Christopher Hitchens Doesn't Get It

Religion can be bad, but no worse than government.

Not long ago, a friend gave me a copy of Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. No, this friend is not Satan.

Despite being a Hitchens fan, I set the book aside for as long as possible. Why? Because, having seen the author discuss his work, I knew I'd disagree with as much of it as I'd embrace. And, because Hitchens is so skilled at getting his point across, I knew it would frustrate me just to work my way through the darned thing.

But being trapped at LAX for five hours with a dead iPod battery and no DS games can overcome the strongest reservations. So I ripped through God is Not Great in a single, Muzak-backed sitting.

Turns out my preconceptions were wrong. Hitchens' theories of radical anti-theism - aside from being contrary to some key principles of libertarian thought - simply miss the point.

Casting the First Stone

A fundamental argument in God is Not Great is that organized religion has the power to motivate the masses to condone and abet acts of hideous cruelty (chapter titles like "Religion Kills" and "Is Religion Child Abuse?" say it all). Female genital mutilation, suicide bombings, and child molestation are a few of Hitchens' most-used examples.

Moreover, he strongly implies throughout the work that religion alone possesses this hypnotic influence. But, even a cursory glance through history demonstrates that non-religious - even anti-religious - organizations have spawned systemic cruelty on a scale at least as harrowing as anything the world's churches have generated: the GULAG, the Holocaust, the Cultural Revolution.

Tens of millions of Russians, Germans and Chinese were at least complacent about, and frequently complicit in, the actions of their secular, often anti-clerical, governments during the time these atrocities were going on. And for exactly the same reasons as Hitchens' much-maligned parishioners supported their religious institutions: these average Ivans, Franzes and Pings believed that purging Jews, or "re-educating" undesirables, or murdering kulaks, was necessary to advance a higher purpose. They served the same, elusive "greater good" preached to them from on high - only in their case the sermon descended from the podium rather than from the pulpit.

Hitchens is perfectly correct to blame organized religions for the wrongs they advocated, justified, and perpetrated. That non-religious organizations have committed equally repulsive acts is no excuse.

But Hitchens is wrong to suggest that organized religion as an institution is uniquely suited to mass motivation, or that it is responsible for particularly egregious or irrational atrocities.

Indeed, by saying so (as he often does in interviews and debates regarding God is Not Great) Hitchens and the radical anti-theists who share his views put the crosshairs on the wrong target: it's not the "religion" part of "organized religion" that's dangerous, it's the "organized" part. Because he fails to recognize this, Hitchens' otherwise perfectly valid arguments end up being not only irrelevant, but also detrimental to the whole point of his crusade - ending the atrocities he ascribes to religion.

The Tree of Knowledge

To understand why God is Not Great's perspective is so misguided, we need to take a step back for a moment and examine a different book. In his seminal work The True Believer, Eric Hoffer demonstrates that all mass movements (organized groups with one or a few demagogic leaders and some unifying, idealistic goal) are essentially the same.

Communism, Nazism, religious fundamentalism, etc., may be different flavors of ice cream, but they're all ice cream. They're branches of the same tree - a tree that sinks its roots in the lowest parts of society and derives its nutrition from the self-loathing of the disenfranchised.

And because all mass movements are interchangeable, they must compete for the same resources: disenfranchised people (usually young men) and influence in the machinery of the state. Each "branch" seeks as much of the "water" from the tree's roots as it can get. If any one of the branches gets a critical mass of resources, it will be in a position to impose its will on society at large.

Organized religion, perhaps the world's very first mass movement ideology, is certainly no different, but neither is it special. Each religion competes with other religions, secular mass movements, and hybrids of religious and secular movements for the "souls" of the populace. It's no coincidence, as Hoffer points out, that some of the most ardent Nazis were once Communists, nor that some of the most committed Jihadis are converts from other faiths.

It's critical, therefore, to understand why God is Not Great misses the mark when it attacks religion and lionizes secularism. Not because religion is good and secularism is bad. But because Hitchens seeks to convince the reader that religious movements are far and away the most dangerous. In reality, it's not just one branch but the entire tree of unquestioning obedience to authority that needs to be uprooted.

There's a practical concern here, as well. Throughout history, especially modern history, the world's mass movements have fought each other into a precarious state of equilibrium. Dominations by one movement over the others have been rare because those others have been competing with each other more-or-less successfully for the same resources.

However, when one movement can sufficiently shift public opinion or infiltrate the machinery of the state, then it can achieve ascendancy and suppress the others as it pursues its own agenda. When the Catholic Church cast out the competing Muslim faith from Spain and exerted its influence over the king, it was only then that it was able to institute its Inquisition. Only after the Soviets destroyed the influence of the Orthodox Church were they able to find the manpower necessary to execute their purges.

So, powerful mass movements such as the world's organized religions - even accepting Hitchens' argument that they are: "violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism and bigotry" - can serve a critical role in maintaining liberty. They do this because they compete for, and limit, the concentration of resources. Adam Smith's Invisible Hand has a role to play even in this unlikely marketplace.

Beware the False Prophet

As a classical liberal, I tend to think one of the primary goals of political discourse should be helping others reject the lure of the mass-movement mentality and embrace individualism. That's not likely to happen overnight - the desire to belong to a large, enthusiastic movement seems to be embedded in human nature as witness the recent youthful enthusiasm for Mr. Obama's brand of enthusiasm.

So, until we're able to make real headway against collectivism in general, we need to recognize the importance of playing the various enemies of individual thought and action off of one another.  By ensuring that religions check the power of the state, that political parties and candidates check each other, that socialist movements check the power of religion, and that all collectives are kept in a diluted state by competition with each other, we can better ensure that individual rights will go unmolested by any one movement's achieving ascendancy for its own agenda.

