The God Delusion and god is not Great

2007-09-18

in Books and literature, Daily updates, Politics

War Museum stained glass

Comparing Christopher Hitchens‘ new book god is not Great with Richard Dawkins‘ recent The God Delusion seems only natural. Hitchens engages in much more direct textual criticism – an activity that Dawkins equates to discussing the history and habits of fairies with well credentialed fairyologists. While Dawkins’ book is a reasonably comprehensive attempt to rebut what he calls ‘The God Hypothesis,’ Hitchens’ is more concise and impressionistic. Dawkins explains early in the book that he aims to rebut the claim that:

there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.

Note that this aims to rebut deism as well as those faiths that presume that god is still actively involved in the workings of the world. The most concise summarization of Hitchens’ work are his ‘four irreducible objections to religious faith:’

  1. That is wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos
  2. That because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism
  3. That it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression
  4. And that it is ultimately grounded in wishful thinking

The degree to which any particular reader thinks they succeed in these aims probably has as much to do with their prior beliefs as with the arguments presented by Hitchens and Dawkins but, whether you agree with them or not, it is quite possibly a good idea to subject your existing view to some fairly rigorously structured criticism. It does apprear to be increasingly difficult to retain a literal interpretation of the scripture of any major faith, given evaluations of internal consistency, historical examination, and scientific inquiry.

What is often more interesting than the ontological claim made about the non-existence of god are the practical claims about what should be done in a world where the vast majority of people do believe in higher powers of various descriptions. Here, both writers are on shakier ground, though the question is an extremely difficult one. It is easier to condemn religious conflict and repression than it is to come up with practical mechanisms to reduce either. Within states, at least, there is some hope that a secular government can act to reduce such problematic manifestations of faith. Internationally, or in areas of active and religiously motivated war, relatively few such options seem to exist.

In an age where religious conflict, the question of tolerance, and multiculturalism have so much salience, both books are well constructed to make you think. Dawkins’ book is more comprehensively argued and systematic. Unless you have read a good sample of his work already, it is probably the better of the two volumes to read in isolation. That said, while his work is characterized by academic contemplation (and isolation), Hitchens has a more immediate perspective on some aspects of the operation of religion in the contemporary world.

I suspect people will get more from the volume written by the author with whom they are less familiar. Having read most of Dawkins’ prior books, relatively little in The God Delusion was a surprise. Having never before read Hitchens, the style of god is not Great was as novel as much of the content.

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

Apostate September 18, 2007 at 10:37 pm

It does apprear to be increasingly difficult to retain a literal interpretation of the scripture of any major faith, given evaluations of internal consistency, historical examination, and scientific inquiry.

This is only the case if you approach the matter with a critical mind – precisely what religion trains people to avoid doing.

R.K. September 19, 2007 at 12:06 am
Anon @ Wadh September 19, 2007 at 1:53 pm

You may want to read Charles Taylor’s recent book “A Secular Age.” It offers a different perspective on the relationships between science, religion, and modernity.

It is reviewed here: “The Western world may believe that it has liberated itself from clerical power, but divinity just keeps on breaking in”

. October 16, 2007 at 12:29 am

History – of – Religion

How has the geography of religion evolved over the centuries, and where has it sparked wars? Our map gives us a brief history of the world’s most well-known religions: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism. Selected periods of inter-religious bloodshed are also highlighted. Want to see 5,000 years of religion in 90 seconds? Ready, Set, Go!

. October 18, 2007 at 11:00 am

The Problem with Atheism

(This is an edited transcript of a talk given at the Atheist Alliance conference in Washington D.C. on September 28th, 2007)

To begin, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge just how strange it is that a meeting like this is even necessary. The year is 2007, and we have all taken time out of our busy lives, and many of us have traveled considerable distance, so that we can strategize about how best to live in a world in which most people believe in an imaginary God. America is now a nation of 300 million people, wielding more influence than any people in human history, and yet this influence is being steadily corrupted, and is surely waning, because 240 million of these people apparently believe that Jesus will return someday and orchestrate the end of the world with his magic powers.

Of course, we may well wonder whether as many people believe these things as say they do. I know that Christopher [Hitchens] and Richard [Dawkins] are rather optimistic that our opinion polls are out of register with what people actually believe in the privacy of their own minds. But there is no question that most of our neighbors reliably profess that they believe these things, and such professions themselves have had a disastrous affect on our political discourse, on our public policy, on the teaching of science, and on our reputation in the world. And even if only a third or a quarter of our neighbors believe what most profess, it seems to me that we still have a problem worth worrying about.

