Monday, May 05, 2014

Book Review (#44 of 2014) God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. I'm reviewing this book as an evangelical Christian. I have long wanted to read a Hitchens book after enjoying many of his witty book reviews in The Atlantic and seeing the respect other evangelicals had for Hitchens after engaging him personally. As he wrote in his book, he spent much of his time among Christian or religious friends. He is a character.

Epistomological humility is the main lesson I gleaned from this book. Most of my Christian friends (myself included) are very confident in their theological positions and all of them, whether they admit it or not, look slightly down their nose at other positions as "errant" and therefore inferior. But this is arrogance. To think that of all the billions of people who have existed on earth, I was not only chosen by God and ended up in the one True religion, but have also ended up in precisely the right branch of Christianity. Not only that, but my specific school of thought within that branch contains the most right interpretation of Scripture written in other languages and cultures that existed thousands of years ago. That my team is the "most right" that ever existed. What are the odds of this? Incalculable. Yet, that's what most of us believe. So, maybe we should all be more humble. I would do better to admit as Baptist theologian/pastor Rodney Reeves does that I'm Baptist just because I was raised Baptist.

I enjoyed Hitchens' critique of the various religions. Very few have the breadth of knowledge and experience of travel, marriage, working, and friendships in so many religions and culture. Hitchens is like the anti-C.S. Lewis, well-steeped in world literature and philosophy but coming down on the opposite side of Lewis' "Lord, liar, or lunatic" proposition-- which Hitchens praises Lewis for.

A couple of weaknesses I found in Hitchens' arguments: 

Hitchens repeatedly lauds the moral position and behavior of himself and other atheists/humanists. He repeatedly criticizes religions for promoting "evil" deeds such as murder, genocide, slavery, etc. This requires that morality exists and can be defined--that all is not relative. But Christianity justifies its moral code on the basic idea that man was created in God's image. This is the reason given in Genesis for murder being criminal. Without God, and an absolute truth, what basis does Hitchens or other atheists give for criticizing the behavior of others? Acknowledging and defining "evil" is a real philosophical problem for atheists, and Hitchens avoids that weakness completely.

Hitchens gives a good summary of arguments against Michael Behe's theory of irreducible complexity. He gives new scientific evidence and theory explaining the evolution of the eye, for example. He points out that we have plenty of useless body parts, and asks why an intelligent designer would design an eye that would require that images taken in be flipped before processed by the brain. That the body is a fairly inefficient system that if we could start from scratch and design ourselves we could make more efficient. My critique: 
 How did the first organism know that there was light to see and "data" to be received from it? Where did the light come from, and the data embedded in it? How did it know that the "data" could be decoded and made useful via something called "nerves"? He does critique the "have you ever seen a car without a maker?" argument and other more simple ones that Christians frequently use. But he does not explain a first cause. Stephen Hawking, in his essays published in Black Holes and Baby Universes, states that the universe's origins are explained by either a Grand Unifying Theory of physics, or a creator God. Hawking is betting on the GUT. Hitchens does not acknowledge that tradeoff, even though he quotes Hawking.

Hitchens does not believe in a literal resurrection because he is uncertain that a Jesus ever existed. He doesn't address the radically changed behavior of Jesus' followers after the resurrection event, or their peculiar martyrdoms. Many biblical critics, including those in the Jesus Seminar, acknowledge that "something happened" around the time of Jesus' supposed resurrection that is hard to explain with any physical or scientific explanations. Hitchens does not address those concerns, seemingly lumping in Christian martyrdom as the same as those seen in Islam, Mormonism, or other religions.

I enjoyed Hitchens' critiques of Mormonism and Islam, showing them as essentially the flip sides of the same coin (which I have often argued). He does a great job showing the hypocrisy and inconsistency of the Catholic Church when it comes to moral posturing.He points out an awful lot in the history of all the religions that adherents would rather forget.

In an interview I saw with Hitchens late in his life (I believe it was on 60 Minutes) he stated that he did not deny the chance that a God may be out there, he was just supremely confident that none of the religions and explanations for him here on earth were correct. It's important to keep that statement in mind while reading this book.

If you want a more complete rebuttal to Hitchens et al, I would recommend William Lane Craig's Reasonable Faith, which at one time included a 13-cassette audio series that I listened to in college and gleaned quite a bit from.

I recommend Hitchens book for though-provoking discussion and even entertainment value. I would argue that every Christian should read this book and be ready to give a response to it. I give it 4 stars out of 5.

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