Monday, May 14, 2012

God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens

(Book Review)

In 340 pages Christopher Hitchens attempts to once and for all definitively disprove the metaphysical claims of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Mormonism, and any other form of religion great or small.

It is of course an attempt doomed to failure (and I’ll get around to nit-picking this book to death in just a minute), but let me start with the most important point:

This book is fun to read.

Whether you agree or disagree with Christopher Hitchens, there is a large amount of pleasure to be had by following a talented writer as he takes on the greatest philosophical issue of all time.
Particularly a writer like Christopher Hitchens, who doesn’t pull any punches. Take for example his thoughts on the Christian doctrine of hell:

Nothing proves the man-made character of religion as obviously as the sick mind that designed hell…Pre-Christian hells were highly unpleasant too, and called upon the same sadistic ingenuity for their invention. However, some of the early ones we know of—most notably the Hindu—were limited in time….It was left to Christians to find a hell from which there was no possible appeal. (And the idea is easily plagiarized: I once heard Louis Farrakhan, leader of the heretical black-only “Nation of Islam,” as he drew a hideous roar from a mob in Madison Square Garden. Hurling spittle at the Jews, he yelled, “And don’t you forget—when it’s God who puts you in the ovens, it’s FOREVER!”)
(From the chapter “Is Religion Child Abuse?” Pages 261-262).

Although this writing is polemical, and strongly based on emotional appeals, notice the value of it. Another writer might have more calmly debated the contradiction between an all-loving God and eternal damnation, and not have had the impact of Hitchens who pushes the issue to the emotional extreme, and forces you to really feel what the doctrine of hell means.

The whole book is written in this style. Reading the book is a small adrenaline rush on every page, and it’s not the kind of book that would ever put you to sleep.

I raced through the whole book in a few days. It’s the perfect book to pick up for 20 minutes at lunch during a dreary day stuck at work.

I’m not much of a philosopher by nature, and so, fortunately for me, the philosophy contained in this book is all of the “bite sized” kind. As Hitchens races form one point to another, he seldom gets stuck in any one argument that takes him more than a couple paragraphs to develop. There’s no long build up or getting weighed down in the complexities of any argument.
Obviously this style has some advantages and disadvantages. There are several arguments Hitchens over-simplifies, or doesn’t develop as well as he could have (and again, I’ll get around to nit-picking some of these further down below.) Serious philosophers will no doubt raise their eyebrows at all the over-simplification Hitchens is doing, but if you want a more serious philosophical book you can look elsewhere. The beauty of this book is in its simple prose and simple arguments.

Because of this, I think that this book would be enjoyed whether you agreed with Hitchens or not. For myself, I’m largely sympathetic to most of Hitchens’ arguments, but I still think there’s a certain amount of pleasure to be had by reading a polemic you disagree with, and mentally debating the author. I’d be interested to hear the opinion of a more religious person on how readable the book was.
(If the Amazon page (A) is any indication, most of the Christians reviewing this book haven’t actually read it, and are just outraged over the idea of the book.)

Hitchens in print versus Hitchens on video

After he published this book, Hitchens went on a debating tour across the United States, where he debated a different religious leader in every town he went to. Almost all of these debates are available on youtube, and I became addicted to watching them back when I was in Japan.
(Hitchens himself is now dead, but the video archive will live on after him. These videos are still alive and well on youtube, and are well worth checking out.)

I got to the point where I had just about memorized Hitchens standard replies to every point religious leaders could possibly make. Since I had his arguments down pat, I wondered if there was any point in actually reading his book, and that was one of the reasons I waited so many years before buying it.

Reading the book, I found that some of the arguments were familiar, but the good news is that there’s enough new material in here to justify reading the book even if you think you already know everything Hitchens has to say on the subject.
The format of the book allows him to go into more detail on several subjects, such as short polemical histories on the formation of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. (Not knowing much about the history of Islam, I found Hitchens’ recounting of its origins fascinating.)

All that being said, I think I almost prefer the debates. Partly because I’m a victim of the TV generation, and I find it much easier to watch videos than to read a book.
But also because this is a subject that needs to be debated. When Hitchens makes a point, you need to hear what the religious response to it is going to be.

