Christopher Hitchens used to be a courageous and electrifying writer. An heir to the mantle worn by Thomas Paine, William Hazlitt, William Cobbett, and George Orwell, he aimed his keen and pugnacious intelligence at all things false: from Henry Kissinger to Mother Teresa, from the Clintons to the Taliban, no idol du jour was left unscathed by his rigorous and undaunted mind.
His columns in the Nation during the first stage of the Iraq War (1990-91) are masterpieces of political analysis and moral commentary. With effortless versatility, Hitchens pronounced on literature and art as well as politics, and his judgments provided an invaluable education in sensibility. A socialist in the age of capitalist triumphalism, he embodied the finest of that sometimes ridiculous breed, the intellectual engagé.
That was then. After 9/11, in a celebrated volte-face, Hitchens loudly ambled rightward, resigning from the Nation and burning his bridges to the Left. Detecting intellectual and moral timidity in the anguished ambivalence of his liberal friends and allies, he promoted the Bush administration’s “war on terror,” blustered tirelessly for the invasion of Iraq, and impugned the integrity of anyone who doubted the wisdom of the cause. Writing for Vanity Fair and appearing frequently on television, Hitchens joined the Beltway commentariat and plunged into that orgy of self-aggrandizement known as punditry. As the TV appearances multiplied, the level of vitriol in his manner rose, cementing his image as a virtuoso and all-but-unvanquishable contrarian.
But as Mark Twain once mused, give a man a reputation as an early riser and he can sleep until noon. With God Is Not Great, a caustic polemic on the evils of religion, Hitchens has earned the dubious honor of confirming Twain’s aphorism. Anyone expecting a masterful demolition of all things sacred will be disappointed. Bullying and shallow, God Is Not Great is a haute middlebrow tirade, a stale venting of outrage and ridicule. Beneath his Oxbridge talent at draping glibness in the raiment of erudition, Hitchens proves to be an amateur in philosophy, an illiterate in theology, and a dishonest student of history. Too belligerent to be nimble and too parochial to be generous, the once-captivating Hitchens demonstrates why he has forfeited any claim on our attention.
Yet there’s more at stake here than one man’s career in bloviation. As part of the recent surge in books by atheists, God Is Not Great marks the gentrification of unbelief, a tony nihilism embraced by bourgeois bohemians. Though “Islamo-Fascism” makes a convenient target for books such as this, it is in fact religion itself, in its capacity as an intractable impediment to the juggernaut of capitalist modernity, that must be quarantined or destroyed. God Is Not Great exemplifies the connections among the new atheism, the privatization of religion, the idolatry of the nation-state, and the sacrificial violence of imperialism.
Calling for “a new Enlightenment,” Hitchens tries to summon the grand tradition of modern unbelief. “Man will not be free,” Diderot proclaimed, “until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” “Religion!” Shelley thundered in Queen Mab. “Who peoplest earth with demons, hell with men, / And heaven with slaves! / Thou taintest all thou lookest upon.” “God is dead,” Nietzsche’s Zarathustra announced, “and we have killed Him.” From such grandiloquent impieties rose the vision and promise of secular modernity: humanity, brave in the face of a godless universe, disenchanted of supernal hopes and terrors, firmly committed to reason as the arbiter of truth, desire, and goodness.
Henri de Lubac once named this era the drama of atheist humanism, but even Nietzsche suspected that it might be prefiguring an endless middle-class farce. Animated by the bourgeois-utopian prospect of comfort and longevity, science and technology would, Nietzche feared, enable a new character ideal: “the Last Man.” Disdainful of all that has gone before them, the Last Men mistake their cynicism for knowledge and wisdom. “They are clever and know all that has happened,” so “there is no end to their derision.” With all great causes defeated or reviled, they endow the banality of their private lives with the meaning they’ve withdrawn from larger concerns, indulging “their little pleasures for the day, and their little pleasures for the night.”
Consider the relevance of this prediction today, when popular culture abounds with playboy philosophers like HBO’s Bill Maher, opining on the stupidity of religious faith, or loutish retreads like Roseanne Barr, yelling that “religion fucking blows!” (I’m guessing that’s her translation of écrasez l’infâme.) Writers, meanwhile, hawk unabashed atheism to niche audiences in the briskly humming market of irreligion—Daniel Dennett or Peter Singer to academic readers, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins to the masses.
