God Is [not] Great

This started out as a book review, but morphed into a full-scale rebuttal, not of every false claim by Hitchens (because he is somewhat repetitious), but certainly of a lot of them. Hitchens has 19 chapters:

Hitchens chapter: 1  2  3  4  5  6  7 8  9  10 11  12  13 14  15  16 17  18  19 My conclusion

P.155  The next chapter discusses the beginnings of three modern religions, which have the advantage of modern historical methods and documentation. From these three examples (I can think of others with similar failings) Hitchens seeks to denigrate all organized religions as being similarly the result of hucksters fleecing the gullible. Atheists also fleece the gullible, but in this pluralistic country only in book sales, at which Hitchens has not done too badly. The trouble is, Christianity (and Judaism) didn't follow the model, a fact Hitchens is less than eager to disclose.

P.158  I cannot remember who said it, but greedy people are easy to sucker. Everybody is naturally selfish, and most people exhibit their selfishness in greed. The Pacific Island "cargo cults" built on the human greed to have free stuff, which the American cargo planes brought during WWII. When the war ended and the troops left, enterprizing shamans thought they could persuade more to come by building more landing strips with fake airplane decoys to attract them. Hitchens doesn't mention it, but the socialists in this country attract voters to their cause by the same kinds of promises -- most recently the promise of wealth redistribution and free health care. The people whose taxes have to pay for the empty promises are not fooled, but "47%" of the citizens don't pay Federal income taxes. They do pay taxes on increased energy prices and higher cost of living, but maybe they don't notice. As I write this, the politicians are trying to duke it out over that issue. Anyway, Hitchens describes one variant of the cargo cult in New Britain that looks rather like the American political party that calls itself "Democratic" -- Hitchens doesn't say that, but prefers to call out features that resemble Christian teachings, from which this cult obviously borrowed. Hitchens doesn't say that either, it would diminish the impact of his analogy, which he is eager to point out.

"All religions down the ages have shown a keen interest in the amassment of material goods in the real world." That's actually true of most people, religious or otherwise. The atheists at the top of Soviet-bloc countries did the same for themselves, as do also the non-religious large corporations all over the world today. It's not a religious thing. Many Christians and Buddhists eschew wealth. Maybe some atheists do too. So what? Greed is not a religious thing.

P.159  Preying on the greed of gullible people may be easier in a religious context, but Hitchens opens his next segment with a non-religious analogy, telling how "the immortal children's Christmas pantomine Peter Pan" -- it must be a British thing, I only first heard of it this year -- persuaded their audience to applaud for the renewed existence of fairy Tinkerbell, and then transitions into the story of Marjoe Gortner, who as a child was trained to exploit religious events with "all the intellectual content of the Tinkerbell scene, nastily combined with the ethics of Captain Hook." Nobody today has ever heard of Marjoe Gortner, he did not start a religion, it's just a couple of people (the unfortunate child's parents) who managed to use religion to get rich ("You saps keep the faith. We'll just keep the money.")

P.160  There are no rich people profiting off the poor in the church I go to, but "the poor continue to finance the rich, just as if the glittering temples and palaces of Las Vegas had been built by the money of those who won rather than those who lost." Everybody knows that the house is the only winner in gambling casinos. People who want to get rich are easily fleeced, and it doesn't necessarily take religion to do it.

P.161  In his final segment on "Religion's Corrupt Beginnings" Hitchens briefly compares Joseph Smith to the founder of Islam, then (as if the analogy still held) goes on for several pages to describe Smith as a life-long huckster "who at trial admitted to defrauding citizens by organizing mad gold-digging expeditions." The origin of Mormonism is easily debunked, and Hitchens has access to better documents than I do. It almost seems comical that today we have a Mormon running against a Cargo-Cultist for President of the United States. Hitchens couldn't know that when he wrote this book.

P.165  The point Hitchens wants to make from the Mormon lesson is that we should accept "that there have always been those for whom 'belief in belief' is a good thing in itself," and "people can be better off believing in something rather than in nothing, however untrue that something may be." I don't agree in general, and certainly not in the case of Hitchens himself, where the "something" he believed in was the untrue notion that he believed in nothing.

