God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, by Christopher Hitchens


Four stars, read in July 2017.

In my quest to start reading the famous atheists, I discovered several Christopher Hitchens quotes that earned him the next place on the list. As with Richard Dawkins, I’m letting myself try out his books in a sort of vacuum, wanting to engage with their ideas before I have to confront any issues of misogyny which are (likely) out there. This book and The God Delusion are the only ones of theirs that I’ve read, but so far, I haven’t found anything problematic.

Not too long ago, I had a very frustrating discussion with a very good friend who made the infuriating argument that atheists are essentially their own religion. I wish I’d had this book at the time, because it summarizes much more concisely all the arguments I had to make:

Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake. We do not hold our convictions dogmatically . . . we shall resolve [disagreement] by evidence and reasoning and not by mutual excommunication.

One of the things I’ve come to feel is that religion is, overall, a negative rather than a positive. I’m sure that, on an individual level, religion can be helpful—although I also have to point out that being helpful doesn’t necessarily mean something is healthy, or good. But on a global scale, rather than making society more ethical, religion has been responsible for some of the worst atrocities ever committed—and I believe specifically that religion can make people worse than they would have been without it.

We believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion. And we know for a fact that the corollary holds true—that religion has caused innumerable people not just to conduct themselves no better than others, but to award themselves permission to behave in ways that would make a brothel-keeper or an ethnic cleanser raise an eyebrow.

One of the main problems is that, while societies like to talk about freedom of religion, they are not nearly as keen on the idea of freedom from religion.

The level of intensity fluctuates according to time and place, but it can be stated as a truth that religion does not, and in the long run cannot, be content with its own marvelous claims and sublime assurances. It must seek to interfere with the lives of nonbelievers, or heretics, or adherents of other faiths. It may speak about the bliss of the next world, but it wants power in this one.

As an example, he discusses Ireland’s vote on divorce in the 1980s, for which Mother Theresa flew to Ireland to campaign against allowing it: and “there was not even the suggestion that Catholics could follow their own church’s commandments without imposing them on all other citizens.”

I can understand it, actually, having come from that mindset myself; if you’re a person who knows that God exists and designed the universe and has specific rules about everything, then how could you truly respect a person’s right to eschew the whole thing? But what it really comes down to is that for religion, control is very important, and it needs to be total.

The relationship between physical health and mental health is now well understood to have a strong connection to the sexual function, or dysfunction. Can it be a coincidence, then, that all religions claim the right to legislate in matters of sex? The principal way in which believers inflict on themselves, on each other, and on nonbelievers, has always been their claim to monopoly in this sphere.

And if you think about it, the only way they could accomplish this is through childhood indoctrination. If you waited until people were adults and then started telling them what they can and can’t do with their own bodies, they’d say “fuck you” and move on with their lives.

The obsession with children, and with rigid control over their upbringing, has been part of every system of absolute authority. It may have been a Jesuit who was first actually quoted as saying, “Give me the child until he is ten, and I will give you the man,” but the idea is very much older than the school of Ignatius Loyola . . . If religious instruction were not allowed until the child had attained the age of reason, we would be living in a quite different world. Faithful parents are divided over this, since they naturally hope to share the wonders and delights of Christmas and other fiestas with their offspring (and can also make good use of god, as well as of lesser figures like Santa Claus, to help tame the unruly) but mark what happens if the child should stray to another faith, let alone another cult, even in early adolescence. The parents will tend to proclaim that this is taking advantage of the innocent.

That, to me, is a pretty solid example of the kind of thing—it’s either hypocrisy or cognitive dissonance, not sure which; it might depend on how self-aware a person is—that is an inherent part of religion. It reminds me of Richard Dawkins saying, in The God Delusion, that atheists just believe in one less god than everyone else—because everyone is an atheist about every god except their own. Everyone knows that their religion is mutually exclusive with everyone else’s, and everyone believes that everyone except themselves is wrong. How likely is that to be true, really?

A consistent proof that religion is man-made and anthropomorphic can also be found in the fact that it is usually “man” made, in the sense of masculine, as well. The holy book in the longest continuous use—the Talmud—commands the observant one to thank his maker every day that he was not born a woman. (This raises again the insistent question: who but a slave thanks his master for what his master has decided to do without bothering to consult him?)

