Monday, 28 May 2007

Degrees of Confidence in Belief

We all hold beliefs. Even when we don't think about them, we still hold them. Getting up, having breakfast, and driving to work involves a massive sequence of beliefs, even if we do it semi-consciously. Putting on our clothes, for example, expresses a belief that there are external realities that we need to cater to -- environment and other people (who have standards of modesty that they expect us to meet). Having breakfast is an expression of the belief that our hunger will be sated by the funny-shaped pieces of sugar and starch we pour into a pool of white liquid. Driving the car requires, not only a significant skill-set, but a whole raft of beliefs, and substantial faith in our own skills, the reliability of our and others' vehicles, and others' skills and obedience to the road rules.

Anyone who claims that they hold firmly to no beliefs is lying to themselves. Without a firm belief in many things, from the laws of physics to the basic law-abiding attitude of others, they would never step foot outside their home.

However, we have varying degrees of confidence in our beliefs. This is appropriate. Don't let people fool you into trying to express all your beliefs as if you had either 100% or 0% confidence in a belief. This is most often used as a common argumentation trick to try to get you to express confidence in a peripheral belief, prove you wrong in that, and then call into doubt all of your beliefs. If you are not aware of the confidence you hold in your beliefs, you are vulnerable to this sort of attack. (And sometimes this sort of attack isn't malicious -- it may be that a cherished, or even foundational belief has been called into question by some circumstance, and because you don't understand the confidence with which you held that belief, you overreact by questioning all of your beliefs. This is actually quite a common occurrence, and is very unsettling.)

A definition

So what does it mean to talk about "degrees of confidence in beliefs"?

First, it does not mean how foundational a belief is. The foundationality of a belief speaks to how many other beliefs are based on a belief. A foundational belief is one that forms the base for other beliefs. For example, a belief in the validity of logic is one of the primary foundational beliefs in most people's worldviews (or frameworks of beliefs). A less foundational belief may be the belief in the inherent goodness of people, or the inherent badness of people. The degree of confidence you hold these beliefs in is independent of how foundational they are. (However, the more foundational a belief is, the more difficult it is to change it, since it has wider ramifications. Thus, if you are a responsible thinker, you will tend to have tried to build your confidence levels in your foundational beliefs so that your worldview is an accurate reflection of reality.)

Second, it does not mean how important a belief is. For example, your belief in the competence of a particular surgeon is more important than your belief in the best word to use in a particular email. But that has nothing to do with how confident you are in either of those beliefs. However, the more important a belief, the more likely you are to seek to ensure that you have a high level of confidence in it.

Third, it does not have anything to do with the type of belief. You can be more confident in metaphysical beliefs (such as the belief in the validity of logic) than in physical ones (such as the belief that your favourite socks are currently in your top dresser drawer). Equally, you can be more confident in an historical belief (WWII was initiated by the Germans under Hitler) than a personal memory (you met Fred in 1987).

Fourth, it has nothing to do with the history of your belief. Beliefs that you have held all your life are not necessarily those that you have more confidence in than beliefs you started to hold yesterday. The longevity of a belief may simply be related to its lack of importance to you, or the fact that you hold the belief for reasons of convenience rather than trust in its truthfulness.

So, what is confidence in a belief?

It is a measure of how close you think a belief is to reality. Remember the discussion about accuracy and precision? The degree of confidence you hold in a belief is the extent to which you believe it is accurate (ie. close to reality). This is independent of the precision of a belief (ie. how well-formed or descriptive it is). So, for example, you may have great confidence in your belief that spiritism is bunkum without having a precise understanding of the nature of spiritism. And the corollary is true, too: you may have very detailed beliefs on the character of movie stars without having great confidence in those beliefs.


This definition shows that some beliefs deserve more confidence than others. For example, the more foundational a belief is, the more we would like to have confidence in it. (Otherwise we have a lot of work to do if the belief turns out to be wrong.) The more important a belief, the more we would like to have confidence in it. (Otherwise we are likely to be seriously hurt by an incorrect belief.)

Also, the definition implies that it is possible to do something about the degree of confidence we have for a belief -- we can increase it through some activity. This is fortunate, because it allows us to address the more important and foundational beliefs.

What is that activity? Well, that depends on the type of belief.

If the belief is a simple physical one, we can increase our confidence in it by a physical investigation. For example, if we are unsure of the type of liquid in a bottle we can read the label, smell it, taste it, feel it, and so on. Important beliefs are often physical ones, but not always.

