Friday, May 1, 2009

God is Not Great

I’ve been reading Christopher Hitchens’ book “God is Not Great” for the last several weeks (or more accurately, often NOT reading it, since I’ve been incredibly busy and have been able to spend less time with it than I would like). Hitchens argues that religion has poisoned our societies and that we should turn toward reason and allow faith to expire.

I wouldn’t say that I come from a deeply religious background, and I agree that reason should be the foundation of our modern societies -- the place where all of us interact and share ideas, perspectives and scientific knowledge.

However, I think Hitchens makes two major mistakes in this book.

The first is that he chooses the most extreme examples of religious behavior and uses them to represent the whole. The militant Buddhists in Sri Lanka, for example, are hardly representative of the world’s millions of non-violent Buddhists -- just as Jerry Falwell and his ilk are not representative of the bulk of the world’s Christians, and the Taliban doesn’t represent most Muslims. Moderates in any of those religions may feel some kinship with their extreme wings, but they likely disagree with extremist tactics and extremist philosophy.

Second, Hitchens argues that we should embrace hard science and jettison faith in considering our view of the world and the universe. He picks apart the Bible as a flawed document written and rewritten by mortals, and says:

“Though I dislike to differ with such a great man, Voltaire was simply ludicrous when he said that if God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him. The human invention of God is the problem to begin with. Our evolution has been examined ‘backward,’ with life temporarily outpacing extinction, and knowledge now at last capable of reviewing and explaining ignorance. Religion, it is true, still possesses the huge if cumbersome and unwieldy advantage of having come ‘first.’ But as Sam Harris states rather pointedly in ‘The End of Faith,’ if we lost all our hard-won knowledge and all our archives, and all our ethics and morals, in some Marquez-like fit of collective amnesia, and had to reconstruct everything essential from scratch, it is difficult to imagine at what point we would need to remind or reassure ourselves that Jesus was born of a virgin.”

I think this ignores a deep-seated visceral need that many people have for spirituality. It’s the way they process wonder at the world and its intricacy, and at the mysteries of life and death. My own Buddhist practice (moribund as it is at the moment) answers something in me that science does not.

I do agree that our public policy decisions should be made with respect for science and with an eye toward common benefit for people of all religions -- that’s where the world, including our own country, has continually fallen short. Extremism, and its accompanying we’re-right-and-you’re-evil philosophies, is clearly a menace. But we shouldn’t demonize all of religion for the sake of a few lunatics, and we should recognize that it brings us as much beauty as despair.

(Photo: Old sign outside an industrial site in Brooklyn, February 2009)


  1. There's a lot to think about here. As with most things in life, I think balance is the key. Balance and an acceptance of the fact that not everyone's God must be the same.

    I can remember when I was growing up worrying that the "God is dead" movement would catch on, that perhaps some scientific proof would be offered that would throw my feelings about God to the wind.

    While science has made great strides in many fields, I think spirituality is an area that will always be defined by the individual, or at least I hope so.

  2. Haven't read this book but the argument seems flawed indeed.

    Awe and wonder over the mysteries of the universe (including ourselves) cannot be subsumed under reason. That's like trying to fit the ocean into a bottle.

    If anything, the biggest problem with many aspects of organized religions is precisely the unholy alliance between reason and emotion - in other words, an emotional appeal to spiritual awe for economic and political reasons totally unrelated to the wonder of it all.

    That said, here's wishing you a wonderful weekend, it already being started over here as today is the French Workers' Day.

  3. Jettison faith, eh? How silly. But I don't mind of Hitchens jettisons his own faith.

    God knows a whole lot of damage has been done in the name of science, too. We're kind of destructive as a species, especially when we believe we are right while others are wrong.

    Tolerating diversity is my goal. With some people it's a lot harder than with others. But I keep trying.

    I'll even tolerate Hitchens's distaste for faith ... at least I'll try!

  4. I read the book. I'm not one to be as strident as Hitchens, even though I agree with much of it.

  5. Thanks for the thoughtful review. The book does indeed seem flawed, as you point out. Not everyone's
    G-D is the same, but that doesn't mean that those who choose to believe should be catigated, just as non-believers have the right to their feelings. Extremism in any regard is dangerous and we need to do a better job of educating people about the separation of church and state in matters of law and policy.

    Hope you are well.

  6. One of my clients is a retired surgeon. He spent most of his working life in alopathic medicine. He healed by the knife.

    Long story short, after his retirement, he began deeply exploring his spirituality. He deepened his study of Cosmology. It is now quite advanced. Through me and others, he started studying energy work, meditation and alternative healing. He devoted the first half of his existence to the tangible, the second half, he is exploring the intangible, holistic, quantum, energetic theories. In his words, "science doesn't have all of the answers."

    Naw, its not that bad, but I am afraid of hope, and faith, well, shit in one hand and have faith in the other and see what fills up the quickest.

  8. After the wreckage of fundamentalist christianity in this country there's a lot of reaction to the other extreme. But for example, I picked up a copy of the National Georgraphic featuring evolution and, to me, it proves the existene of God. I follow a variety of spiritual beliefs and practices - depending on the day of the week.