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Rhetoric or Reason

Nathan Jacobson » Reflections on Christopher Hitchens' god is not Great

Christopher Hitchens is recognized by just about everyone as a master rhetorician. His wit and command of the English language are things to behold. The American Heritage Dictionary offers a number of definitions of the term rhetoric, including: 1) The art or study of using language effectively and persuasively, 2) Language that is elaborate, pretentious, insincere, or intellectually vacuous. No doubt Hitchens’ rhetoric has been persuasive in many quarters, but the more I read, the more clear it becomes that the second definition is also apt, that what we have here is as much style as substance. At we host The Illogic Primer, a catalog of common logical fallacies and rhetorical chicanery. We can all be forgiven a slip or two into illogic, but Hitchens’ god is not Great is an unending cascade of this kind of rhetorical mischief. Is it merely empty rhetoric, or is there reason beyond the rhetoric? I’ll leave that judgment till I turn the last page. In the meantime, allow me to enumerate some concerns about Hitchens’ style of argumentation and why I think it impedes getting to the truth of the matter.

Carpet Bombing

Virtually every page of god is not Great is brimming with anecdotes, factual claims, and interpretations of current and past events. Unfortunately, very few of the multitude of truth claims are accompanied by serious analysis. A cursory claim is made, then another, and then another… The cumulative effect of the barrage is a kind of literary shock and awe. Where can one begin to asses the forcefulness of the argument without investigating every claim? The margins of my copy are filled with questions: “Is that really how it happened?” “What was the context?” “Citation?” Fortunately, Hitchens does include a nominal reference list in the appendix, but the reader is left with a lot of work to do if many of these claims seem dubious on the face of it. (Personally, I would have preferred half as many claims, and more effort in the substantiation of each one.) One might think that, even if only a third of the claims are accurate, the argument still stands. When the bomb bay doors open and thousands of bombs drop, it’s impressive, but what if they’re all or mostly duds? To call on another metaphor, as atheologians often point out with respect to arguments for the existence of God, it doesn’t matter how many buckets you have. If they all leak, the argument doesn’t hold water.

Mark Roberts has expressed this same concern in his response to god is not Great. His strategy was to proscribe his fact checking to his area of expertise as a professor of New Testament. In his response, Roberts is careful to differentiate between matters of interpretation, which are arguable, and statements of fact. He claims that in the 6% of the book that deals with the New Testament, he found “fifteen errors… as well as sixteen misunderstandings or distortions.” In my estimation, he makes a good, if sometimes tedious, case that many of Hitchens’ claims don’t hold up under scrutiny. Roberts also suggests that it is appropriate, then, to be suspicious of the alleged facts presented elsewhere in the book. I agree. And if David Bentley Hart‘s estimation is close, Hitchen’s history is equally error prone.

On matters of simple historical and textual fact, moreover, Hitchens’ book is so extraordinarily crowded with errors that one soon gives up counting them. Just to skim a few off the surface: He speaks of the ethos of Dietrich Bonhoeffer as “an admirable but nebulous humanism,” which is roughly on a par with saying that Gandhi was an apostle of the ruthless conquest and spoliation of weaker peoples. He conflates the histories of the first and fourth crusades. He repeats as fact the long discredited myth that Christians destroyed the works of Aristotle and Lucretius, or systematically burned the books of pagan antiquity, which is the very opposite of what did happen. He speaks of the traditional hostility of “religion” (whatever that may be) to medicine, despite the monastic origins of the modern hospital and the involvement of Christian missions in medical research and medical care from the fourth century to the present. He tells us that countless lives were lost in the early centuries of the Church over disputes regarding which gospels were legitimate (the actual number of lives lost is zero). He asserts that Myles Coverdale and John Wycliffe were burned alive at the stake, although both men died of natural causes. He knows that the last twelve verses of Mark 16 are a late addition to the text, but he imagines this means that the entire account of the Resurrection is as well. He informs us that it is well known that Augustine was fond of the myth of the Wandering Jew, though Augustine died eight centuries before the legend was invented. And so on and so on (and so on).

Suppressed Evidence

In the courtroom, “suppressed evidence” refers to cases in which, for example, the prosecutor presents everything that serves to incriminate the accused, while deliberately excluding material evidence that could exonerate him. In his sweeping survey of the impact of religion on society, Hitchens searches far and wide for anything that reflects negatively on religion, even to the smallest grievance. The impression given is that very nearly all of religiously motivated acts are evil. As an exception, Hitchens pays some respect to Martin Luther King Jr., but attributes any of the good he did not to his Christian theology, but to his humanistic instinct, as though they were incompatible. He refuses to concede, even here, that King’s willingness to lay down his life for others and his ability to forego retaliation were rooted in Jesus, the object of his faith, whom King believed had walked this very road before him. Much is made of the religious authority claimed by the wicked leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda, but there is hardly a mention of the tens of thousands of meagerly paid Christians engaged in humanitarian efforts throughout Africa, not the least of which in Uganda. Wouldn’t it be fair to consider these in balance? Instead, Hitchens has the gall to claim that such charity springs from the Enlightenment, not from the biblical exhortation to “feed the poor, and clothe the naked”.