P.166  Of Joseph Smith, Hitchens wonders, "was he a huckster all the time, or was there a pulse inside him somewhere? The study of religion suggests to me that, while it cannot possibly get along without great fraud and also minor fraud, this remains a fascinating and somewhat open question." The first three centuries of Christianity had only persecution, with no evidence of fraud. There is only fraud when there is wealth to be gained, and the beginnings of Christianity did not have it. After Constatine things changed, but that does not deny the truth of its start. Joseph Smith did not go after the big bucks -- he probably would not have succeeded -- but after less than two centuries, the church he started is not doing so bad. Unlike Christianity, we have copies of early Mormon documents and sources that differ substantially from present teachings. The Mormons try to hide them, but they cannot suppress everything. The first- and second-century Christians did not have as much power as the Mormons do today, and if there were skeletons in the closets, we should have been able to find them. There aren't any.

Hitchens is continually offended -- and properly so -- by slavery and racism, but he cannot be so from a Darwinist basis. While whining about "Christian preachers of all kinds [who] justified slavery until the American Civil War and even afterwards," he conveniently neglects to mention that all of the abolitionists of that time (and before that, in England) were explicitly Christians. True, "Christians" do bad things; so do atheists. Other Christians do good things; atheists mostly do not. To do evil is human nature, and Christians and atheists and Mormons alike are human; Christianity offers an escape from that evil nature, which the atheists do not and cannot. Hitchens should know this, but not many "Christians" are on what Jesus called "the narrow way" and even fewer can explain it. Apparently young Christopher Hitchens did not come under its teaching, or if he did, he chose to ignore it. More on human nature a couple chapters later, if the chapter title is any guide.

P.171  The whole of the short twelfth chapter, "How Religions End," is devoted to one Sabbatai Sevi, who collected a following of Jews who thought him to be the Messiah. The Muslims did what they always do, and offered "a trial by ordeal. The archers of the court would use him as a target, and if heaven deflected the arrows he would be adjudged genuine. Should he refuse, he would be impaled. If he wished to decline the choice altogether, he could affirm himself to be a true Muslim and be allowed to live. Sabbatai Zevi [sic] did what almost any ordinary mammal would have done, made the standard profession of belief in the one god and his messenger." The Muslims and the atheists still today make that demand of Christians, and most Christians apparently are not "ordinary mammals." The Soviet gulag prisons were filled with Christians who refused to bow to the atheist god, and there are Christian ministries today who support the widows of Christian martyrs killed by Muslim terrorists in their respective countries. The atheists have been announcing the end of Christianity for hundreds of years. One fraudulent "Messiah" who capitulated on threat of death is not "how religions end." The Christian Messiah did not capitulate, nor do his true followers today. Joseph Smith did not capitulate. Most of the other founders were not given that mortal choice. Except for a few apostate "Christians" four hundred years ago, only Muslims and atheists ever offer such a choice, and they continue to do so today.

P.176  For his chapter "Does Religion Make People Behave Better?" Hitchens seems to have surveyed a smattering of good and reprehensible behaviors, and considered whether the persons involved could be associated with (theistic) religion or not, then chose as examples religious people doing bad things, and atheists doing good things, and discarded the rest. Except Hitchens devotes some six pages to Dr.Martin Luther King Jr., taking care to mention all the negativity about him that he was able to dig up (see for example Snopes) as somehow evidence that "In no real as opposed to nominal sense was he a Christian." This seems to be important to Hitchens, because much of the first half of the chapter condemns the evil of racism, and he wants to claim that moral high ground for atheism, despite that Darwin's book explicitly promotes racism (at least in its title) and most Darwinists and atheists prior to the fall of Hitler understood that and believed in it. Hitchens is also too eager to accept the bogus use of religion in the pre-civil-rights South in defense of slavery in what was essentially an economic issue. Before the widespread use of air conditioning, it was simply too hot there for people to do much uncoerced work.

