Tuesday, March 11, 2008

God is Not Great

So, I just finished Christopher Hitchens' new book, God is Not Great. I gotta say, it is not a book I have to say goodbye to. I am pretty much an atheist, and generally agree with the things that Hitchens says. In fact, I generally agreed with everything that Hitchens said in his new book. Unfortunately, he cherry-picks a lot of his evidence, and presents the facts that support his arguments without dealing with the alternative theories. For instance, he discusses the creation of cows as sacred in India so that the priestly class can maintain control over the best source of protein in the area. Well, I guess if you're a diehard Marxist, this is one explanation. However, at no point does he mention any competing theories for the sacred nature of the Indian cow. (Marvin Harris', for example, in which cows are economically more productive in the long run when they are alive, rather than killed for one or two meals worth of food... nothing to do with religion there.) He makes other mistakes more glaring than even these arcane ones, for instance in a discussion of the New Testament in which he makes claims about Mary which would have been acceptable had they been just a bit more nuanced. (Why was Mary surprised when young Jesus was preaching in the temple, hadn't God told her through an angel she would be bearing His Son? Well, yes, except that he states it as a basic fact that Mary was not surprised, when in fact the text of the Bible is not quite as clear as that). As I said, I'm an atheist, and very critical of the Bible as a story, but he fails to accommodate the complexities of his subject matter.

He also has a very bad habit of begging questions and affirming the consequent (I love big philosophy words). He assumes that religion is bad, and then uses examples of religious people being bad to prove his point that religion is bad. Not exactly the strongest foundation to stand on for an argument.

His central point, however, would be interesting to look at a bit more categorically:

1) Religious people do good things because of their faith (charity)
2) Religious people do bad things because of their faith (genocide)
3) Non-religious people do good or bad things in spite of their faith

Since we have both (1) and (2), then religiosity is neither necessary nor sufficient to explain good works, combined with (3), then there is not any reason to assume that religiosity has anything to do with good works.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I largely agree with you here, sir. I've read all the "heavy hitter" atheism books lately: Sam Harris (both), Dawkins, Hitchens. Somehow, despite being obviously bright people with whom I agree on this topic, they still come off as shrill and petty at times. It's really disappointing. Dawkins probably came closest to a civil, logical deconstruction, but even he resorts to name calling from time to time. I'll keep reading this stuff because it's mostly good, and like most people I can't resist reading someone agreeing with me in print, but I do wish my fellow rationalist/science-minded thinkers would keep their emotions in check a bit.

Apropos to your last comments, I think this quote sums it up nicely:

"Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion."
-- Steven Weinberg, Freethought Today, April, 2000