Book Review: God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens (2007)

Monday, February 18th, 2008

Don’t drink the Kool-Aid!

four out of five stars

Along with Richard Dawkins’s THE GOD DELUSION and Sam Harris’s LETTER TO A CHRISTIAN NATION, Christopher Hitchens’s GOD IS NOT GREAT is one of many high-profile “atheist manifestos” to be released in recent years. Taken as a whole, these volumes strike a lethal blow to the shackles of organized religion.

Unlike Dawkins’s THE GOD DELUSION, GOD IS NOT GREAT does not represent a comprehensive attempt to debunk any of the three major religions. Rather than assail the truth (perhaps “truthiness” would be a more appropriate term) of religion, Hitchens instead illustrates how, in point of fact, RELIGION POISONS EVERYTHING. He cites a number of historical and contemporary examples, ranging from the German Catholic Church’s unholy alliance with fascism and Nazism, to American fundamentalists’ opposition to the HPV vaccine. Sexual repression, war, political tyranny, child abuse, genocide, slavery and racism – each and every organized religion has engaged in gross human rights violations in order to exert its power and hold society captive to its own flavor of superstition. On a more basic level, religious fundamentalism discourages critical thinking, frowns upon skepticism, and crushes curiosity. (Since all religious doctrine has its share of logical fallacies and contradictions, even more liberal strains of religion dull the mind, albeit to a lesser extent than those that promote a literal reading of their holy texts.) To quote Hitchens, religion is “philosophy with the questions left out.”

Hitchens probably won’t convert any hardcore fundamentalists with this book. Even so, GOD IS NOT GREAT may nudge those sitting on the religious fence closer to the side of atheism – or at least science and inquiry. If nothing else, it serves as a wonderful counterpoint to the idea, so prevalent in America, that the “Judeo”-Christian religion(s) should wield any influence in government and politics. Aside from that whole pesky First Amendment, church/state separation thing, religion doesn’t always – or even usually – represent the morally superior side of the debate. Quite the contrary – religion has been used to justify every horror under the sun: Rwandan genocide, female genital mutilation, the spread of AIDS and polio, heck, even the wasting of natural resources (the Taliban opposes recycled paper because some of the pulp may – may! – contain pages from discarded Korans).

While the content is impeccable, I wasn’t completely satisfied with the presentation. Possibly because of the sheer scope of the subject, the text is a bit scattered. GOD IS NOT GREAT feels more like an anthology of essays instead of a cohesive text. Even so, it’s a welcome addition to the atheist discourse.

Finally, a note on the audio book, which is read by the author: All in all, I highly enjoyed the recording, but found myself having to skip back and replay some tracks. Hitchens tends to mumble a bit, though I must say that he’s much more understandable than some other reviewers have let on. (Perhaps I didn’t find Hitchens’s accent so distracting, since I listened to GOD IS NOT GREAT almost immediately after Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s INFIDEL. Born in Somali, raised in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya, and currently residing in The Netherlands and the US, Hirsi Ali’s accent is thicker than Hitchens’s. It’s also more enchanting, once you acclimate to it.) Additionally, Hitchens peppers his commentary with a copious amount of quotes, and it can be hard at times to tell where Hitchens’s words end and the quotes begin (and vice versa). This could have been avoided by employing a second narrator to give voice to the quotes (as did Dawkins in the audio version of THE GOD DELUSION). The piano music is, for me, the absolute worst part of the audio recording; used to mark the end of chapters, the tracks don’t fit with the book’s tone. It’s all just too polite for Hitchens’s delightfully pugilistic polemic!

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)