Thursday, April 23, 2009

From the Library: "God Is Not Great" and a chat with Christopher Hitchens on morals, vanity, and comfort

Christopher Hitchens’ 2007 and most recent book, God Is Not Great: How Reli­gion Poisons Every­thing, is out in paper­back this month, and so PDXWD decided to get in on the action and have a word with Mr. Anti-Christ himself.

The well-known and outspoken British polemic has writ­ten for a variety of pub­lications over the years (from Vanity Fair to The Nation to Slate) and has made a name for himself as a radical thinker on lecture and debate circuits. But while he has taken on a number of
different topics in his career (George Orwell, monarchy, Hen­ry Kissinger, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and the Iraq War, just to name a few), God Is Not Great represents an attempt to dive into some essential — and poignant — problems of human nature.

“Morals simply cannot be derived from religion,” Hitchens told PDXWD recently via telephone, “and yet we are condemned to be moral and ethical beings. It is innate in us to consider other people’s feelings.” This fact leaves us, as Hitchens argues in his book’s introduc­tion, in a world where “religion has caused innu­merable people not just to conduct themselves no better than others, but to award themselves permis­sion to behave in ways that would make a brothel­keeper raise an eyebrow.”

So while God Is Not Great features a sensationalized argument, it doesn’t clarify how we might attain Hitchens' proposed “New Enlightenment” once religion is abandoned. The book ends with Hitchens quoting the old Greek adage “know thyself,” but an explanation of how this will help us move past religion and the awful­ness it has caused our world is left to the reader's imagination.

As a result, we wondered if there is any place for religion in Hitchens’ republic. “Keep it in the home,” the author replied. “Religion is a private belief, and it should stay that
way.” And yet home is of course not the only place religion resides, which is the problem Hitchens points out. The rhetorical question he raises at the beginning, and which pervades God Is Not Great, is: “How much vanity must be concealed — not too effectively at that — in order to pretend that one is the personal object of a divine plan?” From there, the book exposes and details the destruction religion hath wrought on human civi­lization — as well as the immediately alarming sit­uation we’re all in when religion-based nations acquire nuclear arms — but it never goes so for as to offer much of a way out.

“Religion becomes a problematic mystery only if you believe that man was created in God’s image,”
Hitchens said later in our conversation. “When several groups of people believe they are each ‘doing God’s will’ at the same time, there is going to be conflict,” which is not a reassuring situation, and one for which we as a species have no recourse.

To be fair, solving the religion problem wasn’t Hitchens’ explicit intention, and yet his subject matter
and defamation all but make the reader beg for a solu­tion. Furthermore, the book tends to hierarchize the aesthetics of religion and atheism (placing atheism on top, of course), but can’t religion in itself be seen as an art, or as a form of literature, we wondered. “I’m reminded,” Hitchens admitted, “that many religious texts are not available to me because I don’t speak the language in which their holy books were written. Religion, after all, is manmade.”

God Is Not Great therefore makes a recurring point that many people are religious because it is too scary to think that they alone are responsible for their actions without a framework on
which to base their decisions. “Religion is com­forting for people to maintain,” Hitchens said. If that's the case, though, how will a serious addiction to such an opiate ever be kicked?

Your guess is as good as ours.

1 comment:

  1. This is a great piece! You want to come write for me? :)

    I have eyed God Is Not Great quite a few times in the store, but have never picked it up. It sounds like it might be a rehashing of the worst religion has brought out in man, something that I don't know if one really needs a book to remind us of. Since you don't have to dig too deep or too far in order to find examples.

    I bet he was interesting to talk to nonetheless. Congrats on the piece, very well put together!