Where Zinn doesn’t follow Las Casas is where the priest mentions the Indians’ cannibalism — the priest reports, on the very next page after the passage Zinn has paraphrased, that the Indians eat very little meat “unless it be the flesh of their enemies.” Zinn, busy painting the Europeans as uniquely violent and oppressive, naturally never gives credit to the feature of Western civilization that is actually responsible for Las Casas’s indictment of the abuses to which many of the Spanish did subject the Indians: Christianity. It was after he heard anti-slavery sermons by Dominican monks that Las Casas gave up his own plantation and became “the Apostle to the Indians.” Thus, the priest describes the perpetrators of atrocities against the Indians as “so-called Christians.” Las Casas preaches, “Sin leads to sin, and for many years they lived unscrupulously, not observing Lent or other fasts” and eating meat on Fridays. Zinn ignores such old-fashioned religious explanations for the Spaniards’ descent into criminality against the natives and pretends that Las Casas, like himself, is a secular critic of imperialism.
Christopher Hitchens’ god is not Great is an expression of the profoundest moral outrage at the transgressions of religious people. As such, Hitchens follows in a long and honorable tradition. Indeed, in his life and teaching, Jesus also was a consummate critic of corrupted religion. In particular, it was the religious authorities of his time and place — the pharisees — that he most roundly denounced. His criticisms were many, but included charges of hypocrisy, pride, legalism, and unkindness. Like Hitchens, a consistent theme in Jesus’ criticism is how inhumane their religious strictures had become. For example, in one of a number of confrontations over Sabbath observance, Jesus reminds the pharisees that the Sabbath was instituted for the sake of humankind, not vice-versa. Furthermore, the letters of early church leaders follow Jesus’ precedent in confronting the failings of his earliest followers. And they all stood in a long line of prophetic voices that, according to the biblical record, were called by God to correct the recurring degeneration of Hebrew, and then Christian, religion. Finally, today you can browse the bookshelves of any Christian bookstore to find volume after volume lamenting this or that shortcoming of the Church. Clearly religion can be corrupt, even poisonous, and it is hardly exempt from criticism. But though Hitchens is in good company in his indictment of religious transgressions, god is not Great is something of a missed opportunity. Because his rhetoric evinces such a profound contempt for people of faith, Hitchens fails to speak persuasively to the very people he thinks need saving. If intended merely as a call to arms for his compatriots, god is not Great is a tour de force. But if he hopes to deconvert the converted, to liberate those captive to religion, another course is needed. If that is the aim, here’s how to criticize religion.