Saturday, December 12, 2009

God is not Great

The other book I've been reading over the last month was God is not Great, by Christopher Hitchens. I picked this up after seeing the Intelligence Squared debate regarding "The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world", with Hitchens and Stephen Fry on one side, and Archbishop Onaiyekan and Anne Widdecombe on the other. It was a good watch, and hugely improved my opinion of Hitchens.

I'm generally aware of the state of the "Culture Wars" going on, particularly in the USA, between the secular world and the resurgent religious fundamentalism. I've been supportive in general of the "New Atheism" - Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, whats-his-face Dawkins, etc., basically because without them it's a one sided argument. I'm an atheist, but like most atheists I feel there is a kind of pointlessness to arguing for my position. There are lots of things I don't believe in that I don't ever get questioned about - my lack of belief in Dragons and Unicorns, the Tooth Fairy, and so on. But when you wander around being an atheist, you do get called on your lack of belief in the various Gods that people have invented over the years. It's good to see there are people on our side willing to take on the fight, and risk all the death threats and personal attacks that inevitable arrive when you criticize religions. It's those proselytizers who wander around hassling non-believers (and believers in slightly different versions of their own god) that tend to give all believers a bad name, and result in my general lack of tolerance for religion in general. On an intellectual level, I'm perfectly supportive of people's right to believe in gods, and I'm quite supportive of the broad deism that typifies many people who were raised with organised religion but have drifted away from their church; but I do think a world without religions and other superstitions would be a better place.

The book itself was a great read - very well written, clear, and intelligent. I found myself really enjoying reading it; Hitchens says better than I ever could why religion as a bad thing, from a rational, ethical, historically knowledgeable point of view. He mentions some of the arguments for the existence of god, and points out the glaring holes in them; but in the main this book takes it for granted that religions are, in general, incorrect, and is mainly arguing why religion in general, and churches in particular, are a bad thing.

He makes a key point when he recalls a radio host once asking him whether if he was walking down the street after sunset, and a group of men were walking towards him, wouldn't he feel safer if he knew they had just come from a prayer meeting? Hitchens responds that no, at most times and in most places, he wouldn't. Certainly not in Baghdad, or Beirut, or Belfast, or several other cities beginning with B.

This is a book I would recommend to anyone to read. It expounds in great depth and with great vigour why we'd be better off without religions; that the rational person has no need for religion, and that it in fact tends to make people less rational and gives them excuses to absolve themselves of great evils. It also acknowledges that we are imperfectly rational mammals, and that we probably have a need for religion to fill in the gaps left by our lack of rationality. If you're religious, it'll show you that your churches haven't been the forces for goodness that they like to protray themselves as; if you're atheist or agnostic it'll show you that there are people who think like you, and that there are very good reasons for living the way you do.

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