Book Club: God Is Not Great

Molls over at Neamhspleach had mentioned wanting to start a cyber book club of sorts. It just so happened that I owned, and had not yet read, the book that they chose to read the first month, so I decided to join in. I’m also trying to read more, and having a deadline and people to discuss books with will help motivate me, I’m hoping. Molls and HDW have also posted their thoughts on this month’s book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens.

“Religion is man-made. Even the men who made it cannot agree on what their prophets or redeemers or gurus actually said or did. Still less can they hope to tell us the ‘meaning’ of later discoveries and developments which were, when they began, either obstructed by their religion or denounced by them. And yet– the believers still claim to know! Not just to know, but to know everything. Not just to know that god exists, and that he created and supervised the whole enterprise, but also to know what ‘he’ demands of us– from our diet to our observances to our sexual morality. In other words, in a vast and complicated discussion where we know more and more about less and less, yet can still hope for some enlightenment as we proceed, one faction– itself composed of mutually warring factions– has the sheer arrogance to tell us that we already have all the essential information we need… The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species. It may be a long farewell, but it has begun…”

-pages 10-11
Religion is a touchy subject. I personally identify as an atheist, and it’s only been in the last year or so that I’ve gained an interest in reading about and studying theology in any form. Going into this book, I knew that I would agree with most of the points made in the book, as the author shared many of my views. And I did like the book very much. I think it makes the points that it sets out to make very well. I think it’s well written and well thought out. I also appreciate that he doesn’t blast a belief in a higher power or God so much as he criticizes organized religion itself, and the many problems it’s caused. I also really appreciate many of his points regarding the effect that religion can have on health, namely vaccinations, the spread of disease, and AIDS.

“The attitude of religion to medicine, like the attitude of religion to science, is always necessarily problematic and very often necessarily hostile. A modern believer can say and even believe that his faith is quite compatible with science and medicine, but the awkward fact will always be that both things have a tendency to break religion’s monopoly, and have often been fiercely resisted for that reason. What happens to the faith healer and the shaman when any poor citizen can see the full effect of drugs and surgeries, administered without ceremonies or mystifications? Roughly the same things as happens to the rainmaker when the climatologist turns up, or to the diviner from the heavens when school teachers get hold of elementary telescopes.”

-pages 46 and 47
My main criticism comes from the tone of the book, and whether or not Hitchens wrote the right kind of book to reach his target audience. Did he even know who his target audience should be with this book? If he did, he did a terrible job of catering to them. Hitchens has a very harsh and acerbic tone, which I don’t really mind, but I could see how it could be off putting to many readers. However, my largest problem with the book is the fact that I don’t think it’s very accessible. While it gets easier to read after the first chapter, the introductory chapter is so wordy and advanced in it’s use of language that it’s enough for people to never get through it. In fact, I grew so frustrated with the way he wrote, it’s the reason I never finished reading it the first time I attempted it. If I had just allowed myself to read beyond the first chapter, I would have realized that it got easier to read, but the introduction to Hitchens and his style of writing is very off-putting.
To me, the goal of a book like this (that tries to make the argument for a belief system that is not the dominant one in society, and in fact many people find wholly offensive) is to try and sway people towards believing the logic argued in the book. Therefore, the target audience should be mainstream America. This book is *not* written for average Joe to pick up and be able to easily comprehend and get through. Therefore, the people that are going to read and understand this book are educated and intelligent people– and chances are, many of those people already share many of the beliefs in the book, as there’s been shown to be a correlation between education and intelligence and atheism/agnosticism. What therefore ends up happening is that Hitchens ends up preaching to the choir, so to speak, and never really changing many minds, as his argument never reaches the people who’s minds would “need” to be changed. Simpler language and dialogue would have helped his mission greatly.
The only other issue I had with the book was that Hitchens casually dropped Biblical or religious references and metaphors, and as someone who comes from a non-religious family that is Jewish, I didn’t have the background knowledge of these things and found myself stopping to Google. For example:
“I am morally certain that millions of other people came to very similar conclusions [regarding religion] in very much the same way, and I have since met such people in hundreds of places, and in dozens of different countries. Many of them never believed, and many of them abandoned faith after a difficult struggle. Dome of them had blinding moments of un-conviction that were every bit as instantaneous, though perhaps less epileptic and apocalyptic (and later more rationally and more morally justified) than Saul of Tarsus on the Damascene road.”

I had never heard of Saul of Tarsus or the Damascene road, so if I had not looked it up, I never would have known that it was being used to describe a sudden and total change in beliefs. This also happened several times with references to philosophers, authors, and historical individuals. And if I was having to stop and Google these people, I’m 100% sure that the general public will really not get many of the references Hitchens offers.
Have you read the book? What did you think?
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  1. Eve
    Posted November 28, 2009 at 6:05 am | Permalink

    I'm very interested by what you had to say about this book! I've come across it several times at the library where I work and been curious, but I've never read it. The subject matter sounds more interesting than I had assumed it would be, but the rest of the description makes me think I probably won't want to read it. The biblical references in particular would be problematic for me. I know the basics of Christian mythology from school and a few years when I was very young spent going to church, but I don't know some of the more specific things like Saul of Tarsus, or Pontius Pilate beyond the name. Furthermore, I don't like the idea of focusing mainly on one religion when analyzing religion as a whole (unless I'm misinterpreting what the book focuses on).