When you read Hitchens’ book, there is no counter point of view being offered, and so the reader himself needs to be constantly debating Hitchens. The best way to read this book is to fill up the margins with scribbled comments of your own.

There is an infinite amount of things that can be said on Hitchens’ subject, and it would be pointless endeavor for me to try and give my complete thoughts on all the subjects he broaches. But I’m going to indulge myself nevertheless and give my thoughts on several of them.

[Advanced warning—I go on a bit here. I’ve put in bold-faced headings to make it a bit easier to navigate from topic to topic or jump around, but if you don’t want to read all of this, we’re still friends.]

The Beginning of the Book and Other Stylistic Concerns

Over-all a very well written book, but a terrible beginning. Hitchens starts off his book by first insulting the religious, then going into a self-serving story about how smart he was at a young age, and how even as a child he was able to see through the logical fallacies of religion that his elders did not.
The purpose of opinion writing should be to convert someone from a different point of view. The purpose of the introduction to an opinion piece, therefore, should be to give them a reason to read it. In his first few pages, however, Hitchens does everything he can to drive away anyone who doesn’t agree with him.
(This may actually explain why on Amazon very few of Hitchens’ Christian critics have actually read his book.)
If your picking this book up for the first time, you’ll just have to forgive the first couple pages. The book does improve if you stick with it.

There’s also a bit of repetition in this book which may indicate a lack of thorough proof-reading. (Or more likely in Hitchens’ case, a lack of sober proof-reading.) Some points Hitchens makes in one chapter he will occasionally pop up again in another chapter.

The Iraq War

One would like to disassociate the good Hitchens who bravely stands up against religious tyranny from the bad Hitchens, who stupidly championed quagmire wars in the Middle East.

Unfortunately Hitchens himself does not make this possible, by insisting on linking his support of the Iraq War with his stand against religious fundamentalism, and condemning anyone who didn’t see the war the way he did. This leads to some of the more embarrassing sections of the book.

As the debate over intervention in Iraq became more heated, positive torrents of nonsense poured from the pulpits. Most churches opposed the effort to remove Saddam Hussein, and the pope disgraced himself utterly by issuing a personal invitation to the wanted war criminal Tariz Aziz, a man responsible for the state murder of children….On the other side of the confessional span, some but not all American evangelicals thundered joyously about the prospect of winning the Muslim world for Jesus….
(page 40).

In one paragraph, Hitchens condemns Christians both for opposing the Iraq War and for supporting it. There’s nothing they can do to make this guy happy.

If you watch a lot of Hitchens videos, you’ll know this is a blunder he often makes in his debates as well, one minute condemning Christians for all the wars they started, the next minute condemning them for not going along with his war. He will also often whine about how the religious right hijacked what was supposed to be a secular war against fundamentalism.

This overlooks two things:
1) It was entirely predictable that the religious right would try and turn this into a religious war (something Hitchens should really have thought about before he supported such an incredibly stupid war.)
2) When a predominately Christian nation attacks Islamic regimes, it is entirely predictable that the war will be perceived as a religious conflict.
(I remember I was in Japan when the bombing of Afghanistan started. I walked into the office that morning, and my Japanese colleagues showed me the newspaper and said, “The Christians are fighting the Muslims again.” There was a smug tone in his voice which seemed to add, “Aren’t we Japanese so much smarter for staying out of these religious conflicts you Christians and Muslims are always getting into.”)

But there’s a larger point which Hitchens is completely missing. The fact that the Pope condemned the Iraq War was one of the best moments in Church history. If this was representative of how the Church had usually acted throughout history, I would have much less of a problem with religion.
The problem wasn’t that the Catholic Church opposed this war, the problem was that the Catholic Church historically hasn’t opposed wars nearly enough. Imagine what a different world we would live in today if the Church had spent as much time and energy condemning war as they spend condemning sex.

And this should have been Hitchens line of attack. Instead he acts like a petulant child because the church didn’t fall in line and support the one war he supported. (In fairness Hitchens didn’t reserve his criticism for the Church alone. He dished out the same kind of bile to all his former comrades on the Left who also refused to go along with his support of the war.)