The new militancy of secularism stems from some obvious sources: Islamic radicalism abroad and conservative evangelicalism at home, along with religious interventions in debates about abortion, gay marriage, “intelligent design,” and global warming. But the boom in unbelief has other bases. Today’s atheism pays extravagant homage to idols dear to the professional and managerial ranks. Science as truth; the technological mastery of nature; credentialed expertise as the only credible form of learning; efficiency and profit as the sole ends of economic and political life: these shibboleths comprise the mental universe of the Western middle classes. Colored by an incoherent blend of Darwinism and environmentalism, a bland infatuation with science and technology is the bourgeois halo around instrumental reason, and nothing in the new secularism of Dawkins, Harris et al. serves to exorcise that enchantment. While Hitchens likes to bask in the grand tradition of atheism (he throws out allusions to every great skeptic from Lucretius to Bertrand Russell), his ill-tempered tract rarely ventures outside the boundaries of the suburban moral imagination, even as it manages to flatter a corporate executive’s every conceit.
For Hitchens, all you really need to know about religion is its historical malignancy. God Is Not Great, echoing Shelley’s charge that religion “taintest everything,” recounts its poisonous effects on human affairs. Slavery, genocide, misogyny, racism, complicity in tyranny: it is, in truth, a hefty record of iniquity and shame, and Christians will always need—and I daresay deserve—these painful lessons in humility. But Hitchens turns the ethical lapses of religion into a silly fallacy. If, as he asserts, “an ethical life can be lived without religion”—a point which, to my knowledge, no major theologian has ever denied—Hitchens would also have us believe that unethical lives must be lived with religion.
Then again, this is a writer who understands religion only as a mélange of prohibition and superstition, plus an incitement to violence, and so large parts of the story get erased. Hitchens’s claim that the God of Moses “never mentions human solidarity and compassion at all” is preposterous, given the Torah’s injunctions about forgiveness of debts, redistribution of land, or openness to strangers, or the prophets’ exhortations to mercy, justice, and beating swords into ploughshares. He rightly contends that the crimes of Nazism and Communism do not mitigate the felonies of religion; indeed, he writes, “one might hope that religion had retained more sense of its dignity than that.” True, but that sense of dignity is inseparable from standards by which the religious can identify and condemn atrocities done in their name—standards that fascists and Stalinists never recognized, let alone applied. Doctrines of racial purity lead inexorably to repression, ethnic cleansing, or genocide; acceptance of “historical necessity” inevitably sanctions “the necessary murder,” as Auden later regretted putting it. There is nothing even remotely comparable in these secular ideologies to the command to love one’s enemies. Those Christians down the ages who tried to prevent the crimes of their horrifically errant brethren did so because they believed—often at the cost of their lives or fortunes—that the human person was the imago Dei, a conviction they derived from Christian theology.
But Hitchens, like the choir to whom this book is directed, is uninformed about theology and much else in the Christian intellectual tradition. He does try to convince us that he’s serious about religion. Holding up Philip Larkin’s elegiac “Church-going” as the summary of his perspective, he savors its melancholy portrayal of religion as a realm where “all our compulsions meet, / Are recognized, and robed as destinies.” He and his fellow unbelievers, Hitchens assures us, feel “the lure of wonder and mystery and awe.” And besides, some of his best friends are religious.
I’m sure this act plays to rave reviews in the Beltway and Manhattan, but Hitchens is just too acidulous and unfair to pull it off here. One wonders what kind of intellect his religious friends possess if they can’t counter his mocking and condescending charge that religion belongs to the “childhood” or “prehistory of the species”? Has Hitchens never read or sparred with, say, Garry Wills? In a Salon tribute to the late Senator Eugene McCarthy—the last intellectual in American politics—Hitchens recalled that he and Clean Gene had had “highly enjoyable discussions of the more recondite aspects of church teaching.” Why didn’t they merit a page or two here?
Perhaps Hitchens needed the space to show how much he knows about science and its history. Jeering that religion comes from a time when “nobody... had the smallest idea what was going on,” he trades on the moldiest caricatures of medieval ignorance, pandering to the facile scientism rampant among the middle classes. You’d never guess that “scholastic obsessives” such as Robert Grosseteste or Roger Bacon were crucial to the construction of modern scientific methodology, or that the work of Gregor Mendel—an Augustinian priest—was the wellspring of modern genetics.
When it comes to the scientific present, Hitchens proves equally adept at obfuscation. He proclaims ad nauseam the latest discoveries in genetics and paleontology, as though religious believers had never heard of them. He marvels at the exploration of the human genome, but neglects to add that the director of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins, is an evangelical Protestant. And we get the obligatory arguments against “intelligent design”—arguments that have not only been supported, but in many cases crafted, by religious scientists such as Collins, Kenneth Miller, and John Polkinghorne.