Bastiat is a guest writer for  Read other articles by Bastiat or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments
I have not read "God is Not Great" but I have discussed it with friends who have. The consensus from them was that it does not stand up to his usual blinding logic and intellect. That's sad. If you follow him on Slate and Vanity Fair, as I do, you recognize that he almost never has an angenda when it comes to "saying it like it is". I guess everyone has misses the mark once in awhile.
March 6, 2008 5:45 PM
I'll be honest, it bugs me to criticize Hitchens, because I'm a really big fan of his. But with this book he's doing his own ideologies a disservice. Still it's an enjoyable read; I would recommend it -- as long as you don't get frustrated easily.
March 6, 2008 6:16 PM
As an atheist, I agree that Hitchens misses the point but from a different perspective. I think his points on religion killing everything it touches doesn't work because, as you say, so do other non-religious groups. I think he should have focused more on the lack of science behind them. That alone is reason enough.
March 7, 2008 7:38 AM
Religion is stupid and anyone who feels it has value deserves to be strung up and sodomized because they are basically condoning the rape of humanity by condoning the fact that religion has any place any where any time.

March 7, 2008 8:21 AM
Well... THAT was enlightening! Thank you, Idiots, for making us atheists (once again) appear to lack the ability to discuss the matter civilly.
March 7, 2008 8:27 AM
Religions are made up of people. It is not the religion that poses a threat, people pose threats. Getting rid of religion or stifling its influence would make no impact on the world because there would still be people. Religion is merely a belief in something which makes athiesm a religion and therefore if they controlled the world you would have one big organized religion.
March 8, 2008 1:44 PM
To believe that all religions is the cause of all that is evil in the world seems a bit ridiculous to me. Religion can be (and has been and will always be to some degree) manipulated into something evil - whether by intolerance or by other means. It's like a gun - a gun can be used for good or evil. Get rid of all guns, then? It is within Man to question where he came from, what he is doing in this universe, what his purpose is, and where is he going after he is longer a part of the earthly realm. That is why there are so many religions; that's Man searching for that answer. And it all points to a God of some sort. Where did the 1st "thing that ever was" come from, then? If there is no purpose to life, and therefore no GOD to answer to, the world would be much worse. We will never fully understand GOD's purpose for all this, when standing on this side of eternity. Still we all "preach" our side of the story. I'll preach the story that there is a loving GOD that gave us Jesus and that believing in Him by faith alone is the only thing we can do that can saves us, and we should strive to be like Him. Because He said he is the one true GOD. If Jesus lied, He's the biggest liar the world has ever seen. Because no man can know the full mind of GOD, it'll always seem to man that because he cannot explain it fully, it must not be. That's where faith comes in.
March 9, 2008 12:58 PM
** Atheism is not a religion . . . not a quasi-religion . . . not even an association **

>> The word 'theism' is an abstraction about an abstraction, religion.

'Theism' is an abstract noun which collectively refers to every religion (another abstract noun) which espouses the existence of at least one god, usually one having a personality, which interacts meaningfully with human beings.

The group of theistic religions would include: Xianity, Judaism, Islam, Zoroastrianism, ancient Greco-Roman polytheisms. It would not include: Theravada Buddhism or Chinese ancestor worship. These are non-theistic religions.

Theist and atheist alike can agree about which religions are theistic. Religions are reasonably well-defined "objects" (associations) which can be discriminated and counted. Such agreements, shared by supposedly antithetical camps, are for me "the salt which never loses its savour."

Atheism is essentially a viewpoint which denies that any god whatsoever exists. For the Big-4 Near Eastern monotheisms, the atheist claims that of God and Yaweh, Ahura Mazda and Allah, not one of them exists. These fictional characters have no greater status as beings than Gilgamesh, Zeus, Sherlock Holmes, or Batman.

Let's be clear. Theism is not a religion. Atheism is not a religion either.

>> A religion is a praxis.

One defining characteristic of 'religion' is that it form a recognizable social unit sharing common practices, identifiable from within and without. (Despite its theistic stance, the Boy Scouts is not a religion. It is however a voluntary association.)

Atheism embodies no common praxis -- it has no creeds, no rituals, it has no common symbols, no outward means of identification. Atheism is not a voluntary association. Of course, there are voluntary associations which espouse atheism.
March 9, 2008 2:19 PM
No one is asserting that atheism is a religious organization, bipolar2. And you raise a good point that theism, in and of itself, is not a religious organization, either. However, while belief in God does not make you religious, lack of belief doesn't make you immune to the dangers of a mass organization mentality, either. Everyone has his sacred cow -- whether it be genuinely sacred or not.
March 10, 2008 1:02 PM

I am re-reading 'The True Believer', have read 'God is Not Great', 'Hitch 22' and Hitchens very touching 'Mortality', written right at the end of his life. And I have been watching Hitchens' videos and debates, and watching George Carlin videos. The common thread is that they are all rigorously defining their own identity and right to choose in the face of the power and persuasion of the state, or the church,etc. And the first step in this is tearing away the cover of conformity that we hardly know exists until such clear minds cast a light upon it. I love Hitchens' for stating clearly that he "hates" Henry Kissinger. That is a statement of principle. He amalgamates his intellect, morality and care for the world into a passionate statement of self. He might be 'wrong' about certain things, but he is never deluded or fanciful. And he does admit doubt, and error. I have the impression that he was a very courageous man, and in our age and place in the world it is hard to be that.

December 13, 2012 8:45 PM
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