If it is an historical belief, we can seek independent sources to validate it, and we can seek sources that would invalidate the belief. We can measure such a belief by the number and quality of sources that attest to it, and the lack of sources that attest against it. For example, the Holocaust is very well attested by many, many quality sources (including numerous primary sources, ie. people that experienced it), and there are very few sources that attest against it (ie. good alternative explanations from reliable sources for all these reliable primary and secondary and tertiary sources claiming it is true).

If the belief is a metaphysical one (such as the belief in the validity of logic, or a belief in the relativity of truth), then it can only be measured by how strongly the framework it is capable of supporting is reflected by reality. This can also be expressed as its level of coherence in a framework that has a strong correspondence to reality. (For example, logic supports a framework that includes experimental science, which is tightly bound to reality, and it also supports cause and effect, something commonly seen in reality. On the other hand, the relativity of truth insists on a framework where cause and effect, along with physical laws, varies from person to person -- a good reason to have very little confidence in such a belief.)

Holding multiple, competing beliefs with varying confidence

Finally, is it possible to hold multiple, competing beliefs with varying confidence? Look at your belief system, and you'll see that the answer is a qualified "yes".

Depending on the foundationality and importance of the belief, it is possible to hold multiple, competing beliefs. However, once a belief becomes even slightly foundational or important, we will tend to collapse our beliefs back down to the belief we have the most confidence in. For example, if there is a bottle of green liquid in the fridge, we can entertain several competing beliefs about it: it's ant poison, it's soft drink, it's lime cordial, it's medicine. Our confidence in all these beliefs will be very low. However, as soon as we need to do something about the bottle (throw it away, drink it, store it somewhere other than the fridge), we will automatically attempt to increase our confidence in our belief about the contents of that bottle, and collapse our belief into the smallest range possible. For example, we may open it and smell it. If we are considering drinking it, and it smells like poison, we will collapse our beliefs down to the belief that it is poison. We probably won't bother trying to increase the precision of the belief (what sort of poison it is), unless we want to label it, or use it.

For foundational beliefs it is even more important to hold only one. The more competing foundational beliefs we hold, the more separate sets of dependant beliefs we need to hold. (For example, if I can't decide whether Fred is honest or not, I need to entertain beliefs in his behaviors that include his honesty as well as his dishonesty. This is the sort of problem that investigators deal with, and it is such hard work that we simply can't maintain it for everyday life.)


So, you can see how important it is to be aware of the confidence of your beliefs. And you've also had a glimpse into other areas of discussion on beliefs (such as types, foundationality, importance, etc.). If you are serious about your life, you need to think about your beliefs. Most people don't -- they simply accumulate them like postcards on a pinboard. But accumulated, unevaluated beliefs will inevitably lead to failure and pain.

  • Identify your foundational beliefs (here are some of mine: logic is valid, my mind is capable of thinking logically and recognising reality with some degree of accuracy, reality exists independently of me, other humans are independent agents, God exists and is an agent who has revealed himself through the Bible)
  • Evaluate how confident you are in these beliefs, and why
  • Work on building your confidence in beliefs that you don't have much confidence in (note: this may involve discarding those beliefs and replacing them with alternatives that you can have more confidence in -- this is painful, but critical)
  • Identify beliefs that are important to your current life situation (for example, my job is the right one for me, I should spend such and such an amount of time at work, my hobbies are productive and compatible with my family, the way I treat my family is constructive, and so on)
  • Evaluate how confident you are in these beliefs, and why
  • Work on building your confidence in these beliefs (once again, this may involve discarding them and replacing them with more accurate beliefs -- indeed, it is more likely at this level to do so)
  • Start work on evaluating your whole framework of beliefs. Every time you make a statement, whether it be out loud or in your thoughts, think about why that is true -- how much confidence can you have in that, and why? A consistent worldview that reflects reality is the single best attribute that you can have. (And I can say that as a Christian because I believe that such a worldview includes obedience to God.)
  • Realise that you can never be 100% confident in any of your beliefs, so be humble, and be gentle with others.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Irreligion poisons everything - more from Hitchens

Well, The Weekend Australian of May 19-20, 2007, has another extract from Christopher Hitchens's God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, and this one, while mostly consisting of ridiculous assertions, actually has an argument or two in it. Are they good arguments? Let's take a quick look.

