God is Great (not)?

As a teacher/editor with an “advanced” degree in religious studies, I was intrigued by the sudden popularity of Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great (Twelve Books, 2007) a couple years back. I bought it as soon it was available and read it cover-to-cover after a morning out picking strawberries.

Reading Hitchens’ analysis I found myself nodding my head quite a bit; he scores a substantial number of points on which various religions should plead “guilty.” And while I found many of his arguments persuasive, part of me still wonders if perhaps religion, that most ancient of cultural forms, has not had at least some positive impact on humankind. In the most basic sense, our civilization would not be here to critique religion if religion had not been an impetus to get our civilization to begin its motion towards today’s civilization. Black and white are not in the palette of serious religious studies.

For the scholar of religion, however, Hitchens should be required reading. Sometimes we have to stare hard into the face of the facts of what our object of study has become and wonder, with Samuel F. B. Morse, “what hath god wrought?” Religion bears the mark of Janus, and scholars of religion have to pay attention to what people are saying about it.

4 thoughts on “God is Great (not)?

  1. Dr. Jim

    I share your views on Hitchens. I really liked a lot of the book, but then just shook my head at other parts. I think the violence etc. in religion is just part of the “violence inherent in the system” of human life.

    Dawkins’ God Delusion also bugged me. He really doesn’t understand religion or the Bible all that well. He could have made a heck of a stronger case by avoiding some silly errors, cheap shots and so forth.

    Of course, religious studies scholars should read them and take to heart the bulk of their critiques, but as you imply, religion should not be demonized.


  2. I agree. This new intellectual steroid that Hitchens’ has produced–or rather made trendy to young people–that religion is the cause of all the worlds’ problems is both misleading and irresponsible. “G-d is Not Great” failed to impress me because it seems more like reactionary venom than scholarship.


  3. Matt L

    I agree with most everything stated before. In addition, I feel that Hitchens does not really introduce anything new to the field of anti-religious studies and tends to just repeat what has been said before by better thinkers. He falls into the common trap of using political correctness and modern ideas of ethics to produce a feigned ‘horror’ at religious practices – as if people living in the past were worried about what a modern, sensitive soul would think about their actions many centuriess later. In the end, I highly doubt that the feigned ‘horror’ of many anti-religionists is very genuine, or even appropriate in assessing the subject – it just seems to be a convenient tool at hand that is sure to tug at the heart-strings of many people. There seems to be a pattern: ‘horror’ at religion, rejection of religion, adoption of new morality, new morality commits similar ‘horrors’ as previous religion but in a more sterile and scientific way for ”the good of the people”, progress is achieved and society fails to notice that woodchip in their own eye. Same behavior, minus the solace of religious thought.
    Anyways – Hitchens gets a big black mark from me from his debate with Al Sharpton, and this colors my view of him, unfortunately. Never did I think that a reverend could defeat an atheist in a debate, but sure enough that is what happened. Sharpton asked Hitchens why he didn’t name the book “Organized Religion is Not Great” or “The Bible is Not Great” and pointed out that his critique was against those things, rather than an effective critique against God. Hitchens, while very verbose in print, was unable to even grasp Sharpton’s point and faltered throughout the debate, punctuating each remark with appropriate political zingers to ensure appropriate applause, even when entirely unwarranted and the result of a complete evasion of the matter at hand.
    If you can find the debate – watch it!


  4. Pingback: A Decade | Steve A. Wiggins

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