P.180  Hitchens claims "that person for person, American freethinkers and agnostics and atheists come out the best [morally]... The chance that someone's religious belief would cause him or her to uphold slavery and racism was statistically extremely high." On the other hand Christian authors tell us that abolition was essentially a Christian thing. Generally when faced with contradictory claims like this, I try to withhold judgment until I can examine the primary data, but to answer a statistical argument would require that I look at a lot of data, which would take more effort than I want to spend on it at this time, and for what purpose? We already know that Hitchens' book is full of verified lies and deceptions and selected data, and I do not find that degree of mendacity among Christian authors. Christian teaching -- including the Old Testament -- has always been to protect the poor and the weak and the downtrodden, and what is sometimes translated as "slave" in the Bible is nothing like the racist institution that marred a large part of this country for its first century, but rather a just and reasonable way to help a person who had fallen on hard times to escape his disaster with dignity, and to be released after a maximum of seven years of working off his debt. First-century Roman slavery was different, and not encouraged in the Bible, but neither was sedition.

P.181  Hitchens admits that the continued practice of slavery today is entirely a Muslim thing. There would also have been no African slaves in the USA 200 years ago but for the Muslim slave traders in Africa. Hitchens won't readily admit it, but no Christian took them captive. It's not religion that poisons everything, but Islam and atheism.

P.187  Hitchens mentions Novelist Evelyn Waugh's remark about "how much worse he would be if he were not a Catholic," and goes on to claim that "any examination of Waugh's actual life shows that its most wicked elements arose precisely from his faith." Not being in a position to perform such an examination, I won't dispute the claim (except as previously noted, to observe Hitchens' less than exemplary honesty in matters I can readily check). People are sinners, and Biblical Christians have never taught otherwise. Christianity -- indeed, most religions -- offers a reason to do better, but selfishness (which is celebrated only by the athesits, Hitchens possibly excepted) often overcomes religious motivations. Stuff happens. Nevertheless, Hitchens never gives us any reason to believe that atheists can or will do better, except for his dubious statisitical claim which ignores the famous atheists like Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot who did more harm in the last century than all Christians put together in all of history. Sure, just as some Christians are kind and generous, some atheists are also kind and generous; methinks they are only the more carefully following the advice of Somerset Maugham's semi-rational atheism, which states "do what thou wilt, with due regard for the policeman around the corner." For some of us, atheist and Christian alike, public opinion is a pretty good policeman.

P.190  The African Church, they tell us, "is a mile wide and an inch deep." So I do not consider it overly surprising that Hitchens is able to find brutal nutcakes like Joseph Kony to whine about. However, I think it improper to lay the blame for the Rwanda genocide on the Catholics. The Catholics and other Christians certainly should have made a bigger effort to stop it, but it was a tribal thing, not religious. It was not Catholic against Protestant or against animist, but Hutu against Tutsi. Hitchens obviously doesn't mention it, but it's the Christians who are there today providing healing and reconciliation.

P.193  Hitchens praises Pope John Paul II for helping "the anti-Nazi resistance in his native country as a young man, and in later life he did much to assist its emancipation from Soviet rule." He also praises him for making apologies on behalf of the Catholic church -- I didn't see Hitchens apologizing for Hitler or Stalin -- but he criticizes the Pope for not mentioning Rwanda, ignoring again that the Catholics were not responsible for it.

P.196  I'm all in favor of giving the Devil his due. Like Darwin's "natural selection" which actually works to preserve the "fittest" (it just has no power to make new species from which to select), Hitchens is right in chapter 14 that "There Is No 'Eastern' Solution." There is only one (maybe two, depending on who is counting) God-given "religion" and it's not one of the eastern religions Hitchens finds so much fault with. He spent time in India and I did not, so he might know a thing or two first-hand. I liked his Zen koan, "What is the reflection of a mind discarded?" It was his response to a sign near Bombay, "Shoes and minds must be left at the gate." There is no such sign on churches, but many Christians (see "Relationshipism") and essentially all athesits approach their own religion the same way. I do not agree.

P.199  "Conceivably, some readers of these pages will be shocked to learn of the existence of Hindu and Buddhist murderers and sadists." I would predict that, on the basis of my insight a week ago (p.153) and again on p.187: People are sinners, and selfishness often overcomes religious motivations. It is only in atheism and Islam that the religion itself teaches their adherents to persecute and kill outsiders, but the atheists and Muslims alike now mostly ignore those teachings, except when they are in power (think: Hitler and Stalin and bin Laden and the Ayatolla). People in other religious faiths often let their selfishness overcome their professed teachings. Stuff happens. It's the human condition, not their religion (except of course the atheists and the Muslims).

