Friday, 10 February 2012

Book Review: God Is Not Great - How Religion Poisons Everything

God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything - Christopher Hitchens - 2007 (Kindle 2011 version reviewed) - 320 pages

In light of his recent death I thought I'd finally get round to reading this book from Hitchens, written at a time when I was a bit disgusted (to put it mildly) with his support for the war in Iraq. At the time I didn't feel any need to read it; I'd enjoyed Richard Dawkins' rant about religion but didn't see the point in his or Hitchens' books, seeing them as simply preaching to the choir. To me they didn't seem to be saying anything particularly startling or, for a convinced atheist, anything that hadn't been said before. Having now read Hitchens' contribution I can honestly say my initial assumptions weren't far wrong, but he does a far better job of supporting his piece then Dawkins, and his writing is a wonder to behold.

The fundamental premise of Hitchens' book is that religion (that is organised religion, whether it's the big boys, or the smaller cult-like sects) poisons everything it touches and is a source for evil in the world. Unlike Dawkins, he's doesn't infer that without religion people wouldn't do evil things, only that religion is too often used as a means of committing atrocious acts, and it being forgiven or tolerated because of religion's standing. It's a perspective I didn't entirely disagree with before I read the book (I have HUGE problems with organised religion, in all it's forms) and Hitchens' initial discomforts and arguments are very convincing. As the book progresses though you may begin to feel like you're being battered over the head with a concrete block; he makes his point many, many times.

When it gets interesting is when he goes through the problems of religions we in the West like to think are not victim to the same bloodshed as the big three monotheistic faiths, namely Hinduism and Buddhism. Hitchens' description of some of the "evil" these religions have been behind is worth reading, if only to get a different perspective on those faiths. Of course most of the vitriol is saved for Judaism, Christianity and Islam; by and large his points are easily understandable and generally convincing. And unlike Dawkins, Hitchens is arguing from the perspective of someone who has an interest in Theology. The irony is that Hitchens, for all his disgust with religion, clearly has a fascination and genuine interest in faith, of all types. This gives his arguments a certain weight that just didn't come across in The God Delusion by Dawkins, whose science background doesn't make him well versed for a theological argument. While reading though It's worth remembering that Hitchens is not a Theologist so some of his representation of holy texts can be a bit misleading and simplified.

The major drawback with Hitchen's work is perspective, or rather lack of it. For example, reading his critique on circumcision would be enough to get anyone fired up and thinking how "wrong" it is. But a few calm breathes later and a dash of perspective make you realise it isn't the big evil he makes it out to be. That isn't to say no one has any health problems due to circumcision, but on a grand scale it isn't preventing thousands upon thousands of men from having healthy sex lives and producing plenty of children. Hitchens totally ignores this point, and focuses on a few truly awful examples, but doesn't emphasise that in most cases it causes no issues. It's a general problem with any book with an axe to grind, and it's more than evident here.

The saving grace (pun intended) of God Is Not Great is the prose; Hitchens was truly a wonderful writer. Elegant, eloquent and with a great rhythm, his opinion may leave you spluttering but you can't deny he phrases it beautifully. In fact it's a reason I would strongly recommend this book for people interested in writing, especially for those looking for examples of how to make an argument. If you wrap up the most atrocious opinion in amazing writing, it's impressive how convincing you can make it sound.

I'd suggest the truly faithful avoid this book like the plague; it will offend you. Massively. Hitchens prejudice is clear on every page (even an atheist like me picked up on it!) and he doesn't give the religious a fair portrayal, in my opinion. But I truly think it's a worthy read for the mildly faithful, looking for a different perspective, and for those looking for alternatives to religion. You certainly don't have to believe what Hitchens says (and the man, if he were still with us, would say the same) and instead question everything and do your own research before coming to your own conclusions. This book will give you plenty to think about. It left me satisfied, angry and interested to learn more. So once again, Hitchens had the same effect on me that he always did. I'm truly saddened that he'll never infuriate me again.

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