Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Book Review

I am currently reading Christopher Hitchens' book God is not Great. Now before all of you start calling me an evil, godless, atheist, let me state a few things:

1. It has been - for a very long time - my view that people misinterpret holy scripture.
2. I do not know that I can interpret holy scripture properly (especially when considering issues of translation between language and across time; transcription errors; church politics through time; etc.).
3. I do not know who is interpreting holy scripture properly.
4. Doing things in the name of someone or something with the near-certainty of misinterpretation is more of an infraction against that person or ideal than doing nothing.
5. You do not need to be a follower of an organized religion to be a good person or do good deeds.

The book makes many of the similar points that I have stated above, and goes much further. However, I would not go so far as some of the points that Hitchens makes - mainly because he borders on hypocrisy. There are also a few factual errors that he makes (e.g., saying that the Rwandan genocide started in 1992, and mis-naming the Yasukuni Shrine). However these factual errors are minor, and do not disrupt the veracity of the author's argument about the hypocritical stances that religions have made over and over throughout time.

Okay, so this isn't the best book review that you might ever read (either here or elsewhere). However, I must say that the importance of rational thought is, more often than not, being pooh-poohed in much of what we call rational society. The idea that one cannot be moral without religion has always seemed bizarre to me, especially with the history pointing to several immoral activities backed by the Catholic Church (and its various Protestant progeny). These include (as a short list) the Crusades; the Spanish Inquisition; forced conversion of the peoples of the New World; Calvinist purges in Geneva; church-endorsed slavery; Franco's crujada otherwise known as the Spanish Civil War; Mussolini's church-backed fascist regime; the backing of Hitler's Nazi Party and the Third Reich; the various church-backed dictatorships in South and Central America; the religious and ethnic genocide in Rwanda; the religious and ethnic genocide in the former Yugoslavia; and the systematic rape, mental abuse, and physical abuse of children by clergy. The list goes on, but these are the major ones, including only those that stem from the Catholic and various Protestant churches. If you include the immoral activities of Eastern & Greek Orthodoxy, the various sects of Islam, branches of Buddhism, myriad beliefs of Hindus, the different groups of Jews, and the other more-minor religions of Asia, Africa, and the New World have all done things highly immoral by a humanist definition.

The only way that this book really threatens to fall down is in the Howl-like diatribe it sometimes dips into. Hitchens calls for rationalism, but he apparently doesn't always mean a calm rationalism.

Okay, enough for now. You probably realize that I'm not the most devout person in the world. However, even if you are a religious person, you should probably read through the book. If you want to know what non-believers think of religion (and therefore hope to come up with a rational argument against them) reading this book is a good tactic. If you are interested in how a rationality can stand independent of organized religion (while realizing that as a rationalistic person, you have to think through your reactions to the book), I think it is a good book to read, as well.


Francois said...

Damn. Here I was, thinking: "Great! Umlud has reviewed God is great, this way I won't need to buy it and read it myself." But your last comment about "how a rationality can stand independent of organized religion" means that this *may* be an interesting book to read anyway. I was mostly hoping that it was just a pleasant charge against religion, maybe forcing a bit further the erroneous explanation that religion is the cause of all evil. I think Dawkins in fact does not make this mistake (although he makes a number of others) by acknowledging that recognising the falsehood of religion simply means that we are taking it away as an excuse for violence/war/etc. I'm not sure yet of Sam Harris's position -reading his book pretty slowly. Is there any chance you could comment more on the value of Hitchens's book by comparison to those of the two aforementionned pre-eminent atheists of the day? It's just paradoxically hard for me as an atheist to spend that much money on books about atheism and I'm hoping I can save on buying Hitchens's (at least until it comes out in paperback)!

Umlud said...

I would be happy to do a compare-and-contrast of Hitchens' position against Harris' and Dawkins' POVs. That is, I would be happy to do so if I had actually read a lot of Harris and Dawkins. As it stands, I cannot do so, since I haven't read much of either author's works.

I do suggest, though, that you take advantage of your local library to see if they have a copy of Hitchens' book.