With respect to the Christian view of reason, Hitchens opens his fourth chapter by quoting Aquinas: “I am a man of one book”; Ignatius Loyola: “We sacrifice the intellect to God”; and, Martin Luther: “Reason is the Devil’s harlot, who can do nought but slander and harm whatever God says and does.” For chuckles, it’s worth mentioning the fourth quote, a witticism from W.H. Auden: “Looking up at the stars, I know quite well, That for all they care, I can go to hell.” Later, Hitchens quotes Tertullian: “I believe it because it is absurd.” It’s unlikely that these terse quotes fairly represent these ancient Christians’ views of reason and learning, but even if they did, they most certainly do not represent the view of the majority of Christian thinkers through the centuries, much less today. Most Christian thinkers advocate the view that faith and reason are complementary, that reason inclines one toward belief in Christian truth claims, that reason is a gift to all, whether religious or not. A litany of scholars who take this view can be found in our book stacks. Whether or not such Christians successfully harmonize faith and reason, Hitchens thoroughly mischaracterizes the Christian view by cherry-picking only instances where reason and learning are disparaged.

It goes without saying that Hitchens’ is perfectly entitled to argue thusly. But his polemic, then, should not be considered an earnest, even-handed search for truth and understanding, but rather as a propaganda piece, an argument built on the strongest implicit and explicit bias. He is, in fact, the prosecutor, and we, as readers, the jury, must see past his half-truths.

Prejudicial Language

As with Dawkins, sometimes I wonder if Hitchens is able to compose a sentence referring to a religious person or belief without modifying the noun with an emotionally loaded, insulting epithet. It’s as if strings of synonyms can in themselves constitute an argument. This rhetorical device is known as “Prejudicial Language” because it prejudices the reader to feel a certain way about what follows rather than letting the evidence speak for itself. I could cite hundreds of examples here if I had the time and patience, but hopefully a smaller sampling will suffice:

Of Augustine, a “fantasist” and “ignoramus”; of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, “two orangutans loose on a word processor”; of C.S. Lewis’ apologetics, “dreary and absurd” and “propaganda”; of intelligent design, a “stupid notion”; of creationists, “yokels”; of the argument from irreducible complexity, “a joke”; of the Mosaic Law, “insanely detailed”; of The Passion of the Christ, “an exercise in sadomasochistic homoeroticism starring a talentless lead actor”; of the religiously inclined, “poor, bewildered, and uneducated”; of the Old Testament, “riddled with dreams”; of the early church councils, “frantic”; of evangelism, “proselytizing”; of Adam’s “Fall”, a “nonsense story”; of the Hebrew Bible, “cobbled-together”; of a Christian aid worker, “fundamentalist”.

As for those on Hitchens’ side of the argument: of Thomas Paine, “self taught” and “never refuted”; of Laplace, “the brilliant French scientist” with his “mind-expanding calculations” and “cool”, “lofty”, and “considered” response; of H.L. Mecken, he “irrefutably says”.

I’m inclined to agree with a number of Hitchens’ judgments above, and any one of them wouldn’t be so problematic by itself. But while I like colorful language, Hitchens’ language is loaded. What the pattern reveals is a serious rhetorical crutch. He consistently leans on these insults to amp up his arguments. Early in the book, Hitchens criticizes today’s presumptive prophets for “ratcheting up their arguments to screaming point so as to ward off the terrible emptiness”. Hitchens is essentially screaming here, even though his arguments are not entirely empty. I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that, were I Hitchens, I may have written the previous sentence as follows: “Unhinged, Hitchens betrays his hatefulness in an unending screed of screaming epithets, obscuring any grain of truth in his pathetic, vacuous arguments.” Loaded language like this may be delicious red meat for the partisan, but it is an obstacle to those who may be open minded yet undecided, and deafening to those who are the target of the verbal abuse.


As a corollary to his abundant use of prejudicial language, Hitchens’ consistently puts the worst possible spin on the people and events he describes.

Discussing the aftermath of 9/11, Hitchens introduces the revered figure of Billy Graham as, “a man whose record of opportunism and anti-Semitism is in itself a minor national disgrace.” (p. 32) Is this the sum of the man? I can only guess what Hitchens means by “opportunism”, but as a Christian Leader widely respected for his conciliatory efforts between the faiths, the charge of anti-semitism was surprising. The charge is based on a recorded conversation with then President Nixon in which Graham said that the Jewish “stranglehold” on the media “has got to be broken or this country’s going down the drain”. And: “A lot of Jews are great friends of mine. They swarm around me and are friendly to me, because they know that I am friendly to Israel and so forth, but they don’t know how I really feel about what they’re doing to this country, and I have no power and no way to handle them.”

