'God is Not Great' by Christopher Hitchens (2007)

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything - Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (London: Atlantic Books, 2008), 307pp


Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great is an eloquent advocacy of atheism. His arguments are sound and, as always, he writes engagingly. His anecdotal evidence is interesting even if, on occasion, they are all too familiar. And it is this last point that prevents this book, in my opinion, from being essential reading. The argument is all too familiar.

As an atheist, there was not much new in Hitchens' arguments that might serve as further ammunition should I hypothetically find myself in a debate with a believer. The arguments are routine: the wonder of science is more remarkable than the tawdry mysticism of religion, religion itself is tribal and violent and destructive, and it has no place in humanity's future. I agree with these points, but the fact that I have heard them all before does diminish my interest somewhat. Where Hitchens excels is in recycling these points in a more presentable manner; Hitchens is, for example, less condescending than Richard Dawkins can often appear to be, and his command of rhetoric and polemic is more masterly than Dawkins' more methodical, academic approach. One can, for example, truly comprehend and relate to his anger, when reflecting on the miseries which religion has inflicted on children, that those religious figures "should have been thankful that the hell they preached was only one among their wicked falsifications, and that they were not sent to rot there." (pg. 56). He is at his best when wielding Occam's razor, paraphrasing Laplace to note how the natural world works perfectly well without the assumption of a god.

The book seems, however, to be unsure of its intended target. Religion, rather than God, is nominally in the crosshairs, given the book's subtitle of 'how religion poisons everything'. But Hitchens seems to dip in and out of various arguments with little concern for how they knit together. He will, for example, move on from one chapter on religion's attitude towards healthcare to the next on the metaphysical claims of religion, or from a chapter on whether religion makes people behave better to another dedicated to the eastern religions such as Buddhism, with few attempts to link the chapters. Consequently, though one leaves the book with broadly anti-religious feelings, the sensation is more muddled than when one finishes a more hard-hitting, comprehensive polemic such as Dawkins' The God Delusion.

Indeed, in reading the book, I could not help but repeatedly compare it to the later The God Delusion, which I read a few years ago and which first codified my views on atheism and religion. I do not think this is an unfair comparison as both have the same goal - an advocacy of thoughtful atheism and free-minded scepticism - but I came to the conclusion that The God Delusion was the superior book, and should be the first port of call for anyone looking to engage with such arguments. God is Not Great is a fine polemic, and will appeal to those of an atheistic or agnostic persuasion, but it lacks the comprehensiveness of Dawkins' book.