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.

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