If religion were a necessary element of human life – a hard-wired neurological epiphenomenon that brought with it order, psychic hygiene and social cohesion, private comfort and public benefit – then perhaps we could simply accept it as such, enjoy the advantages it confers on us, and ignore its flamboyant absurdities.
The spiritually-inclined will insist that it has been for us a source of precept and succour; enables us to box the moral compass, and satisfies a need to be reassured that our sublunary flounderings aren't wholly meaningless. If we all could live peaceably in a Betjemanian fantasy of gentle rites and hymnals, a flowery harmless Anglicanism (or regional variants thereof – Sufism, on the face of it, being equally attractive), mightn't we be rid finally of poverty and cruelty? So far, so via media.
By this reckoning organized religion serves at once as psychological poultice and societal solvent: useful, perhaps indispensable. A delusion it may be – a peculiarly robust one – yet still it functions as a benign form of spiritual welfarism. “Humankind cannot bear,” T.S. Eliot whispered from the depths of his own flight from experience, “very much reality.” We aren't so configured – as limited biological entities – to grasp the immensity of the universe. Each of us is a poor, bare, forked creature impaled on our finitude. Where does grandeur reside, save in contemplation of something bigger than ourselves?
Thus runs the broadly theistic line. By such imaginative shifts humanity ennobles itself, raises itself from the weariness, the fever and the fret of being in the world. Again this seems on the face of it pretty unexceptionable: a mechanism of evolutionary psychology, if you want to be rigorously positivistic about it.
Christopher Hitchens begs to differ. His barnstorming polemic God is not Great is written – dare I say it? - out of an apostolic fury, an upwelling of frustration at the persistence of the religious mentality (which Hitchens exposes as no more than a reflex of power-obsession). Salman Rushdie's knighthood this week re-ignited calls from the Muslim world for his execution as blasphemer and apostate. The argument initiated with such spittle-flecked rage and mob histrionics on the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1989 hasn't really been won or lost in the intervening years. The murderous fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomenei has proved, further, not to have been merely some 'black swan event' (as the meme of the moment would have it). It signaled, in fact, a permanent revolution, processing slowly but steadily across the turn of the century. Religion poisons everything, Hitchens epigrammatizes the theme of his book. That's about the sum total of it. L'affaire Rushdie hasn't simply wound down and disappeared, and still provokes so chilling a response – orchestrated, largely for political ends, by the mullahs, who command congregations of thousands – that it mightn't be too much to suggest a certain timeliness in Hitchen's effort. With the disintegration of the Communist bloc, the forces of Counter-Enlightenment have retrenched and rearmed. Death cults and supremacist creeds are back on the agenda.
Not merely Voltairean anti-clericalism, then: but a root and branch rejection of the very claim of the truth of religion. Hitchens presses home the fatuity of faith; he doesn't simply rail against the fraudulence of priestcraft, for example (a soft target), but against the case for any metaphysical warrant to human activity. We can marvel that, after the labours of nineteenth century biblical scholars such as David Strauss and Ernest Renan – who settled the question once and for all of the historicity of the Bible and its time-bound, man-made nature – there are many millions of literalists who still credit the reality of the Fall. Tartuffisme remains as much a staple for today's satirists as for Moliere; and we know how venal Chaucer's Pardoner was. But Hitchens, the scourge of the credulous, seems to accept Freud's insight that religion will endure for as long as we are afraid of death. (Freud, some would suggest, was as much a juju-man as any priest; his philosophy as questionable as that of any of the Church Fathers...)
I can well imagine a believer bridling at his condescension here. A member of an educated cosmopolitan elite sneering at the lackwit naivety of those not so well-favoured by circumstance. Recall H.L. Mencken's reporting from Dayton, Tennessee, where 'they tried the infidel Scopes': “In the big cities of the Republic, despite the endless efforts of consecrated men, [evangelical Christianity] is laid up with a wasting disease.” Hitchens might appropriately have attached these remarks of Mencken's to the flyleaf of God is not Great:
Despite the common delusion to the contrary the philosophy of doubt is far more comforting than that of hope. The doubter escapes the worst penalty of the man of faith and hope; he is never disappointed, and hence never indignant. The inexplicable and irremediable may interest him, but they do not enrage him, or, I may add, fool him. This immunity is worth all the the dubious assurances ever foisted upon man. It is pragmatically impregnable. Moreover, it makes for tolerance and sympathy. The doubter does not hate his opponents; he sympathizes with them. In the end he may even come to sympathize with God. The old idea of fatherhood here submerges in a new idea of brotherhood. God, too, is beset by limitations, difficulties, broken hopes. Is it disconcerting to think of Him thus? Well, is it any less disconcerting to think of Him as able to ease and answer, yet failing?
