Wednesday, February 27, 2008

god is not Great, Christopher Hitchens

I've written here before about my own atheism and about how, in recent years, I've felt I've had to acknowledge a tone-deafness in my previous arguments against religion. Where previously I took an avowedly antagonistic attitude towards religion (though, in truth, this attitude was not terribly important to me; mostly I just wanted the topic to go away), sweeping all sorts of beliefs aside in my disdain, now I see this kind of antagonism as an unproductive distraction. In the last few years, there have been several books by writers urgently seeking to not only discredit religion, but also to advance the atheistic viewpoint and to defend "reason", or rationality, from the forces of darkness. Though I often agree with many of the basic points these authors tend to make, my essential position is that the focus on religion by these writers is misplaced. Indeed, if the elimination of religion or, more realistically, the lessening of its influence, especially the influence of its more extreme manifestations, is the goal, then they are taking exactly the wrong approach. But to these writers and others the matter is urgent: they are worried about the survival of the species. Well, let me tell you: in my view, there are numerous good reasons to be worried. But such concern, if genuine, should focus attention on our disastrous political and economic situation, yet it rarely does.

Everything else being equal, I’d like to have the time to read all of these recent books, pursuant to a lengthy essay on the topic. But everything else isn't equal, and I don't have that kind of time. Other, more intellectually substantial books are more important. However, against all expectations, I did recently read Christopher Hitchens’ god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. My in-laws have a copy, so it was easily available, and I admit to having had a sort of mordant curiosity about it. I also admit I came into it not expecting much by way of argument, but in fact it's much worse than I imagined it would be. The book is quite terrible, for a variety of reasons. But the things that make it bad (and to my mind, virtually unpublishable) are not necessarily those elements that make up my main problems with it and with the popular so-called “atheist books” it exemplifies. It's bad not least because it's hard to figure what Hitchens really thinks he's doing with the book. He's said that, in effect, he's been writing the book his whole life (the link is to an interview, but he also says as much in the acknowledgments). You'd think he'd have taken more care with it. It's full of sloppy thinking, awkward writing, adolescent point-making, and of course, his stylistic trademarks: withering, sometimes glib scorn, and ostentatious displays of erudition (not to mention outright errors: he has Saddam Hussein invading Iran in 1979, rather than 1980). Occasionally he gets out of his own way long enough to tell us about an interesting historical event or figure, but these passages are the exception.

Who does Hitchens think his audience is? Through the first half of the book, I was inclined to think that his intended readership must be, aside from his fanboys and other rabid atheists, those secular people, such as perhaps myself, who he might view as apologists for religion (as with his familiar accusation that the Left is "soft on fascism"). This seems to be the only way to take the sneering tone of the first few chapters, including the silly repetition of the book's childish sub-title (in italics, naturally) and the overall sloppiness of the writing in those pages. And yet, in Chapter Eleven ("The Tawdriness of the Miraculous and the Decline of Hell"), he attempts to suggest that he might have some sense of what it might be like for one to "lose faith". He writes about how he'd once been a Marxist and now is not:
For a good part of my life, I had a share in this idea that I have not yet quite abandoned. But there came a time when I could not protect myself, and indeed did not wish to protect myself, from the onslaught of reality. Marxism, I conceded, had its intellectual and philosophical and ethical glories, but they were in the past. Something of the heroic period might be perhaps retained, but the fact had to be faced: there was no longer any guide to the future. In addition, the very concept of a total solution had led to the most appalling human sacrifices, and to the invention of excuses for them. Those of us who had sought a rational alternative to religion had reached a terminus that was comparably dogmatic. What else was to be expected of something that was produced by the close cousins of chimpanzees? Infallibility? Thus, dear reader, if you have come this far and found your own faith undermined—as I hope—I am willing to say that to some extent I know what you are going through.
A few comments. First, it is not an original observation to make, that Marxism became something of its own religion, with warring sects and so on. Though, of course, not all Marxists had such religious fervor, or felt the need to see Marx's (or Lenin's, or whoever's) writings as gospel, foretelling history. I find it interesting that Hitchens essentially says he did. Second, the sentence about those "who had sought a rational alternative to religion" is a problem. It implies that it is primarily religion itself, rather than economic and political conditions, that those who followed Marx were trying to escape or change. Third, the reference to "close cousins of chimpanzees"--the book is packed full of phrases like this: asides, parenthetical or otherwise, in which Hitchens lamely drums home one of his favorite points. In this case, the point that humans are products of evolution and not godly design. I certainly do not object to this point; I agree with it. But this is rhetorical overkill and limp writing, and seems designed to provoke, not convince. (He does this constantly: I can't tell you the number of times he derisively uses the word "mammal" to refer to some King or religious figure.) He says, "if you have come this far and found your own faith undermined—as I hope. . .": Is there any chance he believes that such a "confession", with such a reference to "chimpanzees", will persuade anyone who is a believer? Finally, is there really any chance he believes that anyone's faith might be undermined by this book? I find it hard to credit. He can't be that delusional.