This willful inattention to the harmonious relationships between religion and modern science stems, I suspect, from Hitchens’s embrace of the objectivist delusions of middlebrow scientific mythology. Science, in this view, is the realm of verified facts, testable hypotheses, and reproducible experiments, hermetically protected from the corrupting vagaries of culture, politics, and ideology. Looking to science as our savior is not entirely pernicious: Hitchens rightly points out, for instance, the central role played by evolutionary genetics in dispelling the phantom of “race.” But you’d also never suspect—and you won’t learn here—that evolutionary science itself has been infected with ideological poison. Take, for example, Darwin’s explicit debt to Thomas Malthus, whose skinflint heresies about food and population were historical germs for laissez-faire and Social Darwinism. Hitchens might also want to re-read The Descent of Man, wherein Darwin clearly ranks races (like the “Aryan” and the “Asiatic”) in terms of their proximity to the apes. Indeed, the racist and Malthusian elements in Darwin’s work are subjects on which the new secularists are either silent, delicate, or mendacious. (See "The Gentle Darwinians" by Peter Quinn, Commonweal, March 9, 2007.)
Hitchens’s command of philosophy is as dubious as his account of science. All too often his pose of encyclopedic learning rests on name-dropping and straw men. Philosophy in God Is Not Great is whatever is polemically useful against religion. So Democritus and Epicurus get cameo roles, while Spinoza becomes an atheist manqué. Those philosophers who did or do believe in a God—which is to say, most of the Western philosophical tradition—get nary a mention. There’s a host of Christian philosophers absent from these pages: Alasdair MacIntyre, Elizabeth Anscombe, Charles Taylor, and Alvin Plantinga, to name just a few whose work Hitchens might want to read. But this is a writer who boasts that “I now know enough about all religions to know that I would be an infidel at all times and in all places.”
As for straw-man argument, a single example suffices to reveal Hitchens’s petulant mediocrity in philosophy. The notion of a creator, he observes, raises “the unanswerable question of who...created the creator”—an objection that theologians “have consistently failed to overcome.” Really? Any decent freshman survey could have informed Hitchens that, as Aquinas and many others have patiently explained, God is not an entity and thus is not ensnared in any serial account of causality. Not a thing himself, God is rather the condition of there being anything at all. Thus, “creation” is not a gargantuan act of handicraft but rather the condition of there being something rather than nothing. Creation didn’t happen long ago; it’s right now, and forever. (This is why “creationism” is bad science—because it’s bad theology.)
Wittgenstein came to much the same conclusion. In the Philosophical Investigations, he disposed of Hitchens’s allegedly insuperable objection. Just because you can always build another house in the village, Wittgenstein noted, does not change the fact that there is a last house right now. Explanations must end somewhere, as he famously conceded: “I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned.” It’s no real irony, then, that the godfather of linguistic analysis could respect and share the wonder of mysticism. “Not how the world is, is the mystical,” he wrote in the Tractatus, “but that it is.”
Weak in philosophy, Hitchens is also unschooled in theology and biblical criticism. Apart from a few sentences on Pierre Bayle and Bart Ehrman, there’s not a single reference in God Is Not Great to anything in the voluminous and magnificent lineage of biblical scholarship. Relying on one of the dumbest canards in the history of the discipline, Hitchens alludes to “the highly questionable existence of Jesus.” Maybe this passes for iconoclasm with, say, the comedians Penn and Teller—models, for Hitchens, of “life and wit and inquiry”—but as history it is less than sophomoric.
On theological issues, Hitchens is even more at sea. What does he think, or know, of debates about voluntarist conceptions of God, or participatory accounts of our relation with divinity? (I keep forgetting—he knows enough already.) Augustine, he scowls, was “a self-centered fantasist and an earth-centered ignoramus” who believed that the world was “less than six thousand years old”—assertions belied by The City of God, and by The Literal Interpretation of Genesis, where the bishop of Hippo reproached some of the more boneheaded brethren for such literalism. Aquinas, meanwhile, exhibits “an impressive faith” which stood up “at least for a while in a confrontation with reason.” Has Hitchens actually opened the Summa Theologiae, or the Summa contra Gentiles? These are monuments of rational inquiry, and not, as he suggests, fearful evasive maneuvers.
Modern and contemporary theology suffer no less in Hitchens’s maladroit paws. John Henry Newman was a “mighty scholar.” Karl Barth goes unmentioned, while Dietrich Bonhoeffer is dragooned into service for an “admirable but nebulous humanism”—which is, to put it charitably, certainly one way to read The Cost of Discipleship or Sanctorum Communio. But then what should we expect from someone who brays that “religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago,” and who shows no evidence of having cracked a single volume of contemporary theology?
Cravenly, Hitchens tries to grab a prophetic patina from the Jewish and Christian traditions while discarding the theological foundations. That’s one of the oldest ruses in the secularist playbook, and nothing better illustrates its brazen fraudulence than Hitchens’s remarks about Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Though he professes to be inspired by King and the civil rights movement—“the moral tutors of America and of the world beyond its shores”—Hitchens doesn’t comprehend the first thing about that brave community. In utter seriousness he writes that King’s refusal to summon hellfire on his enemies makes him a “nominal” Christian. Because he didn’t act like a raving crackpot, King becomes, in Hitchens’s rendering, a closet or unwitting secularist. What a disgraceful distortion of the historical record it is for Hitchens to excise King’s nettlesome theology in order to admit him to our pantheon of political heroes! One imagines Hitchens whispering behind King at the Lincoln Memorial: “You’re free at last, free at last. Just don’t thank God Almighty.”
