God is not Great book cover

In Review

Liberal Ambivalence Is Necessary

By Todd Shy

In his recent bestseller, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins confesses bewilderment that any thinking person could sympathize with religious belief. Of his fellow scientist Stephen Jay Gould, who described intellectual space for religious wisdom as a “non-overlapping magisterium,” Dawkins writes, “I simply do not believe that Gould could possibly have meant much of what he wrote in Rock of Ages.” Of several British scientists who are also “religious in the full,” Dawkins notes, “After amicable discussion with all of them, both in public and in private, I remain baffled, not so much by their belief in a cosmic lawgiver of some kind, as by their belief in the details of the Christian religion: resurrection, the forgiveness of sins and all.” The famous gamble of Pascal? He “was probably joking when he promoted his wager, just as I am joking in my dismissal of it.” Dawkins “marvels” at belief and is “astonished” by theists. To say that his argument is marked by a failure of imagination does nothing to establish a defense of religion. He may or may not be right that evolution gives us all we need to frame our lives, but his isn’t the book to frame the debate. Dawkins’s critique sounds from a single string. I return the favor of astonishment.

Christopher Hitchens presents a much fuller and more interesting case in his latest book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. To be sure, Hitchens’s conclusions are damning. He dissects traditional religious claims with the ruthlessness we would expect from a man who once titled a tract against Mother Teresa “The Missionary Position.” To read Hitchens is to encounter judgment that doesn’t hesitate. Like Nietzsche, Hitchens skims without seeming to be shallow, and the occasional slip (the Torah does not command “the observant one to thank his maker every day that he was not born a woman”) is a casualty of fervor.

Despite the cheekiness of this latest title, however, and the strange hyperbole of the subtitle (religion poisons everything?), God Is Not Great has a generosity of mind that Dawkins’s book lacks. Early on, Hitchens makes this departure clear: “The argument with faith is the foundation and origin of all arguments, because it is the beginning—but not the end—of all arguments about philosophy, science, history, and human nature. It is also the beginning—but by no means the end—of all disputes about the good life and the just city. Religious faith is, precisely because we are still-evolving creatures, ineradicable. It will never die out, or at least not until we get over our fear of death, and of the dark, and of the unknown, and of each other. For this reason, I would not prohibit it even if I thought I could.”

In an earlier work, Letters to a Young Contrarian, Hitchens advised that “those who persecute religion are to be avoided at all costs. Antigone taught us to trust the instinct that is revolted by desecration.” This last phrase is apt, even jolting, but it doesn’t lead Hitchens to honor religious experience as such. In fact, readers put off by sarcasm may decide (wrongly, in my mind) that these admissions are merely feints of respect. The following samples should do to give the flavor of the polemic in God Is Not Great: Catholic pedophile scandals are dubbed “no child’s behind left”; the Anglican Church is a “pathetic bleating sheep”; Augustine is dubbed a “self-centered fantasist and an earth-centered ignoramus”; the New Testament is a “work of crude carpentry”; religion is a “babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge”; Islam is basically an “ill-arranged set of plagiarisms”; and the first three of the Ten Commandments mark some “prolonged throat-clearing” on the part of God. Even Nietzsche, who might have made a useful ally, is dismissed at one point for being “histrionic.” Polite understatement, my fellow Americans, is only half of the British style.

Hitchens boils down the case against religious belief to this quartet of objections: “the improbability of god, the evil done in his name, the likelihood that he is man-made, and the availability of less harmful alternative beliefs and explanations.” As seems inevitable in this type of critique, the author revisits the weaknesses of the classical arguments for the existence of God, the unseemly morality of key biblical texts (the near-sacrifice of Isaac, vicarious atonement), and the shameful history of religious complicity in acts of violence, abuse, censorship, even genocide. The familiarity of these latter betrayals should not leave us jaded to their colossal and difficult implication: to believe in an omnipotent, personal God is to believe in a cosmic witness to countless post redemption atrocities, to which “free will” feels like a frail response. Hitchens quotes E. P. Thompson’s observation that we have to resist the “enormous condescension of history” and not criticize our ancestors for not being more like us—for not seeing all that we see—but he does think the historical record is enough to establish that all religions are at the very least “man-made.” This is almost enough to end the debate for Hitchens, and if it did, the argument would feel rhetorically fresh but substantively familiar. What gives Hitchens’s book its traction instead are occasional interruptions of ambivalence, as here: “Nonetheless, it takes a certain ‘leap’ of another kind to find oneself asserting that all religion is made up by ordinary mammals and has no secret mystery to it. Behind the veil of Oz, there is nothing but bluff. Can this really be true? As one who has always been impressed by the weight of history and culture, I do keep asking myself this question. Was it all in vain, then: the great struggle of the theologians and scholars, and the stupendous efforts of painters and architects and musicians to create something lasting and marvelous that would testify to the glory of god?” Hitchens’s answer? “Not at all.” The instinct against desecration simmers.

