Summer Reading Part 1: Hitchens on God

Now that we are in the midst of summer I have been trying to catch up on my reading. I don't have the time or the inclination to review all the books I have recently read in detail, so instead, starting today, I will be providing very short commentaries on some of the books I have been digging into lately.

One note: I do not subscribe to the theory that only newly released books are worth discussing. Sometimes the value of a book is much more clear after time has passed, especially in the case of non-fiction books about policy or foreign affairs. Sometimes I even think that reviewing books after the paperback comes out can be more fruitful for the readers and reviewer alike for several reasons. So I reserve the right to comment on older books as well as new releases.

Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

First of all, I must say, I am no fan of Christopher Hitchens. Even in some of his work before 9-11 ( when he famously changed his world view) he was starting to drown in his own increasingly cartoonish polemics.

His 1999 book "No One Left To Lie To" about Bill Clinton is a good example. I am no fan of Clinton, and Hitchens rightly took Clinton to task for his twisted view of bipartisanship, and his absurd triangulations. Hitchens, however, then ruined the book by wasting mountains of space on Clinton's sex life and (an entire chapter on) unproven accusations of rape. It turned what could have been a smart and important little book into a bizarre exercise in personal hatred.

As most reasonable people have long since figured out, in the realm of foreign policy Hitchens has simply lost his mind. It is one thing to be wrong, but watch his debate with George Galloway from 2005 again, and notice how far his geopolitical assertions stray from any semblance of reality. He simply invents an international order that does not exist, and paints the peace movement of the last generation (and himself, since he was once an active participant) to be the worst of all evils. It is actually painfully frustrating to sit through. He has similarly absurd commentaries on Libby, Haditha and his own reflections on his support for the Iraq War, that, likewise, are devoid of any sensible logic. It is tragic, really.

So I am put in the odd position, now, after reading "God is Not Great" of not only agreeing with Hitchens, but of enjoying his work. I have even found myself defending Hitchens when the issue of God comes up. His book is erudite and witty, sensible and unafraid. Sure, it is not nearly as good as The God Delusion, in dismantling the argument for God, but it flows from page to page with a little more ease. Hitchens does spend too much time disproving the absurd stories written in religious texts -- the point is made, made again and then some -- but this does not detract much from the book overall.

It is frustrating that in discussion, critics of Hitchens can point to his recent abhorrent distortions of reality and ask: "How can I trust this man to be credible?" They are indeed right to ask such a question. My response -- that Hitchens has a Prima Facie case, here, and has been consistent on this issue throughout his career -- sometimes leaves them unconvinced. So it goes when dealing with Mr. Hitchens in 2007.

Still, despite all that I know and dislike about Hitchens, I think he serves as a useful and important ally with me (and with atheists and humanists in general) on this issue. In a country with extreme prejudice against atheists, and with opponents who believe the case for God is above intellectual scrutiny, I welcome this book and believe it has a place of importance at this moment in history. A moment where several books are taking on religion and God in unambiguous and fearless ways. We can only hope they can help us -- the humanists, non-believers and freethinking skeptics -- push back in the face of extreme censure.


Just read this piece by the great Norman Solomon in which he makes an interesting point about Hitchen's decision to take off one hat (his role as nonsensical, hawkish madman) and put on another. (Emphasis is mine)

Perhaps no journalist was more shameless in echoing President Bush's fatuous claims about the invasion than Christopher Hitchens.

"Many Iraqis can hear me tonight in a translated radio broadcast, and I have a message for them: If we must begin a military campaign, it will be directed against the lawless men who rule your country and not against you," Bush said on March 17, 2003.

The next day, Hitchens came out with an essay declaring that "the Defense Department has evolved highly selective and accurate munitions that can sharply reduce the need to take or receive casualties. The predictions of widespread mayhem turned out to be false last time -- when the weapons [in the Gulf War] were nothing like so accurate." And, Hitchens proclaimed, "it can now be proposed as a practical matter that one is able to fight against a regime and not a people or a nation."

More than four years -- and at least several hundred thousand Iraqi civilian deaths -- later, the most reliable epidemiology available confirms that those claims were more than misleading. They were fundamentally out of touch with human reality.

If you had engaged in such cheerleading for the launch of the Iraq war in early 2003, by now you might also be eager to change the subject and argue about God.

Coming soon: Summer Reading Part II: Howard Friel and Richard Falk: Israel-Palestine on Record