Monday, November 26, 2007

God is not great

How lucky are our American counterparts. The audiobook version of God Is Not Great will be out in time for Christmas on the other side of the Atlantic, whereas Brit audiences must wait until February

Slipped on to the iPod, Christopher Hitchens’ plummy Oxbridge tones iconoclastically sermonising on the myriad evils of religion would have made the perfect substitute for, and antidote to, the annual borefest of midnight mass or the Queen’s Speech.

It could probably have been written by nobody else alive today, despite the fact that, of the entire ‘New Atheist’ crowd, Hitchens may appear to be the least qualified. AC Grayling (Against All Gods) and Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell) are both philosophers; Sam Harris (The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation) has studied neuroscience, and Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) is a feted biologist. Christopher Hitchens is an author and journalist, and rather an opinionated one at that.

But Hitchens acknowledges within his text that he’s been writing God Is Not Great his whole life – and it’s because his experiences as a journalist have allowed him to see first hand the things he’s writing about.

When he describes North Korea as being the nearest thing on earth to a pure form of theocracy, it’s because he’s been there and seen the servility of the people, and their blind worship towards the personality cult of Kim Il-Sung – still legally the President despite having been dead since 1994.

And when asked by religious broadcaster Dennis Prager whether, if approached by a large group of men in a strange city, he would feel safer or less safe, Hitchens can tell him how he actually did feel in precisely those circumstances. ‘Just to stay within the letter “B”, I have actually had that experience in Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem, and Baghdad,’ he responds. ‘In each case I can say absolutely, and can give my reasons, why I would feel immediately threatened if I thought that the group of men approaching me in the dusk were coming from a religious observance.’

There’s a personal account such as this every few pages – though it’s not to everyone’s taste. Ross Douthat of The Atlantic magazine wrote on that, ‘Hitchens’s argument proceeds principally by anecdote, and at his best he is as convincing as that particular style allows, which is to say not terribly.’ In this he is, therefore, equally convincing as many of his opponents, who also tend to argue from personal experience.

To take just one example, a friend and I once found ourselves in a late-night discussion with one of the aforementioned street-preacher types. He ‘knew’ there was a God because the Almighty had spoken to him many years ago. (The fact that he was self-confessedly off his face on class-A at the time, and had just witnessed a woman being hit by a train, apparently didn’t colour his recollection of the moment.)

Anecdotes, textual criticism, and especially satire – as per Douglas Adams’ 1998 speech Is there an artificial God? – can be the best arguments to use, if for no other reason than that they’re more difficult to wilfully misunderstand, whereas the scientific arguments can be and frequently are misconstrued.

Richard Dawkins’ popular biology books contain the clearest, most beautiful explanations of Darwinian natural selection we’re ever likely to see, and the latest in his canon, The God Delusion, features some substantial, science-based refutations of ‘the God hypothesis’. But even those few willing to read, or listen to, Professor Dawkins’ work will often contrive to misunderstand it.

Much the same is true of physical explanations of the origin of the Universe, on which this writer, as an astrophysics graduate, is more qualified to comment. The best/worst instance of these is probably Moses Didn’t Write About Creation!, a self-published tome in which Herman Cummings, who claims he is the only man on Earth who ‘really’ understands Genesis (the Biblical opening book, not Phil Collins’ band; though that might make more sense), unintentionally shows the extent of some creationists’ failure to grasp even high-school physics.

The average debate on religion hasn’t time to fit in three years’ tuition in biology and another four in physics. It’s far simpler and more useful to have a debate based on anecdote and about ‘morality’. Hitchens dismisses all the good done by religiously minded people as also being possible by atheists.

‘We believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion,’ he writes. ‘And we know for certain that the corollary holds true – that religion has caused innumerable people not just to conduct themselves no better than others, but to award themselves permission to behave in ways that would make a brothel-keeper or an ethnic cleanser raise an eyebrow.’ The fact that Judaism features specific commandments against bowing down on smooth stone but none against rape strongly suggests either that the religion is man-made (man as opposed to human) or God has his priorities entirely wrong.

Stealing Hitchens’ arguments outright would be largely pointless, of course: it would be contrary to the principle of free-thinking that he’s trying to promote; effectively replacing one Bible with another. The important thing is to have the debates at all, and as Hitchens says of those such as Hawking and Darwin, ‘men are more enlightening when they are wrong.’ God Is Not Great doesn’t have all the answers – or even many – but as a pillar to build on, there’s none better.


The Fanonite said...

Why don't you tell us then how lucky they are? So here we have an alcoholic genocide-monger, an acolyte of that inimitable moral giant, Paul Wolfowitz, a scrivener for Murdoch, and an apologist for Cheney's war, telling us how we could lay all the blame for all the world's ills on God, who as a consequence is not great? And like trained seals, our 'secular' fundamentalists act on cue to set all moral compunctions aside and assume their cheer leading role?

Steve Platt said...

Hitchens is a brilliant polemicist and I happen to agree with him about God, who most certainly is not great or he wouldn't have created human beings. But has Hitch ever persuaded anyone of anything? Like his less intellectual cousins on Fox TV, in Murdoch's tabloids or in mosques, temples, churches and bars everywhere, he's good at confirming prejudices but not so good at challenging them. A pity because we need people challenging prejudices, especially religious ones, now more than ever.