins. (What rewards female suicide bombers in a Muslim heaven?)

This twisting of tendencies towards religious impulses that are first naturally placed within us and then theocratically thwarted illustrates his thesis neatly. And he in his penultimate paragraph tells us that "the divorce between the sexual life and fear, and the sexual life and disease, and the sexual life and tyranny, can now at last be attempted, on the sole condition that we banish all religions from the discourse. All this and more is, for the first time within our history, within the reach if not the grasp of everyone." (283)

Yet, there's the rub. Hitchens knows this will not be easy. Harris had mused that only if parents told the truth to their children, that reason would triumph over faith. But, how can the parents step outside of their own mindsets, their own patterns inlaid over perhaps thousands of years of worship? It's no simpler here. The goal's set forth, but the action's up to us, with few predecessors to show us the way out of the chapel or the cave. "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 or subjection and abjection."

I kept waiting for his suggestions as to how to overcome our seemingly inbred (if Dennett's right) "religious impulse" that does bring us comfort and appears for many of us to evolve in childhood. But, we have to come up with our own way out of our self-constructed, rather than divinely-patrolled, mental and spiritual and historical prisons. Hitchens may agree silently with St. Paul in urging us now to put aside such childish things in our maturing grasp of scientific truth, philosophical inquiry, and civilized behavior. Not to mention the need for global peace in a time when so many millions in volatile deserts, suburbs, and cities remain convinced of eschatological predictions that hasten environmental destruction, nuclear tensions, or geo-political Armageddon.

(Posted today, needing your positive votes to counteract the negatives, on Amazon US; here in a six-paragraph version. It's + #745 or so in the reviewer queue; Dawkins has about 1445; I entered there years ago regarding Harris and Dennett. On to read Dawkins next.)

Image: Layne told me you can summon up artworks at the Tate Gallery Subject Search on-line by seeking qualities such as idea and emotion. Good example of Hitchens' exhortation of looking to the man-made for soul-pleasure. Here's a suitably sensual and secular example when I entered the key term "devotion." Dorothy Richards titled this drawing exactly that (1973-5), illustrating Rimbaud's "Les Illuminations." However, I could find no artworks when I entered "doubt," and only Blake's Resurrection for that of "disbelief." Godless artists have some catching up to do, given the preponderance of religious subjects so far! I wonder if future worldly patrons will be as lavish for aspiring aesthetes as has been the Vatican?

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