Tuesday, September 8, 2009


It's hard to know where to start, with Hitchens. His book God, sorry, god is not Great, is all over the map.

Maybe start with the title. The de-uppercasing of the deity struck me as childish. After all, it's just the personal, individual name for the Christian deity, who is not Allah, or Yahweh, or any other god (one can speak of gods, but not Gods). And what does he do if God happens to be the first word in a sentence? I think he carefully avoids putting it there--a cursory scan reveals no cases.

On top of that, it's illogical. He uses upper case for the Koran (sic), Allah (scared of a fatwa?), the Crucifixion, Jesus Christ, Christian, Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist and any other word connected with religion. Only God, like Rodney Dangerfield, gets no respect. This, constantly repeated, becomes an irritating tic, another reminder of a fault he shares with all the Horsemen--he's tone-deaf, he just doesn't realize how he comes off

Then the subtitle. "Religion poisons everything." Everything? Like, say, a Bach cantata? (Would Hitchens enjoy one more if it had been dedicated, not to religious ends, but to the old warmonger Frederick II of Prussia before whom Bach performed in 1747?) Or a sunset? Or a child's infectious laughter? The statement is not just ridiculous, it's petulant--the kind of thing some spoiled (Jewish or Gentile) princess might exclaim if her current suitor broke her favorite tea-cup ("Horace, you spoil everything!").

After that beginning, it's an olla podrida, if you'll pardon my Spanish. Starting with a slab of memoir, it moves to the use of religion for lethal purposes, interrupts with a four-and-a-half-page interjection on eating the meat of the pig (and even within this brief span Hitchens hops around like a flea on a blanket, from mad cow disease to Islamic prohibition of pork to pig-farming to George Orwell to our evolutionary closeness to pigs to heart transplants to New Guinea cannibalism to trichinosis to King Lear to the use of pork by the Inquisition for smoking out crypto-Jews to Winnie-the-Pooh to P.G. Wodehouse to the evils of factory farming to Lord of the Flies), then segues into things allegedly religious people have said or done that were bad for one's health. Later follow individual chapters on Intelligent Design, the Old and New Testaments, the Koran, miracles, the origins of the Mormon faith, a seventeenth-century Jewish cult no-one has ever heard of, the influence of religion on human behavior, Eastern religions, religions as inherently sinful, the evils of raising children to be religious, and three chapters pushing various aspects of a "secular" alternative to religion.

(A minor mystery here. The chapter on miracles is entitled "The Tawdriness of the Miraculous and the Decline of Hell". In fact, there's not a word about the decline of hell, or about hell for that matter, in this chapter or anywhere else in the book. Hitchens either forgot all about it or deliberately left it out after he'd handed in the chapter headings. Just a symptom of the reckless haste, or perhaps something worse than that, which characterizes this whole book. Let's see which it really is.)

As all this flea-hopping suggests, if you come to Hitchens expecting some brilliant, complex, sustained and coherent argument against either God or religion, you're going to be disappointed. God isn't so much denied as belittled (as the title suggests) and religion is dealt with by picking out all the silly and cruel things that have been done by persons or institutions claiming to be religious--things that any honest religious person deplores just as much as Hitchens does--and concentrating on these to the exclusion of all else. He doesn't ever get into any of the deeper issues involved. Nor will we, at least not for now. This is just a preliminary skirmish, dealing with the deficiencies of our Four Guys that are peculiar to each of them. Those that they share will follow. Worry not, the serious stuff is coming.

Hitchens is like Harris in more than one respect. One of those respects is his willingness to accept popular mythology without checking on it.

Start with the least consequential: The "Governor of Texas" who allegedly said, "If English was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me" (p. 110). If he'd taken the trouble to look that remark up, he'd have found that, in addition to at least two Texas governors, it's been attributed to a dozen or more other politicians spread over the last half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries. Scholarly opinion is, if a saying gets multiple attributions, it's probably a phony. But hey, anything's okay if it gives east-coast eggheads a laugh at red-state rubes.

But that's only one of a number of places where Hitchens is guilty of misinforming us

"Fish do not have fins because they need them for the water" (p. 78) Oh no? Hitchens needs to bring himself up to speed on the most recent developments in evolutionary theory, with special attention to niche-construction, evo-devo and convergent evolution. Why did ichthyosaurs and dolphins, both of whose ancestors were landlubbers, develop fins like a shark's? For the same reason the shark developed them. Because a fin is a whole lot better for maneuvering under water than a leg, duh. Hitchens is presumably still stuck in the paradigm of his co-religionary (if that's the word) Dawkins, where a gene is a gene is a gene, condemned to do the same old shtick for eternity. He needs to learn that genes are very flexible, can express themselves in different ways in different environments, and that, by and large, the same genes that made legs for the dolphin's pig-like ancestor now make the dolphin's fins, and the bird's or bat's wings if it comes to that.

