- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 5, 2007


By Christopher Hitchens

Twelve, $24.99, 320 pages


One of the liveliest of political bloggers, Rod Dreher (alias “Crunchy Con”), recently posted an item in praise of the academic and controversialist Camille Paglia. It was an odd juxtaposition: Mr. Dreher, a former devout Catholic, is a recent convert to the Orthodox Church, while Prof. Paglia is an atheist who describes herself as a “feminist bisexual maniac.”

Her main failing, in my eyes, is that she insists on taking Madonna seriously, but that is another story. What really caught my eye was her claim that the decline of religion in Europe was a sign of a foundering civilization: “The Europeans have become very passive, all of them,” she said. “There’s a fatigued worldliness typical of Europe right now, and that’s why nothing very interesting artistically is coming out of there.”

As sweeping statements go, her diagnosis ranks among the best. Is there really an artistic vacuum in the old continent? I’m not at all convinced. London, after all, can claim to be the most dynamic center of the arts on the planet right now. Is there, in contrast, a profound connection between faith and cultural creativity in modern America? Again, I have my doubts. The great irony, of course, is that the form of religion Ms. Paglia hankers after has traditionally taken a less than charitable view of either bisexual maniacs or feminists.

Like Ms. Paglia, Christopher Hitchens — another of the leading contrarians of our times — is a confirmed atheist. Like Mr. Dreher, he has some knowledge of Greek Orthodox ritual: He was accepted into the Church “to please my Greek in-laws” during a previous marriage.

Mr. Hitchens, however, possesses no affection for religion in any form. “God Is Not Great” is a relentlessly erudite if sometimes exhausting catalog of just about every crime committed in the name of faith. Not known for understatement, Mr. Hitchens plunges into the ultimate challenge, embarking on a dizzying journey through different millennia and different continents, via St. Augustine, Hobbes and Karl Marx. By the close, it is hard to think of any creed to which he has failed to cause offense. Muslims and Mormons alike are subjected to his sardonic Balliol wit.

I doubt many believers will have their faith shaken by Mr. Hitchens’ blast of Enlightenment fury. (I should point out that I write this as a lapsed churchgoer whose wife, a reasonably observant Hindu, attends C of E services in our village’s beautiful Norman church most Sundays.) His thesis, after all, devotes much less space to the meaning of belief itself than the manner in which it has been expressed throughout human history.

This, in short, is a book about organized religion rather than about religion itself. And in that respect, it amasses an imposing amount of damning evidence:

“Many religions now come before us with ingratiating smirks and outspread hands, like an unctuous merchant in a bazaar,” writes Mr. Hitchens. “They offer consolation and solidarity and uplift, competing as they do in a marketplace. But we have a right to remember how barbarically they behaved when they were strong and were making an offer that people could not refuse. And if we chance to forget what that must have been like, we have only to look to those states and societies where the clerisy still has the power to dictate its own terms.”

He scores some strong points here. One of the oft-heard arguments from conservatives who wish to see a revival of religious sentiment — among “the masses,” if not among themselves — is that it would lead to a bolstering of the essential human virtues. Mr. Hitchens is by no means the first writer to point out that powerful religious impulses have often produced the very opposite down the centuries.

He recalls at one point how, in a panel discussion with Dennis Prager, the talk show host asked him whether, if he were walking through the streets of a strange city at dusk and saw a crowd of men approaching him, he would feel safer to learn they had just left a prayer meeting.

Mr. Hitchens replied (and you can almost hear that fruity voice ringing in the air) that he had precisely that experience in cities as far apart as Belfast and Bombay, and would certainly have felt threatened had he known the strangers were coming from a religious gathering. Touche.

“God Is Not Great” is eager to demonstrate this point at length. Whether discussing Judaism or Islam, Mr. Hitchens tends to adopt a brutally dismissive and uncharitable tone. Scientific advances, he believes, have rendered faith all but redundant. To him, Shakespeare and Proust offer deeper insights into human nature. In true incendiary style, he tosses out the radical observation that Martin Luther King, while one of the great moral exemplars of our times, was not really a Christian at all.

Defenders of the church may not need to linger over that claim. (I would love to see what the author’s brother, the equally trenchant Peter Hitchens, a conservative Anglican, would make of all this.) But the book is on stronger ground when, in a chapter entitled “An Objection Anticipated,” it addresses one of the standard charges against humanism: that the excesses of the godless 20th century proved to what depths men without faith can stoop.

Mr. Hitchens contends — persuasively, I think — that the great totalitarian despotisms were a brutal, technologically enhanced extension of a fundamental religious impulse. It was no coincidence that one of the seminal books of the Cold War bore the simple title, “The God That Failed.”

Clive Davis writes for The Times of London. His Web log is at www.spectator.co.uk/clivedavis

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