He starts off with some silly assertions that aren't even worth addressing, they're so clearly invalid. He throws in a nice bit of double standards (criticising religious people for not leaving him alone in a book that viciously attacks religious people), and moves on to a vicious attack.

"As I write these words, and as you read them, people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of hard-won human attainments. Religion poisons everything."

That's a pretty strong assertion. The way he expresses it, "people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction," makes it sound like "people of faith" are simply inimical, by their very nature, towards people of non-faith. He casts his net very wide. Don't believe me? Well, read on, he presents evidence for his claim:

"Take a single example, from one of the most revered figures that modern religion has produced." He then goes on to explain how in a 1996 referendum in Ireland, to decide whether to remove a constitutional prohibition against divorce, the evil Roman Catholic church rolled out its big guns: Mother Teresa.

Good grief! Why didn't I see it? Mother Teresa is just plain evil, and campaigning against divorce is bringing about the destruction of people of non-faith. It all makes sense now!

I don't think so.

Hitchens seems completely ignorant of reality on almost every count here:
  • He gives "two excellent reasons" for the referendum: "It was no longer thought right that the Catholic Church should legislate its morality for all citizens, and it was obviously impossible even to hope for eventual Irish reunification if the large Protestant minority in the north was continually repelled by the possibility of clerical rule."

    Neither of these are sufficient reasons to change something in a constitution, since, if they were, they would apply to anything. Imagine that the Irish constitution had a prohibition against slavery, and the referendum were attempting to overturn that prohibition. Would those two reasons still be good reasons? Sure, the Catholic church is against slavery, but should it not attempt to legislate its morality? Even if the north were pro-slavery, would that be a sufficient reason for the south to accept it? The answers are clearly, "no", since we know that slavery is a bad thing, independent of what the Roman Catholic church or Northern Ireland think about it.
  • Hitchens has smuggled a (huge) assumption in here: prohibiting divorce is destructive, allowing divorce is good. His "two excellent reasons" only make sense if his assumption is correct (but it still won't make them excellent reasons, merely pragmatic ones). The question is, is Hitchens's assumption correct? The answer is, once again, no. See discussion and links here, this website, or just do a google search yourself. The evidence is well and truly in, and it speaks strongly: liberalised divorce laws hurt the divorcees, but more profoundly, the children.
  • Mother Teresa and the Catholic church weren't the only ones trying to impose their morality on others here. Those who believe it is immoral to limit divorce were trying to impose their morality on the whole country (and they succeeded). In fact, Hitchens gives a moral argument for why divorce should be allowed, and he clearly thinks that his morality has precedence over the Catholic morality. At the same time, he is (with breathtakingly ignorant hypocrisy) criticising the Catholic church for imposing its morality. Quite extraordinary. (And very sad, especially when the church turns out, unsurprisingly, to have been right.)
  • Hitchens seems to think that people can live in a country where morality is up to the individual, he says, "There was not even the suggestion that Catholics could follow their own church's commandments while not imposing them on all other citizens." It's pretty obvious that there are some things that are simply so destructive that they need to be legislated against. As it turns out (and as almost every society in history has understood), divorce is one of those things. In Australia we have legislation against preparing food for strangers with your bare hands. Yet we allow the massive destructive impact of divorce to continue unabated. This is the twisted illogic of Hitchens and co.

So, in summary, Hitchens claims the church is "planning your destruction" by trying to limit divorce, which imposes a restriction on the freedom of adults to do what they want when they feel like it without thought of any consequences (help, I'm being destroyed!). The reality is that the church was attempting to prevent the wholesale destruction of many relationships, and the incredible harm it causes to children. So, rather than a monster, Mother Teresa turns out to have been someone who was very concerned for the most defenceless members of society: children. Who would have thought! Mother Teresa concerned for defenseless members of society -- that's just so out of character, isn't it? (BTW, Hitchens has written a whole book attempting to portray Mother Teresa in as bad a light as possible. There is an agenda here, which doesn't mean he's wrong, but is worth bearing in mind.)

Hitchens follows this lamentable attempt at an argument with more silly assertions about the origin of religion, thus committing the genetic fallacy -- the incorrect attempt to argue that an idea is wrong because of where it comes from. He then displays his bizarre reading of the Bible. He claims that the gospels are out of sync on the Sermon on the Mount (despite the fact that one of them is actually a different sermon: the Sermon on the Plain), as well as passion week (neglecting that a synthesis of the gospels has been around for, oh, almost 2000 years). He also shows how carefully he reads his assumptions into the Bible with his discussion of Jesus' fulfilment of prophecy.