You may note that the passage I've excerpted has nothing to do with either "the miraculous" or "the decline of Hell". This is another, in this case relatively minor, problem with the book. It appears to be organized according to topics (like, "The Metaphysical Claims of Religion"), and he does address the ideas that seem advertised by the chapter headings within the relevant chapter. But many passages, such as the one featuring this confession, have little to do with the immediate subject and feel tacked on as a result, as if he had a body of anecdotes and points he felt he had to include, but couldn't fit anywhere else.

Turning to the book's main argument, on page four, he lists for us the "four irreducible objections to religious faith" (numerals are supplied by me):
1. that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos,
2. that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism,
3. that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and
4. that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking.
This is sort of an odd list. It's weird, structurally, that he provides this list, but then rarely returns to it (I believe he only refers to it one other time), instead choosing to harp on the fact that religion is "man-made" (which, of course, it is). That is, he doesn't bother to make his book, the book he's been writing his whole life, achieve any sort of structural coherence. The four points themselves seem to simultaneously say too much and too little. For example, I have no trouble with the first point on the face of it, but Hitchens assumes that this surface meaning trumps everything else. He appears to imagine that religions are constructed from the origin myth on down, and that people who have faith, who choose faith, and who maintain their faith, have that faith based on how much they believe in the factual truth of their religion's origin myth and other claims. That is, Hitchens, just like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins and so many others, is fixated on the factual truth-claims of religion, whereas it seems to me that faith resides elsewhere, outside of the realm of factual claims, and that religious practice has more to do with faith communities and tradition than with factual truth-claims. There is no denying that plenty of religious people and groups do try to make factual truth-claims, claims that often have no validity whatsoever. But the use of these claims is political. The people making them no doubt seriously believe in their content, but they are resorting to such arguments for political reasons.

Personally, I agree with plenty of Hitchens' local points, but many of these points are barely worth making, or are often quite beside the putative larger point. He pretends to be arguing against faith, when instead he spends the bulk of his book showing the crimes of the church, of organized religion. So, if we look at his second point, that the original errant origin myths have led to "the maximum of servility" and "the maximum of solipsism", we can see he overshoots his claim again. As if it's religion only that leads to the "maximum" of either servility or solipsism, and as if these in turn depend on the belief in inaccurate origin myths. He gives examples in the book of this servility and solipsism, but he seems to believe that simply making the observation and providing examples is enough. It's not. He is presumably trying to persuade people who do not see things his preferred way. His task, one would think, is to actually attempt to make an argument that could conceivably persuade. He does not undertake this task. The other two points are handled similarly.

Now I want to address, at length, my real problem with the book, over and above my assessment of its tone or its sloppiness, though, to be sure, they both come into play here. This problem is of course political. In chapter one, Hitchens quotes Marx against the idea that religion offers true "consolation" to those in need, and as a common example where believers have misunderstood or misrepresented what non-believers think (in this case, Marx's view of religion, which is often reduced to the dismissive "religion is the opium of the people", or "opiate of the masses" in the version I'm familiar with). Here is the quote, from Marx's Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, as supplied by Hitchens:
Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusions about its condition is the demand to give up a condition that needs illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of woe, the halo of which is religion. Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers from the chain, not so that man will wear the chain without any fantasy or consolation but so that he will shake off the chain and cull the living flower.
If Hitchens wants to show that Marx took religion seriously, this is fine. However, the quote is interesting for another reason, one that I doubt is intended by Hitchens. It gets at part of what I think is misguided about his book and the entire project of his sort of anti-religion argument (and indeed his shrill warmongering in recent years). These are the two key sentences for me: "The demand to give up the illusions about its condition is the demand to give up a condition that needs illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of woe, the halo of which is religion." Hitchens wants Marx to be saying, simply, that the removal of the illusion of happiness provided by religion is necessary in order for real happiness to be attained. It seems clear to me that Marx here is saying that the conditions of existence ("the vale of woe") themselves prevent "real happiness"--which is why people resort to "illusory happiness", in this case religion (though one might include drugs, art, video games, etc). Thus, it is first the conditions that must be changed. As always, this points to solutions in the political-economic realm.

