Though I bought it the day it came out, I didn’t get around to reading Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great until a recent weekend jaunt up to the old familial homestead in Jersey. As I expected it to be, it is a far superior tome to either Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation and The End of Faith, or Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Right off the bat, Hitchens clearly outclasses either in eloquence, leaving it not much of a fair fight on that score. But the book also outperformed its predecessors in ways I did not expect.
For one thing, though I am probably closer to Harris’ conservatism than Hitchens’ socialism, I found far fewer objectionable polemic tangents in the latter’s work. Particularly in The End of Faith, Harris is apt to go off the deep end when he moves into the subject of the War on Terror, going so far as to essentially condone torture, so long as it is a Muslim fundamentalist on the receiving end of the scabbard.
And while Dawkins is obviously a more esteemed scientific mind than Hitchens, I actually found Hitchens’ forays into philosophy of science questions far more satisfying, and much less condescendingly smug. This is remarkable in that there are few public figures MORE famously smug than Hitchens, but it seems the difference-maker is that Hitchens retains a sense of humor, both about the world and about himself, that the good professor utterly lacks.
Sitting down recently for a 20-minute chat with Hoover’s Peter Robinson on the Uncommon Knowledge program, Hitchens offers around the 15-minute mark a brief recap of what I think was one of the best sections of his book, tackling the difficult question of the evil done in the name of nominally “godless” communism, particularly by Josef Stalin. As Hitch puts it:
Until 1917, millions of Russians had been told for…hundreds of years that the czar is the head of the church – which he was, the Russian Orthodox Church. That the leader of the country should be something a little more than human. Not a god, but a little more. He’s not divine, but a holy father.
If you’re Josef Stalin, you shouldn’t be in the dictatorship business if you don’t know how to exploit an inheritance like that: millions of credulous, servile people.
And what does he do? Lysenko’s biology – miracles, we can have three harvests a year if we believe in Lysenko’s biology. Inquisition, heresy hunt, orthodoxy. Everything comes from the top and must be thanked for, and groveled for. A complete replication of the preceding theocracy.
For your argument to have…any force at all, you’d have to point to a society that adopted the teachings of Lucretius, Spinoza, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Albert Einstein…and then fell into famine, dictatorship, torture and genocide. And you won’t, I think, be able to point to such.
It is an important point, and one that free thinkers do not make often enough. The fact of some deity’s existence is ultimately less important a question than the societal framework in which that question is permitted to be answered. Logic, reason, the scientific method, free inquiry, pluralism -- organized religions have, in all times and in all places, sought to suppress these things. That they are not the only institutions to engage in such suppression is not a credit to religion, particularly not when those other institutions inevitably get away with it by mimicking religion’s installation of an autocratic god-figure…in this case, Stalin himself.