Hitchens goes on to mention that the Old Testament (“as Christians condescendingly call it”) claims women are cloned from man “for his use and comfort.” And in the New Testament, Saint Paul expresses both fear of and contempt for women.

Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience.

But this makes sense, actually, when you think about it, because religion specifically holds us to the morals and values of a time which was much less advanced than we are now, in every way, morals included. Note, for example, “the very salient question of what the [ten] commandments do not say”:

Is it too modern to notice that there is nothing about the protection of children from cruelty, nothing about rape, nothing about slavery, and nothing about genocide? Or is it too exactingly “in context” to notice that some of these very offenses are about to be positively recommended?

It’s baffling, really, when you think about the casual way people mention slavery in the Bible, as though slavery is not one of the worst things humans can do to each other. And rape—this part is understandable, really, because in our misogynistic cultures even the most feminist of us have been conditioned to barely notice it. We’re pretty desensitized to these horrific abuses; if we weren’t, I think we might realize that the word of God shouldn’t be condoning them, no matter how backward the time was.

The early fathers of faith (they made very sure that there would be no mothers) were living in a time of abysmal ignorance and fear . . . One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody—not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms—had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance, and other infantile needs). Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion, and one would like to think—though the connection is not a fully demonstrable one—that this is why they seem so uninterested in sending fellow humans to hell. All attempts to reconcile faith with science and reason are consigned to failure and ridicule for precisely these reasons. I read, for example, of some ecumenical conference of Christians who desire to show their broad-mindedness and invite some physicists along. But I am compelled to remember what I know—which is that there would be no such churches in the first place if humanity had not been afraid of the weather, the dark, the plague, the eclipse, and all manner of other things now easily explicable . . . Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, [religion] no longer offers an explanation of anything important.

Although I believe that here, Hitchens must be underestimating the concept of an afterlife. I think there’s a good chance that fear of death is the sole reason religion hasn’t faded out yet. Think about all the smug people who like to talk about “no atheists in foxholes.” Even if that were the case—even if people in mortal danger do suddenly reach out to God, which no, not everyone does—what would that prove? Nothing beyond the fact that a person about to die might look for comfort anywhere they can find it.

Since religion has proved itself uniquely delinquent on the one subject where moral and ethical authority might be counted as universal and absolute [not hurting children], I think we are entitled to at least three provisional conclusions. The first is that religion and the churches are manufactured, and that this salient fact is too obvious to ignore. The second is that ethics and morality are quite independent of faith, and cannot be derived from it. The third is that religion is—because it claims a special divine exemption for its practices and beliefs—not just amoral but immoral. The ignorant psychopath or brute who mistreats his children must be punished but can be understood. Those who claim a heavenly warrant for the cruelty have been tainted by evil, and also constitute far more of a danger.

He refers here to several things: systemic child abuse by clergy; the cutting of infant genitalia; the whole concept of parents sacrificing their children, which is pretty central to Christianity; the trauma of telling children that they will suffer eternal torment if they don’t follow all the right rules; withholding from them essential information about how their own bodies work; and possibly other things that I haven’t remembered. This chapter is called “Is Religion Child Abuse?” and as hurtful as I know it is to any believers, I genuinely do believe the answer is yes. Religion is all about relinquishing control of your body, mind, and life to someone other than yourself. It’s about claiming things are facts when in fact they are the opposite of facts, requiring, as they do, faith rather than evidence. I believe that these things are wrong on principle, and I know from my own experience how permanently damaging they can be.

The argument that religious belief improves people, or that it helps to civilize society, is one that people bring up when they have exhausted the rest of their case. Very well, they seem to say, we cease to insist on the Exodus (say), or the Virgin Birth or even the Resurrection, or the “night flight” from Mecca to Jerusalem. But where would people be without faith? . . . The first thing to be said is that virtuous behavior by a believer is no proof at all—indeed is not even an argument for—the truth of his belief . . . [He then goes on to describe, for eight pages in my mass market paperback, some of the horrific violence that has been committed explicitly in the name of religion.] At a minimum, this makes it impossible to argue that religion causes people to be have in a more kindly or civilized manner. The worse the offender, the more devout he turns out to be. It can be added that some of the most dedicated relief workers are also believers (though as it happens the best ones I have met are secularists who were not trying to proselytize for any faith). But the chance that a person committing the crimes was “faith-based” was almost 100 percent, while the chances that a person of faith was on the side of humanity and decency were about as good as the odds of a coin flip.

