The book was published in 2007, I bought it in 2015 after watching a few YouTube videos of Christopher Hitchens debating religious apologists, and finally made some time to read it. god Is Not Great is an easy read and can be completed in one weekend.
The main ideas I took after reading Hitch’s book were, first, the general origin of Judaic religions placed in their historical context and, second, the morally indefensible and totalitarian nature of these religions. (He also makes a similar argument in the book against Eastern and more “peaceably” religions).
The first idea and its inevitable conclusion are painless to understand. Religion belongs to human prehistory, to the infancy of our species. It was a first attempt to explain what was going on around us at a time when nobody had any idea what was going on. It is understandable that people were religious, or needed religion, back in those dark days. But in our present era, after Darwin unveiled the concept of our origins, after Modern Synthesis, there is no excuse for anyone to believe in religion.
Edward Gibbon, in his magnum opus The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, attributes the rise of the Christian religion during its early centuries to five causes, one of them was “the doctrine of a future life, improved by every additional circumstance which could give weight and efficacy to the important truth.” Perhaps this is still one of the strongest reasons why there are so many believers in today’s era of science and reason, and, more importantly, in a world in which (at least in most countries) free inquiry does not run the risk of being punished with death.
There is no excuse for anyone to believe in religion, not only because it is false, but because it is immoral. This is the main point of Hitchens, as the subtitle of the book clearly reveals. A religious person, a “believer”, could behave morally or immorally because “ethics and morality are independent of faith, and cannot be derived from it.” It is religion’s tenets that are inherently noxious:
Presenting a false picture of the world to the innocent and the credulous
This point requires little elaboration. All religions’ creation myths have long been known to be false, and have been replaced by infinitely superior and elegant explanations. As Hitchens notes (emphasis mine), “To its list of apologies, religion should simply add an apology for foisting man-made parchments and folk myths upon the unsuspecting, and for taking so long to concede that this had been done.”
Modern humans have been around for 200,000 years. It is befuddling how the Almighty waited 190,000 years, give or take, to reveal himself and his moral code to an unlettered and quasi-historical individual, in a region of the desert already littered with idol worship and superstition.
The doctrine of blood sacrifice
This comes from pre-primitive society, that is, before monotheism arose. Altars reeked blood, human and animal, to please or appease the gods. Later comes the story of Abraham, common to all three monotheisms, and his willingness to murder his son in expiation of his own crimes. The Old Testament says that this was a noble thing to do. Hitchens suggests that this story and the concept behind it extrapolates to the abundance of religious blood sacrifice we see in our society today (think martyrs of jihad).
The Gnostics, in the early centuries of our era, had already taken issue with the brutality of the stories found in the scriptures. Borrowing again from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, we find that “These objections were eagerly embraced, and as petulantly urged, by the vain science of the Gnostics. As those heretics were, for the most part, averse to the pleasures of sense, they morosely arraigned the polygamy of the patriarchs, the gallantries of David, and the seraglio of Solomon. The conquest of the land of Canaan, and the extirpation of the unsuspecting natives, they were at a loss how to reconcile with the common notions of humanity and justice.”
The doctrine of atonement
The collectivization of guilt is immoral. Religion promotes the collectivization of guilt, even when, at times, it has been compelled to admit its wickedness. Not until after the end of World War II did the Vatican drop the charge of “deicide” on the Jews (as opposed to some Jews) for killing Jesus Christ.
The doctrine of eternal punishment and the imposition of impossible tasks and rules
The combination of the threat of Hell and the imposition of impossible tasks and rules that emanate from an absolute authority are the essential ingredients of a totalitarian system. Hell is, by the way, in the minds of the pious a place infinitely more terrifying than anything I can imagine, infinitely worse than having my daughter kidnapped by a stranger and kept in a basement for ten years. And as for impossible rules, Hitch provides some examples of rules “that must, yet cannot, be followed.” For instance, a commandment in the Old Testament that forbids people even to think about coveting goods, followed up in the New Testament with the injunction that a man who looks a woman in the wrong way has committed adultery already. Also, the noble-sounding “love thy neighbor as thyself” is an impossible rule to follow, humans are not hardwired for this. The creator should have been more careful when he designed us.
The famous Golden Rule, on the other hand, modestly encouraging us to treat others as one wish to be treated by them, is more rational and can be easily taught because it resonates with our innate sense of fairness. This rule predates all of Jesus’s parables and
does not require masochism and hysteria, or sadism and hysteria, when it is breached. It is gradually learned, as part of the painfully slow evolution of the species, and once grasped is never forgotten. Ordinary conscience will do, without any heavenly wrath behind it.
We are living in times in which religion is not only prescindible and obsolete, but also harmful. An ethical life can be and is lived without religion. As Hitchens puts it rather eloquently “Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake.”
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