Christopher Hitchens: An Excess of Errors

I recently finished reading the late Christopher Hitchens’ book god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

In some parts, the book is delightful, and I admire the author’s courage.  Although the social penalties for atheism are much less in contemporary democratic societies than in other societies, past and present, there is also personal courage in facing up to the possibility that there is no God and no afterlife, which can be a distressing and demoralizing experience for many.  The author’s main points about the inaccuracy or falsity of religious beliefs about cosmology and history, as well as the persistent use of religion historically to rationalize evil behavior (such as the trading or keeping of slaves) have been made by others, but the author’s arguments are not entirely unoriginal, and I definitely learned some new things.

Having said that, I also need to say this: god is not Great is filled with many errors — in many cases, obvious, egregious errors that should not have gotten past the editor’s desk.  (Do publishing houses even bother editing and fact-checking any more?)  Now, it is not unusual for even great scholarly books to have some errors of fact.  But when the errors are so numerous, and so significant, it can greatly undermine the case the author is making.  Frankly, I think Hitchens understands religion about as well as a fundamentalist understands evolution.  In a few cases, Hitchens does not even understand some basic facts of science.

Let us review the errors.  (Page numbers are from the paperback edition, which appear to be similar to page numbers in the hardcover edition, except for the afterword that was added to the paperback).

p. 5  – “We [atheists] do not believe in heaven or hell, yet no statistic will ever find that without these blandishments and threats we commit more crimes of greed and violence than the faithful.  (In fact, if a proper statistical query could ever be made, I am sure the evidence would be the other way).”  – Actually, according to The Handbook of Crime Correlates (pp. 108-113), while there is some variation in studies, the majority of social science statistical studies have concluded that religious believers are less likely to engage in criminal behavior.  This is by no means a slam-dunk, as a minority of studies point the other way, but I find it remarkable that Hitchens thought that nobody even bothered to study this issue.  Although the Handbook came out after Hitchens’ book was published, the studies cited in the Handbook go back decades.

pp. 7, 63  – Hitchens acknowledges the intelligence and scholarship of theologians such as Augustine, Aquinas, Maimonides, and Newman, but argues “there are no more of them today and . . . there will be no more of them tomorrow.”  The reason for this, he writes, is that “Faith of that sort — the sort that can stand up at least for a while in a confrontation with reason — is now plainly impossible.”  Actually, there are numerous intelligent and accomplished modern theologians who have incorporated faith and reason into their world views, including Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Karl Barth.  Pope John Paul II pursued graduate study in philosophy and incorporated insights from the philosophy of phenomenology into his doctoral dissertation.  Did Hitchens ever hear of these people and their works?  A quick Google search confirms that Hitchens did know of Niebuhr, which indicates to me that Hitchens was being dishonest.

p. 7 – “Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago: either that or it mutated into an admirable but nebulous humanism, as did, say, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a brave Lutheran pastor hanged by the Nazis for his refusal to collude with them.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was far from being a nebulous humanist.  In fact, Bonhoeffer’s theological ideas were fairly conservative and Bonhoeffer insisted on the need for total devotion to God and the saving grace of Jesus Christ.  “I believe that the Bible alone is the answer to all our questions,” Bonhoeffer once wrote.  Also, Bonhoeffer was not hanged for simply refusing to collude with the Nazis, but for actively opposing the Nazis and conspiring to assassinate Hitler.

pp. 12-13 – “there is a real and serious difference between me and my religious friends, and the real and serious friends are sufficiently honest to admit it.  I would be quite content to go their children’s bar mitzvahs to marvel at their Gothic cathedrals, to “respect” their belief that the Koran was dictated, though exclusively in Arabic, to an illiterate merchant, or to interest myself in Wicca and Hindu and Jain consolations.  And as it happens, I will continue to do this without insisting on the polite reciprocal condition — which is that they in turn leave me alone.  But this, religion is ultimately incapable of doing.”  Let’s leave aside the curious claim that Hitchens has religious friends who all happen to be grossly intolerant (unlucky him).  What is the evidence that religion in general is hopelessly intolerant, including the Jain religion?  Jainism, which Hitchens doesn’t bother discussing in any detail, places nonviolence at the very center of its beliefs.  Jains are so nonviolent that they practice vegetarianism and go to great lengths to avoid killing insects; some Jains even refuse to eat certain plants.  Jainism influenced Gandhi’s civil disobedience campaign, which in turn influenced Martin Luther King Jr.s’ own nonviolence campaign.  Yet somehow those Jains just can’t leave Hitchens alone.  What a bizarre persecution complex.

