I was doing a lot of internal questioning around the time I read (most of) this. I appreciated that it gave me a lot to think about without being forc...moreI was doing a lot of internal questioning around the time I read (most of) this. I appreciated that it gave me a lot to think about without being forceful or judgmental in tone - something I was really sensitive to when it came to religion and belief.
That said, I was 15, and god knows what I was thinking. (less)
Conrad, do you own this? If not, can you buy it for me? If not, can you please explain it to me thoroughly until such time as you can buy it for me? T...moreConrad, do you own this? If not, can you buy it for me? If not, can you please explain it to me thoroughly until such time as you can buy it for me? THANKS LOVE YOU!(less)
Conrad's review says more than I possibly could about this book. Nevertheless:
I found the book accessible, but not at all dumbed-down, and I am very g...moreConrad's review says more than I possibly could about this book. Nevertheless:
I found the book accessible, but not at all dumbed-down, and I am very glad to have read it. Not at all dry, not something to be taken for granted in what could be considered a history, however brief, of an entire religion. Aslan styles himself as historian, scholar and, uniquely, storyteller. Many events in the pre-Islam hijaz, during the time of Muhammad and in the reigns of the Rightly Guided Caliphs are described with a bit of a narrative flourish. That's not to demean his scholarly grasp of the political, social and of course religious history of Islam, which is apparent throughout.
One chapter was unduly burdened by authorial defensiveness - an attitude and approach that obscured the message and in my opinion did more harm than good to his agenda in that section - but that was really my only objection.(less)
In my expectation for this book, I mistakenly conflated two related but distinct concepts: defense of atheism (as its own creed, as it were - seculari...moreIn my expectation for this book, I mistakenly conflated two related but distinct concepts: defense of atheism (as its own creed, as it were - secularism, if you like), and attack on theism (and religion). I expected the latter, and found it in spades, but was surprised that there wasn't much of the former, which was a shame, because I think that added dimension would have given Hitchens's argument a bit more of an open-door feel (something many believers appreciate about religion, incidentally).
I can't blame Hitchens for that, though; he set out to make the case against religion, not to write Secularism for Dummies, and this should have been clear from the subtitle: the book is about all the ways in which religion is bad. Having defined his scope thus, he launches from the opening into a catalog of atrocities, large and small, that can be laid at the feet of religion: holy wars and religious killings; dietary restrictions; interference in sexual conduct and sexual health; the holding hostage of reason by faith; the spread of false information about our origins and the attendant obstruction of the pursuit of scientific knowledge. With this as context, he then presents brief, damning biographies of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, before moving on to argue religion's systemically poisonous nature, on a number of fronts.
In a delightfully catty dispute over the nature of evolutionary psychology, Stephen Jay Gould once wrote, "If we define poetic justice as defeat by one's own favored devices - Robespierre before the guillotine or Midas in golden starvation - then we might be intrigued to find Steven Pinker, a linguist by training, upended by his own use of words." One could make a similar case against Hitchens (although I don't think he is upended completely, just limited): a disciple or even evangelist of reason, he set for himself a task that reason could not achieve - to show that religion poisons everything. (This claim isn't limited to the book's subtitle; it is repeated as a refrain throughout.) This is plainly impossible (not least because one can't make a list of everything), and so the endless cataloging of evil and hypocrisy comes off as grasping, instead of what it should rightly be, horrifying.
At times, Hitchens's impulse to condemn faith and the faithful gets in the way of a perfectly obvious point of reason. In the chapter entitled "Does Religion Make People Behave Better?", he describes a debate in which an atheist says to a bishop that he sees no evidence for the existence of a god, to which the bishop replies, "Then I cannot see why you do not lead a life of unbridled immorality." Surely the best response to this is simply, "And yet I do not, so evidently belief is not necessary for morality." But Hitchens leaps over this (I think obvious) point to call out the bishop's statement as an insult and then to suggest that this means the bishop himself would lead an immoral life if he were "freed from the restraints of doctrine." This is a clever turn of logic, but not thoroughly convincing on the question of whether belief necessarily engenders morality, or whether morality exists in the absence of belief, both of which are worth addressing in earnest. The truth is that in some cases, people do extraordinarily good things not only in spite of but because of their belief in a higher being, and Hitchens isn't able to square this with the unsavory human tendencies that religion often exploits, so he simply skips over it. "The first thing to be said," he states, "is that virtuous behavior by a believer is no proof at all of - indeed is not even an argument for - the truth of his belief." No indeed, but his thesis isn't that religion is untrue, it's that religion poisons everything (italics his). The point of all this being that Hitchens makes a very good case, but ultimately not the case he promised he would make.
The concluding chapters are titled "A Finer Tradition: The Resistance of the Rational" and "The Need for a New Enlightenment," and it is here that I would have hoped for a celebration of reason, inquiry, irreligious morality and of course secularism. And I guess that's what he was going for, too, but unfortunately for the reader, he must have felt like the inventory of religious iniquity hadn't been satisfactorily completed in the preceding chapters, because it bleeds into these sections as well. At the end of which, one has the impression that these noble, non-faith-based pursuits are more about the fight against belief than anything else, which is a discredit to them.
However! It was easier to put my objections into words than my praises, and I do think this book deserves its four (well, three and a half, if I could) stars. Hitchens is an incredibly good writer, who makes the turn of phrase an art and is as clever with words as powerful. And imperfect though the book may be, it's pleasing to read something (even a polemic) that is so literate, that so clearly appreciates the genius of past writers, philosophers and scientists, and that so strongly rises to the debate (even if, as I believe, it overreaches to its own detriment). As I was reading this, it struck me that there are not a lot of interesting, highly literate public intellectuals left in America. Incendiary though it may be, Christopher Hitchens's voice is a challenging and enjoyable one.(less)