Even his criticism of Islam, which centres around the idea that the Koran only makes sense in Arabic, misses the mark. If God had chosen to express himself in Arabic alone, that hardly implies that he's a monoglot, which is Hitchens's ludicrous claim.

He shows a complete lack of historical knowledge by talking about the Protestant reformation's struggle to "have the Bible rendered into 'the Vulgate'". The Vulgate was actually the Latin translation that had been around since the fifth century, as even a quick Google search will show. Perhaps he means "the vernacular", or the local language.

Hitchens then, bravely, attempts to address the counterpoint Christians give when atheists point to the terrible wars and persecutions performed in the name of religion, namely the criticism of the terrible destruction wrought by the atheist nations on their own people. (This point is more strongly made by pointing out that Christian wars are against the character of Christianity as represented in the Bible, while the atheist purges were a natural outcome of that worldview -- Hitchens doesn't even bother mentioning the stronger form of the argument.) He attempts to deflect this by arguing that these leaders claim the role of god, and therefore it's still actually religion that's the cause of the problem (although he never says it that succinctly -- succinctness is not one of Hitchens's strengths, it seems). However, this doesn't address the fact that the governments of the USSR and China were explicitly atheistic. The rulers did not set themselves up as gods (unlike the Roman Emperors) or as divinely appointed (unlike the medieval courts of Spain, France and Russia, which Hitchens' attempts to use as a diversion).

In fact, it seems clear that, unless Hitchens answers this counter-criticism in the book and the editor of this extract neglected to include that answer and instead included all the sleights and dodging and weaving, he has no answer to this criticism. Since I find it hard to believe that an editor would allow the counter-criticism to be raised, and then fail to include the refutation of it, it seems very likely that Hitchens can only raise bluff and bluster in his defence against atheism's inherent destructiveness.

The extract finishes with further assertions about science invalidating religion, and further straw men of religion. For example, "religion offers either annihilation in the name of God or else the false promise that if we take a knife to our foreskins, or pray in the right direction, or ingest pieces of wafer, we shall be saved." Christianity makes none of those claims, though Hitchens is clearly trying to misrepresent it with that last one (ingesting pieces of wafer to be saved).

So, with a further, independent extract from God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, it is even clearer that God is Not Great is not great, and furthermore, that anti-theism appears to have poisoned Hitchens's reasoning capabilities.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Feeding Frenzy or Death Spasms?

Just a quick post to comment on the frenzy of anti-theistic (Hitchens's own phrase for his beliefs) work coming out lately.

Here's a very quick overview, from an Australian perspective:

  • Numerous TV shows, from Dawkin's Root of all Evil (showing now), through Andrew Denton's God on My Side, including shows such as The Story of God, and so on.
  • A flood of fiercely anti-theistic books, like The God Delusion, God is Not Great, Atheist Manifesto, and so on.
  • Numerous articles and stories, in print and on TV supporting this.

This trend is obvious to everyone, as illustrated on the ABC TV website's ad for Andrew Denton's God on my Side, which includes the line, "...a subtle but powerful piece of filmmaking that will resonate with audiences in these increasingly religious times."

"Increasingly religious times..." Hmm... That's an interesting way to express things, especially when these times are not, actually, much more religious than any other times. What seems to be happening, rather, are two things:

  • The media (which is largely secular, leftist, and quaintly anti-theistic) has suddenly woken up and realised that bagging religion (mostly Christianity) isn't making it go away, and has decided to take a different tack. (Maybe a variation of Microsoft's "embrace and extend" strategy?)
  • The hard-core atheists have run out of ways to pretend that their position is logically sound, and have realised that all they can do is give up (as Anthony Flew has wisely done) or try to bluff their way out with swagger and shouting (which seems to be all that Hitchens, Dawkins, and apparently Onfrey have to offer).

So we're in for interesting times as this battle between reason and irrationality shifts to new ground yet again.

Monday, 14 May 2007

"God is Not Great" is not great

I don't want to make a habit of tearing down the paper-thin arguments of anti-theists, but there seem to be so many, with such powerful platforms, who seem so willing to spout arrant nonsense. If someone as unskilled as myself can demonstrate how flimsy their arguments are, then hopefully a few people will be saved from committing intellectual suicide by allowing themselves to be swayed by such rhetoric.