All Hitchens claims to ask of his deluded religious friends is that they “leave me alone.” But for a public intellectual, what this innocent-seeming wish really implies is the privatization of religion, its eradication as a form of public discourse. Like the New York intellectuals of yesteryear, Hitchens turns to high culture as the new symposium of moral tutelage—and specifically to literature. Well “within the compass of the average person,” the study of literature and poetry, he proposes, should now “depose the scrutiny of sacred texts” as the basis of ethical reflection. Of course, the arts and letters have long been modernity’s citadel for paradise, a safehouse for idiosyncrasy, brotherly love, transcendence, and other utopian ideals battered by the power of the state and the market. Reminiscent of the democratic humanism espoused by his late friend Edward W. Said, Hitchens’s expansive vision of cultural democracy should appeal to anyone serious about the moral imagination. But his insistence that we uncouple high culture from the sacred has its own insuperable problems. Aside from assigning a covert clerical status to writers and literary critics—“the divine literatus,” as Whitman put it—supplanting sacred texts with literature would require the bowdlerization of at least nine-tenths of our literary canon. Our high culture simply owes too much to religion, Christian or otherwise, for anyone to suggest intelligibly that the two should be separated.
In any case, what we get from Hitchens in the end isn’t “culture” but a gooey compound of boosterish bromides and liberal nationalism. Like so many disappointed radicals, Hitchens has elsewhere declared capitalism the only remaining revolutionary force, and for all his bad-boy press, he is a stalwart guardian of the bourgeois virtues, harrumphing like a sullen Rotarian at Christ’s injunction to “take no thought for the morrow.” Such gospel nonsense, Hitchens tells us, implies that “things like thrift, innovation, family life, and so forth are a sheer waste of time.” This former Trotskyite turns out to be a metropolitan burgher at heart, as well as a technological visionary, rhapsodizing over “undreamed-of vistas,” “unfettered scientific inquiry,” and the accessibility of scientific knowledge to “masses of people by easy electronic means”—all of which will “revolutionize our concepts of research and development.” It’s a Brave New World, brought to you by Merck. Cue the studio orchestra.
Hidden inside the inflated prose of Hitchens’s PR flackery is a conceit common among the educated classes: namely, that the demise of religion would usher in a new age of fearless, democratic cerebration in which each of us would “think on one’s own.” Hitchens’s paean celebrates a secular moral imagination sketched in terms of professional and managerial expertise. Defining the good life for us all in word and image, the business and technical intelligentsia comprise a cultural elite, a rival clerisy whose rhetoric of Science, Progress, and Enlightenment can mystify as effectively as did the bell, book, and candle of the priesthood. In particular, our modern notion of “Progress” has the most beguiling account of an eschatology that never ends.
Hitchens insists that he and his secular allies “do not require any priests, or hierarchy above them,” that they “need no machinery of reinforcement,” and that “sacrifices and ceremonies are abhorrent to us.” In case he hasn’t noticed, the corporate elite has constructed the hierarchy, along with a machinery of reinforcement it shares with the nation-state. And Hitchens’s uplifting predictions about the God-less future are most savagely belied by the catastrophe in Iraq, where the bogus distinction between religious and secular violence can be seen in all its ideological duplicity. While pointing to the sanguinary unreason of “fundamentalists,” the war’s advocates have offered up the lives of thousands in sacrifice to a future of Market and Democracy. An Iraqi killed by a U.S. Marine is just as dead as if she were dispatched by a jihadist. Both Hitchens and the jihadist would contend that her death is part of a larger struggle between the forces of light and darkness. To a Christian, she’s a victim of libido dominandi, whatever the discursive camouflage; to Hitchens, she’s the collateral damage of enlightenment.
So enough about the sweetness and light that await us when the gods are finally dead. The war in Iraq, like the history of the twentieth century, demonstrates that secular values provide no inoculation against credulity, madness, and butchery. Conferring a sacral aura on the market and the nation-state, secularism is a parody of religion, and its acolytes can no longer lay claim to the patent on reason and enlightenment. Blinded by the radiance of imperial righteousness, and willing to bless carnage in the most dubious of crusades, Hitchens no longer merits our attention or respect, especially on matters regarding the good life and the just city. If you doubt me, read this book.
Related: The New Atheists, by John Garvey
Don't Assign These Books, by John F. Haught
Culture & Barbarism, by Terry Eagleton
The Transfigured World: William L. Portier on David Bentley Hart's Atheist Delusions
New Atheism, Old Apologetics: Lawrence S. Cunningham on Michael Novak's No One Sees God