I read this book some years ago, when I lived in the UK, there it is published under the more moderate title of God Is Not Great: The Case Against Religion. I find the idea that religion poisons everything a little hard to swallow. My first-hand experience of religion is mostly through my Church of England (Anglican/Episcopalian) grandmother (pleasant little old ladies doing what they can to make their community better) and my Church of England Primary School (slightly smug elitism). Yes, religious extremists have done some awful things, but on the whole, isn’t it merely a effective way to control people and a nice way to gather like-minded people together in a community?
The book focuses on Abrahamic religions, he says that’s because they are the most widespread, but in my view that also makes them the easiest target; more followers = more crazy people. He has a brief go at the Hindus and surprisingly, the Buddhists, but presumably the Wiccans and the Sikhs are alright (my two personal favourite religions). Hitchens says that organised religion is “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children”. It’s easy to find examples of bad people doing any of these things in the name of religion. For me, involved in the wedding industry in New York, I’ve heard all sorts of irrational, bigoted nonsense from the churches about same-sex marriage, and I do believe that the churches are the one thing holding back giving people this basic human right, and giving the economy a much-needed boost. On the other hand, it’s equally easy to wheel out Chairman Mao and Stalin, both atheists, but in their cases, perhaps only because they wanted the people to worship them instead.
Hitchens goes on to take each of the above charges against religion and the religious, and gives evidence against them. I struggle to argue with a lot of what he says, but my quiet “live and let live” attitude makes me feel mostly quite irritated at his arrogant attitude. But at least he’s not as annoying as Richard Dawkins. I think it’s good that atheists have someone extreme like this fighting their corner, because we all know that there are enough crazy-extreme religious folk out there, shouting loudly for the other side. Personally, I prefer to associate myself with the likes of Stephen Fry, Salman Rushdie, Douglas Adams, Eddie Izzard, John Lennon and Mark Twain, to name but a few atheists in the public eye I like and admire, and whose comments on religion I have enjoyed. I do wonder why such a fierce non-believer such as Hitchens has spent such a lot of his life reading holy books, arguing with religious folk, and generally wasting an awful lot of time on a being he is certain doesn’t exist.
I re-read this for the Las Vegas Non-Fiction book group. All who attended were somewhere on the scale between agnostic or atheist, raised as Catholic, Anglican and Jewish. Unfortunately we had no believers in attendance to speak up for their faith. I find that in itself an interesting point. Nobody is going to pick up this book if they’re not already a non-believer or at least sceptical. I do wonder about the idea promoted by many religious people that an unquestionable faith is a virtue. Studies into human psychology tell us that the longer a human has been doing something – the more we’re invested in it – the least likely we are to give up on it. So, even in the face of all this proof that the holy books are mostly made up by non-holy people, with no direct line to God, just the likes of you and me, I really can’t see anyone being converted by this sort of book.
I find that I don’t really like Hitchens, and he doesn’t speak for my atheism. That’s the beauty of atheism, though, if someone influential in your church says something stupid, then you’ve go to put up with it, because you have signed up to following their rules. There are no rules in atheism, but I think that’s why some people are draw to religion – they like rules and guidance on how to do things.
I think that if one person believes their life has been given to them by God so they should make the most of it; and I believe that I’m here by an incredible result of chance and I only get one go at this, so I should make the most of it, then what difference does it make, really, as long as we can both respect each other? There’s no need for a God in my life, I am content with it as it is. Or, as Douglas Adams puts it so much better than I ever could, “isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”