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.


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