The body of work left behind by Christopher Hitchens, who died last year at the age of 62, is remarkable but none of it is more worthy of our respect than his “Case against Religion” “God is not Great”. It is an extraordinary book not so much for its coruscating destruction of the whole basis of religious belief, nor even for its modernity but above all for its scholarship. It would be possible to demolish religion to a 99% probability level in a few hundred words – indeed Hitchens did this frequently, not least in a debate with Tony Blair towards the end of his life. But as his almost final word on the subject Hitchens produced a learned 300-page tome that reveals not only his convictions but also the all of the foundations on which they are based. It is a tour de force and for me anyway his conclusions are irrefutable.
I was at School with Hitch. We knew one another but we weren’t close – he was two years younger than me and in another boarding house and these things mattered even though the school, The Leys School in Cambridge, only had 350 pupils at the time. I recall that even as a fifteen-year-old Hitch was already a formidable debater and obviously destined to be a world class polemicist. The Leys was an Independent school founded in the 19th Century as a school for the sons of wealthy Methodist families. By the 1960s, when Hitch and I were there, it was less narrowly Methodist than it had been in the past but is was still very much a Christian school. We went to “Chapel” twice a day every day and there was an underlying assumption that we all had faith. I donâ€™t recall this being challenged very much and the mild religiosity of the place was not particularly contentious or oppressive. So Hitchens’ later “conversion” (if thatâ€™s the right word) to atheism probably only slightly had his over -religious schooldays as a root cause.
Hitchens approaches the subject of religion in a very academic way. He quite calmly (mostly!) runs through all of the reasons that for him that mean that “Faith” and “Belief” in any and all religions, not just the big three monotheist ones, fail the logical tests that should be applied by any rational man. The title is characteristically challenging – it is the negative of the Islamic cry “Allahuh Akhbar” (“God is Great”). In support of his conviction not only that “God is not Great” but that he does not exist at all Hitch calls on an impressive cast list of witnesses – from John Stuart Mill to Benjamin Franklin and from Martin Luther to Martin Luther King. From them and dozens of others Hitch finds compelling evidence to support his primary assertion that Man created God(s) not the other way round.
A particularly persuasive point, particularly given the extreme Christian imperative of much of the modern United Sates, is the fact that religious tolerance is built into the Constitution – and that, one might add, the preamble to the Constitution doesnâ€™t mention God at all. In other words when the founding fathers set about creating the framework of a nation they did this without feeling the need to declare that they were “One Nation under God” (this came much later – “Under God” was only added to the pledge of allegiance in 1954!).
Chapter by Chapter Hitchens points out the deadly record of religions over the centuries; the absurdities of religious rituals; the oppression caused by the requirements for religious observance; the inconsistencies and venalities of religious texts; the anti-intellectuality of the rejection of science on religious grounds; the phoniness of miracles; the sheer randomness of how organised faiths evolved; the obvious truth that religions do not necessarily make people behave better – and so on. He moves from Christianity in all its variants through Judaism and Islam and on to the Eastern religions – Buddhism and Hinduism – and shows that they are all as bad as one another. They are equally bad mainly because they are all based on the same lie – that God, or Gods, somehow direct our lives and that we owe them allegiance.
I found Hitchens demolition of the Mormons particularly interesting and relevant. Interesting because this absurd sect is a modern phenomenon dating back less that two hundred years and with an utterly and almost comically fraudulent text – the “Book of Mormon” at its heart. Quite how the criminal and repulsive Joseph Smith managed to found a religion that now has over six million followers in the United States (including a major party presidential candidate) defies belief. Hitchens devotes six pages of his book to the Mormons partly to show them for what they are in all their absurdity but also, I think, because Mormonism – ludicrous though it is – is in many ways a metaphor for organised religions as a whole. If in the quite recent past people can feel the need to create such a sub-religion we can understand that the human need to invent myths and rules, and to search for God, is inbuilt in our DNA.
Atheism is not a fraudulent belief system it is the absence of one. Where religions may offer comfort and escape along with the myths those of us who reject them are not in any way disadvantaged by our choice. As Christopher Hitchens points out:
“We are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe: we have music and art and literature, and find that serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Schiller and Dostoyevsky and George Eliot than in the mythical morality tale of the holy books.”
Amen to that.