The latest to come to my attention is someone I'd never heard of previously, a Christopher Hitchens, who has just written a book called God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Twelve/Warner Books). I first read about this in an article on the book by Michael Kinsley (who I had heard of) in the New York Times. In this article, Kinsley waxes lyrical about how Hitchens "has written, with tremendous brio and great wit, but also with an underlying genuine anger, an all-out attack on all aspects of religion." (I've decided to honour Hitchens by writing this entry in a style similar to his.)

Kinsley gives some examples of Hitchens's "logical flourishes and conundrums" which should have informed me that there was smoke but no fire here, but I held out hope for an atheist version of G. K. Chesterton, full of wit and philosophy in equal measures. Sadly, I was disappointed.

Here are the "logical sallies" that Kinsley listed, along with simple answers to them (note: I am quoting from Kinsley's article, and I believe that Kinsley is paraphrasing these from Hitchens's book):

  • Q: "How could Christ have died for our sins, when supposedly he also did not die at all?"
    A: Err.. Pardon? (This position is such a straw man -- Christianity has never claimed that Christ didn't actually die at all -- that it's even less substantial than straw; perhaps it's a "mist man" argument?)
  • Q: "Did the Jews not know that murder and adultery were wrong before they received the Ten Commandments, and if they did know, why was this such a wonderful gift?"
    A: Of course they knew. And maybe we think it was a wonderful gift because there are ten commandments in the Ten Commandments? And the other eight provide vital context to those two that help us understand why they are wrong? (Which is something, by the way, that a materialistic moral system utterly fails at.)
  • Q: " can the 'argument from design' (that only some kind of 'intelligence' could have designed anything as perfect as a human being) be reconciled with the religious practice of female genital mutilation, which posits that women, at least, as nature creates them, are not so perfect after all?"
    A: Umm (this is such an astonishingly stupid question), maybe because the people making the argument from design are completely different from those condoning or practicing female genital mutilation? (This is sort of like asking, "how can the 'argument from suffering' -- a common argument against God -- be reconciled with the practice of slaying your fellow students in a gun-rampage? Did that question make sense to you? No, I didn't think so.)

Clearly Kinsley thinks these sorts of childish questions are worth asking. He even goes so far as to say, "Whether sallies like these give pause to the believer is a question I can’t answer."

Well, I can answer it for you, Michael: no. Unless you mean to pause and reflect on how tragic the impact of denying reality is on the reasoning powers of the human mind.

Still, perhaps Kinsley is misrepresenting Hitchens, and I'm being unfair. So I was happy to see that the NY Times had also published an extract from Hitchens's book. At least I would be able to see some of this wit and brio.

Perhaps it's in the rest of the book. But, search as hard as I could, I could find none in the extract. Instead, I merely found more childishness, masquerading as profound arguments against God. Here are some examples.

Hitchens starts with a story of his childhood realisation that religion was bunkum. Unfortunately, his profound insights are about as profound as you would expect from a child, and it is quite extraordinary that he still seems to consider them worthy of an adult:

  • Q: "Why, if god was the creator of all things, were we supposed to 'praise' him so incessantly for doing what came to him naturally?"
    A: OK... So, if someone is "naturally talented" at something, they deserve less praise for their extraordinary accomplishments than someone who just had to work hard at it? Ever hear the term, "praiseworthy"?
  • Q: "If Jesus could heal a blind person he happened to meet, then why not heal blindness?"
    A: Well, this shows a level of misunderstanding of the Gospel message that is truly breathtaking, even for a child, let alone an "erudite" adult. If Jesus wanted to heal blindness, why would he bother coming as a man to die for our sins? Completely misunderstanding something is not a good foundation from which to attack it. Unless you want to look like a fool, of course.
  • Q: "Why was the subject of sex considered so toxic?"
    A: This is a cultural issue, not a religious one. It may, perhaps, be worth sullying that pure ignorance with a little knowledge of what the Bible says about sex, which is quite a lot (and most of it not negative, despite ignorant claims to the contrary).

Hitchens goes on to say, "These faltering and childish objections are, I have since discovered, extremely commonplace, partly because no religion can meet them with any satisfactory answer."

Well, the first part of that sentence is pretty much spot-on, but the second part is doubtful. Perhaps, if it means, "no religion can answer them to my satisfaction" it might be truthful. Otherwise, I don't think so, as I've demonstrated above. (Proving that my answers are not satisfactory in an objective, rational sense requires demonstrating some logical inconsistency within them, or some failure to correlate with reality in the answers themselves.)