. October 18, 2007 at 11:01 am

“I think that “atheist” is a term that we do not need, in the same way that we don’t need a word for someone who rejects astrology. We simply do not call people “non-astrologers.” All we need are words like “reason” and “evidence” and “common sense” and “bullshit” to put astrologers in their place, and so it could be with religion.”

. October 18, 2007 at 11:03 am

“Attaching a label to something carries real liabilities, especially if the thing you are naming isn’t really a thing at all. And atheism, I would argue, is not a thing. It is not a philosophy, just as “non-racism” is not one. Atheism is not a worldview—and yet most people imagine it to be one and attack it as such. We who do not believe in God are collaborating in this misunderstanding by consenting to be named and by even naming ourselves. “

. October 18, 2007 at 11:04 am

“So, let me make my somewhat seditious proposal explicit: We should not call ourselves “atheists.” We should not call ourselves “secularists.” We should not call ourselves “humanists,” or “secular humanists,” or “naturalists,” or “skeptics,” or “anti-theists,” or “rationalists,” or “freethinkers,” or “brights.” We should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar—for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them. “

. October 18, 2007 at 11:15 am

“Finally, I think it’s useful to envision what victory will look like. Again, the analogy with racism seems instructive to me. What will victory against racism look like, should that happy day ever dawn? It certainly won’t be a world in which a majority of people profess that they are “nonracist.” Most likely, it will be a world in which the very concept of separate races has lost its meaning.
We will have won this war of ideas against religion when atheism is scarcely intelligible as a concept. We will simply find ourselves in a world in which people cease to praise one another for pretending to know things they do not know. This is certainly a future worth fighting for. It may be the only future compatible with our long-term survival as a species. But the only path between now and then, that I can see, is for us to be rigorously honest in the present. It seems to me that intellectual honesty is now, and will always be, deeper and more durable, and more easily spread, than “atheism.””

R.K. November 15, 2007 at 10:50 am

The Economist is an odd publication at times. It has come to my attention that in 1999 they wrote obituaries for both God and Jesus.

R.K. November 15, 2007 at 10:52 am

On God:

“Yet why bother with proof, if everyone knew it anyway? One, because great brains are like that; two, because not everyone did. Out there were the gentiles, Saracens and such. But did not they too say, “There is no God but God”? Yes, but they didn’t mean what good Christians meant. They must be taught better. And there God’s troubles began.

They were largely his own fault. Like many great personalities, he had countless admirers who detested each other—and he let them do so. For one of infinite knowledge, he was strangely careless how he spread what bits of it to whom. To some he dictated the Bible; to Muhammad the Koran. He was much concerned with the diet of Jews. He let Hindus paint him as what, to others, looked like a blue-faced flute-player with an interest in dairy-farming. Each set of believers had its version of what he was like and what he had said. No wonder cynics began to hint that, if believers differed so widely, belief might be a mistake.”

Anon November 30, 2007 at 2:40 pm

Turkey may charge Dawkins’ publisher for “insulting believers”

The Independent reports that prosecutors in Turkey may charge the Turkish publisher of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion with the crime of “insulting believers.” He could get up to a year in prison.

Richard Dawkins’ best-selling atheist manifesto The God Delusion was at the centre of a growing row over religious tolerance yesterday after the Turkish publishers of his book were threatened with legal action by prosecutors who accuse it of ‘insulting believers’.

Erol Karaaslan, the founder of the small publishing house Kuzey Publications, could face between six months and a year in jail for “inciting hatred and enmity” if Istanbul prosecutors decide to press charges over the book, which has sold 6000 copies in Turkey since it was published this summer.

. December 7, 2007 at 4:12 pm

Holy Nonsense
Mitt Romney’s windy, worthless speech.
By Christopher Hitchens
Posted Thursday, Dec. 6, 2007, at 5:40 PM ET

Almost the only clever thing about Gov. Mitt Romney’s long-denied and long-delayed but obviously long-prepared “response” was its location at the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library, which allowed him to pose (prematurely, I’d say) in front of a presidential seal as well as a thicket of American flags. Composed chiefly of boilerplate, the windy speech raised the vexed question of the candidate’s religious affiliation—and thus broke the taboo on mentioning it—without setting to rest any of the difficulties that make it legitimate to raise the issue in the first place.

