By Christopher Hitchens
For a large part of humanity mankind’s faith has been shaped by religious text that emerged from tribal desert dwellers who lived around 2,000 years ago. The poison of which Hitchens writes is an old and potent brew. It makes us stupid to the reality of the world and has killed many of us as well. The religious view of the origins of the universe or the nature of man was and remains much closer to the thought processes of Cro-Magon than modern, secular people. Their strange dietary taboos, hamlet raids, child abuse, racial hatreds was only exceeded by their ignorance and untiring commitment to blood sacrifice and violence. But they were clever enough to commit their ugly crimes under the authority of a superior being who they claimed spoke directly to them.
Few people would wish to be operated on by a surgeon trained solely by studying medical text written in the 16th century. A doctor placing a leech on your forehead to relieve your headache would have you screaming out of the hospital to phone your lawyer, who would tell you this procedure isn’t covered by your medical insurance. Yet the same person has no problem with believing with great passion in a set of staggeringly cheesy miracles, sightings, and dogmas ranging from virgin birth to the resurrection of the death. It is in this context that Christopher Hitchens uses his formidable intellect, research and linguistic skills to demolish the tribal rants found in the bible, the Torah, and Koran, --books that have held most people in the world virtual hostages for thousands of years.
The problem with the last enlightenment is that it fell far short of felling the stupidity and ignorance that have made most of the population easily exploited by rulers, endorsed slavery, made women chattels, repressed sexuality, and justified (and often made mandatory) murder. In Hitchens words, “For emphasizing tribe and dynasty and racial provenance in holy books, religion must accept the responsibility for transmitting one of mankind’s most primitive illusions down through the generations.”
Hitchens pounds the drums for a new enlightenment to emerge to demolish this primitive structure of outdated beliefs. We no longer have to rely on a few brave people like Darwin, Hobbes, Hume, Freud and Spinoza (whom Hitchens has a particular fondest for). We have an army of men and women in science who are doing the research and reporting their investigations of the material world that flatly contradict the religious texts of organized religions. They follow in their scientific inquiry and process of testing what Hitchens’ calls the true definition of an educated man was Socrates who was reported to have said (having written nothing himself) that “all he really ‘knew,’ he said, was the extend of his own ignorance. They don’t ask for faith in their findings. They deliver their findings for others to challenge and replicate. Nothing could be more strange to the faith-based mind where time stopped 2,000 years ago and belief is knowledge and heresy evil.
What is galling to Hitchens is the illusion of the religious is that all one needs to learn is from a “holy” text and the veil of ignorance is lifted. Where does the drive to believe in the mad delusions of scribes who lived thousands of years ago as having come from a supreme being? Hitchens believes that Freud answered this question in The Future of an Illusion: it comes directly from our fear of death and the wishful thinking that there is a life after death.
In God is Not Great, Hitchens constantly reminds us that we are another species on the planet; we are mammals who have created silly myths, incredible legends, folktales, and third-rate miracles to push them to a level beyond other species. Story tellers whose most bizarre narratives have chained them to cellars where no light of reason can reach them. “For most of human history, the idea of the total or absolute sate was intimately bound up with religion.” That of course changed in the 20th century with the rise totalitarian states which, in Hitchens view, were in effect a theocracy. Fascism, communism and nazism drank from the same cup which anointed a perfect leader to whom citizens were made to surrender all privacy and individuality. The impulses and the techniques were not much different from those previously used by religious authorities. “The urge to ban an censor books, silence dissenters, condemn outsiders, invade the private sphere, and invoke and exclusive salvation is the very essence of the totalitarian.”
Christopher Hitchens book stands along side Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Sam Harris’s The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason and Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. In six months, there will be another long awaited title by John Allen Paulos’s Irreligion (due in January 2008). Professor Paulos’ book promises to provide further ammunition to the debate and will like Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris open yet another important avenue to explore why our notions of God are the old poisons we still insist in dumping in the human well.
With advances in neuroscience, evolutionary biology, quantum physics, cosmology, cloning, geology, archaeology, and artificial intelligence the old style religions with the squalid tribal myths and Disney-like legends will be increasingly more difficult to sustain. As the frontier of understanding and knowledge advance it become apparent to everyone that a bright 14-year-old knows infinitely more about how the world works, its origins, the origins of the species, and the nature of the universe than all living beings who occupied the planet 2,000 years ago. The question Hitchens raises is how much longer can we endure social, economic and political systems that pay homage to religions one step removed from witchcraft, magic portions, and ritual stoning? He has no answer, because there is no answer to be had. And whether a new enlightenment can finish the job started by the first is a premise that only will emerge in the fullness of time as to whether people will take the cure for this poison.
Half-baked confections cooked up by primitive desert mystics from recipes revealed to them (so they say) by a divine being, has been swallowed by generation after generation, as the entire truth of the world, life, and the universe. It has been feasting on this diet that has not evolved, and by definition cannot evolve, that has inspired and given courage to spear throwers in the ancient desert right up to the modern day suicide fanatics who hijacked planes to fly into the World Trade Centre which lies at the root cause of Hitchens’s discontent with religion. What was being swallowed was arsenic specifically designed to kill the intellect, free thought, free speech, and free will. There was only one recipe and it needed no updating, and anyone bold enough to have suggested that these conjuring acts were illusions conceived and performed by the early predecessors to Penn and Teller would have been burnt at the stake. It is only recent times such dissent could be voiced and in many parts of the world it is still dangerous to suggest so-called revealed truths are man-made. What gets both Hitchens and Dawkins to spit the dummy is the way many parents feed this man-made confection of half-truth, myths, contradictions and fables to children as the foundation for knowledge of the world.