God Is Not Great

I came to Christopher Hitchens’ famously irreligious book quite late, having already read similarly themed work by Dennett (Breaking the Spell), Harris (The End of Faith; Letter to a Christian Nation) and Dawkins (The Blind Watchmaker; I’ve not read The God Delusion, but I’ll probably get around to it one day). The argument being made, more or less, in these books is that there is no place in the modern world where dogmatic belief systems are more beneficial than humanism and rationalism, and that in many cases they do active harm more often than good.

Much has been made of God Is Not Great and, I suspect, most of the hubbub comes down to its provocative title. In fact, I’ve read very little of Hitchens, given that the man is a print journalist by trade; but I have sought out various of his televised debates and interviews, in which he typically states his perspectives with eloquent, intellectual and unashamedly combative passion, and I find myself most firmly in his camp (a detail which I will shortly come back to).

So, having listened to him discuss his opinions generally and the book specifically at some length, when I did open the thing in my own hand I found much of it already familiar. Like many people, writers or otherwise, Hitchens does have a habit of pulling out his favourite one-liners when he feels he is on show; I’m sure I’ve turned on my own pre-prepared charm on occasion (although obviously it’s so very difficult to tell), but then Hitchens would be the very first one to boast that he is only human. What I’ve found is that Hitchens, both in print and in person, marches his passion and his intellect step for step; but his arguments on the page come across somehow as less confrontational, even when the damning point he makes is the same. Perhaps it is as much his self-asserting delivery, that supercilious tone of voice, which raises the hackles of his opponents as much as just exactly what it is he says.

Well, maybe not – and not for nothing is the inevitable Dawkins quote on the cover the most appropriate possible (“If you are a religious apologist invited to debate with Christopher Hitchens, decline“). Start to finish, God Is Not Great is thoughtful, indignant, funny, even at times celebratory; he is outraged and occasionally outrageous in his contemptuous moments; but always challenging with it. I would dread to go up against him, and I’m glad I have no need to, but it could be said that anyone holding one of the multitude of opposing views has a personal responsibility to confront what he says and at least attempt to justify their beliefs in response, even if only to themselves. That is, seemingly, what the book is intended for.

It has been pointed out by several of the writers I mentioned at the start, if not all four, that while they may all count best-sellers in their back catalogues, it is probable that the people interested in buying books by any one of them are probably also those buying the books of the others; and thus Hitchens and company are, to borrow and butcher a phrase, all rather preaching to the wrong choir. I am not going to have my mind changed reading Hitchens, and as with The God Delusion there is a real likelihood that the people who could be most affected by it are the very ones who will dismiss it for the veneer of antagonism the mere title provides.

There is another perspective, though. There is the possibility, even the probability, that people who don’t want to be reached by such a thing as this will simply ensure it isn’t an option by not reading it – and fair enough, I suppose. There is also the chance that people like me will find themselves in conversation with people like them – I know of a handful, friends of mine for the most part – and on those occasions when the unspeakable subject raises its head, there is a certainty that I will be very glad that Hitchens wrote this book and that I read it.

Hitchens and his fellows are basically in the business of social revolution, they could be pointed to as the current leaders of a movement; but leaders are rarely the ones who change the world. It is the interactions between “real” individuals, people affecting each other face to face, that impact the way we think and act. So the book remains valuable for those already on Hitchens’ side, helping to prepare us for the next “interesting” conversation.

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