On Noah’s flood

The folk memory, now confirmed by archaeology, makes it seem highly probable that huge inundations occurred when the Black Sea and the Mediterranean were formed, and that these forbidding and terrifying events continued to impress the storytellers of Mesopotamia and elsewhere. Every year, Christian fundamentalists renew their expedition to Mount Ararat in modern Turkey, convinced that one day they will discover the wreckage of Noah’s Ark. This effort is futile, and it would prove nothing even if it were successful, but if these people should chance to read the reconstructions of what really did happen, they would find themselves confronted with something far more memorable than the banal account of Noah’s flood: a sudden massive wall of dark water roaring across a thickly populated plain. This “Atlantis” event would have adhered to the prehistoric memory, all right, as indeed it does to ours.
(page 103-104).

A fascinating theory, and a well written passage that really grips the imagination.
A trip over to wikpedia, however, shows that this theory is by no means accepted as the authoritative version (W).

On the Authorship of the Gospels

Hitchens hints at the problem of the authorship of the 4 Gospels, particularly when criticizing The Passion of the Christ.

Mr. Gibson defended his filmic farrago—which is also an exercise in sadomasochistic homoeroticism starring a talentless lead actor who was apparently born in Iceland or Minnesota—as being based on the reports of “eyewitnesses.” At the time, I thought it was extraordinary that a multimillion-dollar hit could be openly based on such a patently fraudulent claim, but nobody seemed to turn a hair.
(page 131)

And later…

He [Maimonides] fell into the same error as do the Christians, in assuming that the four Gospels were in any sense a historical record. Their multiple authors—none of whom published anything until many decades after the Crucifixion—cannot agree on anything of importance.
(page 132).

It is typical of Hitchens’ writing style that he just asserts something and then moves on: The Gospels were not actually written by the apostles—never mind how I know this, just trust me on this and let’s move on. This is both the strength and weakness of his book. On the plus side, it keeps him from getting bogged down in details as he goes quickly from one point to another. On the minus side, any reader wishing to know more will be frustrated.
For the sections on the Bible especially, it’s best to treat the book almost as a survey introduction to all the various arguments one could make against the historical accuracy of the Bible. Anyone who wants the full argument can find them argued better and in more detail by other writers.

For what it’s worth though, he’s right about this. The Gospels were not written by the Apostles we attribute them to.
I learned this in religion 101 at Calvin College (a conservative Christian college.)

The professor was talking about how most of Matthew, Mark, and Luke were all word for word identical, so somebody was obviously copying from somebody else. Since Mark is the shortest book, it is much more likely that Matthew and Luke copied from Mark and added supplementary material than it is that Mark edited material out.

At this point I raised my hand and said, “But wasn’t Matthew actually an eye witness? Why would he be copying from John-Mark, who wasn’t even there?”

The professor then explained that none of the Gospels were actually written by their traditional authors. For one thing, our earliest copies of these Gospels (and the earliest references to them in other historical documents) don’t show up until all of the Apostles would have been long dead.
For another thing, the earliest copies of the Gospels don’t have any names attached to them. It was only later that Church tradition attached the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
[The other religion courses I took at Calvin—such as Anti-Semitism in the New Testament, also all operated off the assumption that the Gospels were not written by the Apostles.]

In and of itself, this doesn't disprove Christian faith, especially for Protestants (who don’t believe in the authority of Church tradition). The Gospels were written anonymously, so the texts themselves aren't claiming to be somebody they weren't. Rather it is Church tradition that was wrong to attribute the Gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. (The Gospel of John does claim to be written by a disciple of Jesus, but that part was probably added later)

[…Although there is some deliberate deception going on elsewhere in the New Testament. Some of the letters claiming to be from Paul were not actually written by Paul. But that’s another subject. ]

However, I think it should trouble Christians that all our sources for Jesus are written by authors removed from the actual events.

It also made me wonder why, in 18 years of weekly church, Sunday School, and Christian schools, I was only just hearing about this now. What else haven’t they been telling me?

There’s an excellent documentary, “Who Wrote the Bible” (IMBD) in which at one point the narrator says, “In the past 100 years there’s been an explosion of scholarship as to who wrote the Bible. It’s well known in the seminaries, but none of this knowledge is making its way down to the people who actually attended churches.” (I’m quoting from memory, but it’s something like that.)