In fact, current politics is a major problem with this book, though Hitchens pretends that it's not. This becomes apparent as early as chapter two ("Religion Kills"). In this chapter, he tells us of a panel discussion he participated in, just before 9/11, during which Dennis Prager challenged him to "imagine [himself] in a strange city" near twilight, in which he sees coming toward him "a large group of men". Would he "feel safer, or less safe" if he learned "that they were just coming from a prayer meeting?" This is supposed to be a yes/no question, and I agree with Hitchens that it clearly isn't. The question is stupid. Hitchens' answer is that he doesn't need to be hypothetical, since he can draw from his personal experience in "Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem, and Baghdad" and say why he "would feel immediately threatened" if a group of men so approached him, coming from some kind of religious meeting. And then he describes such an experience that he's had in each of these cities. (There is something about the manner in which Hitchens draws from his personal experience that has always irritated me--in a sense, it points to one of the things wrong with him as a public figure. Everything is personal, how ever much he rails against "personal politics".) After his Bethlehem anecdote, he squeezes in this paragraph:
I once heard the late Abba Eban, one of Israel's more polished and thoughtful diplomats and statesmen, give a talk in New York. The first thing to strike the eye about the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, he said, was the ease of its solubility. From this arresting start he went on to say, with the authority of a former foreign minister and UN representative, that the essential point was a simple one. Two peoples of roughly equivalent size had a claim to the same land. The solution was, obviously, to create two states side by side. Surely something so self-evident was within the wit of man to encompass? And so it would have been, decades ago, if the messianic rabbis and mullahs and priests could have been kept out of it. But the exclusive claims to god-given authority, made by hysterical clerics on both sides and further stoked by Armageddon-minded Christians who hope to bring on the Apocalypse (preceded by the death or conversion of all Jews), have made the situation insufferable, and put the whole of humanity in the position of hostage to a quarrel that now features the threat of nuclear war. Religion poisons everything. As well as a menace to civilization, it had become a threat to human survival.
This paragraph is remarkably ignorant, or cynical, I can't decide which. I'm not going to try to tell you that religion plays no role whatsoever in the conflict over Palestine/Israel. It does play a role. But this conflict is fundamentally not about religion. It's about land, it's about water, it's about dispossession, it's about racism, it's about nationalism, it's about Zionism, it's about colonialism. It's about Israel as a U.S. client state and its regional role in the global maintenance of capitalism. It's about oil. In short, it's about politics. The idea that, if religion were removed from the occasion, all other considerations would magically cease to exist is absurd. (And if religion were no factor, and the political differences disappeared, how is it that the "two-state solution" is still the preferred one? Presumably without either religion or politics, everyone would be free to exist in one state, no?) It's disturbing that a figure in the position of Eban would say such thing, though I realize it's unfortunately a fairly commonplace view. It's more disturbing that Christopher Hitchens would buy into it, though I'm not sure why I continue to expect him to know better.

Then he comes to Baghdad. He tells us that he is not "going to elaborate a position on the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in April 2003". And then proceeds to make a number of assertions (as usual, unsupported--Christopher Hitchens doesn't need to cite evidence for anything; he simply knows what's going on), assertions that depend on a certain ridiculous, long discredited position on what he benignly calls the "overthrow of Saddam Hussein" (some of us refer to this as the invasion of Iraq). Throughout the book, as noted, he conflates the uses of religion by the powerful, with the practices and beliefs of those who are religious. Here, he seeks to disabuse those who would refer to Hussein's regime as "secular" by listing the numerous ways in which the regime was religiously inclined. He writes: "at least since his calamitous invasion of Iran in 1979 [sic], which led to furious accusations from the Iranian theocracy that he was an 'infidel,' Saddam Hussein had decked out his whole rule [...] as one of piety and jihad." And so on. Does it really not occur to Hitchens that Hussein, one of the more cynical rulers in recent history, might have been using religion for his own powerful ends? I'm not a student of Hussein's regime, but Hitchens needs to make an argument, and, again, he simply doesn't bother. He doesn't notice this cynical possibility: he simply makes an assertion, one that is not backed up by anything other than a list of facts, which he assumes can have played no other role than the one he assigns them. No citations of any kind are offered.

From here, he moves on to the invasion of Iraq itself. The next few pages are simply astonishing displays of a writer framing a story to suit his own needs, the implications of actual facts notwithstanding. Here is an excerpt:
At a minimum, it can be agreed by all that the Iraqi people had endured much in the preceding thirty-five years of war and dictatorship, that the Saddam regime could not have gone on forever as an outlaw system within international law, and therefore that--whatever objections there might be to the actual means of "regime change"--the whole society deserved a breathing space in which to consider reconstruction and reconciliation. Not one single minute of breathing space was allowed.

