God is Not Great: The Case Against Religion, Christopher Hitchens, Atlantic Books, pp320
It has been a while since I read a book that was supposed to challenge my beliefs and attempt to refute the idea that God existed. From an early age, I have always enjoyed getting involved in debates and discussions, especially those surrounding religion, as I have immensely increased my knowledge through this medium. When I was asked to do a review of this book, the thought excited me. However, I was to be left bitterly disappointed.
Before beginning this book, I felt my beliefs as a Muslim were strong enough to be challenged. But challenge them is precisely what Christopher Hitchens does not do. Instead he lists all the problems, atrocities, and evil actions carried out by people who have professed religious beliefs, regardless of whether they used religion as a vehicle for their actions or not. The language Hitchens uses is very lucid. However the book has very little — and even then quite inaccurate — theological discussion.It is also quite ironic that while Hitchens dismisses religious texts for containing discrepancies and inaccuracies, he himself is apparently not too bothered about inaccuracies in own text. In particular, he takes secular ideologues and labels them as religious fanatics. This undermines his basic argument that it is religion which causes problems.
Obviously Hitchens as a proponent of a particular stance when it comes to religion is an ideologue of some sort. If he himself as an atheist can be taken as a potentially dangerous ideologue, the book loses its credibility. Examples of Hitchens making basic mistakes in a quest to prove his point are rife. For someone of Hitchens’ political and historical astuteness, the statement that Rajiv Gandhi was India’s President when in fact he was the Prime Minister is a howler of the highest degree (and the fact that he tries to portray his murderers, the avowedly secular Tamil Tigers, as religious, smacks of desperation). Similarly, where he erroneously attributes the “chakra” on the Indian flag to M.K. Gandhi when it is in fact to do with Asok, is something any student of South Asian history should know.
Hitchens’ criticisms of the Bible and Qur’an bring nothing new to the table. He dismisses anyone who doesn’t toe his line — Karen Armstrong in particular is treated very harshly. His familiar comments about the “plagiarism” of the Qur’an are tiresome and his attempts to portray Saddam Hussein Tikriti as a man of religion, and the Ba’athist regime as “Islamic” (based on the “Anfal” campaign) laughable.
What is most amusing about Hitchens is his attempt to have his own cake and eat it too. He argues, with good reason, that religious people have used religion in order to conduct acts of violence and immorality. However, when the turn comes to criticise atheist mass murders such as Hitler and Stalin, he chooses to call them “religious” as well. This can only work if the meaning is stretch so far as to render it meaningless, and as a consequence, bring the argument Hitchens’ has put forward down like a pack of cards.
Hitchens claims that it is stupidity and ignorance which drives communities and states back towards the belief in religion. The problem with his hypothesis is that he has, perhaps deliberately, confused the issue by using “God” and “religion” interchangeably. This is a habit that many atheists suffer from, where when being cornered about the existence of God, will suddenly jump to a particular historical incident where religious people acted inhumanely. Not only is this poor form, it also reveals the weakness of the atheist position which relies on an amalgamation of confusion under the pretext of facts and reason in order to drive the masses away from the recognition of their true creator.
Despite all this, Hitchens makes a sound case, though perhaps not the one he intended: Humanity can easily be overpowered by its desires instead of reason. The book is littered with examples of men in history, from the high priests of the Catholic Church to those who occupied the highest echelons of Muslim society, who due to their inherent desires of greed, power and control used religion as an agent and duped the masses. What Hitchens has wrong is the solution. The way forward is definitely through reason and it is through which we will recognise the true God and reject all false deities. That is a stance that many of the world’s religions have taken as well.
There is one final point that needs to be made, however. Some of the blame for such populist literature lies with us. Being a close friend of Salman Rushdie and an admirer of the fictitious apostate Ibn Warraq, the conclusions Hitchens comes to are not surprising. But as in the case of Rushdie, Hitchens’ materials have been derived from our sometimes negative history and faulty hadith literature that has been compiled by some Muslims. Confronting that takes strong knowledge of the hadith literature, the books criticizing it, as well as western thought, particularly the role of religious literary criticism. We need to be very vocal about treating negative historical examples as something we can learn from and never repeat again, rather than something we admire. Until we confront the skeletons in our own closets, it will be far too easy for authors such as Hitchens to spew rubbish. We will have provided them with the resources to do so, and for people the world over to label Muslims as terrorists, because, unwittingly, we will have adorned ourselves with that label.
This review was originally published in October 2007 at www.islamicinsights.com