pp. 25, 68 – Hitchens argues that the ancient works of Aristotle and other Greeks were lost under Christianity because “the Christian authorities had burned some, suppressed others, and closed the schools of philosophy, on the grounds that there could have been no useful reflections on morality before the preaching of Jesus.”  Actually, the works of Aristotle and other Greeks were lost for centuries in Western Europe, primarily because of the collapse of the Roman empire in the west, which negatively affected education, scholarship, libraries, and book-making in general.  In the east, the Byzantine empire, though a Christian state, preserved the works of Aristotle and incorporated Aristotle’s thoughts into Byzantine philosophiesMonasteries in the Byzantine empire played an important role in preserving and copying books of the ancient Greeks.  Attitudes of Christians in Western Europe toward the philosophies of ancient Greece were mixed, with some condemning and suppressing Greek works, and others incorporating Greek works into their scholarship.

pp. 46-47 – “The attitude of religion to medicine, like the attitude of religion to science, is always necessarily problematic and very often necessarily hostile.”  Historically, medicine was not an alternative to prayer and devotion to God but a supplement to it.  The earliest hospitals were established in religious temples devoted to gods of healing.  While medical knowledge was primitive compared to today, even the ancients had some practical knowledge of surgery and anesthesia.  Many modern-day medications, such as aspirin, quinine, and ephedrine, have their roots in plants that the ancients used for healing.  The father of western medicine, Hippocrates, is famously known for his oath to the gods of healing, which calls for adherence to ethical rules in the practice of medicine.  And historically, both Christianity and Islam played major roles in the founding of hospitals and the study of medical science.

p. 68 – “[E]ven the religious will speak with embarrassment of the time when theologians would dispute over futile propositions with fanatical intensity: measuring the length of angels’ wings, for example, or debating how many such mythical creatures could dance on the head of a pin.”  The notion that theologians debated about how many angels danced on the head of a pin was actually an invention of post-medieval satirists who wanted to criticize theology.  Historically, theologians generally held that angels were incorporeal, or purely spiritual beings, and as such did not have “wings.”

p. 144 – While discussing persons who claim to have been visited by extraterrestrials, Hitchens argues, “travel from Alpha Centauri . . . would involve some bending of the laws of physics.”  Actually, Alpha Centauri is the closest star system to our own, a little over 4 light years away.  While I think it is most unlikely that extraterrestrials have visited earth, travel to or from Alpha Centauri would not require any bending of the laws of physics, only some incremental improvements in existing technologies based on the current laws of physics.  The travel would probably take decades, but would not be impossible.  Either Hitchens is arguing that interstellar travel is inherently impossible or he is claiming that advances in technology require “bending” the laws of physics.  Whatever he believed, it doesn’t make sense.

p. 181 – “As far as I am aware, there is no country in the world today where slavery is still practiced where the justification of it is not derived from the Koran.”  Among the countries ranked highest in modern-day slavery are several Islamic counties, but also China, Russia, Thailand, and Haiti.  It would be odd if these countries cited the Koran as a justification for slavery.

p. 192 – Pointing to the Rwandan genocide, Hitchens argues, “At a minimum, this makes it impossible to argue that religion causes people to behave in a more kindly or civilized manner.  The worse the offender, the more devout he turns out to be.”  Among the worst practitioners of genocide in the past hundred years were atheists, including Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, and Pol Pot.  It is not clear whether Hitler was an atheist or a deist, but he was certainly not “devout.”  Finally, the majority of social science studies have shown that those with orthodox religious beliefs are less inclined to commit crime.

