God is Not Great

15 August 2007

Christopher Hitchens’ bestseller God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, published in May of 2007, is another polemical attack on religion, adding to the growing list of atheist books that are short on reason and heavy on vitriol. Unfortunately, Hitchens’ effort is even worse than some other recent offerings, like The End of Faith and The God Delusion.

I read a good deal of atheistic literature, and I really do try to have an open mind and treat these types of books fairly. But it is hard to see anything praiseworthy in this meager effort.

First of all, the book is filled with factual errors, which I will not go into here because other writers have pointed these out (see here and here)

As could be expected, Hitchens’ main line of argument seems to be; some religious people have done evil things, and religion has been used to justify all sorts of evil, therefore, religion is a fantasy. Of course, more careful thinkers may wonder why such a conclusion follows, even if we believe all of Hitchens’ absurd exaggeration of the evils done by the Church and by churchgoers. The fact that evil has been done in the name of Christianity does not show that Christianity is false. Christianity is based on the existence of God and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, so the wrong actions of Christians simply have no bearing on whether Christianity is true.

But Hitchens seems to think that quite a bit logically follows from the existence of evil Christians. After a discussion of the tremendous evils of child abuse (particularly molestation and rape) by Christian authorities, Hitchens lists some apparent conclusions;

“Since religion has proved itself uniquely delinquent on the one subject where moral and ethical authority might be counted as universal and absolute, I think we are entitled to at least three provisional conclusions. The first is that religion and the churches are manufactured, and that this salient fact is too obvious to ignore. The second is that ethics and morality are quite independent of faith, and cannot be derived from it. The third is that religion is- because it claims a special divine exemption for its practices and beliefs- not just amoral but immoral.” [52]

How does all this follow? How can the delinquent actions of isolated individuals prove that the Church is entirely manufactured? Orthodox Christian belief never endorsed the idea that the Church, and the men and women who make it up, is a perfect institution. Indeed, the New Testament is filled with letters to churches where immoral and disgusting behavior is decried again and again. Yet, this fact does not mean that the Church lacks any sort of divine guidance; much less does it show that Christianity is false.

Hitchens’ second conclusion- that ethics and morality are independent of faith- also fails to follow. Indeed, it is quite possible for non-Christians to act in ethical ways, but this does not demonstrate that they have a worldview which allows for the existence of objective morality.

Even apart from this metaphysical question about objective morality, Hitchens seems to make the erroneous assumption that if an individual who purportedly follows an ethical code fails to live up to that code, then the ethical code is at fault. This is clearly false; after all, every single ethical code has purported followers who violate the code. As Hitchens admits, Jesus Christ strongly opposes such horrendous treatment of young people. If Christianity actually supported child rape, then we would indeed throw out Christianity as an ethical system. However, we should not throw out Christianity just because some individuals who claim to be Christians also rape children. This is a clear violation of the code, and the individual is at fault- not the code itself.

As for Hitchens’ third point, I am not sure what he means here. Only Christian extremists and nutcases claim ‘divine exemption’ for their misbehavior, and the rest of the Christian community, which is earnestly seeking to do what is right, should not be dragged down because of such foolishness.

Well, if the depraved actions of some religious believers are evidence against their faith, then certainly the virtuous actions are evidence for the faith? Even if Hitchens is right about all the evil done in the name of religion, what about all the good that is done? On the final analysis, perhaps we would find that the overall result is quite positive.

But no, says Hitchens, we can’t count the good behavior-

“The first thing to be said is that virtuous behavior by a believer is not proof at all of- indeed is not even an argument for- the truth of his belief.” [184-5]

It seems terribly unfair to count bad behavior against religion but give it no credit for good behavior. But, in a moment of unexpected consistency, Hitchens basically admits the main point I have been arguing all along when he says,

“By the same token, I do not say that if I catch a Buddhist priest stealing all the offerings left by the simple folk at his temple, Buddhism is thereby discredited.” [185]

If Hitchens admits that bad behavior does not discredit religion, then why is so much of his book focused on the evils committed by religious believers?

When it comes to discussing the evidence for God’s existence, Hitchens has a chapter covering arguments from design. There is no discussion of the fundamental constants of the universe, which undergird the most persuasive version of the Argument from Design, though we can perhaps excuse Hitchens for his omission here because it is well out of his field. However, his objections to generic design arguments are so amateurish that Hitchens would have been better off just leaving them out of the discussion. He complains,

“But when it comes to the whirling, howling wilderness of outer space, with its red giants and white dwarfs and black holes, its titanic explosions and extinctions, we can only dimly and shiveringly conclude that the ‘design’ hasn’t been imposed quite yet…” [79-80]

Apparently, according to Hitchens, the vastness of the universe is actually evidence against design! Much to my surprise, I have actually heard this bizarre objection from other sources, but it is so filled with holes that I can hardly imagine a reflective thinker endorsing it. Here are several problems with this line of thinking:

1. The vastness of the universe is actually necessary for life to exist anywhere in the first place. The evolution of solar systems, stars, and planets necessitate a large universe. So the large size of the universe is not evidence against design.