Everybody knows the sequel. The supporters of al-Qaeda, led by a Jordanian jailbird named Abu Musub al-Zarqawi, launced a frenzied campaign of murder and sabotage. [...] They directed the most toxic part of their campaign of terror at fellow Muslims. The mosques and funeral processions of the long-oppressed Shiite majority were blown up. [...] Before long, Shia death squads, often garbed in police uniforms, were killing and torturing random members of the Sunni Arab faith. The surreptitious influence of the neighboring "Islamic Republic" of Iran was not difficult to detect, and in some Shia areas also it became dangerous to be an unveiled woman or a secular person. Iraq boasts quite a long history of intermarriage and intercommunal cooperation. But a few years of this hateful dialectic soon succeeded in creating an atmosphere of misery, distrust, hostility, and sect-based politics. Once again, religion had poisoned everything.
Note, again, that Hitchens is now employing "regime change" as the accepted reason for the invasion; apparently he is no longer interested in defending the many other rationales that were used at different times as justification, by himself included. He observes that Iraqis have "endured much"--something we can indeed all agree on--but he has no apparent interest in other facts, beyond the nature of Hussein's regime, which have some bearing on the matter. He calls the regime "an outlaw system within international law", with no apparent irony, given his embrace of his new American citizenship, but also with no acknowledgment of the shifting requirements Iraq was forced to meet during the 12 years of UN sanctions, murderously manipulated by the United States and Great Britain. Nowhere in his account of "the sequel" does he mention the U.S. attack, the subsequent occupation, or the continued presence of American soldiers, which presence has been consistently cited by a huge majority of Iraqis as the chief reason for the continuing violence. No, it was for Hitchens simply a matter of sectarian fanatics refusing to allow the proper period of breathing space necessary for other Iraqis to . . . to what? Build an independent, pluralistic, liberal democracy? Does Hitchens actually believe that the United States was going to let anything like this happen? Or does Hitchens think that the Iraqis should be thankful for the removal of Saddam Hussein and simply welcome their new U.S.-appointed, U.S.-subservient government? He doesn't say. Granted, his book is not about the War, but his overall claims depend to a large extent on the truth-value of what he says. If he is hung up on the truth-claims of religion, he cannot expect to get away with making such assertions as if they are facts that are self-evident. (Incidentally, in one of the passages I've elided above, Hitchens refers to a letter Zarqawi sent to Osama bin Laden. He gives a State Department url for this letter in the back of the book. This is the only citation supplied for his account of the war on Iraq.)

In the final chapter of the book ("The Need for a New Enlightenment"), we learn of the source of Hitchens' fear for the survival of the species and thus his sense of urgency in writing this book at this time. "[T]he confrontation between faith and civilization" is now "on a whole new footing", since "a version of the Inquisition is about to lay hands on a nuclear weapon". He is, of course, referring to Iran. It is perhaps appropriate that this book should end with such an assertion as part of its concluding remarks. Of Iran, he writes that with "the stultified rule of religion, the great and inventive and sophisticated civilization of Persia has been steadily losing its pulse". He recites a brief litany of ills: exiled and censored artists and intellectuals; sexual repression; poorly educated youth. "After a quarter century of theocracy . . . [m]odernity and technology have passed it by, save for the one achievement of nuclearization." Do I need to tell you that Hitchens provides no evidence for any of this? It used to be, writes Hitchens, that
those who adopted the clerical path had to pay a heavy price for it. Their societies would decay, their economies contract, their best minds would go to waste or take themselves elsewhere, and they would be consistently outdone by societies that had learned to tame and sequester the religious impulse. A country like Afghanistan would simply rot. . .
All that changed, of course, with 9/11, and now with Iran's alleged "nuclearization". As with his description of the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Hitchens displays no interest in, or even awareness of, the role of the West in any of this. Of course he knows about the U.S./British overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953 and the subsequent role of the Shah as regional enforcer; he knows about the U.S. funding and training of the mujahideen against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and the subsequent blowback. He knows these facts, but he refuses to address them, or to even mention anything else that takes away from his grand narrative of theocratic evil, operating in irrational isolation, against the forces of light and reason. Though he is prepared to eagerly accept the existence of ancient hatreds (as between the Sunni and Shia), he consistently refuses to consider that the extensive activities, over at least 60 years, of the United States in Iran, in Afghanistan, in Iraq (and before them, the British, and other Western powers), have had any effect whatsoever on these places, have had any effect on the options that are available to the people living in them. With Iran and "nuclearization" he continues his embarrassing tendency in recent years to believe almost anything about his declared enemy. Of course, Hitchens' book was published before the NIE findings made public in December, which reported that Iran had "halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003". I'm skeptical about the existence of such a program even in 2003, but I certainly cannot hold Hitchens responsible for knowing about these findings. However, I can hold him responsible for his willingness to jump to conclusions and his credulity in the face of highly dubious official claims. Well before the NIE report, there were countless pieces of evidence that pointed to the fact that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapons program. But Hitchens, it seems, wants to believe that it is, wants to have justification for his hate. Do I need to point out the irony?