Think about this for a second: every first year seminary student knows that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John weren’t actually written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but somehow the pastors never bother to tell anyone in their congregation. In fact, I remember as a child sitting through sermons in which the pastor talked about things like how the apostle Matthew was writing his Gospel to the Jews, or how the Gospel of Mark was based off of Peter’s recollections, because John Mark later became Peter’s scribe.

Q Source

The book on which all four [Gospels] may have been based, known speculatively to scholars as “Q,” has been lost forever, which seems distinctly careless on the part of the god who is claimed to have “inspired” it.
(page 133)

Hitchens has got half a good point here, but he seems to be a little fuzzy on his facts. All 4 Gospels were not based off of the Q source, just sections of Matthew and Luke. (The Q source is a theory by Bible scholars to explain the parts of Matthew and Luke which are word for word identical, but do not appear in the Gospel of Mark.)

That being said, it does seem careless of God to have lost the original source on which parts of Matthew and Luke were based.

The Resurrection

Most astonishingly, they [the 4 Gospels] cannot converge on a common account of the Crucifixion or the Resurrection. Thus, the one interpretation that we simply have to discard is the one that claims divine warrant for all four of them.
(Page 133).

Again, no supporting details are given, but for what it’s worth he’s right about this.
My 8th grade Bible teacher once took a whole hour taking us through the 4 different resurrection accounts, and pointing out the various contradictions in them, and explaining to us that they contradicted each other so much on so many important points that there was no way they could all be synchronized into one common narrative.
(He was an interesting guy and a bit of amateur scholar. When I tried to bring up this same point the following week with my Sunday School teachers, I just got blank looks from them. Evidently this is another one of those facts that is well known in seminaries, but somehow never quite makes its way down to the flock.)

My teacher’s purpose was not to disprove the Gospels. Rather his conclusion was that this proved the Gospels couldn't have been fabricated. Any time a dramatic event happens, he said, eye-witnesses always have conflicting accounts of what happens. The fact that the disciples all came away with conflicting accounts of the resurrection is only human. If they had been making the whole thing up to fool everyone, they would have met first and been sure to carefully coordinate their stories. Because they did not bother to coordinate their stories, it proves the Gospels couldn’t have been fabricated.

I latched onto this explanation at the time because it was the only one given to me. (I was still a Christian at this stage, and always latched onto whatever explanation would protect my faith.) But even then it was a very uneasy truth that I felt conflicted with the Christian doctrine in the inerrancy of scripture.

As an adult, I’m even more skeptical of it. The obvious problem is, as mentioned above, that the Gospels were not written by the Apostles. Although to give his argument the benefit of the doubt, one could still posit different oral traditions that emerged as a result of differing memories during the resurrection, and that these different oral traditions account for the discrepancy in the Gospels.

It is true that in all historical events, eye-witnesses always have conflicting accounts. But then we read history by different standards than we read scripture.
Christians do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus because there is historical evidence for it. On the contrary, they believe in the resurrection of Jesus in spite of the fact that there is no historical evidence for it.

We have no collaboration for Jesus’ resurrection from any non-Christian source, or for that matter from any contemporary source. (Nobody thought it worth while to write down anything about Jesus’ resurrection at the time—a fact which is suspicious in itself, especially since Matthew claims that after the death of Christ several people broke out of their graves and wandered around the city.)

Granted the ancient world was more of an oral culture than a written culture. But even here, ancient historians like Herodotus and Thucydides, when they set down to write a history based off of oral accounts, carefully outlined who they talked to and what their criteria for evaluating evidence was. When there were differing oral traditions, they would often write down both traditions, and then commented on which one they thought was more reliable and why.

The Gospels can not be thought of as histories in this respect. We don’t know who wrote them. We don’t know what their criteria for gathering or evaluating evidence was. We don’t know who they talked to or where they got their evidence.

Almost no part of the Gospels is collaborated by other historical sources, and in fact on the few occasions when the Gospels do intersect with established history, they often contradict what we know from other sources. (There was no census of the Roman world, Quirinius was not governor of Syria at the same time as Herod the great, and from what we know of Pontius Pilate he was a harsh and brutal governor, not the charming gentleman he appears as in the Gospels.)