This, quoted in its entirety, Mencken calls the Doubter's Reward. (A far saner, more honest counter to Pascal's wager.) Hitchens goes about elaborating on it, illustrating its rightness: a mild and reasonable disposition setting itself in contrast to the intolerance and vulgarity of the religiose. Religion is totalitarian in a sense easily overlooked by those hypnotized by its apparent benignity and specious solace; and Hitchens time and again returns to this awkward datum.
Mencken wrote his article 'The Hills of Zion' (about his sojourn among 'the Dayton illuminati' during the Scopes trial) “on a roaring hot Sunday afternoon in a Chattanooga hotel room, naked above the waist and with only a pair of BVDs below.” (Hard to visualize C.S. Lewis composing one of his stale humourless apologetics in a similar condition.) The point, I suppose, is that the Doubters and secularists, in their acceptance of our creaturely nature, seem more congenial than the bloodless ascetics – invariably repressed, frigid, humanly stunted – ever could be.
Hitchens and Mencken are brothers-in-arms, both in their impassioned advocacy of secularism and in the way their prose rises to a furor loquendi when targeting the pious frauds of modern theocracy. Indeed, Hitchens retreads certain of Mencken's broadsides, as when the latter, in an article of 1924, 'The Cosmic Secretariat', demolishes in a paragraph the concept of Argument from Design, '..once the bulwark of Christian apologetics', now once more on the scene in the guise of Intelligent Design and 'irreducible complexity':
The more, indeed, the theologian seeks to prove the wisdom and omnipotence of God by His works, the more he is dashed by the evidences of divine incompetence and stupidity that the advance of science is constantly turning up. The world is not actually well run; it is very badly run, and no Huxley was needed to labor the obvious fact. The human body, very cunningly designed in some details, is cruelly and senselessly bungled in other details, and every reflective first-year medical student must notice a hundred ways to improve it...
Mencken's impatience with 'high and ghostly matters' sounds throughout his writings on American religion; and it is an exuberant contempt that animates them; as much for the duncery of red-neck Holy Rollers of the Midwest as for those who encourage them. Hitchens tends to be rather more measured, his reasoning forensic. Yet dismantling the scholastic conceit of the Argument from Design is merely busywork for him – a demonstration that he has the intellectual acuity to meet the religious on each and every point. God is not Great becomes something altogether more powerful, something operating on another plane of regard, when Hitchens comes to reflect on the ethical deformities wrought, more often than not on the vulnerable, by the religious mindset.
To wit, religion is the cruellest instrument of tyranny devised by mankind, and every sacred text a sadist's charter. “To 'choose' dogma and faith over doubt and experiment,” Hitchens says, “is to throw out the ripening vintage and to reach greedily for the Kool-Aid.” (The allusion to Jonestown echoes faintly but definitely through the book: church fetes and ritualistic suicide lie on the same continuum.) Hitchens bangs away at the point – religion and its various impedimenta, from the Book of Common Prayer to the putative bones of saints, are inarguably human inventions. Organized religion is an elaborate contrivance; an imposture set in train by those intent on acquiring and maintaining power. It embeds servility and self-hatred, enslaves people by the millions. The moreso in the 21st century. (Nazism was shot through with pagan myth; Stalinism, ostensibly expunging superstition from society, was nonetheless a political religion – complete with votaries and its god-king).
Hitchens can barely conceal his bewilderment that it should still exert any kind of authority. Astronomy and cosmology have given us intelligible pictures of the universe of far greater magnificence than any hopespun creation myth. Yet the intellectual affront represented by religion rankles with Hitchens most steadily throughout the book: true, the scandal of female genital mutilation and the appalling waste of grindingly corrosive sectarian conflict engage him, and with total conviction; but Hitchens seems most exercised by the deep, unreflecting idiocy of it, perhaps as much as anything else.
“Above all,” Hitchens perorates, “we are in need a of renewed Enlightenment, which will base itself on the proposition that the proper study of mankind is man, and woman.” John Gray, in his Straw Dogs, dismisses the form of humanism here described by Hitchens as a 'secular inversion of Christianity'. But religion simply hasn't a monopoly on human decency. Hitchens regards past, present and future conflicts between free inquiry and religious dogma as essentially a collision between the literal and the ironic mind. In this regard he essentially proposes a syncretic lumping-together of Comtean positivism and Socratic intellectual freewheeling. In God is Not Great Christopher Hitchens mounts “..a defence of secular pluralism and of the right not to believe or be compelled to believe.” It is, he concludes, “..an urgent and inescapable responsibility: a matter of survival.”