God is not great

I have viewed the rise of the new muscular secular movement in the United States - spurred mostly by the work of Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris - with a degree of ambivalence. On the one hand, it is clear that their work is vitally important, and that they are fighting the good fight in a country that desperately needs enlightenment (of the eighteenth-century variety that seems to have passed most of America by). On the other hand, the sight of intelligent men mounting an earnest and heartfelt defence of the entirely obvious makes me oddly squeamish. I live in a secular world. I am not, and have never been, religious. My parents are entirely a-religious, and so were their parents were before them. Indeed, I can't find a religious person anywhere in my ancestry. My wife is a-religious, and so are her parents and her siblings. None of my friends or co-workers are religious, in any conventional sense. What's more, I can go about my business in the confident knowledge that my secularism will never be an issue, because I live in a country where the vast majority of people simply don't care what my religious views are. So, from my vantage point - and I expect that this is a view shared by many readers in Europe and Australia - Dennett, Dawkins and Harris are two steps behind.

God is not great

One book in this vein has, however, pricked my interest - not because it covers more or different ground from the three above, but because it promised to do so somewhat more entertainingly. Christopher Hitchens' contribution is titled, true to polemical Hitchens form, "God is not great: how religion poisons everything". I have my disagreements with this drink-soaked former Trotskyist popinjay - his apparent abandonment of all critical thinking regarding the war in Iraq has been baffling - but he is an unfailingly provocative and amusing read. So, when a certain Harry Potter obsessed spouse of mine dragged me into a bookshop to donate our $30 to J.K. Rowling recently, I picked up "God is not great" on an impulse. And, indeed, I'm glad I did, because Hitchens doesn't disappoint. Where Dawkins is quite polite to his religious adversaries - in an icy donnish way - Hitchens is the literary equivalent of a rather vicious bar-room brawler - he can be counted on to haul up his slacks and let his opponents have it where it hurts. The book consists chiefly of a very angry, and at times very funny, recounting of a litany of religious horrors and embarrassments: the stupidity of intelligent design, the capricious cruelty of the major deities, the tragedy of ordinary people influenced by religion to do evil, the doubtful provenance of religiously-inspired morality, the wars, the torture, the perversions brought about by sexual repression. I'm not going to deal with these in detail - you will have heard them all before, although, perhaps, not presented quite so entertainingly. What I found more interesting is the idea that this book contains the germ of Hitchens' recent famous quarrel with the left. He argues, again and again, that civilised, tolerant people have allowed religion to "poison everything", due to a misplaced politically correct indulgence that has stifled reasonable criticism. This is, I think it is safe to assume, the very same impulse of liberalism that he was so revolted by after 9/11, and which caused his high-profile departure from the pages of The Nation. The fact that I agree so entirely with Hitchens on religion in this regard has made some of his recent right-leaning views somewhat more understandable to me.

"God is not great" has a few minor flaws that bear mentioning. Science pedants will notice that he gets his facts wrong occasionally, giving only semi-coherent descriptions of genetics and evolutionary processes, and confusing the unpredictability of complex systems with Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. Hitchens' prose can best be described as vigorous but warty, like a Queensland cane toad. Pedants of a literary stripe will be plagued by the feeling that the Hitch's editor went on holiday just as he finished his manuscript. One gets the impression that the Hitchens verbal bulldozer is a tad hard to steer, once it has built up some momentum. This means that his line of argument is often forceful, rather than deft, and angry at the expense of clarity and thoroughness. A less petty objection - and one which is relevant not only to Hitchens' own work - is that Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens all seem to have inadvertently written the same book, making the same broad arguments, and mounting the same objections to religion. Worse, as I am sure they are all aware, they'd been beaten to the punch by nearly 80 years, because Bertrand Russell did it better in 1929, in a 6000 word essay entitled "Why I am Not a Christian". To be sure, a lot has happened since then - religion itself has visited innumerable new horrors on the world in the interim, and there was certainly room for an update incorporating advances in scientific fields like genetics and neurology. I think, though, that these additions would have increased the force and persuasiveness of Russell's essay surprisingly little. At any rate, this necessary update could have occupied a single volume, much slimmer and more focused than any of the books discussed in this post, leaving our pundits free to less redundantly explore other important aspects of the religious problem.

Despite these niggles, "God is not great" IS great for what it is: a loose, informal, subjective essay on the evils of religion. I recommend it as a highly entertaining way to kill a rainy afternoon.