God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
(2007) is a polemical text by English writer Christopher Hitchens. The author argues that religion is a cultural construct that represses people more than it liberates them. He examines religion’s role in sexuality, science, and human dignity and posits that organized religion rarely (if ever) benefits humanity at large. Hitchens was a noted columnist and contributing editor to Vanity Fair
Its themes include mass delusions, the misogyny of most organized religions, and religion as a relic from the past.
In chapter one, “Putting it Mildly,” Hitchens relates a memory from when he was nine. His kind teacher told the class that God made grass green because it was calming to human eyes. Before he knew anything about photosynthesis, Hitchens felt this explanation was radically wrong. As a child, he started asking questions like why God would need to be praised incessantly if he (or she) truly were great. Later, at 13, when an instructor told him he would understand religion once a loved one died, he baulked; it seemed wrong, emotionally and logically, that a system of morality could only make sense after a brush with mortality.
He notes that most atheists like him believe that religion is not necessary for an ethical life. They lean toward science and reason when evaluating the veracity of anything, but they aren’t dogmatic about it.
Many atheists arrive at their beliefs through their temperament for clear thinking; they were not, as much propaganda would have one believe, led astray by a single person or book. Hitchens looks at a medieval woman who told her inquisitors that no one gave her “heretical” ideas; she thought about organized religion and judged it to be false. Hitchens posits that millions of people feel uneasy about religion because they sense that it is man-made. “Even the men who made it cannot agree on what their prophets or redeemers or gurus actually said or did,” Hitchens writes. Organized religion is often manipulated for political power. Hitchens argues that organized religion is rarely (if ever) content to leave unbelievers safe and alone with their own belief systems.
Historically, organized religion has not been about accepting others, but imposing one’s ideas on others. Consequently, religion then is a threat to humanity. It “poisons everything” and, as the author explores in chapter two, “Religion Kills,” perpetuates amoral crimes.
Organized religion is often a force that silences other voices. Hitchens references the writer Salman Rushdie, who in 1988 published The Satanic Verses
, was the victim of a Fatwa (legal ruling) issued by Iranian officials that called for his death; Rushdie had to go into hiding for more than a dozen years. In compelling detail, Hitchens looks at 9/11 and considers how the Twin Towers were destroyed by sincere believers in their faith; the mega-church evangelical pastors in the U.S. who led some funeral services believe in the same exact things as the hijackers: there’s an eternal paradise; forceful conclusions can be made with zero evidence; the problems of the world can be solely blamed on specific groups.
Hitchens looks at how the dietary and health restrictions imposed by religions throughout the world are actually detrimental to individuals. He looks at Muslim extremists in Northern Nigeria who spread the rumor that the smallpox vaccine was a ploy by the United Nations to overthrow the land. Villagers refused the vaccine. So an area once free of smallpox then saw the return of the deadly disease.
The author posits that many religions offer an image of the afterlife that is patently false. With so many people believing that their actions on this earth don’t matter, millions (if not billions) lead lackluster lives or are so fearful of a fictional, future hell that they refuse to indulge in any pleasure.
Hitchens reviews world-wide accounts of how the world was created. He argues that these stories once served a comforting and useful purpose before the scientific method, but since then, they do more harm than good by encouraging people to establish their lives on myths.
Hitchens argues that the “new” Testament in the Bible is more harmful than the “old” Testament. This is because the New Testament has without a doubt been changed by many men through the ages; despite contemporary claims to the contrary, there is no evidence or eyewitnesses to the events in the New Testament.
Discussing the Koran (Quran), Hitchens considers how the tradition has more of an oral rather than a written tradition, and how it combined various myths from Judaism and Christianity to arrive at a new hybrid. Hitchens notes that the Koran likely started with an Aramaic language, yet adamant Muslims today would be outraged by the suggestion that the Koran was delivered in Aramaic rather than Arabic. This is another example of religion and “faith” prohibiting the free, scholarly explorations of religious foundations.
Organized religion rarely shows an understanding of humanity. Rather than teaching how to embrace and manage one’s sexual impulses, it induces guilt. Hitchens concludes that religion no longer serves any purpose; in fact, nowadays, it only constrains human knowledge. Hitchens proposes a new sort of renaissance that focuses on the study of humanity. To “transcend our prehistory” will require much effort, especially when faced against religious zealots who encourage servile attitudes and feelings of self-hatred.