Christopher Hitchens on Religion

Tom Shipka

Christopher Hitchens's most recent book is an in-your-face critique of religion entitled God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. (1) Hitchens offers the reader a long list of complaints about religion, including:

  • The teachings of religion about the origin of the cosmos and the origin and development of biological species contradict well-established science;
  • All of the traditional arguments for the existence of God have significant defects;
  • All of the traditional attempts to explain how the enormous suffering that afflicts sentient creatures is compatible with an all-powerful and all-good God are an exercise in sophistry;
  • Religious scriptures amount to myths and fables that are contradictory, unhistorical, and, in the case of the Koran, largely plagiarized;
  • Religion is patriarchal and denigrates women;
  • Religion inflames tribal and ethnic hostility;
  • Religions are intolerant of those who reject or question them, including seculars, heretics, and adherents of other religions;
  • The moral codes which religions promote are shallow and incomplete, and in some cases, "positively immoral"; (2)
  • Religion inflicts physical and psychological harm on children;
  • Religion finds a problem for every sensible solution in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and elsewhere; and
  • Prayer doesn't work.

Hitchens will find support on these points among most seculars, including myself, and among many religious. Yet his book has serious defects which detract from its value. While he blames religion for virtually every problem from erectile dysfunction to terrorism, he finds nothing at all praiseworthy in religion. He overlooks the fact that religion can change for the better. For instance, in the United States 175 years ago, thousands of clergy endorsed slavery; today none do. And for generations Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland carried on a bloody, senseless civil war; today a peace accord between these groups is holding up despite recent attempts by domestic terrorists to destroy it. Similarly, Hitchens ignores the fact that many religious organizations provide valuable humanitarian services to people in need. Take, for example, Habitat for Humanity, Goodwill Industries, Catholic Charities, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital, among others, which help millions of young and old each year around the nation, and Beatitude House, Potter's Wheel, and Angela's Place, among others, which help hundreds of young and old each year locally. Further, Hitchens is silent about the thousands of American schools and colleges with religious affiliations that have educated millions over the generations. Finally, Hitchens mentions but downplays the harm produced by secular regimes in the past century such as Mao's China, Stalin's Russia, and Pol Pot's Cambodia. (3) All this points to serious blind spots. (4)

If you want to read a more balanced, less rhetorical critique of religion, take a look at The Transcendental Temptation. This classic was published 23 years ago by philosopher Paul Kurtz, a much kinder, gentler atheist than Hitchens.

  1. Twelve, Hatchett Book Group USA, 2007.
  2. Page 205.
  3. Hitchens acknowledges that the excesses of communist dictators caused him to abandon the Marxism of his youth. See page 151. On the record of secular regimes, see Rabbi David J. Wolpe, Why Faith Matters, pp. 51-67. It is interesting to note that Hitchens has gone through multiple identities including Anglican, Methodist, Marxist, Greek Orthodox, Jewish, and most recently atheist. One wonders if he's finished. See p. 195.
  4. Hitchens's refusal to grant religion any credit is reflected in his comments about two twentieth-century leaders. After insisting that Mohandas Gandhi was only a minor force in the successful drive for independence in India, he tells us that Gandhi's Hinduism had little impact on his behavior. (See p. 184) Further, he informs us that Christianity provided no inspiration for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the U.S. civil rights struggle. (See p. 180) This amounts to historical revisionism.

© 2009 Tom Shipka