Reading this tripe is getting to be a drag, but I only have 80 more pages to wade through. Hitchens was a professional writer, paid to write things that people wanted to read, and he did so. This book is not an exception, but he didn't write it for thoughtful Christians like me, but rather for idiots and credulous atheists (which in my thinking is the same thing), who unfortunately outnumber us. It occurs to me that Hitchens, like most people of whatever religion (including atheism), probably mostly believes what he says he believes. In polemic presentations like this book, he (and most everybody else whose job does not depend on accepting uncomfortable truth) tends to present the evidence that supports his agenda, and to shove aside the less persuasive data without allowing it to unduly influence his prejudices. To somebody of a different persuasion, it looks like lies and fraud. When Hitchens sees what the religionists (other than atheists, that is) write and say under the same methodology, he reasonably calls it "poison." When the rest of us see what he has done, it looks like he is being a hypocrite. As I said above, I'm inclined to give the Devil his due. There aren't many Christians who actually exercise the care in choosing their words that Hitchens wants to see in us -- but then, the atheists don't either: witness this book.

P.205  As a case in point, observe how Hitchens begins his chapter on "Religion as an Original Sin":

There are, indeed, several ways in which religion is not just amoral, but positively immoral. And these faults and crimes are not to be found in the behavior of its adherents (which can sometimes be exemplary) but in its original precepts. These include:
*  Presenting a false picture of the world to the innocent and the credulous
*  The doctrine of blood sacrifice
*  The doctrine of atonement
*  The doctrine of eternal reward and/or punishment
*  The imposition of impossible tasks and rules
The first point has already been covered. All the creation myths of all peoples have long been known to be false.
It is important to read this as including atheism among the religions so condemned. The first point has already been covered. Although there had been atheists long before 1859, Darwinism is now the foundational "original precepts" of atheism, and it is a fortiori the atheist creation myth, which has long been known to be false. Not by the atheists and closet atheists, of course; nobody "knows" their own myths to be false, they only believe the competing creation stories are untrue. In my case, I actually investigated the competing stories, and the Darwinist myth does not come with any supporting primary (peer-reviewed) evidence. No Darwinist I have ever asked has been able to show any. When I look at what they themselves are doing, their research does not support their own myth. That's not true of the Creationists. They don't have much, but it's more than zero. That's the reason I switched. The main argument in favor of the Darwinist picture of the world is and remains hearsay. If the myth is not false, then the Darwinists are idiots for neglecting to tell us about its supporting evidence. But credulous people -- including all atheists -- believe them anyway.

The second and third items here are essentially one and the same. The Christian Atonement is a blood sacrifice, and Hitchens does not hesitate to say so. The Darwinism version of this item is the "red in tooth and claw" line that you can find in many of their books -- but less frequently in debate, because it looks so bad; after all, who wants to admit to a "doctrine of blood sacrifice" in this day and age? The "eternal reward and/or punishment" that atheism offers is annihilation. That would be a reward for people with a guilty conscience, and punishment for people who prefer to outlive their allotted threescore and ten.

P.206  "The altars of primitive society reeked of blood, much of it human and some of it infant."  Hitchens himself may not have been pro-abortion, but it's a reasonable Darwinist agenda for eliminating "inferior races," as was the original purpose given by the founder of America's largest child-killer, Planned Parenthood, and continues to be demonstrated in their targetting of minorities with their "services." The more devout Christians (and Muslims) oppose this modern child-sacrifice.

It is common for atheists to inconsistently complain about Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac on Mt.Moriah, but they actually must read the account selectively in order to pin this accusation on him. Abraham did not expect nor plan to leave the ashes of his dead son on the mountain, but rather told his servants beforehand "we will return." Abraham had been promised by God that his son Isaac would be his heir, and since Isaac was a miracle child, God obviously knew what He was talking about. Abraham understood that, even if the modern atheists do not.

P.209  "Once again we have a father demonstrating love by subjecting a son to death by torture." This again misrepresents the Christian text, which clearly teaches us that Jesus volunteered for the job. Self-sacrifice is a virtue that even the atheists (including Hitchens, begrudgingly) admire.