The Gospels themselves do not even pretend to be histories—they are religious tracts. They ask you to believe in extraordinary things not because the authors have outlined their historical procedures for meticulously sifting through the evidence. Rather they ask you to believe because you have faith in the authority of the document as something coming from God.

The minute you question your faith in the authenticity of any part of the Gospels, the whole house of cards collapses. You can not pick and chose which parts of the Gospels you want to believe in or not.

The only reason to put any faith in the resurrection account is because you believe the Gospels were inspired by God. And if God is the common author of all 4 Gospels, than it is disturbing that God couldn’t get his story straight.

Furthermore, some contradictions can perhaps be explained away by conflicting memories (such as who got to the tomb first, or whether or not the women were present when the Angels rolled away the stone).
Other contradictions are a little harder to explain away. Did the disciples really forget whether Jesus appeared to them first in Jerusalem, or whether they had to trek all the way to Galilee to see him resurrected for the first time?

Also, what model of divine inspiration are we operating from here? Why did God "inspire" the synaptic Gospels to be word for word the same for so much of Jesus' ministry, and then to differ so wildly on the resurrection? And if the differing resurrection accounts come from different eye witness accounts, why aren't their conflicting eye witness accounts on everything in the synaptic Gospels?

(Leaving God out of the equation, the obvious human answer is that Matthew and Luke were based off of Mark. Because the original ending to Mark appears to have been lost, this is probably why Matthew and Luke follow Mark closely for much of Jesus’ ministry, but then differ wildly on the resurrection.)

This brings me to another subject:

The Resurrection and Nativity in the Gospel of Mark

The New Testament is itself a highly dubious source. (One of Professor Bart Ehrman’s more astonishing findings is that the account of Jesus’ resurrection in the Gospel of Mark was only added many years later.)
(page 169).

I’ve not actually read any of Bart Ehrman’s books (although I’ve listened to his interviews on NPR), so I don’t know exactly what Hitchens’ is talking about here. I’ve done several Google searches, and can’t find Ehrman’s writings on the Gospel of Mark online either.

So, I’m going to assume that this is a reference to Mark 16: 9-20, (which should be footnoted in your Bible as being a later addition to the Gospel of Mark.) And if I’m wrong on this, I blame Hitchens for not explaining clearly.

Again, Hitchens has half a point here. It’s problematic for Christians that God allowed the original ending to the book of Mark to be lost. And, as mentioned above, the fact that this ending was lost probably accounts for the differing accounts of the resurrection in Matthew and Luke (who were basing their Gospels off of Mark).

But Hitches still exaggerates the implications. There are several reasons to doubt the resurrection (as mentioned above) but the idea that it is a later addition to Christianity is not one of them.

I’m told that in the original Greek, Mark appears to end in a sentence fragment. Which means it’s more likely that the original ending to Mark was lost than that Mark simply forgot to write about the resurrection.
As it is, even though the original Mark doesn’t show the resurrected Jesus, Jesus resurrection is heavily implied at the end. And in the body of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus predicts his resurrection. Plus the Pauline epistles (which predate the Gospels, even though they are placed afterwards in the Bible) make references to the resurrection.

So the resurrection was not a later addition to Christianity.

The myths surrounding the birth of Christ, however, were a later addition, and Hitchens would have had a much better case if he were to argue this about the beginning of Jesus’ life instead of the end of it.
When Mark was writing his Gospel, Christians were not very concerned about where or how Jesus was born, and so Mark didn’t even bother with it.
Later it became very important to Christians that Jesus had a miraculous birth, and that Jesus’ birth was connected with the Old Testament prophecies, so Matthew and Luke both have conflicting accounts of how to get Jesus (well known to have been from Nazareth) born in Bethlehem.
Luke invents a census to get Mary and Joseph temporarily into Bethlehem for the birth, while Matthew has Mary and Joseph start out in Bethlehem, and then flee from King Herod and later resettle in Nazareth.
To be fair to Hitchens, he mentions these contradictions, but doesn’t make the connection that the accounts differ because they were both later additions after Mark. (This may be because Hitchens’ doesn’t fully understand the relationship between Matthew, Mark, and Luke. See his mistake with the Q source above.)

