Imagine a book that compiles all the critiques that have been marshalled against Islam and that now directs them against all the religions of all times. Then you would have something like God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens. The book has made a splash in the US. In Belgium Flemish broadsheets have also devoted much space to it: two pages in De Standaard and even three in De Morgen. Here is a very special book, one would think. And indeed, special it is. Rarely have so many thundering assertions about religion been made with so much fury and with such weak argument. How should the faithful deal with it? Ignoring it is no longer possible. Meekly offering the other cheek? Giving as good as we get? For now the latter is the better option. Christians should welcome criticisms, but some are more useful than others, and this one is of the worst kind.
Religion is a lie used by clever conmen to deceive credulous idiots: Hitchens was once a Marxist and it still shows. Religion is pernicious: religion poisons everything. This thesis he hopes to make plausible by listing an impressive number of examples, spiced with insults resembling those once used against black people and Jews. Admittedly, Hitchens knows plenty of striking anecdotes, more than most believers would care to remember. I would not lose a lot of sleep over the dubious origins of the Mormon religion and the frauds of sectarian quacks. But I do have to concede that religion has sometimes condoned immoral practices and has impeded the quest for scientific truth (could anyone forget the case of Galileo?). Alas, many of his examples are based on faulty information and/or disputable interpretations.
Such a careless treatment of the facts is very surprising from an author who pretends to revere the rules of scientific inquiry. According to Hitchens, Paul was nothing more than an epileptic, Francis of Assisi nothing more than a “primate” who talked to birds. Pius XII is, once again, accused of complicity with Nazism on the authority of John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope. Here he forgets to mention that this book has come under heavy fire from later, more professional, historians. He could have known that much by clicking twice on Amazon.com. My favourite blunder though is the quote, “I am a man of one book”, which he attributes to Thomas Aquinas and with which he introduces a chapter on the intellectual stupidity of religion. The correct quote is “Timeo hominem unius libri” and means “I am wary of an opponent (in a debate) who has read only one book but has read it well”. Two clicks on Google and Hitchens would have known this too, provided he knew the original Latin sentence. In the same way he could have spared Tertullian the totally erroneous interpretation of his “Credo quia absurdum” (a phrase, by the way, he never wrote), and so the errors pile up..
Of course these mis-hits might undermine the credibility of Hitchens as an author without destroying the essence of his argument. You cannot possibly get all your facts right when you try to handle so many of them. However, there are more fundamental flaws also: The first one is of a methodological nature. One cannot argue a very general thesis by citing illustrative examples only. You need representative samples of facts and statistical reasoning. Studies about the empirical consequences of religion abound. How is it possible to ignore their existence? Could it be that Hitchens has either no understanding of statistical reasoning or that their results are not welcome to his preconceptions?
Another serious weakness is that, when commenting on sacred texts, such as the Bible, he arbitrarily follows the fundamentalist reading. The “revelation” of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai he can therefore only read as an eyewitness report about a dictate of Yahweh. For most believers, however, this is one of those stories humans use to express their religious inspiration. A symbolic understanding comes naturally to them because they know a literary genre when they see one. But Hitchens pretends not to know this, thus allowing himself to ridicule many texts that are dear to believers and not only to fundamentalists. Fundamentalists do not realize that their faith is the fruit of a tradition in which such tales follow, correct, and supplant each other. And neither does Hitchens. In his footnotes there is not a single mention of a serious, recent biblical study. He is the proverbial amateur who thinks that being smart compensates for being incompetent.
Finally there is a flaw that will be noticed mainly by the practitioners of sociological research. In contrast to what one would expect, many of them are wary of using “religion” as a subject of activities, except under very precise conditions. Only individuals, or sets of individuals, act: they do so under the influence of religious and many other considerations. More often than not, the mix of these considerations has more explanatory value than any single one, including the religious one. They would therefore find it irresponsible to utter flat statements such as “religion poisons everything”, thus reducing the explanation of human behaviour to the discovery of a single, dominating factor. Even “religious” people are more full of contradictions than Hitchens imagines. Once people said: “The devil made me do it.” Now Hitchens wants to tell us: “religion made us do it.”
Guido Dierickx is Professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of Antwerp
This article first appeared on the web site of OCIPE, the Jesuit European Office. We are grateful to OCIPE for permission to reprint it.