Hitchens then boils his objections to religion down to a simple paragraph:

"There still remain four irreducible objections to religious faith: that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking."

Let's address these four "irreducible" objections in turn:

  • "Religious faith ... wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos"
    Yes, this is a contentious one. However, there are many (including me) who argue that Christianity and Judaism do not misrepresent the origins of man and the cosmos. And the evidence for our argument is mounting. Of course, this is a whole subject for discussion in its own right, and Hitchens doesn't even touch upon it further in his extract, so I'm unsure what evidence or arguments he presents (if any), so I will content myself with merely countering his assertion.
  • "Because of this original error [religious faith] manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism"
    This seems to be a simple assertion, untrammelled by mere facts. For example, Biblical Christianity encouraged a society of fiercely independent thinkers in the Protestant Reformation. And theistic religions, unlike materialism, start with the external reality of God, allowing the believer to at least have a chance of seeing the world from outside themselves, while for materialists, only the self is truly experienced. Indeed, it seems that fiercely atheistic regimes such as the USSR and China encourage servility and solipsism on an unimaginable scale. Hitchens is conveniently blind to these regimes.
  • Religious faith "is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression"
    It would be interesting to know what Hitchens thinks is dangerous sexual repression, and how he knows that it's dangerous, but he doesn't get into that in this extract, so once again I can only counter the assertion by pointing out that this common slur is completely inaccurate, and by pointing to the numerous studies that demonstrate that Biblical mores on sexuality are by far the most beneficial for all members of society.
  • Finally, religious faith "is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking."
    Once again, this is merely a bare assertion in this extract. It would be interesting to see if Hitchens develops any arguments illustrating his case, but based on the extract, it seems to be beyond him. His approach is very much, "if I say it long and loudly enough, that will substitute handsomely for a reasoned argument."

In fact, when the next argument Hitchens uses is this: "[I] noticed the more vulgar and obvious fact that religion is used by those in temporal charge to invest themselves with authority" one can be forgiven for wondering if he is capable of understanding the simplest forms of logic at all! (The fact that religion, or any idea for that matter, is used by immoral people for immoral purposes has nothing whatsoever to do with the idea's truth or falsity. Does the fact that the Russians used science to develop horrible biological weapons imply that science is imaginary? Sounds silly, doesn't it? But that's what Hitchens is saying.)

Indeed, Hitchens seems more interested in rhythm than reason, as when he describes Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus as "epileptic and apocalyptic", for no apparent reason than that the two words have a very similar sound to them. (Unless, of course, he really thinks that Paul, one of the intellectual giants of the world, suffered from fits.)

He declaims, oxymoronically, "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 never describes what further factors make for a sufficient argument. Instead, he goes on to ludicrously declare that what Richard "somebody who claims not to believe in evolution ... is ignorant, stupid or insane or wicked" Dawkins "respect[s] is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake." I guess we're finally seeing an example of Hitchens's wit here? Even the example he uses (Dawkins's open-mindedness in his disagreement with Gould over punctuated equilibrium) is factually incorrect: Dawkins is dogmatic about his belief in neo-Darwinism, and is even on record describing it as a "faith" in natural selection. A faith that Gould had lost due to his much greater understanding of the fossil record (since he was, after all, a paleontologist).

The rest of the extract from God is Not Great is a tiresome succession of irrational complaints, bald assertions, sour grapes, and ridiculous misrepresentations, of both theists and atheists, as here, "to the ostentatious absurdity of the pilgrimage, or the plain horror of killing civilians in the name of some sacred wall or cave or shrine or rock, we can counterpose a leisurely or urgent walk from one side of the library or the gallery to another, or to lunch with an agreeable friend, in pursuit of truth or beauty." Yes, well, to the careless brutality of Stalin's atheistic gulag, or Mao Zedong's countless killings, we can counterpose the great centers of learning, medicine, and refuge established by the church. Without the benefit of Hitchens's selective blindness (and Dawkins's, in The God Delusion) it's pretty clear which belief-system comes off second best in this type of comparison. (I had to laugh at the debate on the USA's Nightline program where an atheist labeled Australia, amongst others, as a country based on atheism.)

So, in conclusion, does Hitchens appear to be saying anything that actually contributes to the debate between theists and atheists? Well, no. He certainly has plenty to say, but sadly none of it is anything more than childish confusion. What is most sad about this, is that many people will mistake his verbiage for argumentation, and will be led astray.

So, God is Not Great is, unfortunately, most definitely not great.