Also the fact that the nativity myths were a later addition to Christianity probably goes a long way to explaining this next problem:

Jesus makes large claims for his heavenly father but never mentions that his mother is or was a virgin, and is repeatedly very rude and coarse to her when she makes an appearance, as Jewish mothers will, to ask or to see how he is getting on. She herself appears to have no memory of Archangel Gabriel’s visitation, or of the swarm of angels, both telling her that she is the mother of god. In all accounts, everything that her son does comes to her as a complete surprise, if not shock. What can he be doing talking to rabbis in the temple? What’s he saying when he curtly reminds her that he’s on her father’s business? One might have expected a stronger maternal memory, especially from someone who had undergone the experience, alone among all women, of discovering herself pregnant without having undergone the notorious preconditions for that happy state.
(pages 137-138).

Although they have sometimes been incorporated into the same Gospel, the stories in which Mary is perpetually surprised by Jesus probably come from an earlier tradition than the nativity stories in which Mary is informed of her miraculous progeny by angels.

The Birth of Jesus

The Gospel according to Luke states that the miraculous birth occurred in a year when the Emperor Caesar Augustus ordered a census for the purposes of taxation, and that this happened at a time when Herod reigned in Judaea and Quirinius was governor of Syria. That is the closest to a triangulation of historical dating that any biblical writer even attempts. But Herod died four years “BC” and during his rulership the governor of Syria was not Quirinius. There is no mention of any Augustan census by any Roman historian, but the Jewish chronicler Josephus mentions that one did occur—without the onerous requirement for people to return to their places of birth, and six years after the birth of Jesus is supposed to have taken place.
(p. 132-133)

In fact there’s an even stronger case to be made here. Not only is there no mention of the Augustan census by any other historian or letter writer during the “Golden Age of Augustan Letters” (nor is there any paper trail left over from an empire wide census). But more importantly, Roman censuses only occurred in provinces that the Romans had direct rule over. During the time of Herod the great, Judaea was a client kingdom to Rome. Herod would have been responsible for sorting out the taxes himself. Even during the governorship of Quirinius (from 10 AD) the Roman Empire still did not directly govern Galilee, where (according to Luke) Joseph was living.
Also, all Roman censuses were conducted for taxes. The purpose was to discover land and other taxable assets in the area where the people were currently living. We have no record of any census that required everyone to go back to their ancestral lands, and it would have been pointless to do so.

A minor point—Hitchens messes up his dates a bit here. Jesus was supposedly born somewhere between 6 and 4 BC. Quirinius was appointed governor in 6 AD. There should have been 12 or 10 years difference, not 6. It's a nitpick, I know, but this kind of sloppiness irks me a little. Don't major publishing houses employ fact checkers whose job it is to double check all the facts before publication?

Did Jesus want to start a new religion?

His [Jesus’] illiterate living disciples left us no record and in any event could not have been “Christians” since they were never to read those later books in which Christians must affirm belief, and in any case had no idea that anyone would ever found a church on their master’s announcements. (There is scarcely a word in any of the later-assembled Gospels to suggest that Jesus wanted to be the founder of a church, either.)
(page 135).

The historical Jesus probably didn’t want to start a new religion.
The Jesus that appears in the Gospels however is a different story.
I’m not exactly sure how Hitchens’ is interpreting the Gospels (another area where some more elaboration on his part would have been nice.) In my reading of the Gospels, however, there seems to be several references to “building my church” and making disciples of all nations, et cetera.

Again, I think there was a stronger point here to be made if Hitchens would have argued it the other way around, and pointed out the anachronisms of the Gospels.

The 7 undisputed letters of Paul indicate that Paul did not think Christianity was a separate religion. The Gospels (which were written after Paul) thus show an anachronism when they reference establishing a church. In Matthew 18, Jesus talks a lot about the church, and the Gospel of John (which was written in the second century) depicts an antagonism between the followers of Jesus and the Jews which did not yet exist, and also depicts a hardening of ideological purity among Judaism which did not yet exist in the first century. (The Gospel of John claims that Jews could be expelled from the synagogues for expressing faith in Jesus.)

On the Canon of the New Testament

For a long time, there was incandescent debate over which of the “Gospels” should be regarded as divinely inspired. Some argued for these and some for others, and many a life was horribly lost on the proposition. Nobody dared say that they were all man-inscribed long after the supposed drama was over.
(Page 134).