2. We don’t yet know how much of the universe actually does support life. True, there are at least some large stretches of space that are inhospitable, but for all we know there are billions and billions of habitable planets in the universe.

3. Hitchens’ critique assumes that the only reason for the creation of the universe is the existence of life. But why think that this is the only motivation for the creator? Indeed, according to Christian thinking, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” [Psalm 19:1] Ironically, Hitchens accuses religious believers of immature solipsism, yet he is the one who assumes that, if God created the universe, then he would create it for the sole purpose of allowing life to flourish. Thankfully, Christians aren’t so self-obsessed.

4. Furthermore, even from a purely self-centered, human perspective, there are several advantages to the vastness of the universe. It allows us more to explore and discover via science and observation. And, even Hitchens would probably not deny that the night sky offers a beautiful and awe-inspiring view with which men have been fascinated with for ages.

5. Even assuming that the size of the universe constituted ‘bad design’- this would only show that the designer was a bad one, not that the designer doesn’t exist! I find it rather strange that critics of the design argument seem to assume that the designer is either non-existent or omnipotent. But the design argument does not presuppose or prove omnipotence (though, I think it is certainly consistent with it). Hitchens makes this same mistake, along with Michael Shermer, a bit later in the chapter when he discusses the supposed ‘bad design’ of the human eye.

So much for Hitchens’ critique of the Design Argument.

Finally, after spending a great deal of time discussing the evils committed in the name of religion, how does he respond to the charge that secularism has fared no better? Rather amusingly, he blames that on religion too! He claims, “Yet the object of perfecting the species- which is the very root and source of the totalitarian impulse- is in essence a religious one.” [232] Thus, religion is at fault for religious wars, and religion is at fault for secular wars. That’s a real convenient hypothesis for Hitchens, but also one which is absurdly biased and unfalsifiable. Indeed, how can we be sure that human secularism is not- at root- actually the cause of religious fanatacism and war?

Indeed, what would count as evidence that secularism caused harm? If even Stalin- a hard core atheist and one of history’s most ignoble specimens- and his bloody regime are not evidence against the superior fruits of secularism but are merely part of the evil of religion, then what evidence could possibly show that the fruit is spoiled?

Hitchens is widely renowned for his rhetorical skills, but such skills do not produce good arguments. God is not Great fails miserably on this front. While it may provide comfort to the non-religious who are seeking a pep talk, and it may shake the faith of unreflective believers, Hitchens’ effort completely fails to produce a convincing case for… anything. If God is not great, Hitchens is barely tolerable.


  1. Amen to that! I saw that book in Target and I thought “Oh, great. Another Dawkins out to destroy the big bad religion that is destroying the world with its intolerance!”

    But I didn’t find a Dawkins. I found much worse. At least Dawkins attejmpts some form of argument; Hitchens is nothing short of abysmally (sp?) pathetic.

    — Bob    Oct 24, 04:07 PM    #
  2. Chesterton pointed out that the fact that Christians sin vindicates the message of the Church which is (shockingly enough) that people are sinners in need of a Saviour.

    He also pointed out that the universe isn’t large, it’s as small as it could be and still be the universe. He regarded it as a cosy little universe and so do I.

    Finally, if the universe is there to look at and occasionally a star blows up where is the problem?

    We enjoy fireworks, maybe God does too. As long as there’s no one living nearby (and there’s no evidence of life anywhere else in the universe) then there is no problem.

    Jason    Nov 15, 09:35 AM    #
  3. well..funny or ironic rather is that GOD don’t believe in atheism.But seriously he(the writer) points out one true fact..RELIGION KILLS..we have people blowing themselves up for God. we have People Condemning others for being sinners when they themselves can’t help themselves being one as well…Jesus once said he came down to save the sinner, he came down to heal the sick..SO in conclusion i can only say one thing: Religion Kills, GOD saves..well my take on it..and im a happier person now with my God..don’t knw bout you but i rather skip what i must do to satisfy god and like Psalms 91 says..WITH LONG LIFE WILL HE SATISFY YOU..so i’m going to let God satisfy me..in proverbs 10:24 it also says :The fear of the wicked, it shall come upon him: but the desire of the righteous shall be granted.

    and the bible says that I AM NOW THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD IN CHRIST. and if you wondering the bible also says that he will put his thoughts and desires in our hearts. sin conscious makes more sin BUT the more Christ Conscious you are..the more you will reign in life..hopefully someone out there understands..if you hate what i just said..umh..GET A LIFE..haha..woohoo…yeah, im the real free thinker here..i don’t need to attack anyone to be satisfied yo..still saved regardless of what stupid denomination i’m in..i suggest you join me and forget religion and go for that relationship jesus wants you to be in..WITH HIM..

    — stormgates    Jan 23, 07:18 PM    #
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