Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Little gods

I've been reading a fine book, god is not Great, written by Christopher Hitchens and published some three years ago, at roughly the same time as The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Respecting the author's choice, I've reproduced the title with a small g at the beginning. In fact, Hitchens might have used a plural title, gods are not Great, since his explanations of "how religion poisons everything" could be applied equally well to Judaism's Yahveh, Christianity's God or Islam's Allah. No matter which god you happen to have got involved with, the poison is equally ubiquitous and noxious, and the only healthy antidote is atheism. In fact, the latter medicine is not at all nasty, particularly when it's dissolved in a large volume of science, poetry, art and love of all things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small (including one's fellow humans).

Hitchens is engaged upon exactly the same battlefield as Dawkins, and he's an equally formidable warrior, but I had the impression that the journalist and the professor are probably not fighting side-by-side in the same battalion. Both men are products of England's great Oxbridge system, and they both write brilliantly. The vast scientific erudition of Dawkins causes him to be seen inevitably as a kind of refined donnish gentleman, never too far away from his cherished ivory tower. Hitchens, on the other hand, comes across as a more worldly chap, who has rubbed up against all sorts of personalities and ordinary people, while never suffering fools gladly (as St Paul put it).

He paints a particularly black portrait of individuals who were notorious for having a dark religious side. This list includes the Biblical personage known as Abraham (of whom Hitchens talks, surprisingly, as if he really existed), John Calvin (described as one of the "really extreme religious totalitarians", and "a sadist and torturer and killer"), Joseph Smith (founder of Mormonism), Pope Pius XII (who sent an "evil and fatuous message" to Hitler in 1939), Mother Teresa (whose claims to sainthood would appear to be based upon a false "miracle"), the Dalai Lama (who "tells us that you can visit a prostitute as long as someone else pays her"), the US preacher Billy Graham ("whose record of opportunism and anti-Semitism is in itself a minor national disgrace") and the new pope Joseph Ratzinger ("who recently attracted Catholic youths to a festival by offering a certain 'remission of sin' to those who attended"), etc. The handful of famous figures who emerge unscathed by the wrath of Hitchens (whose Twitter name is hitchbitch) have the allure of atheistic angels or saints, if such creatures could be deemed possible. I was thrilled to discover that the following six members of this elite have always counted among my personal intellectual heroes: Socrates, William of Ockham, Baruch Spinoza, Thomas Paine, Martin Luther King and Bertrand Russell.

Above all, the literary voice of Christopher Hitchens is, not only invigorating, but indeed cathartic. He's truly a "no bullshit" writer, who generally has firsthand knowledge of the topics he tackles. I find it reassuring to hear that this leftist polemicist (a naturalized American since 2007) has gone to the trouble of actually visiting places such as Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

1 comment:

  1. I think perhaps that Hitchens does not convey his thoughts as elegantly as Dawkins - but his writing is certainly as powerful. Another book I found most entertaining is 'The End of Faith' by Sam Harris. More visceral than the others but as compelling.