Thursday, May 29, 2008

God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

By Rich Bordner

Another "New Atheist" book I've read (see The God Delusion for another review) is God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, by Christopher Hitchens.

Folks say Hitchens is a great writer. Even those who adamantly disagree with him praise his use of rhetoric. In fact, I haven't read one reviewer, Christian and non, who doesn't mention his talent for writing.

However, I have to disagree with them. This book is not written well. It is incredibly difficult to figure out exactly what Hitchens is arguing most of the time. When I knew his thesis, it was extremely hard to ferret out his exact argument. Kinda like pinning jello to a wall. He routinely made so many leaps in logic that by the time I figured out I'd been had, he was already six points down the road. He regularly employed loaded language without a rational back-up; that is, its one thing when you use strong words and show how they apply. It’s quite another when you use strong words and just leave them hanging out there, as if self-justified.

This is houdinery, not good writing.

Here's one example. On page 5, he says,

"Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake."

He wants us to apply different standards to his...whatevers...--they aren't "beliefs," excuse me--than we apply to religious belief and faith. Sounds sweet. Nice try, but I don't buy it. Douglas Wilson puts it nicely (actually, sarcastically...you get my point):

"In this notable expression of high sentiment, Hitchens declares that he distrusts anything that outrages reason. And just before this, he delivered himself of the zen-mystery that "our belief is not a belief." Okay, so he has faith in certain of his principles, but this faith of his is not like our faith in our principles because ours are ... wrong. His faith in his principles is not faith at all. It is something else. It is confidence, yeah, that's it, confidence. Con fides. With faith. And his beliefs are not like our beliefs, not at all. No, his beliefs, which are not beliefs, are based on certain beliefs about science and reason."

Hitchens uses big boasts, only to not come through on them. After trotting out an objection to religion via an assertion he many times says something like "this, is absolutely irrefutable." Then he just moves on.

He often used the word "proof" to describe mere assertions and claims. A philosophy class or two would help him a lot in his sloppy use of jargon.

I guess I'm just supposed to accept his word. After all, as with Dawkins, he speaks with a British accent, and that makes him authoritative. Right?

Here's an example. While talking about the objections he had to religion as a child, he said:

"If Jesus could heal a blind person he happened to meet, then why not heal blindness? What was so wonderful about his casting out devils, so that the devils would enter a herd of pigs instead? That seemed sinister... With all this continual prayer, why no result? Why did I have to keep saying, in public, that I was a miserable sinner? Why was the subject of sex considered so toxic? These faltering and childish objections are, I have since discovered, extremely commonplace, partly because no religion can meet them with any satisfactory answer. But another, larger one also presented itself. (I say 'presented itself' rather than 'occurred to me' because these objections are, as well as insuperable, inescapable)…" p3

In what follows, there's no attempt to actually show that the objections actually were insuperable… whatever that means. I had to look it up (it means, "incapable of being overcome."). He does that (use big words needlessly) all the time. While reading the book, I had the inclination that he was trying to intimidate me in his use of big words like this...anyway...I kept waiting for the hammer to come down...and waiting, and waiting, and waiting. Until I finished the last page.

Similarly, straw men are his favorite target. Like Dawkins, he's fond of attacking caricatures.

Blurring key distinctions is his favorite tactic. He lumps all religions into one category, "religion," and he ignores important differences. He uses the bad example of particular religious people (I admit, there are many quality examples of evil amongst religious people. The Christian church is not immune to this critique. Also, some religions are false and evil) and paints all religion with that brush. Because a Muslim blew himself up in a suicide bombing, I have blown myself up too.

He quotes verses in the Bible that he says show God to be morally reprehensible, but he gives little effort at exegeting fairly. Sometimes merely quoting the verse and a few comments diced with loaded words are enough for him to show how evil God is (for better treatments of such verses, go to www.christian-thinktank.com).

Speaking of evil, yet another glaring weakness: he claims that the evil acts of religious people are evil, and that we have a moral obligation to fight such totalitarianism. But, as an atheist, how does he ground such an obligation? Where does this obligation come from in a world of physical atoms governed by physical laws?

