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Christopher Hitchens Doesn't Get It

Religion can be bad, but no worse than government.

By Bastiat  |  March 6, 2008

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.