Anonymous December 17, 2007 at 3:19 pm

There is presumably a calendar date — a moment — when the onus of proof passed from the atheist to the believer, when, quite suddenly, secretly, the noes had it.

Anonymous December 17, 2007 at 3:19 pm

Dotty: Archie says the Church is a monument to irrationality.

George: … The National Gallery is a monument to irrationality! Every concert hall is a monument to irrationality! — and so is a nicely kept garden, or a lover’s favour, or a home for stray dogs! You stupid woman, if rationality were the criterion for things being allowed to exist, the world would be one gigantic field of soya beans!

. January 7, 2008 at 11:49 am

Still, even among those who respect Mormons personally, it is still common to hear Mormonism’s tenets dismissed as ridiculous. This attitude is logically indefensible insofar as Mormonism is being compared with other world religions. There is nothing inherently less plausible about God’s revealing himself to an upstate New York farmer in the early years of the Republic than to the pharaoh’s changeling grandson in ancient Egypt. But what is driving the tendency to discount Joseph Smith’s revelations is not that they seem less reasonable than those of Moses; it is that the book containing them is so new. When it comes to prophecy, antiquity breeds authenticity. Events in the distant past, we tend to think, occurred in sacred, mythic time. Not so revelations received during the presidencies of James Monroe or Andrew Jackson.

. March 21, 2008 at 12:35 pm

Sir Julian Huxley

“Operationally, God is beginning to resemble not a ruler but the last fading smile of a cosmic Cheshire cat.”

andar909 August 10, 2008 at 10:44 pm

hi, andar here, i just read your post. i like very much. agree to you, sir.

. August 28, 2008 at 4:21 pm

We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.

The fact that orbiting teapots and tooth fairies are undisprovable is not felt, by any reasonable person, to be the kind of fact that settles any interesting argument. None of us feels an obligation to disprove any of the millions of far-fetched things that a fertile or facetious imagination might dream up. I have found it an amusing strategy, when asked whether I am an atheist, to point out that the questioner is also an atheist when considering Zeus, Apollo, Amon Ra, Mithras, Baal, Thor, Wotan, the Golden Calf, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I just go one god further.

. October 1, 2008 at 7:20 pm
. November 6, 2008 at 8:13 pm

Book Review: God is Not Great
Wednesday, November 05, 2008

. November 7, 2008 at 11:25 am

Does Religion Make You Nice?
Does atheism make you mean?
By Paul Bloom
Posted Friday, Nov. 7, 2008, at 7:05 AM ET

Many Americans doubt the morality of atheists. According to a 2007 Gallup poll, a majority of Americans say that they would not vote for an otherwise qualified atheist as president, meaning a nonbeliever would have a harder time getting elected than a Muslim, a homosexual, or a Jew. Many would go further and agree with conservative commentator Laura Schlessinger that morality requires a belief in God—otherwise, all we have is our selfish desires. In The Ten Commandments, she approvingly quotes Dostoyevsky: “Where there is no God, all is permitted.” The opposing view, held by a small minority of secularists, such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, is that belief in God makes us worse. As Hitchens puts it, “Religion poisons everything.”

. March 27, 2009 at 11:27 am

Pope ‘distorting condom science’

One of the world’s most prestigious medical journals, the Lancet, has accused Pope Benedict XVI of distorting science in his remarks on condom use.

It said the Pope’s recent comments that condoms exacerbated the problem of HIV/Aids were wildly inaccurate and could have devastating consequences.

Redemption for the Pope?
The Lancet

The Vatican felt the heat from an unprecedented amount of international condemnation last week after Pope Benedict XVI made an outrageous and wildly inaccurate statement about HIV/AIDS. On his first visit to Africa, the Pope told journalists that the continent’s fight against the disease is a problem that “cannot be overcome by the distribution of condoms: on the contrary, they increase it”.

. October 10, 2009 at 12:14 am

I suppose the most strident passage in The God Delusion is where I talk about how the God of the Old Testament is the most unpleasant character in all fiction. I had this long list of adjectives: homophobic, infanticidal. That’s kind of using long words, long Latinate words to describe what everybody actually knows: that the God of the Old Testament is a monster. I put it in this rather, I’d like to think, amusing way.

