Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, “Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that”, or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything — God and our friends and ourselves included — as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.
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.