Books

[Review] God is Not Great: How Religions Poisons Everything

God-Is-Not-Great-288183The biggest problem with God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything is that its title and combative tone ensure that the audience that should be exposed to its arguments is the one that will avoid it at all costs.

The late Christopher Hitchens needs little introduction to those of us who are religiously unencumbered and cast a skeptical eye at the shenanigans of organized religion and its supporters. A devout atheist, Hitchens railed against religion at just about any opportunity – and used God is Not Great as a sort of catch-all for his many arguments against religion.

Rather than buying the book, I decided to get the audiobook so I could listen to this while walking or at the gym. While not a criticism of the text,  I would note that Hitchens' reading is a little monotonous and ever-so-slightly in need of better enunciation. I'd also note that, in hindsight, a book that often quotes other authors and cites ancient names with great frequency is probably better read than listened to.

As a polemic against religion, it mostly succeeds – though I have taken to understand that Hitchens was not quite as rigorous in fact-checking as one might have hoped. Mostly the arguments against God is Not Great have come from defenders of the faith, who've poked at overstatements or minor factual errors that don't actually detract from the overall arguments against religion.

The individual arguments are offered one per chapter, sort of haphazardly. For instance, Hitchens devotes an entire chapter on the proscription against pork ("A Short Digression on the Pig; or, Why Heaven Hates Ham"), others against the Old Testament, Eastern religions, whether religions constitute child abuse, and a final (weak) chapter on "The Need for a New Enlightenment."

If you are an atheist or agnostic, you might likely find this work enjoyable and perhaps a handy collection of additional arguments to add to your own against religion. But it's unlikely that many religious adherents are going to be persuaded by Hitchens work. For that reason, it falls down quite a bit – writing to the audience who already shares your opinion is, well, a bit masturbatory.

It isn't that Hitchens fails to make his points, it's that there's no attempt to enter a discourse with the opposing side that would even lightly tempt a believer to engage with the argument. The book may work with doubters, but even those who are on the fence may find the work entirely too combative and be repelled by its tone.

Did I personally find it enjoyable? Yes. And it made me a little sad to remember all the while that Hitchens is no longer an active voice in the debate about religion and its effect on society. While religion is weaker than it was in the past, it still is causing damage today – and we need more voices against it. (As a side note, listening to the work also caused me to realize the enormous gaps in my own education and reading. If nothing else, God is Not Great served me personally as an incitement to dig deeper and more broadly in my own reading.)

But we also need more progressive and less angry voices than Hitchens, I think. What I would wish of a book like this is something I could hand to a friend that still clings to religion and/or its trappings and say "read this" in the hopes it would be persuasive. God is Not Great does not persuade, it assails and demands to be accepted. Satisfying, perhaps, but not as effective as it could have been.

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