Every talented writer is entitled to be a bore on at least one subject, but where religion is concerned Christopher Hitchens abuses the privilege. For years now, he has supplemented his prolific punditry and criticism with a stream of anti-theistic diatribes, and now these rivers of vituperation have pooled into a single volume, an omnium gatherum of God-bashing (although he insists on using the lower-case "g" throughout) that exceeds most of its predecessors in the felicity of its prose, but matches them in the tedium of its arguments. "I have been writing this book all my life," Hitchens declares in the conclusion to God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, "and intend to keep on writing it." One hopes that someone near and dear to him will have the courage to firmly suggest that he stop.
The book has been written with two main purposes in mind: to show that all religions are false, and to prove that their effects are near-universally pernicious. In each case, Hitchens's argument proceeds principally by anecdote, and at his best he is as convincing as that particular style allows, which is to say not terribly. He succeeds in demonstrating that many faiths are frauds and many prophets have been fakers, that believers commit all sorts of terrible crimes and that Buddhists are no more pacific than Southern Baptists, and that the Bible is neither a work of academic history nor a biology textbook. Then again, I was convinced of these points already, and hoped that Hitchens would pick a fight on more contested territory, such as the origin and nature of spiritual experience, which seems a more likely source for man's persistent religiosity than, say, the fear of thunderstorms or the stubborn refusal to crack open The Origin of Species. But like most apologists for atheism, he evinces little interest in the topic of religion as it is actually lived, preferring to stick to the safer ground of putting the godly in the dock and cataloguing their crimes against humanity.
In this vein, he is exhaustive but largely unpersuasive. I remain unconvinced, for instance, that religious practice has no significant effect on moral character, though all I have to support my intuition is a heap of academic studies suggesting that churchgoing boosts marital happiness, private generosity, and various other indicators of a life well lived, while Hitchens has the devastating rebuttal that Robert Ingersoll, the noted freethinker, was a better husband and father than the Catholic Evelyn Waugh. Similarly, I'm unpersuaded that the Catholic Church's stance on birth control has been a major factor in the spread of AIDS around the world, though again I'm merely relying on statistics—African infection rates, for instance, are highest in heavily Protestant countries; most studies suggest that serious religious practice correlates with lower rates of risky sexual behavior, even among people already infected with HIV—while Hitchens has the irrefutable power of anecdote on his side, specifically a few dumb statements about condoms from Third World churchmen.
I'm also unconvinced that male circumcision is quite the species of totalitarianism that God Is Not Great makes it out to be, though I am perhaps suffering from what Hitchens, in his Marxist phase, would have described as "false consciousness." Nor do I believe that the doctrine of hell has wrecked quite so many millions of childhoods as he claims (though he does have citations from James Joyce and Mary McCarthy on his side); or that religion has likewise ruined the act of coitus (a difficult thing to do, one might hazard) for untold numbers of believers; or that the difference between the Spanish Inquisition and the U.S. military chaplaincy is a matter of degree and not of kind. Although Hitchens may be entirely correct that an atheist need "never again confront the impressive faith of an Aquinas or a Maimonides," because faith of "the sort that can stand up at least for a while in a confrontation with reason" no longer exists, I wish he had risked the confrontation, instead of writing an entire book about religion that includes exactly two quotations from religious intellectuals born since 1800, both taken from the same C.S. Lewis pamphlet.
And lest we say, "Oh why bother with Hitchens" - remember this:
But the biggest surprise is a blazing attack on God and religion that is flying off bookshelves, even in the Bible Belt. "God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything," by Christopher Hitchens, wasn't expected to be a blockbuster. Its publisher, Twelve, a fledgling imprint owned by France's Lagardère SCA, initially printed a modest 40,000 copies. Today, seven weeks after the book went on sale, there are 296,000 copies in print. Demand has been so strong that booksellers and wholesalers were unable to get copies a short time after it hit stores, creating what the publishing industry calls a "dark week." One experienced publishing veteran suggests that Mr. Hitchens will likely earn more than $1 million on this book.