The Man Doth Protest Too Much, Methinks
If the title’s bold proclamation doesn’t get you, there is the stick-in-the-eye subtitle, How Religion Poisons Everything. Saying Christopher Hitchens opposes faith of any stripe is like saying it gets chilly on Canada’s ice road in February. Hitchens’ latest book joins the ranks of a fast-growing cohort of creeds written by atheists seeking to mainstream their beliefs. Two others from this group include Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (Modern Reformation review July/August 2007) and Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation.
The New Atheist’s position is hostile (“It has become necessary to know the enemy and to prepare to fight it,” 283). The gloves are off (“Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience,” 56). We know that the gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing, but these fools are shocking. In October 2007, at an atheist conference, Dawkins made a comment representative of this group when he said that moderate Christians are but one step from blowing themselves up over their beliefs (implying, of course, that Christians are on a moral plane equal to the heinous jihadists).
Hitchens’ follows in Dawkins’ moral equivalence footsteps and exposes a fundamental lack of understanding of the distinctives that separate the major world religions. He would flunk a freshman Comparative Religion class. Taking but one gem from many, many examples, on page 129 we find, “There is some question as to whether Islam is a separate religion at all.” This leveling of the religion playing field, of course, demonstrates a major weakness in Hitchens’ hypothesis. His attack on religion, constructed on superficial elements, ignores the doctrinal foundation that makes Christianity unique.
As a self-proclaimed “Protestant atheist,” Hitchens saves his vilest attacks for Christianity as foreshadowed in chapter titles such as The Nightmare of the “Old” Testament, The “New” Testament Exceeds the Evil of the “Old” One, and The Tawdriness of the Miraculous and the Decline of Hell. Three critical flaws listed below, however, diminish his critique’s impact.
He fundamentally distorts Scripture. To take but one example, Hitchens states definitively, “In Matthew 15:21-28 we read of [Jesus’] contempt for a Canaanite woman who implored his aid and was brusquely told that he would not waste his energy on a non-Jew” (118). Jesus’ “contempt” is so strong in fact, that the concluding verse of this passage, which Hitchens conveniently drops from his “exegesis,” is Jesus’ words to the woman, “You have great faith! Your request is granted.”
He emphasizes caricatures or perversions of religion as valid even though these practices earn condemnation from true believers. The list is long here too, but he criticizes Mormon polygamy (51), Jehovah’s Witnesses banning blood transfusions (51), and Jerry Falwell’s 9/11 comments (32). Would any orthodox Christian take issue with these complaints?
His sources lack credibility. He frequently quotes Thomas Paine and H. L. Mencken as if they had earned the title of “biblical scholar.” When he does get around to a recognized authority on the Bible, he pays homage to Bart Ehrman. If you aren’t familiar with Ehrman’s research, it does not adhere to traditional orthodoxy as evidenced, for example, by his opposition position in a March 2006 debate entitled, “Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus?” or his books, The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot: A New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed (2006) and Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (2005).
Hitchens’ “irreducible objections” against religious faith can be summarized easily as a) religion is made up or “manufactured”; b) ethics and morality are independent of faith and cannot be derived from it; and c) religion is immoral (52). To support this position, Hitchens launches a full assault across a broad front of subject areas including medical advancements, philosophy, biology, and ethics. In each area, he seeks to disprove the need or existence of God. He fails miserably on all accounts.
As it would take too much space here to delve into each, let’s look at one example. Under his chapter, “Religion Kills,” he takes the position that all faiths cause war and terror. His evidence includes the “troubles” in Northern Ireland, the Serb and Croatian conflict in Yugoslavia, and later in the book he also mentions the Hutu genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda. But are these religious persecutions or rather conflict arising out of political ideology, nationalism, and tribalism? And, even if they were truly based upon faith beliefs, they would be wrong and not reflect the true faith as revealed in the Bible.
To believe Hitchens’ hypothesis that religion kills, one would need to discount the entire Judeo-Christian moral heritage upon which Western civilization is built. No honest person can do this. The peace and stability found in all Western democracies is due in large part to this tradition. For example, could secular humanists lay the foundation for something as profound as Just War theory, which has governed the actions of democratic armies as they have vanquished Nazism, Communism, Nationalism, and now Islamism? Given humanity’s tragic experiences with these failed ideologies, the answer is clearly no. The blood of millions and millions provides a stark rebuttal to Hitchens’ argument.
Typically, Hitchens is enjoyable both as an author and commentator on talk shows where he can often be found “Hitch-slapping” some poor opponent. His writing style is intellectual, engaging, and often witty (or is that acerbic?). His sharp mind and sharper tongue makes him a formidable foe (his September 2005 verbal slugfest with MP George Galloway, available on YouTube, is particularly memorable). Hitchens is also the author of well-respected books like Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, and he writes regularly for Slate and Vanity Fair.
There is much material in God Is Not Great for the Christian to engage.
First, the atheist assault is a call to action; not to fight, but to live and to live rightly. Hitchens’ condemns Christianity, but he focuses on the inanity of a watered-down religion. The power of the true faith found in the Bible triumphs over all opponents, transforms those who come to believe, and equips believers to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly (Mic. 6:8).
Second, the mainstreaming of atheism will put more pressure on Christians to compromise what we believe so that we can better fit within these post-Christian times. Instead, we need to be prepared to give a defense for why we believe what we believe. The path is easy for Christians in the West today. What if it becomes less so? What we need is a modern reformation that recovers the truths that have been lost to postmodernism, multiculturalism, pluralism, and consumerism.
Finally, be encouraged, Christian, as you go forward to do the Lord’s work and do not despair. In Mr. Hitchens’ world, the case on religion was closed long ago and it is only religious yokels who hold back progressive advancements of the human race. So long as the Holy Spirit convicts us that Romans 11:33-36 is true, however, we should refuse to believe that man’s chief end is to glorify himself.
One final thought as you consider buying this book. The Wall Street Journal reported last summer that Christians were making purchases so that they could better defend their faith with others. You don’t need this book to do that. Nothing new exists in this book that isn’t already pervasive in our culture. The now-famous words of Ted Sorensen come to mind, “If you pick this book up, don’t put it down-you won’t pick it up again.”