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The Review Man

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God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything - Christopher Hitchens I grew up in a very conservative Christian environment. The community culture was extremely right-wing: we never drank alcohol (going to a bar was probably on par with worshipping Satan), we never watched R-rated movies, we were taught that homosexuality was perverted, that evolution was a joke based on the ramblings of deluded scientists. When I went to university, my thinking had changed. Although I'm still a Christian (albeit a mystical one), I'm much more left-leaning now. (I won't bore you with all the details.)

What changed? A few things, really. I embraced culture and immersed myself in music, cinema and the like. I studied mathematics, meaning I spent a lot of time thinking logically about things. I cultivated friendships with people who had radical views, or at least views that differed substantially from mine. These things have a way of stimulating one's thought processes over time. As theologian Gregory Beale put it, we become what we worship. But these things take time—when I read god Is Not Great back in 2011, I didn't truly get it—it was only with time that I realized that Hitchens is right about a few things here.

The problem with fundamental Christianity is that it warps theological issues into theological ones. If someone has a theological argument for their stance on a social issue, that's fine. But why should a nation's politics be controlled by the religious desires of a group? And why one exclusive group (usually Christians, although this is changing)? What if two organizations differ on a point? Does anyone really win? Note that I'm not arguing for laissez-faire morality. Rules are important; we've had them for millennia and they serve a useful purpose. But we need to examine why these rules are in place. It's simply not enough to blindly inherit everything from our forefathers. This thinking is what Christopher Hitchens dispels in god Is Not Great.

Much of the book is not new; we've been hearing the same arguments for a few decades now. But Hitchens writes with such force and gravitas that it's hard not to enjoy his rants. Even if he often falls prey to false assumptions or straw men, it's still infinitely more entertaining than reading another dry, crusty work from someone from the Intelligent Design community. (A rather lifeless bunch, the lot of them.)

Here's an example of the sort of thing we agree on. Recently I attended a church service where the pastor mentioned from the pulpit that nobody in his congregation had died for three years. It was clear from the context (a sermon on divine healing) that he believed that people should not die. But that's a load of theologically unsound (read post-Fall Genesis) and unscientific (visit a graveyard) bunk. Everyone dies; praying that someone won't die will hardly change the outcome. If belief in God could save everyone from death and disease, who but a fool wouldn't believe? And yet some people swallow the line, or rather the entire fishing rod. When Hitchens points out the absurdity of similar religious beliefs, it forces the reader to wonder what other nonsense have I believed?, a welcome question in today's world of self-serving apathy.

Hitchens and I disagree on the issue of religion itself. I don't think it's a waste of time as do the New Atheists. As Kurt Godel said, religions are for the most part harmful—but religion is not. A god that transcends human comprehension is a notion that well-done science doesn't discuss, and so I see no reason to doubt it solely due to scientific arguments. Hitchens is also wrong about a good many things. He often betrays his lack of knowledge of theology and his understanding of modern science is shaky; it often seems as though he's ranting for the sake of a rant. On some level I think Hitchens has lost sight of the panoramic picture; by focusing on such specific problems, he may have missed the greater implications of theology in general.

So I can award this book no more than two stars, for it does not accomplish its goal (religion hardly poisions everything) and it falls prey to numerous weak arguments. But it is simultaneously one of the most important books of the twenty-first century, and for that a rating of under two stars seems hardly fair.

As such I have assigned it the provisional rating of two stars. My true rating lies somewhere between 1 and 5. I'll have more details after I'm dead.