Here again, Hitchens gets his history confused. Many heretics were horribly killed for questioning church doctrine—after the canon was established. The debate over which books should be regarded as canonical was fairly non-violent.

But more importantly, he’s arguing this the wrong way around again. The problem with the establishment of the canon wasn’t how violent it was. The problem was what a terribly human process it was.

Once again, I remember back to my religion 101 class at Calvin College. The professor explained to us the process by which books of the Bible were voted canonical or non-canonical.

“Now this ought to make your Protestant skins crawl,” he said. “But the way to think of this is not that the Church was giving these books their authority. Rather these books were given their authority by God, and the church was simply recognizing their authority.”

His first sentence very accurately described my agitation. I was less re-assured by his second sentence, which seemed even at the time like it was just a word game to explain away the problem. I was still a Christian at the time, so I tried to accept the explanation, but it never sat easily with me.

It is often stated that the various canonical councils only ratified the books that were in common use by Christian communities. But the books used varied widely from one Christian community to another. (To this day there is no agreement among Christians.)

Christians say that the Holy Spirit inspired the Church fathers to pick the correct books in the Bible, but this isn’t so much a logical argument as it is declaring something by fiat.

Or if there is a logic here, it’s of a circular nature. “The books in the Bible must be inspired by the Holy Spirit, because if they weren’t it would mean our religion would be all wrong.”
Or, “The Books in the Bible were inspired by the Holy Spirit, and we know that the Holy Spirit exists because the books in the Bible tell us so.”

In fact, to this day different groups of Christians have never agreed on a common canon. The Syrian Orthodox Church doesn’t recognize all the books we have in our Bible. The Ethiopian Church has more books. Catholic Bibles include the books of the deuterocanon, and Protestants Bibles do not. If the Holy Spirit does exist, he has not been very consistent when guiding different groups of Christians to select their scripture. When and where and under what conditions the Holy Spirit shows up has always been a bit of a mystery. (When the Jews were deciding their canon, why didn’t the Holy Spirit inspire them to include the Gospels?)

If all these different groups could be inspired to agree on a common canon, that would be miraculous, and perhaps could be used as some evidence towards the existence of a Holy Spirit.
The fact that they can not all agree is some evidence the other way.

On the Old Testament

I’ve commented a lot on his writings on the New Testament, but barely commented on his chapter on the Old Testament. But I strongly agree with Hitchens when he condemns all the horrible massacres and the tyrannical blood thirsty God of the Old Testament.

Of the many massacres and genocidal events in the Old Testament, Hitchens highlights in particular Numbers 31, in which Moses chastises his generals for sparing so many civilians. From the Bible:

He [Moses] asked them, “Why have you kept all the women alive? Remember that it was the women who followed Balaam’s instructions and at Peor led the people to be unfaithful to the Lord. That was what brought about the epidemic on the Lord’s people. So now kill every boy and kill every woman who has had sexual intercourse, but keep alive for yourselves all the girls and all the women who are virgins.”
(Numbers 31: 15—18)

To which Hitchens responds:

This is not the worst of the genocidal incitements that occur in the Old Testament (Israeli rabbis solemnly debate to this day whether the demand to exterminate the Amalekites is a coded commandment to do away with the Palestinians) but it has an element of lasciviousness that makes it slightly too obvious what the rewards of a freebooting soldier could be. At least so I think and so thought Thomas Paine, who wrote not to disprove religion but rather to vindicate deism against what he considered to be foul accretions in the holy books. He said that this was “an order to butcher the boys, to massacre the mothers, and debauch the daughters,” which drew him a hurt reply from one of the celebrated divines of the day, the bishop of Llandaff. The stout Welsh bishop indignantly claimed that it was not at all clear from the context that the young females were being preserved for immoral purposes rather than for unpaid labor. Against dumb innocence like this it might be heartless to object, if it were not for the venerable clergyman’s sublime indifference to the fate of the boy-children and indeed their mothers.
(P. 126-127)

Having read the Old Testament, I think Hitchens is right when he says this is far from the worst part.

In fact it's almost interesting he doesn't spend more time examining the Old Testament massacres and genocide. There's plenty of awful stuff in there which would more than support his thesis. Perhaps he's all to aware that all of this material has been done over by other writers.