Ninety percent of Americans say they believe in God. To make fun of them is to alienate them.

Well in that particular passage I’m only talking about the God of the Old Testament, so the only people who will be offended are the people who believe in the God of the Old Testament—which by the way is most of the people you’re referring to. So that has to be conceded. But I also suspect that if they actually read the Old Testament, they could not fail to agree with what I said. The God of the Old Testament is a monster. It’s very, very hard for anybody to deny that. He’s like a hyped-up Ayatollah Khomeini.

But if some portion of that 90 percent are intelligent people—

But they wouldn’t disagree with what I said about the God of the Old Testament. They’d probably say something like, “Oh, that’s quite different. We believe in the God of the New Testament.” Something like that.

Not if they’re Jewish they wouldn’t.

Well, sure enough. They’d say, “OK, we’ve moved on since that time.” Thank goodness they have.

. March 31, 2010 at 9:51 pm

For us, there is no longer a fundamental mystery about life. It is all the process of extraordinary eruptions of information.

. September 10, 2010 at 1:43 pm

Who else feels Christopher Hitchens getting terminal throat cancer [sic] was God’s revenge for him using his voice to blaspheme him? Atheists like to ignore FACTS. They like to act like everything is a “coincidence”. Really? It’s just a “coincidence” [that] out of any part of his body, Christopher Hitchens got cancer in the one part of his body he used for blasphemy? Yea, keep believing that Atheists. He’s going to writhe in agony and pain and wither away to nothing and then die a horrible agonizing death, and THEN comes the real fun, when he’s sent to HELLFIRE forever to be tortured and set afire.

There are numerous passages in holy scripture and religious tradition that for centuries made this kind of gloating into a mainstream belief. Long before it concerned me particularly I had understood the obvious objections. First, which mere primate is so damn sure that he can know the mind of god? Second, would this anonymous author want his views to be read by my unoffending children, who are also being given a hard time in their way, and by the same god? Third, why not a thunderbolt for yours truly, or something similarly awe-inspiring? The vengeful deity has a sadly depleted arsenal if all he can think of is exactly the cancer that my age and former “lifestyle” would suggest that I got. Fourth, why cancer at all? Almost all men get cancer of the prostate if they live long enough: it’s an undignified thing but quite evenly distributed among saints and sinners, believers and unbelievers. If you maintain that god awards the appropriate cancers, you must also account for the numbers of infants who contract leukemia. Devout persons have died young and in pain. Bertrand Russell and Voltaire, by contrast, remained spry until the end, as many psychopathic criminals and tyrants have also done. These visitations, then, seem awfully random. While my so far uncancerous throat, let me rush to assure my Christian correspondent above, is not at all the only organ with which I have blasphemed …And even if my voice goes before I do, I shall continue to write polemics against religious delusions, at least until it’s hello darkness my old friend. In which case, why not cancer of the brain? As a terrified, half-aware imbecile, I might even scream for a priest at the close of business, though I hereby state while I am still lucid that the entity thus humiliating itself would not in fact be “me.” (Bear this in mind, in case of any later rumors or fabrications.)”

. January 18, 2011 at 10:41 pm

A good man who did something

Salman Taseer’s death provides a parable of why his country, which promised so much, has slipped so far

IN HIS first speech to Pakistan’s constituent assembly, on August 11th 1947, the country’s president, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, made clear his belief that religious toleration should prevail in the country he had brought into being. “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan.” It is a dreadful measure of how far Pakistan has sunk since then that Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab, was murdered on January 4th because of his outspoken support for that principle.

Mr Taseer, a member of the Pakistan People’s Party and a close ally of the president, Asif Ali Zardari, had been campaigning on behalf of Asia Bibi, an illiterate Christian farm worker who in the course of a row with neighbours over drinking water was accused of blasphemy, convicted and sentenced to death. He had called for her to be pardoned, and also for the law, under which death for blasphemy against the prophet is mandatory, to be changed. His murderer, one of his bodyguards, said this was why the governor was killed.