    I do like that the focus is on organized religion, rather than belief in a higher power, as I'm not a big fan of organized religion. I don't have a problem with people having religious beliefs, generally speaking, but I do have a problem with some of the things people use their religion to justify, whether the religion itself actually condones those things or not.

    I do see some value in spirituality or open-minded religion. While I was taking an anthropology of magic and religion class (mostly studying beliefs of various indigenous peoples in the Americas) last semester I thought a lot about the human need to understand and explain the world and know how to live which religion is created to fulfill. I like to think of religion (including my own) in that context, as a man-made creation providing some way to make sense of all the mysteries of life and a feeling of connection to those mysteries, for those of us who want that. I like exploring mythology and philosophy in connection with the magnificence of nature. I see my beliefs as being important because of their positive influence on how I treat myself and others and the joy I find in them, not because they're The Way Things Are (which, in all likelihood, they're not). And I definitely don't see them as the only right way. I like the saying, "God is too big to fit into one religion." In that sense, I see religion or spirituality as a good thing, for those who want it. The downfalls lie in literalism, extremism, rigidity, and demanding that everyone else believe the same as you.

    Religion can be a good way to provide support for one's moral code. For example, the idea of "harming none" as a popular moral guide in modern paganism matches up well with what feels like the right way for me to live, even if you take the religion out of it completely. (morality takes precedence over religion) However, if one's morals can ONLY be explained through religion (like being anti-contraception generally is), I'm not okay with that. That tends to lead to people trying to force their beliefs on others (icky!), or people putting religious correctness before their own (or others') well-being.

    Basically, I think what's important is doing your best to enjoy life and be good to yourself and others. If your religion helps you do that, cool. If it hinders that, I don't see the value in it. And of course, you don't necessarily need religion to do that. Like I say about almost everything, whatever works for you!

    Haha, I didn't expect to write you an essay, but the topic of the book got me going!

  2. eva
    Posted November 28, 2009 at 6:14 am | Permalink

    I haven't read the book, and I don't think I will as I feel like I have a good understanding of how destructive organized religion can be- I've been interested in religion since I was a teen. I'm not religious, but most people aren't that religious in Norway, so it doesn't make me feel special or different. I would probably feel more like a rebel if most people around me where religious, and maybe reading that book had made more sense so I could reassure myself that "yes I'm right in my lack of belief".

    Based on the way you describe it, it sounds like a book intended for people like himself to feel smug about themselves, and more importantly for the writer to prove & impress people with what a clever boy he is. I don't like mental wanking.

  3. Kivrin
    Posted November 28, 2009 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    I often read Hitchens' articles over at, and he is a notoriously pompous ass. Most people have at least heard passing references to the story of Paul on the road to Damascus; of course Hitchens had to refer to it as "Saul of Tarsus on the Damascene Road." Jesus, dude.

    I already share Hitchens' belief that religion poisons everything, so I have no interest in reading this book. I am far more interested in reading the new book The Evolution of God by Robert Wright. I'm fascinated by how and why so many people obviously need faith and god(s) in their lives—esp. when I have never shared that need, not even as an ignorant child. So I'll be skipping Hitchens and moving on to Wright.

  4. thedoggedpursuit
    Posted November 28, 2009 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    Hi Britni,

    Hitchens' target audience isn't the common believer but rather the pseudo-intellectual and/or leader who accepts religious dogma as "harmless" or worse, a cultural difference that must be "honored." It's been noted that he became more vocal on this topic after Western political leaders had a tepid response to the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie by Muslim clerics. Because he writes primarily in the West where Christianity is more ingrained in the ruling classes (note the continuing obsession over President Obama's stated religion) it is more heavily focused on in the book though other religions are certainly discussed.

    Personally, I'm a fan of his tone and writing style because I get extremely frustrated at the constant "dumbing down" of our day-to-day literature; newspapers are written at a 6th grade level, the major news and world events magazines are only modestly better. Hitchens is an academic and intellectual and generally writes like one. It sharpens me.

    I do see your point about the references to Paul of Tarsus et al and after grabbing my copy of the book could definitely see how it could be a bit more accessable with some better endnotes. I was raised a devout Southern Baptist so a fundamental knowledge of the bible is like breathing to me — God knows, I can quote chapter and verse with the best of them! (The last sentence is tongue-in-cheek.)

    I also recommend, if you're interested, checking out his debates. Like many prominent academics, I think he comes off a bit pompous at times (who among us doesn't?), but when its seen side-be-side with intellectual stupidity I can understand his frustration.

