Re: Ch. 1: Putting It Mildly
This is the first in a series of chapter by chapter analyses of God is Not Great, one of my favorite books. In “Putting It Mildly,” Hitchens lays the groundwork for his core claims: one—that secular society faces an urgent fight against the forces of religious fundamentalism, and two—that religion can and should be replaced by enlightenment values and practices.
He begins by running the reader through some of the basic unanswerable arguments against religion: why must we praise god for doing what purportedly comes to him naturally? Why does prayer produce no results? If Jesus could heal a blind man why not cure blindness? Why is sex such a “toxic” subject?
Ultimately, the religious urge seems to boil down to wish-thinking: as Hitch’s headmaster at boarding school once explained to him, sure faith may be flawed, but it offers needful solace in times of hardship, such as dealing with the death of a loved one. This, the author argues, is “contemptible” and cowardly. It also explains why religion can never be eradicated. As Freud pointed out, religion helps people cope with their fear of death and the unknown, and until we conquer these fears, which will never happen, we cannot transcend or escape from the religious impulse.
But such a solace seeking attitude would be sufferable for the rest of us unbelievers if not for the fact that faith poses a significant threat to civil society: all Hitchens asks is that the faithful “leave me alone. But this, religion is ultimately incapable of doing. As I write these words… people of faith are… planning your and my destruction.”
And this is one of the themes that make God Is Not Great so compelling. Throughout the book Hitchens details a seemingly endless supply of horrifying holy events—from 9/11 to the “religious cleansing” in Rwanda and Sudan to the sectarian insurgency that has engulfed Iraq and Afghanistan— to make the case that we presently find ourselves in a pivotal moment in the historical clash between religion and enlightenment.
The antidote is to replace the house of worship with the library, to opt for lunch with a friend over participating in holiday gatherings, to settle disputes with reason instead of excommunication and holy war and to choose skepticism and unfettered scientific inquiry over faith: “the serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy… than in the mythical morality tales of the holy books. Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind.” Likewise, “if you will devote a little time to studying the staggering photographs taken by the Hubble Telescope, you will be scrutinizing things that are far more awesome and mysterious and beautiful… than any creation or ‘end of days’ story.”
Hitchens’ polemic is intended for readers all over the world, but for me, growing up in a coercive Orthodox Jewish household in America, and having witnessed 9/11 and the Bush administration’s manipulation of the religious right and disdain for science, the urgent tone of God Is Not Great resonates with great potency.
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