Christopher Hitchens, Twelve Books, 2007
Reading this book is kind of like coming into your first freshman seminar class where you are harangued by an extremely well-read and well-educated but overbearing, bullying, and quite possibly drunk professor. It’s intimidating, impressive, and, dare I say? amusing.
From the title on, Hitchens flaunts his disdain for religion. He offers up example after example of the philosophical contradictions of various religions, skewers beliefs by pointing out logical flaws, and condemns faith by describing crimes of organized religion. Hitchens spends most of his time on “the big three” of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, but he is ecumenical in the contempt he heaps on other religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism in the little time he devotes to them. He comes up swinging, winding up with a call for a new Era of Enlightenment, one without religion.
I can’t help but feel ambivalence. Yes, religious fanatics the world over are trying to create their own respective theocracies and suppress everything but their own threads of belief. I can oppose this without reservation. Yes, many of these same fanatics are ignorant, and don’t know much about their own religions. Attacking some of these people (like the kind who say “if English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me”) is shooting fish in a barrel, and doesn’t do anyone any good. The deeply faithful admire the believers for their faith, ignore their flaws, and take umbrage at the attack, while the nonbelievers already think of them as asinine idiots.
However, in what I feel is the weakest part of the book, Hitchens defends atheism from responsibility in the Soviet Union, Maoist China, and Nazi Germany by casting the personality cults as religions, and, in the case of Germany, by showing how religious groups lent early and vital support to the fascists. It comes off as awfully glib. Furthermore, it seems to me that the evidence supports the idea that religion is not the problem, but that the sins of religion are symptom of a deeper pathology. The universality of the crimes suggests that the accumulation and abuse of power is hard-wired in (at least a portion of) humanity. Religion is a useful tool to incite believers into evil behavior, but tribalism, nationalism, racism, or countless other means of division have done just as well.
As a devout and pious member of the Church of Sacred Doubt, I found some of the attacks on religion appropriate, I found some of them gratuitous, and I found many of them engaging. While the book could be dismissed as an atheist preaching to the choir, it is definitely thought-provoking, and, if nothing else, entertaining.