This is much different than saying "all atheists are immoral" or "atheists don't believe in morality." I admit that atheists can be moral (sometimes they are more moral than Christians!), and they can know what is right and wrong (kinda... another blog for another day). No doubt there. What I doubt is that, if God really doesn't exist, *is* anything moral? What does "good" mean? It has no meaning! He works on borrowed capital.

Melinda at str.org puts her finger on this when she says,

"Hitchens says religion is evil, and he does mean evil and sin. He freely uses moral language to pin the blame right where he believes it belongs, but he never explained how he, as a materialist, can use moral language and mean them as moral terms that all mankind are beholden to. Hitchens also identifies himself as a humanist. He expresses great faith in the natural abilities of man unhindered by the manipulation and superstition of religion to progress to a fully rational, scientific existence. He says at one point, apparently justifying his use of morality, 'Ethical imperative is derived from innate human solidarity.' I take from this that he believes morality is the store of human experience. It's an interesting story, but he gives no actual argument for any of his claims."

Doug Wilson comments,

"David Hume had a mighty hard time figuring out how to get across the chasm from is to ought. Mr. Hitchens must have figured out how to do this, because he has gotten from the is of repeatable experiments, and the is of the law of identity, to the ought of "Thou shalt not poison everything." This is a stupendous breakthrough. And Mr. Hitchens needs to do this whole math problem on the board, in front of the class, and Mr. Hitchens needs to show his work."

"Hitchens points out that some believers respond badly to his kind of bad boy atheism, and this is something I grant. In fact, I am perfectly willing to loan him a fixed scriptural standard so that he might enjoy the pleasure of disapproving of hysterical believers who go off like a bottle rocket whenever an atheist is naughty in public. But that is the only way he is able to enjoy such spectacles -- with borrowed standards. When believers panic or hyperventilate over the monkeyshines of men like Hitchens, they are displeasing Jesus. But are they displeasing the mindless process of time and chance acting on matter, which is all that anything or anyone actually is? Well, it turns out, no. In Hitchens' view, according to his premises, Christian hypocrisies (a source of amusement to many for millennia) turn out to be just another big dud in a universe of big duds. The infinite concourse of atoms supplies us with nothing more than an endless supply of dropped punch lines."

That is, he calls things with irreducible moral terms, like "evil," but he never explains how his atheism can ground such a use of language.

Finally, religion is even to blame for the crimes of atheists, for their regimes functioned in a religious way: nice trick. Religious people can't even point to the good examples of other religious people in defense of their case; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, for example, acted contrary to Christianity's doctrines and therefore Christians can't look to him for help. Melinda Penner writes,

"The beautiful thing about Hitchens' case, such that it is, is that he can't lose. 'What's mine is mine, and what's yours is mine.' Any and all counter-examples are snatched away as anomalies from the religious system and practices, forced confessions of faith, or professed Christians acting against their religion (as he defines it). In Hitchens' accounting even Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn't motivated by his Christianity because what made him great was actually in contradiction to what the New Testament teaches. According to Hitchens, the New Testament teaches that forgiveness is withheld until a price is exacted, but King forgave completely and in advance of the actual sins. So he wasn't a real Christian, or at least his virtuous actions were not examples we can cite. The most collosal example of this convenient arrangement is that even the evils of atheism can be laid at religion's feet. After all, he claims, religion is the original totalitarian system. Atheist totalitarian regimes are a cheap knock-offs fostered by the negligence and sins of religion."

Note the convenient strawman: The NT holds that forgiveness is withheld until a price is exacted. There is no attempt to prove this is so; Hitchens just helps himself to this assertion, and then moves on.

In conclusion, I can see how this book would perhaps bamboozle some Christians and give confidence to some atheists. He starts out fast and hard, and never lets up. His style can leave you a bit befuddled and intimidated, wondering what happened. But a careful, slow, thoughtful reading should have the opposite effect.

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