Towards the beginning of this post, I wrote that god is not Great is not just a bad book, but "virtually unpublishable". Why do I say this? Certainly I disagree with a large amount of the book, but my disagreement does not make a book bad or make it unpublishable. I've tried to show why I think that the arguments presented by Christopher Hitchens in god is Not Great are at best inadequate and where I think the book exemplifies many of the problems with the anti-religion argument. I hope I've been able to demonstrate the flaws in some of his arguments, such as they are. On the litblogs we see a lot of hand-wringing about the current state of publishing. And it's not uncommon to see laments about the quality of our public discourse; I've certainly made my share of such comments here. Books are published all the time that add nothing but fear and bile to this discourse (feel free to supply the title of your favorite right-wing screed). Hitchens' book is not quite as bad as all that. But what does the book add to any discussion? There is nothing in god is not Great that can't be found elsewhere, other than the ubiquitous presence of Christopher Hitchens himself, with his rhetorical winks and nudges. The book is poorly argued, tonally inconsistent, and frankly childish, from the title and sub-title on down. The inconsistency in tone--as if he intended to destroy religion once and for all with the power of his scorn, but then occasionally realized that he needed to make a feint in the direction of persuasion, with disingenuous displays of humility thrown in for good measure--is part of what I mean when I say the book is sloppily written. For me, these qualities ought to mean that the book should have been sent back for considerable re-tooling before it got anywhere near being published. And yet it was not only a best-seller, but was nominated for a National Book Award. The latter in particular is another tiny sign of an intellectual culture in poor health. Hitchens may say that he'd been effectively writing the book his whole life, but it has the feel of something slapped together quickly in order to cash in on a trend.


AC said...

Great post.

Many years ago I stumbled on a Christian fundamentalist website called "Perilous Times." I read it with the same mordant curiosity that you describe in reading Hitchens' book. It reminded me of watching a car wreck. I believe that the site is now defunct, but it is incredibly ironic that it (along with so much of today's religious/political "discourse") employed virtually the same rhetoric and anecdotal reasoning.

The scary part is that, from your post (I haven't read the book), Hitchens essentially reaches the same conclusions as many religious politicians today: regime change was good. It's the Iraqis own fault that the region is violent. Iran is bad. And so on.

I had no idea that the book was nominated for a National Book Award, but when I read that, my heart just sank.

Anonymous said...

I find it interesting to consider, when faced with a bestselling book like Hitchen's, how many readers it actually has--compared to how many copies purchased and even left visibly displayed in people's houses. After all, you clearly read this book more closely than ANYONE; and you expose just how unreadable it really is. When we wonder who Hitchens could have had in mind as an audience, the answer is obviously: no one, he doesn't bother with that. The book is an extended bad joke. It follows the form and has the style of a chronic alcoholic: largely a denial. Reiterated to death. Of thought, of literary skill, and last of all anything ever known as religion. My contention is that no one really reads it; and people who say it is a significant book especially don't bother to read it. It's cheap wine. Enjoyed your writing on it though.

Richard said...

AC, Lloyd - thanks for the comments.

There's a good chance you're right, Lloyd. It's doubtful that too many people actually read the best-sellers that get so much press. The all too plausible alternative, however, bothers me more: that people do read them, and are unable to notice how shitty they are.

max said...

hey there.

read part of this essay excerpted and posted somewhere else. I sure like what I've read so far--it seems like the first review of hitchens' anti-religious blatherings that gets it right, so hats off!

Honestly, hitch and his pals strike me as among the worst possible standard bearers for atheism. At least Dawkins can actually claim some scientific expertise and make intelligent arguments against intelligent design and similar tomfoolery. Hitchens is just so full of crap on so many levels and i agree with you entirely that the book is primarily about cashing in on a lucrative fad.