P.210  Hitchens is offended by the attribution of guilt from the parents onto their children. It's an ignorant complaint. The sins of the parents do impact the children. My father did things, some of which had a beneficial effect on me, others had a negative effect. One of the negative effects completely wiped out the possibility of any progeny bearing his patronym. Stuff happens. Innocent people get hurt when people do Bad Things. Get a grip.

P.211  "Religion is scapegoating writ large," Hitchens is eager to tell us. His own religion is not excepted. You can see his efforts to blame the evils of the world on the religions other than his own (he would call that "scapegoating" if he saw it in a Christian) in the very title of his book.

Hitchens affirmingly quotes Bertrand Russell's claimed response to God on Judgment Day, "Oh God, you did not give us enough evidence." Of course God did give us enough evidence, and those of us who chose to seek it out, found it. Bertrand Russell and Hitchens preferred not to look. God even predicted that response. Hitchens is slightly more honest with his own supposed apology: "Imponderable Sir, I presume from some if not all of your many reputations that you might prefer honest and convinced unbelief to the hypocritical and self-interested affectation of faith or the smoking tributes of bloody altars. But I would not count on it." Except he apparently did count on it, to his own loss. There is a third and better alternative, honest and convinced belief in the Son, as supported by reliable historical documents and good science. Hitchens chose not to investigate that alternative.

P.212  "The essential principle of totalitarianism is to make laws that are impossible to obey." [Hitchens' italics] I don't think so, but let's pretend. I will concede that many conservative Christians admit that God's law is impossible. I don't agree. His Law is actually very simple: (1) Love God with all your heart, etc, and (2) Love your neighbor as yourself. The Second part is essentially the Golden Rule which even the atheists affirm, in word if not in practice. The First part is a reasonable response to the fact that God created us and has the natural right of ownership over us. Hitchens finds that duty repugnant and spares no effort saying so, but his feelings are irrelevant; what matters is the reality. He could control his feelings and bring them into conformity with reality, if he so chose. Atheists like to brag about being able to do that. The problem is, we are greedy. We are selfish. It's not impossible to do Good, but often more convenient (in the short term) to do otherwise. Hitchens is not exempt from such selfishness, as seen in the polemics of his book. But he affirms the Golden Rule and claims to be able to follow it. That's pretty much all God asks of us, but without exception. When we fail at the Golden Rule, innocent people get hurt. Innocent people get hurt every day, because of those failures. What is Hitchens going to do about that? Nothing at all! God did something. God gave us the cure. We don't do very well at accepting it, but it's there. It's not impossible.

P.213  I see that Hitchens considers the Golden Rule (as stated) to be onerous. I suspect that is because he is selfish and does not want true fairness to prevail. That's what the "as yourself" means, that you should never do to people what you do not want done to yourself. Is that so hard? It's hard if you are greedy to have what you have not earned, or to impose your will on others in ways you do not want them imposing their will on you. Yes, selfishness is sort of built into us, but it can be overcome. Many atheists actually do so, much of the time. I imagine Hitchens did too. It's not impossible. It's much harder to do it all the time, but not impossible. He even says as much (once you filter out his unreasonable criticism of the Biblical wording), that it "is well within the compass of any atheist."

P.214  Continuing his distortion of the Golden Rule, Hitchens says, "By a nice chance, cupidity and avarice are the spur to economic development." No matter that such virtuous sages as Karl Marx or Adam Smith (which he mentioned) or Ayn Rand (which he did not) might have thought so, cupidity and avarice do not spur economic development nearly so much as the "as yourself" clause of the Golden Rule does. Business consultants call it "win-win negotiation," and it is what made the USA great, and in prior centuries (before cupidity and avarice took over) also England and Germany, all of which built their greatness on a Biblical morality of Golden Rule ethics. Apart from that ethic, you can easily see what cupidity and avarice alone do for the economy in post-Soviet Russia and in most of Latin America. The same greed was prevalent in the atheist-controlled Soviet Union, but their failed Marxist economic models restricted the opportunities to a much smaller elite. Atheism always has that effect. As the atheists take over the teaching of ethics in America (removing explicit Biblical ethics everywhere), we see American business moving to the same greed-at-all-costs failed economic model, with its disastrous effect on the national (and world) economy, even as I write this.

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Minor corrections added 2012 December 31