    Finally, I see a tremendous similarity between the more eridute sex bloggers (Figleaf comes to mind) and the work of authors such as Hitchens, Dawkins, and other agnostic/atheistic writers. They're all kinda preaching to the choir. You have to already possess a certain mindset to be willing to read the book or click on the blog. It is simply the nature of the biz. But, in my opinion there is a trickle down effect in that it gives people like me (who associate with both a sex-negative and fundamentally religous folks) additional perspectives to add to my own arguments when I find myself in a position to debate and possibly give someone something new to think about.


  5. sarahbear
    Posted November 28, 2009 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    It seems like it could be interesting. Judging by the tone of the little bits you posted I can see how it would be offensive. In fact, even though I consider myself Agnostic and not Christian anymore, I would likely find myself getting offended for people who believe in organized religion. But I'm a fence sitter like that.

    I think a lot of Atheists who try to challenge religious people on their beliefs come off sounding very harsh and snobbish. It's difficult to word something delicately when you're basically telling someone that you think what they've believed in for their whole life is a load of crap.

  6. Nell Gwynne
    Posted November 28, 2009 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    I would have loved to participate in this round of book club…but I was dealing with finals at the same time. Do you know what the next book will be/when you'll be reviewing it?

  7. Saraid
    Posted November 28, 2009 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    I like the idea of the book, but I found the first chapter frustrating as you did and thus returned it to the public library. I may try reading it again since you said it was good other than that.

    Also, how can I get involved in the book club? I would really love to.

  8. hotdrwife
    Posted November 28, 2009 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    I grew up in the church and spent most of my Sunday mornings spacing out and thinking of cute boys, so I had put down Hitchens book and look up references myself. :)

  9. April
    Posted November 28, 2009 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    I wrote a long comment on HDW's post about my experience and feelings on organized religion. I don't feel like repeating here, so if you wish to read it, you can go there.

    I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving!

  10. Molls
    Posted November 28, 2009 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    Brit – I'm gonna address your stuff on my blog.

    Nelly – Up for debate. I'm gonna take suggestions and we'll pick something.

    Saraid – I've been organizing it. Just drop a comment on my post ( I'm gonna put together an email list.

  11. alana
    Posted November 28, 2009 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    This is one of my favorite subjects (obviously), but I couldn’t get into Hitchens’ book at all. It was utterly dry and I find that other authors are capable of not “dumbing it down” while also not using 400 pages to constantly reiterate how smart they are.

    If anyone is interested in the subject I would recommend The God Delusion over God is Not Great a thousand times over. There is a part in the middle of The God Delusion that’s kind of boring since Dawkins goes on about biology for a while, but the rest is superb (and if you want more information about the scientific side of Dawkins’ book Why Evolution is True will blow your mind). Letter to A Christian Nation is also a very nice place to get your feet wet. It’s short and too the point and will help you see if this is a subject you really dare interested in.

    I do think these sorts of books offer more to American readers then other Western countries because being an atheist can be uncomfortable in the US sometimes. It’s the idea that atheists have to constantly validate their non-belief while theists are never required to do the same that pisses most atheists off. Why should a person who belongs to an organized religion be coddled and handled with kiddy gloves? I just don’t buy into the belief that religion holds some special place in our society and is above reproach. Why is telling a person that you don’t believe in what they believe any more offensive then that person believing I’m going to burn in hell for all eternity?

  12. Kivrin
    Posted November 28, 2009 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    Alana wrote, "Why is telling a person that you don’t believe in what they believe any more offensive then that person believing I’m going to burn in hell for all eternity?"

    Exactly. So maddening. Although I am interested about your using "non-belief" to describe atheism. I was always under the impression that atheism = being sure (i.e., believing) that there is/are no god(s). For that reason, I choose to describe myself as agnostic, because I feel like I can't KNOW that there is no god. If anything, the existence and persistence of religion would argue that some higher power(s) must exist, y'know? So I am reluctant to describe myself as an atheist for the reason that I just can't KNOW, either way. Would love to hear your (or anyone else's) thoughts on the semantics of the situation…

  13. alana
    Posted November 29, 2009 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    Kivrin: I totally agree with you that it seems that way sometimes (that atheists are so sure in their non-belief I mean), but very few people actually think that way. Even Richard Dawkins said, “Atheists do not have faith and reason alone could not propel one to total conviction that anything definitely does NOT exist.” The Loch Ness monster is a good example because even though most people live their lives with the assumption the Loch Ness monster doesn’t exist, most people recognize they can’t know for sure.

    That’s why agnosticism is basically an empty term (though I used to say I was agnostic as well). Agnosticism is a philosophical point of view on the supernatural. It’s not actually a religious statement and I think it became popular because there are negative connotations with the word “atheist.” Technically speaking I’m agnostic atheist – just like most people are agnostic theists (if they’re honest with themselves).

  14. Biddable
    Posted November 30, 2009 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    I haven't read this particular book yet, but I do love Hitchens in general. Not only for his stance on religion and politics, but also because I think he's one of the last of the Great Drunken Authors.

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