And yet, he makes clear that it is time to move on from these older intuitions. Like Dawkins, he thinks we have all that we need in archaeology, evolutionary biology, physics, textual criticism, and, interestingly, in the great works of literature, what Hitchens calls “the near-miraculous work of Homer and Shakespeare and Milton and Tolstoy and Proust.” The book ends with a lofty assurance: “The study of literature and poetry, both for its own sake and for the eternal ethical questions with which it deals, can now easily depose the scrutiny of sacred texts that have been found to be corrupt and confected.” Even if we allow for some fanfare in the finale, that inclusion of “easily” bears remarkable weight. Left unsaid is how great literature—always visionary but also idiosyncratic—will do the kind of synthesizing work that religions have always done. For religions draw their power from their comprehensiveness: their rituals mark life stages, their teachings offer a framework for children, their communities help their members in times of need—they offer company for happiness, consolation for grief, and a sense of shared wisdom. Religions are liturgical and communal as well as theological. Literature, for all its extraordinary power, has more modest aims. “Shakespeare,” Dostoevsky noted to himself in a fragment, “His uselessness.” And the poet W. H. Auden observed that “poetry makes nothing happen.” In the world described by Hitchens and Dawkins, for all of the rapture to be had pondering images from the Hubble telescope, we must get by with less consolation, not simply different consolation.

The rush of books defending atheism is clearly a response to the emergence of a new kind of politicized fundamentalism—both Christian and Islamic. But broader liberal religious traditions have already tried to deal with the dilemmas these writers describe. The relationship of liberal Christian traditions to their sacred texts is, I offer, akin to what Hitchens finds in Shakespeare: authority inheres in the vision itself, in its resonance. The texts compel our attention by showing us, in arresting, unavoidable ways, who we are. The vision feels necessary and not just sublime. And as Hitchens isn’t concerned with whether someone else wrote Hamlet in Shakespeare’s name, liberal Christians have learned not to worry whether Ephesians was really written by Paul. But Hitchens doesn’t spend much time with the liberal strand of religion, be-cause he doesn’t think it is anything more than dressed-up humanism—reasonableness in a Geneva gown, quietly updating the unjust bits of the tradition. Religious liberals have to wonder, then, if they are not perceived as unobjectionable because there is nothing particularly religious to object to. This is Hitchens’s point about Martin Luther King, Jr., and he makes it with his customary brio: “In no real sense as opposed to nominal sense,” Hitchens writes, “was [King] a Christian.” Gleaning his pacifism and his moral vision from a broader tradition, King just happened to be a Baptist minister. Those who see King as the very model of progressive religious relevance (their number can’t be small) will want to fasten their seat belts before reading this section of God Is Not Great: “When Dr. King took a stand on the steps of Mr. Lincoln’s memorial and changed history, he too adopted a position that had effectually been forced upon him, but he did so as a profound humanist and nobody could ever use his name to justify oppression or cruelty. He endures for that reason, and his legacy has very little to do with his pro-fessed theology. No supernatural force was required to make the case against racism.”

Hitchens’s argument is that King’s message was rhetorically biblical but theologically humanist, that he could not have derived nonviolence from the biblical story of the exodus, which he used, otherwise, as a narrative frame (“I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land”). There is mis-chief here, and rhetorical sleight of hand: religion poisons everything, and when it doesn’t, it’s not really religion. What’s more, a fair and reasonable claim that “no supernatural force was required to make the case against racism” turns into a pre-sumptuous reduction of King’s own motivation. The complexity of a modern man adapting what he’s inherited with what he wants to change is dissolved in Hitchens’s confident apprehension of what King was really about. It’s not even King that needs defending here, or the relevance of non-fundamentalist religion. What’s at stake is the possibility that we dwellers on the far side of Darwin and Einstein, Watson and Crick, Nietzsche and Freud, Ralph Ellison and James Joyce, Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr, might blend traditional and con-temporary allegiances and convictions, hunches and hopes, without making them easily divisible. Ambivalence, in other words, might come with the territory.


God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. By Christopher Hitchens. Warner Twelve, 320 pages, $24.99.

It is important to ask whether liberal religion, through all of its adjustments to the modern, is simply humanism nostalgic for mystery.

And yet Hitchens’s point remains probing, because it is important to ask whether liberal religion, through all of its adjustments to the modern, is simply humanism nostalgic for mystery. Is God a constitutional monarch, preserving a whiff of something important while remaining, in fact, symbolic and powerless? And if liberal virtues like tolerance, compassion, a concern for equal opportunity, respect both for individual liberty and the common good are continuous with religious traditions, is there any sense in which they necessitate religion? In other words, it seems necessary to ask not only what do religions teach and what do believers believe, but also what do they teach and believe that Shakespeare and Tolstoy do not.

But let’s close with Dostoevsky, a stubborn and troubled theist whose work embodies inner tensions that persist despite remarkable advances in science: “Desire, of course, can, if it chooses, come to terms with reason, especially if people do not abuse it and make use of it in moderation; this is useful and sometimes even praise-worthy. But very often and indeed mostly desire is utterly and obstinately at loggerheads with reason and—and, do you know, that, too, is useful and occasionally even praiseworthy” (Notes from the Underground, translated by David Magarshack).

Todd Shy is a writer in Raleigh, North Carolina.​

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.