More serious is the "mad and cruel" idea of the "limbo" to which Catholic doctrine consigns infants who die unbaptized (p. 64). What happened to them, or whether there even was a limbo, has never been an article of Catholic dogma ("dogma", remember, is not just what you happen to believe, but what you must believe). Consequently there have been several notions as to what limbo might be. One, perhaps the commonest--certainly the kindest--is that "these souls enjoy and will eternally enjoy a state of perfect natural happiness; and this is what Catholics usually mean when they speak of the limbus infantium, the 'children's limbo'" (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09256a.htm). In other words, all they miss is the special contact with the Almighty that's the reward of the properly baptized. "Mad and cruel"? Sure beats the oblivion Hitchens presumably expects.

Either Hitchens doesn't know this, in which case he's ignorant, or he does know it, but hides it from the reader, in which case he's dishonest.

But wait. There's worse.

"...the time when theologians would dispute over futile propositions with fanatical intensity, measuring the length of angel's wings. for example, or debating how many such mythical creatures could dance on the head of a pin" (p. 68). Of course, everyone has heard the story about angels dancing on the head of a pin, or on the point of a needle in most accounts, but you have to go no further than Wikipedia or The Straight Dope (hardly esoteric scholarship) to find it's a myth, with no mention prior to the seventeenth century (and then only in the Protestant propaganda Harris so loves) and subsequent references limited to the works of secular mockers like Hitchens. To the best of anyone's knowledge, no mediaeval scholar ever debated the issue, let alone with the "fanatical intensity" that Hichens claims. As for the "length of angels' wings", the earliest reference I have found was...wait for it...


Can you believe it? There's no reference anywhere to any such discussion except in Hitchen's book, in a couple of post-2007 blog posts and a couple of critiques of Hitchen's book. In other words, Hitchens flat-out made it up! You might doubt dishonesty in the limbo case. But not here.

More would be superfluous, but I can't resist noting his problems with geography. For instance, the Muslim advance in its early years "petered out at the fringes of the Balkans and the Mediterranean" (p. 129) The whole western, southern and eastern coast of the Mediterranean, from the south of France to eastern Turkey, is one of its fringes?! Or "the secular left...believed that there was a worker's paradise beyond the Ural Mountains." Beyond? Beyond the Urals were Stalin's prison camps, the Gulag Archipelago--the "worker's paradise" lay THIS side of the Urals!

Or his problems with number: none of the Gospel authors "published anything until many decades after the Crucifixion." (p. 111). Jesus was crucified around CE 30; the latest possible date anyone gives for the Gospel of Mark is CE 73, and many scholars think it was written earlier than that, maybe even in the fifties. So is "two to four" Hitchens's definition of "many"? Well, his number sense surely is elastic. "Benito Mussolini had barely seized power in Italy before the Vatican made an official pact with him, known as the Lateran Pact of 1929" (p. 235). Barely? Mussolini seized power in 1922 and was overthrown in 1943, so his reign lasted 21 years. From 1922 to 1929 is seven years--a full one-third of that period. So he'd barely seized power in 1929? Hitchens obviously subscribes to the Humpty Dumpty school of semantics: "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less."

Finally, a touch of smut. In the chapter entitled "The Evil of the 'New' Testament Exceeds the Evil of the 'Old' One" (Wow! Bet you never realized that!) we find our way back to the Inquisition (founded over a millennium after the NT was written) and Hitchens' speculation that if Barbelo, an imaginary paradise found in some Gnostic texts, had happened to be included in the Bible, "skilled torturers would have worked for days on those who doubted the truth of Barbelo; beginning with the fingernails and working their way ingeniously towards the testicles, the vagina, the eyes and the viscera" (p.114). Well, anyone who wants to know what Inquisitors really did should refer to my post on Harris and torture. What Hitchens writes here is sheer, unadulterated crap, and prurient, pornographic crap at that. Christians have been responsible for some pretty vile things in their time, but this is not one of them. We saw exactly the same stuff in Harris. Can't atheists make their case without this kind of lascivious pandering? And if not, why not?

All of this in a book hailed as "the best [of "atheist screeds", DB] since Bertrand Russell's Why I am not a Christian" (Associated Press), "recommended without reservation" (Library Journal), "the best of the recent rash of atheist manifestos" (Publisher's Weekly), "excellent...splendid... runs the gamut of superb arguments" (Providence Journal--that's Providence, Rhode Island, not the divine kind). Can't these guys read, or are they even more ignorant than Hitchens?

I thought I was going to have to write at least two posts on Hitchens, but now I'm not. I'm not wasting my, or your, time on that. God (or the Devil, some say) is in the details. I don't know which, but I do know that everything is built out of details. If a writer shows rank carelessness, sheer recklessness, and blatant falsification, of a kind any editor worth his salt should have seen and stopped in press, why should you listen to him? Why would anyone even imagine that a writer who cared so little for truth in smaller things could be trusted to tell the truth in big things, least of all the biggest things of all?

No comments:

Post a Comment