For example Hitchens mentions the Amalekites only in passing, but the Amalekites are a particular poignant example of the genocide in the Old Testament. It's true God orders plenty of other races are exterminated in books like Numbers and Joshua, but these appear to have been done in the hot blood of conquest. The extermination of the Amalekites is done in cold blood over the centuries. Even during the time of Saul, even during the time of Hezekiah, God still can not stand the fact that there are some people of Amalekite blood living, and he still orders the Israelites to systematically wipe them out.

The whole book is just dripping with blood and commands to exterminate. Looking back on it, it boggles the mind that as children we were taught that we were supposed to take our morality from this book.
Really, it’s a ridiculous idea that anyone can claim to get their morality from the Bible. Have these people actually read the Bible? What a terrible blood thirsty book.

Also in his chapter on the Old Testament, Hitchens thoroughly demolishes the idea that anyone would get their morality from the 10 commandments.

As terrible as the Old Testament is, we can take some comfort in the fact that most of it is fictitious. Hitchens also makes the point that recent archeological findings have not supported the historical claims of the Old Testament, and often (in the case of the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan) contradicted them.

On Religion and Sex

A common theme Hitchens also returns to is the unhealthy obsession religion has with sex, and here I strongly agree with him.

The relationship between physical health and mental health is now well understood to have a strong connection to the sexual function, or dysfunction. Can it be a coincidence, then, that all religious claim the right to legislate in matters of sex? The principal way in which believers inflict on themselves, on each other, and on nonbelievers has always been their claim to monopoly in this sphere. Most religions (with the exception of the few cults that actually permit or encourage it) do not have to bother much with enforcing the taboo on incest. Like murder and theft, this is usually found to be abhorrent to humans without any further explanation. But merely to survey the history of sexual dread and proscription, as codified by religion, is to be met with a very disturbing connection between extreme prurience and extreme repression. Almost every sexual impulse has been made the occasion for prohibition, guilt, and shame. Manual sex, oral sex, anal sex, non-missionary position sex: to name it is to discover a fearsome ban upon it.
(pages 61-62).

“One could write an entire book,” Hitchens writes elsewhere “that was devoted only to the grotesque history of religion and sex, and to the holy dread of the procreative act,” (p. 257).

Having grown up in a religious environment, I can personally attest to this obsession. They are obsessed with prohibiting the sex act to the point of myopia on all other issues. (And when religious people attempt to make their presence felt in politics, their obsession with prohibiting sex spills over into the political sphere as well. It’s a pity Hitchens isn’t alive to comment on the religious right this election cycle.)

Much More to Say

There’s much much more to say, but I’m going to have to leave off here, not because I’ve exhausted everything I have to say on the subject, but because it is a futile endeavor to try and go through Hitchens’ whole book and comment line by line.

Needless to say, there were several more passages where I agreed with him, and some where I disagreed with him, and some where I thought he had half a point but was arguing it the wrong way around.

But my opinion is of no value. Read the book yourself and see what you think.

There’s an infinite amount of things one could say on this subject, and I’ve barely scratched the surface.

I enjoyed Hitchens critiques of Islam, but do not know enough about Islam to comment intelligently.

I’ve made a big deal about the history in this book (because that’s my area of interest) but most of the book is actually more philosophical in nature, with chapters devoted to refuting the idea of argument from design, or questioning the metaphysical claims of religion

In Malaysia

I spent a fair amount of my time in Malaysia browsing book stores. (It’s a weakness of mine no matter what country I’m in.) Since Malaysia is a predominately Muslim country, the religion section usually contained rows and rows of books about Islam.
This book, however, and “The God Delusion” By Richard Dawkins, always seemed to be absent from any Malaysian bookstore, despite the fact that they’re both international best sellers.

I’ve gotten someone conflicting reports from Malaysian friends. Some of them tell me the government is actively banning this book, some tell me the Malaysian government doesn’t officially ban books, but that booksellers are just afraid to stock it.

Either way, for my money the fact that someone is trying to prohibit you from reading a book is always one more reason to read it. I picked up this book shortly after returning from Malaysia.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky speaks at UTSC on Academic Freedom and the Corporatization of Universities.