In the last few years, there have been several books by writers urgently seeking to not only discredit religion, but also to advance the atheistic viewpoint and to defend "reason", or rationality, from the forces of darkness. Though I often agree with many of the basic points these authors tend to make, my essential position is that the focus on religion by these writers is misplaced. Indeed, if the elimination of religion or, more realistically, the lessening of its influence, especially the influence of its more extreme manifestations, is the goal, then they are taking exactly the wrong approach. But to these writers and others the matter is urgent: they are worried about the survival of the species. Well, let me tell you: in my view, there are numerous good reasons to be worried. But such concern, if genuine, should focus attention on our disastrous political and economic situation, yet it rarely does.
... against all expectations, I did recently read Christopher Hitchens’ god is Not Great: How Religlion Poisons Everything. My in-laws have a copy, so it was easily available, and I admit to having had a sort of mordant curiosity about it. I also admit I came into it not expecting much by way of argument, but in fact it's much worse than I imagined it would be. The book is quite terrible, for a variety of reasons. But the things that make it bad (and to my mind, virtually unpublishable) are not necessarily those elements that make up my main problems with it and with the popular so-called “atheist books” it exemplifies. It's bad not least because it's hard to figure what Hitchens really thinks he's doing with the book. He's said that, in effect, he's been writing the book his whole life (the link is to an interview, but he also says as much in the acknowledgments). You'd think he'd have taken more care with it. It's full of sloppy thinking, awkward writing, adolescent point-making, and of course, his stylistic trademarks: withering, sometimes glib scorn, and ostentatious displays of erudition (not to mention outright errors: he has Saddam Hussein invading Iran in 1979, rather than 1980). Occasionally he gets out of his own way long enough to tell us about an interesting historical event or figure, but these passages are the exception.
There is nothing in god is Not Great that can't be found elsewhere, other than the ubiquitous presence of Christopher Hitchens himself, with his rhetorical winks and nudges. The book is poorly argued, tonally inconsistent, and frankly childish, from the title and sub-title on down. The inconsistency in tone--as if he intended to destroy religion once and for all with the power of his scorn, but then occasionally realized that he needed to make a feint in the direction of persuasion, with disingenuous displays of humility thrown in for good measure--is part of what I mean when I say the book is sloppily written. For me, these qualities ought to mean that the book should have been sent back for considerable re-tooling before it got anywhere near being published. And yet it was not only a best-seller, but was nominated for a National Book Award. The latter in particular is another tiny sign of an intellectual culture in poor health. Hitchens may say that he'd been effectively writing the book his whole life, but it has the feel of something slapped together quickly in order to cash in on a trend.
And now go and read the whole of Richard's great piece!