p. 232. – Hitchens attempts to argue that atheist totalitarian regimes are actually religious in nature: “[T]he object of perfecting the species — which is the very root and source of the totalitarian impulse — is in essence a religious one.”  Actually, a major point of most religions is that perfection on earth is not possible, that perfection is only found in an other-worldly place called heaven or nirvana.  The communist critique of religion is precisely that it makes people satisfied with their lot on earth, waiting and longing for a world that never comes.

p. 279 – Hitchens makes a reference to “Iran’s progress in thermonuclear fission.”  The correct terminology is “nuclear fission,” not “thermonuclear fission.”  “Thermonuclear” refers to the use of very high temperatures to cause the fusion of atomic nuclei, not fission.  It is possible to use a thermonuclear process involving hydrogen and boron to cause the fission of boron atoms, but this is not what Iran is currently doing.

p. 283 – “The study of literature and poetry, both for its own sake and for the eternal ethical questions with which it deals, can now easily depose the scrutiny of sacred texts that have been found to be corrupt and confected.”  After dismissing religious stories as fictional, Hitchens argues that we can obtain ethical guidance from . . . the fictions of literature and poetry.  Never mind that religious texts are also powerful sources of literature and poetry, that Jesus used parables to illustrate ethics, and that Church Fathers often interpreted the myths of the Bible allegorically.  Only secular sources of fiction, in Hitchens’ view, can be used as a guide to ethics.  Why is not clear.

Well, that’s it.  Reading Hitchens’ book was occasionally enjoyable, but more often exhausting.  There’s only so many blatant falsehoods a person can handle without wanting to flee.


Two Types of Religion

Debates about religion in the West tend to center around the three monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  However, it is important to note that these three religions are not necessarily typical or representative of religion in general.

In fact, there are many different types of religion, but for purposes of simplicity I would like to divide the religions of the world into two types: revealed religion and philosophical religion.  These two categories are not exclusive, and many religions overlap both categories, but I think it is a useful conceptual divide.

“Revealed religion” has been defined as a “religion based on the revelation by God to man of ideas that he would not have arrived at by his natural reason alone.”  The three monotheistic religions all belong in this category, though there are philosophers and elements of philosophy in these religions as well.  Most debates about religion and science, or religion and reason, assume that all religions are revealed religions.  However, there is another type of religion: philosophical religion.

Philosophical religion can be defined as a set of religious beliefs that are arrived at primarily through reason and dialogue among philosophers.  The founders of philosophical religion put forth ideas on the basis that these ideas are human creations accessible to all and subject to discussion and debate like any other idea.  These religions are found in the far east, and include Confucianism, Taoism, and Hinduism.  However, there are also philosophical religions in the West, such as Platonism or Stoicism, and there have been numerous philosophers who have constructed philosophical interpretations of the three monotheistic religions as well.

There are a number of crucial distinguishing characteristics that separate revealed religion from philosophical religion.

Revealed religion originates in a single prophet, who claims to have direct communication with God.  Even when historical research indicates multiple people playing a role in founding a revealed religion, as well as the borrowing of concepts from other religions, the tradition and practice of revealed religion generally insists upon the unique role of a prophet who is usually regarded as infallible or close to infallible — Moses, Jesus, or Muhammad.  Revealed religion also insists on the existence of God, often defined as a personal, supreme being who has the qualities of omniscience and omnipotence.  (It may seem obvious to many that all religions are about God, but that is not the case, as will be discussed below.)

Faith is central to revealed religion.  Rational argument and evidence may be used to convince others of the merits of a revealed religion, but ultimately there are too many fundamental beliefs in a revealed religion that are either non-demonstrable or contradictory to evidence from science, history, and archeology.  Faith may be used positively, as an aid to making a decision in the absence of clear evidence, so that one does not sustain loss from despair and a paralysis of will; however, faith may also be used negatively, to deny or ignore findings from other fields of knowledge.

