Byzantine Reality

Searching for Byzantine failures in the world around us

God Is Not Great

While at the Bulldog Cafe in Solvang, I came across Christopher Hitchens’ book God is not Great. I had recently finished Why Orwell Matters, and having liked Hitchens’ writing style, decided to pick it up. It took me a while to get around to actually read it, but it was worth the time.

God is not Great takes a very serious look at religion and why it does not deserve the praise or respect that we normally give it. Pretty much all the religions you’ve likely heard of are covered to some extent, with most of the book focusing on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Hitchens does an excellent job of proving his thesis, which is nicely spelled out in the title, and a convincing case for why reasonable people should not believe in god or even respect the idea of it. The latter is what initially drove me to this book, through his notion of antitheism. Antithesism goes a step further than atheism: practitioners here are not just non-believers, but are opposed to the notion of god altogether, with all that entails. Hitchens spends a lot of time going into the “all that entails” part, and is very readable throughout.

I’d say the book is aimed either at converting people who are “on the fence” about religion (that is, they tolerate it but are not too religious) or need ammo to use against religious people they run into. If you’re in either one of those categories, the length of the book is probably about right, but if you already accept Hitchens’ premise or don’t need a whole lot of convincing (e.g., me), then the book is a good read but a little bit long. Recently I read and reviewed Sam Harris’ book The Moral Landscape, and while I liked the general idea, I had a few issues with it. Primarily, I didn’t like how Harris stepped outside of his comfort zones (e.g., atheism and neuropsychology) to try to boost his arguments with things like evolutionary psychology, which didn’t really get spelled out very well and brought down the book as a whole. God is not Great does not suffer from this problem: Hitchens sticks with his specialties (e.g., atheism and history, especially recent history) and the book as a whole comes out a lot stronger than The Moral Landscape.

What also came out as a great plus for this book was how specific arguments / counterarguments were spelled out. Specifically, the usual question of “didn’t atheists kill more people than people of faith” comes up, and instead of the standard answer of “yes but atheists didn’t kill because of their lack of faith”, Hitchens actually goes the history approach and talks about how the church co-opted the big fascist and communist movements throughout to ensure their own survival and well-being. I haven’t seen an approach like this taken before, so it was a very interesting way to go about questions I’ve seen posed many times and answered by others like Harris and Dawkins.

So the book is a great read – believers of faith may want to read it slowly and take it all in, while non-believers should have no problem reading it at full speed. The last few chapters also diverge a bit and talk about alternatives to religion, with a specific focus on philosophy and science. This nicely fills out the book and is done in a compelling manner, and stays largely in line with Hitchens’ thesis. I’m looking forward to checking out his book on Thomas Jefferson, so check back later for a review of that!