A charitable reading of these comments would be that Graham held deep, ideological differences with his Jewish friends about what was good for the country and therefore lamented that they were in positions of great influence.* Apparently, Graham kept his differences to himself in these relationships. It’s worth noting that, in god is not Great, Hitchens repeatedly bemoans the influence of Christians in America and one does not have to read between the lines in his case to discern his utter disdain for them. Graham claims not to remember having this untoward conversation, but when the tapes were released in 2002 he issued an apology for his remarks, adding that he had spent his life building bridges between Christians and Jews, evidenced by the award he received around the same time from the National Conference of Christians and Jews. Even if Graham’s comments did bely some underlying anti-semitism, don’t his thirty years since as an advocate of love and interfaith tolerance demonstrate a change of heart, if there needed to be one. We should all resist leveling such grievous charges in questionable cases, and Hitchens especially should be careful about making charges of prejudice in a book replete with the worst insinuations and invective against people of faith.

Hitchens is reaching here, part of his transparent strategy to discredit any respected person of faith. If you want to know what really happened, don’t ask a spin doctor with an axe to grind.

Inductive Fallacies

The “Unrepresentative Sample” and “Hasty Generalization” are instances of Inductive Fallacies where the characteristics of a sample are inferred to apply to the whole. Hitchens is fond of imputing the nefarious motives of wealth and power to religious leaders. He returns regularly to those examples where wealth and power were to be had, such as the medieval Catholic church, John Calvin’s Geneva, and of course, televangelists. Such examples, of which many more could be added, are an unmitigated embarrassment to Christianity. No doubt Acton had much of this in mind when he opined: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” For what it’s worth, I think it’s more accurate to say that power reveals character more than it corrupts character. But whatever the case, the implications of these historical and contemporary realities must be dealt with honestly.

Here I’m concerned with whether these examples are representative, with whether it is appropriate to impugn the motives of religious leaders more generally. Hitchens wonders sincerely: “Do the preachers and prophets also believe…? Do they ever think to themselves, this is too easy? And do they then rationalize the trick…?” (p.165) This question is not hard to answer if we broaden the sample.

Hitchens likes to pick up church history after Christianity had been wed to power, but for the first few hundred years, Christian leaders were severely persecuted for their beliefs and were often martyred. And then again, in 361 A.D., the Roman Emperor Julian resumed the persecutions in his efforts to reinstate paganism. Their motives could not have been wealth and power, at least in this life, when martyrdom was a more likely outcome. It’s also improbable that when Catholicism gained ascendency, such leaders suddenly lost their sincerity. In time, however, as the Catholic church became a locus of wealth and power, it’s likely that increasing numbers would have been drawn by duplicitous motives. Still, even under Catholic ascendency, numerous Catholic priests chose lives of poverty, chastity(!), and service, in some cases as a direct rebuke to church corruption and in keeping with Jesus’ teaching that in the Kingdom of God, it is he or she who serves who is to be commended.

Today, in China, tens of thousands of home church leaders minister in secrecy under the unpredictable vicissitudes of religious persecution there. In Cambodia, Laos, Bhutan, and much of the Muslim world, Christians risk their lives in keeping the faith, much less sharing it. To say the least, it is hard to attribute selfish motives to them, even though all of us do in fact harbor mixed motives to greater or lesser degrees.

In the U.S. we are treated to a carnival of televangelists on TBN and other obscure stations on the dial. Many of them are distasteful to me and some have been demonstrated to be outright frauds. Through a very interesting account of the story of Marjoe, Hitchens points out the manipulative techniques they sometimes employ to whip their audiences into a kind of psychological ecstasy. Are they representative? The truth is, for every televangelist or megachurch pastor who stands to make a lavish living, there are a multitude of small church pastors, seminary professors, community workers, and missionaries who live humble lives with little or no potential for great wealth or power.

Another example of extrapolating from unrepresentative examples is Hitchens’ argument in chapter four that “religion is hazardous to your health”. He cites some examples of superstition, religiously motivated objections to birth control, especially abortion, and the religious objections to health care amongst the Christian Scientist and Jehovah’s Witness sects. He doesn’t mention the Christian impetus behind many of our hospitals or the countless Christians working in health care, many who volunteer to provide medical and dental treatment in the far reaches of the globe. Nor does he mention the numerous studies that have suggested that religious people live longer and happier lives.