The problems with revealed religion are widely known: these religions are prone to a high degree of superstition and many followers embrace anti-scientific attitudes when the conclusions of science refute or contradict the beliefs of revealed religion.  (This is a tendency, not a rule — for example, many believers in revealed religion do not regard a literal interpretation of the Garden of Eden story as central to their beliefs, and they fully accept the theory of evolution.)  Worse, revealed religions appear to be prone to intolerance, oppression of non-believers and heretics, and bloody religious wars.  It seems most likely that this intolerance is the result of a belief system that sees a single prophet as having a unique, infallible relationship to God, with all other religions being in error because they lack this relationship.

Philosophical religion, by contrast, emerges from a philosopher or philosophers engaging in dialogue.  In the West, this role was played by philosophers in ancient Greece and Rome, before their views were eclipsed by the rise of the revealed religion of Christianity.  In the East, philosophers were much more successful in establishing great religions.  In China, Confucius established a system of beliefs about morals and righteous behavior that influenced an entire empire, while Lao Tzu proposed that a mysterious power known as the “Tao” was the source and driving force behind everything.  In India, Hinduism originated as a diverse collection of beliefs by various philosophers, with some unifying themes, but no single creed.

As might be expected, philosophical religions have tended to be more tolerant and cosmopolitan than revealed religions.  Neither Greek nor Roman philosophers were inclined to kill each other over the finer points of Plato’s conception of God or the various schools of Stoicism, because no one ever claimed to have an infallible relationship with an omnipotent being.  In China, Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism are not regarded as incompatible, and many Chinese subscribe to elements of two or all three belief systems.  It is rare to ever see a religious war between adherents of philosophical religions.  And although many people automatically equate religion with faith, there is usually little or no role for faith in philosophical religions.

The role of God in philosophical religions is very different from the role of God in revealed religions.  Most philosophers, in east and west, defined God in impersonal terms, or proposed a God that was not omnipotent, or regarded a Creator God as unimportant to their belief system.  For example, Plato proposed that a secondary God known as a “demiurge” was responsible for creating the universe; the demiurge was not omnipotent, and was forced to create a less-than-perfect universe out of the imperfect materials he was given.  The Stoics did not subscribe to a personal God and instead proposed that a divine fire pervaded the universe, acting on matter to bring all things into accordance with reason.  Confucius, while not explicitly rejecting the possibility of God, did not discuss God in any detail, and had no role for divine powers in his teachings.  The Tao of Lao Tzu is regarded as a mysterious power underlying all things, but it is certainly not a personal being.  Finally, the concept of a Creator God is not central to Hinduism; in fact one of the six orthodox schools of Hinduism is explicitly atheistic, and has been for over two thousand years.

There are many virtues to philosophical religion.  While philosophical religion is not immune to the problem of incorrect conceptions and superstition, it does not resist reason and science, nor does it attempt to stamp out challenges to its claims to the same extent as revealed religions.  Philosophical religion is largely tolerant and reasonable.

However, there is also something arid and unsatisfying about many philosophical religions.  The claims of philosophical religion are usually modest, and philosophical religion has cool reason on its side.  But philosophical religion often does not have the emotional and imaginative content of revealed religion, and in these ways it is lacking. The emotional swings and imaginative leaps of revealed religion can be dangerous, but emotion and imagination are also essential to full knowledge and understanding (see here and here).  One cannot properly assign values to things and develop the right course of action without the emotions of love, joy, fear, anger, and sadness.  Without imagination, it is not possible to envision better ways of living.  When confronted with mystery, a leap of faith may be justified, or even required.

Abstractly, I have a great appreciation for philosophical religion, but in practice, I prefer Christianity.  I have the greatest admiration for the love of Christ, and I believe in Christian love as a guide for living.  At the same time, my Christianity is unorthodox and leavened with a generous amount of philosophy.  I question various doctrinal points of Christianity, I believe in evolution, and I don’t believe in miracles that violate the physical laws that have been discovered by science.  I think it would do the world good if revealed religions and philosophical religions recognized and borrowed each other’s virtues.