. January 18, 2011 at 10:46 pm

Staring into the abyss

Salman Taseer’s murder deals a huge blow to liberal Pakistan

THERE is a small space in which a liberal vision of Pakistan hangs on. It shrank a lot further with the murder on January 4th of a notable progressive politician and critic of religious extremism, Salman Taseer. Even before the assassination, the leading liberal-minded political party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which heads the government in Islamabad and counted Mr Taseer as an activist since the 1970s, was in deep trouble. On January 2nd the PPP lost its majority in parliament when the second-biggest party in the government coalition, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), walked out.

The PPP has been rocked by Mr Taseer’s murder, which brings back memories of the ghastly assassination by extremists of the party’s leader, Benazir Bhutto, in 2007. Pakistan’s problems, including an economy in a tailspin and a raging Islamist insurgency, are unlikely to get the attention they need while the government struggles for survival.

Mr Taseer was the governor of Punjab, a largely ceremonial position in Pakistan’s most populous province, but a high-profile one for all that. He had run a lonely but fearless campaign against Pakistan’s pernicious blasphemy law and was gunned down in broad daylight in Islamabad by one of his own police guards. The smirking killer later said he acted because Mr Taseer’s call for the blasphemy law to be repealed made Mr Taseer himself a “blasphemer”. Mr Taseer had taken up the case of a poor Christian woman, Asia Bibi, whom a court last year condemned to death for blasphemy. Mr Taseer himself was always sure that extremists did not represent the majority opinion in Pakistan, but that their recourse to violence means that they control public discourse.

. December 16, 2011 at 7:13 am

Quotes on the death of pundit Christopher Hitchens

— “Christopher Hitchens was everything a great essayist should be: infuriating, brilliant, highly provocative and yet intensely serious.

“I worked as an intern for him years ago. My job was to fact check his articles. Since he had a photographic memory and an encyclopedic mind it was the easiest job I’ve ever done.” — Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

— “Goodbye, my beloved friend. A great voice falls silent. A great heart stops. Christopher Hitchens, April 13, 1949-December 15, 2011.” — author Salman Rushdie in a post on his Twitter page.

. September 10, 2012 at 12:46 pm

AMERICA is not an easy place for atheists. Religion pervades the public sphere, and studies show that non-believers are more distrusted than other minorities.

Several states still ban atheists from holding public office. These rules, which are unconstitutional, are never enforced, but that hardly matters. Over 40% of Americans say they would never vote for an atheist presidential candidate.

. October 22, 2017 at 11:54 pm

Erdogan v Darwin
The decline of Turkish schools

Out goes evolution, in comes Islamic piety and loyalty to the regime

DAYS before the start of the new school year, Merve, an eighth-grade science teacher, is flipping through the pages of her old biology textbook. A picture of a giraffe appears, alongside a few lines about Charles Darwin. Teaching evolution in a predominantly Muslim country where six out of ten people refer to themselves as creationists, according to a 2010 study, has never been easy. As of today it is no longer possible. A new curriculum has scrapped all references to Darwin and evolution. Such subjects, the head of Turkey’s board of education said earlier this summer, were “beyond the comprehension” of young students. Merve says her hands are now tied. “There’s no way we can talk about evolution.”

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has made clear on more than one occasion that he would like to bring up a “pious generation” of young Turks. He has made plenty of headway. The education ministry, says Feray Aytekin Aydogan, the head of a leftist teachers’ union, is working more closely than ever with Islamic NGOs and with the directorate of religious affairs. Attendance at so-called imam hatip schools, used to train Muslim preachers, has shot up from about 60,000 in 2002 to over 1.1m, or about a tenth of all public-school students. The government recently reduced the minimum population requirement for areas where such schools are allowed to open from 50,000 to 5,000. An earlier reform lowered the age at which children can enter them from 14 to ten.

The new curriculum has left Turkish liberals and secularists aghast. From this year onwards, children as young as six will be taught the story of last summer’s abortive coup—presumably without including the mass purges and arrests that followed it. Imam hatip students, meanwhile, will study the concept of jihad. (The education ministry says the term, which can also refer to one’s personal struggle against sin, has been misused.) A module on the life of the Prophet Muhammad will teach the same pupils that Muslims should avoid marrying atheists, and that wives should obey their husbands. Schools are also becoming a target of Mr Erdogan’s mosque-building spree. A new rule requires that all new schools be equipped with prayer rooms, segregated by sex. “The interference of religion into education has never been as visible and as deep,” says Batuhan Aydagul of the Education Reform Initiative, a think-tank in Istanbul.

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