The recurring, primary thesis of Hitchens work — that “religion poisons everything” — is fundamentally a fallacy of Hasty Generalization. The second chapter argues this point most explicitly by recounting a series of cases in which religion has been toxic to this or that arena of life, and concludes each time, therefore, “religion poisons everything”. The argument takes the form: 1) A1, A2, A3… poison B1, B2, B3. 2) Therefore, all A poison all B. This is an obvious logical fallacy. In his defense, it is inherently difficult to argue from some to all, much like trying to prove that all crows are black. And, it does not mean that the appropriate conclusion — some, many, or most A poison some, many, or most B — does not have force. This is precisely where the problem of Hitchens’ “unrepresentative samples” is relevant. Inductive arguments are intrinsically tied to the quality of the sample data, and we have every reason to question its quality in this case.

A Causal Fallacy

Apart from the claim that religion poisons everything, the most common refrain in god is not Great is probably that, religion is man-made. The problem is that this supplementary thesis undercuts the primary thesis. I anticipated this at the outset in a previous article, but further reading has underscored the problem. What we have here is a Causal Fallacy of “Wrong Direction”, wherein the direction of cause and effect is reversed. Our two theses are these:

  • 1) religion poisons everything
  • 1b) ergo… religion poisons society
  • 1c) ergo… religion is poisonous
  • 2) religion is wholly man-made

The second premise entails that humanity itself is responsible for religion’s toxicity. Where do the premises lead us?

  • 2) religion is wholly man-made
  • 1c) religion is poisonous
  • 3) Therefore, humanity poisons religion
  • 1b) religion poisons society
  • 4) Therefore, humanity poisons society

So, to be clear, the causal fallacy is this: whereas Hitchens argues that religion poisons humanity, his own premises entail that it is the other way around, that humanity poisons religion. I don’t see any way, given Hitchens’ premise that religion is man-made, to escape the conclusion that humanity is the poisonous root. Presumably, religion wasn’t able to poison humanity before humanity made it up.

It’s not immediately obvious whether this is a fatal defeater to Hitchens’ argument. It’s likely that Hitchens will concede that the shortcomings of religion are the product of human imperfections, since he argues as such in several cases. But if so, Hitchens’ should be digging primarily in human nature for the source, and thus the solution, to human evil. And if the problem is rooted not in an ostensibly contingent fact of human culture, i.e. religion, but in an essential one, i.e. human nature, it will bear on the potential success of his Enlightenment project to replace religion with science and reason. Why should we think that his ideology will not also be confounded by the vagaries of human nature?

I could go on, exploring several more issues, including “arguing from both sides”, and the “appeal to authority”. Perhaps I’ll return to them later.

In Closing

I have long been an admirer of Hitchens — for his passion, wit, irreverence, contrariness, and certainly for his voluntarily being water boarded in the interest of informing his view on torture. I set out to take his argument in god is not Great seriously, but this is becoming increasingly difficult. There is just an awful lot to overlook, not because Hitchens is attacking the supposedly “sacred cow” of religion, but because his arguments are so often specious. What is especially frustrating in this respect is how Hitchens praises reason to the hilt, believing himself, as a child of the Enlightenment, to have entered into the unfettered pursuit of truth. As we have seen, this is demonstrably not the case. All the while, he characterizes religious people as wholly captive to irrationality. As it is with all of us, clearly there is more in the mix of Hitchens’ thinking than the pure deliverances of science and reason.

I do not want to be captive to illusions. I welcome the debunking of any discreditable beliefs I hold, of which no doubt there are many. As it turns out, the substance of Hitchens’ arguments are not entirely obscured by their style. There is much to be reckoned with in them if you believe that good and true religion is vital to overcoming human suffering and wickedness and increasing human flourishing. god is not Great should not be dismissed merely because of its rhetorical excesses and missteps. I will consider the cumulative force of Hitchens’ case in a final article.

~ Nathan

Corrections are very welcome.

1 I want to be clear that I don’t take purported anti-Semitism lightly. For most of my life I was perplexed by movies I watched and stories I’d hear of Christian hostility towards Jews. In my own Christian upbringing, I can’t recall even a whiff of anti-Semitism. However, a number of years ago I was manning a refuge for pilgrims on the Way of St. James in northern Spain. I was speaking with a young boy in the tiny town of Ligonde and somehow the subject of non-Catholic religions came up, to which he enthusiastically said he had no problem with them. Then he added, “but not the Jews. I don’t like the Jews.” I was flabbergasted. Where did this come from? This little boy had almost certainly never met a Jew, and yet someone had planted this idea in him. I also had a Christian friend in college who would occasionally offer up Jewish conspiracies. I assure you that I did not leave them unchallenged. Nonetheless, as for Billy Graham, it remains wholly inappropriate for Hitchens to insert this passing smear in a clearly dubious case.