Even the last-resort argument, the one they fall back on when everything else fails, is itself a failure. And as far as I’m concerned, this is the point that matters most. If religion genuinely made people better rather than worse—rather, if it made societies better, on an institutional scale—whether or not it’s true would be a much less significant issue. But the fact is that religion enables the worst in human nature as well as the best, and where individuals absolutely don’t require it to be good, both individuals and societies gain from religion the justification to be bad.

[Frederick] Douglass was somewhat ambivalent about religion, noting in his Autobiography that the most devout Christians made the most savage slaveholders. The obvious truth of this was underlined when secession really did come and the Confederacy adopted the Latin motto “Deo Vindice” or, in effect, “God on Our Side” . . .

Even a glance at the whole record will show, first, that person for person, American freethinkers and agnostics and atheists come out the best. The chance that someone’s secular or freethinking opinion would cause him or her to denounce the whole injustice [of slavery] was extremely high. The chance that someone’s religious belief would cause him or her to take a stand against slavery and racism was statistically quite small. But the chance that someone’s religious belief would cause him or her to uphold slavery and racism was statistically extremely high, and the latter fact helps us to understand why the victory of simple justice took so long to bring about.

—and still is taking so long to bring about, in questions of race and every other kind of oppression in the United States. This was the single, sole reason for my loss of faith in my own religion: the moment I realized that in every question of morality—actual morality, not the bullshit societal conventions religious people like to pretend are remotely indicative of morals—on every issue, my former church and nearly all of the rest of them spend their time and resources fighting against what is right.

The world is slowly becoming more secular, and I honestly think that’s one of the best things that can happen for all of humanity’s sake (not to mention the rest of the planet). The belief that “God will sort things out in the next life” prevents people from doing what they can to fix things in this one. The belief that “God has ordained things” in a certain way closes people’s minds to what actually exists in the world. The idea of faith teaches people that it’s virtuous to believe something for no reason, and actually in spite of evidence against it. Religious thinking, in short, is responsible for most of the evils in the world. It is both the problem and the thing that prevents us from fixing the problem.

Up until the last few decades, it’s been nearly impossible to even discuss these ideas without having your life ruined, if not taken away. Now that we can talk about it, I think it’s important that we do. Losing my religion was the best thing that ever happened to me, and I can say with certainty that I’m a better person as an atheist than I was as a devout, well-intentioned, and intensely judgmental Christian. Some people will always be terrible, with religion or without it. But I think the more people who take conscious, thoughtful steps away from religion, the better off we will all be.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Jan Hicks says:

    I missed reading this when you published it. I want to applaud you for writing it. I was brought up in a Protestant, non-conformist church, where the emphasis was on being ‘good’, i.e. obedient and unthinking. I believed for a long time, and it gave me comfort and a sense of belonging to a group of people. I shelved a lot of my questions that were based on science and reason, because religion is faith, after all. What changed me was experiencing the worst from people who professed to be doing god’s will. Cliques, bullying, not caring about people because they weren’t from the same social group.

    I like this quote: “It may speak about the bliss of the next world, but it wants power in this one.” Religion is about power, power based in mind control.

    I’m definitely adding this book to my library list.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Gwen says:

      Thanks, Jan. I went through that, too—I watched vocal Christians, who I’d always thought were kind, intelligent, and “Christ-like” people, become vicious, completely irrational propaganda machines. I realized that the only reason they’d been kind before was that I’d been part of their in-group, and they turned on me as soon as they discovered I wasn’t (their decision, not mine, because at that time I still considered myself very much a part of the group). But of course, the terrible way they treated me was justified because they had to “stand up for their beliefs,” etc.

      The concept of “obedience” is emphasized so strongly in my former religion, too (as I’m sure it is in most, because it’s the whole basis of that power and control). It is so creepy to me now, when I think about the way adults pride themselves on being “obedient” to someone else. Isn’t that also strange when you think about how obnoxiously independent Americans think themselves to be? Especially because this kind of fundamentalist religiosity is also particularly American (I just read another book I’m about to post about, The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby, and she explores this in great detail). Everything is about “freedom” and “personal responsibility” for super-religious Americans, except that then their deepest belief is that someone else is in control of their entire lives. This is perplexing.

      Liked by 1 person

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