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Too Many Better Alternatives.
on July 19, 2007
When the powers that be were considering Mother Theresa's name for sainthood, Christopher Hitchens bravely made the case to the Vatican - and to the public, via his book "Missionary Position - against her. Braver still, I remember, when the pope died, the deluge of obituaries, all glowing - except one: that of Christopher Hitchens who pointedly reminded us that this man had overseen the largest child-sex-abuse ring on the planet and took positive steps to shield others from prosecution.
For all of Hitchen's bravity and brevity, I can only give this book 3 stars. The reason has less to do with Hitchens work in it than others work before it. Quite simply, there are too many other good books out there presenting the case - a compelling one it is - for atheism. From Sam Harris's terse and tightly argued "Letter to a Christian Nation" to Richard Dawkins' monumental "God Delusion" atheism has, I think, better "spokespeople" elsewhere.
Hitchens' most obvious problem (one that alsow mars Dawkins only slightly, and touches Harris not at all) is that he write - well - almost too passionately! It is obvious that Hitchens not only dislikes, but hates, religion. Quite simply - and ironically, as this is a charge leveled at religionists more frequently than atheists - his passion gets in the way of his ability to present a reasoned case!
But the largest problem, from a scholarly standpoint, is that for every chapter in this book there is a chapter in another book that does it better. Hitchens has little experience with philosophy, but tries to make a philosophical case against design that is done better by Dawkins and, most memorably before him, Bertrand Russell. He is far from skilled in biology, but tries to disprove "intelligent design" by wading through it (a domain much better left to Dawkins and Michael Shermer).
Another problem I found was that what Hitchens titles chapters often have little to do with what chapters are about. The chapter on the evils of the New Testament (again, Dawkins beat him to the punch here), is much more a meditation on whether Jesus existed (a case whose negative answer is much better made by Robert Price). The chapter on the Koran and how it borrows liberally from Christianity is almost exclusively about what kind of person Muhhamad was (and Hitchens admits here that he knows little about the Koran).
Now for the good parts. The first chapter - where Hitchens makes the case that 'religion poisons everything' - is nothing short of awesome! Here he makes a case (made also by Harris in "End of Faith") that many of the world's most bloody quarrels have been over stupid religious disagreements, which is only of huge note because religion claims, again and again, the moral high-ground!
Another chapter that was dead-on and delightful was that on the relative paucity of miracles that religionists can point to in support of its delusions. How is it, for instance, that the best miracles god can perform on people are performed (a) with the aid of medication; and (b) are recoveries from diseases thatcan be recovered from. (As Sam Harris has said, if god really wanted to give us miracles, we'd see humans regrowing hands. After all, it is possible. god has salimanders do it every day!)
The last chapter - on whether religion can be child abuse - is a good one. We squirm when children are brainwashed, and squirm more when we saw kids die as a result of Jim Jones and David Koresh's cults. But, in the end, is Catholocism that much different when it tells children that feelings of lust - that psychologists are uniform in deeming normal - are a mortal sin, and that doubting its creed will lead to hell? Is Islam - the best example - different when it imbues its children to hate Jews? Is Judaism different when it imbues the converse in its youth? Is fundamentalist Christianity wrong when it sexually represses its young women, scares them into not using a condom, and forces them to have their babies no matter what the cost?
Anyhow, it is not that Hitchens is not worth reading. It is more that there are others who are more worth reading, and do what Hitchens is doing better than Hitchens does it. Here is the list, in my order of atheistic preference:
Sam Harris: End of Faith
Richard Dawkins: God Delusion
Bertrand Russell: Why I'm Not a Christian
Robert Price: The Incredible, Shrinking, Son of Man
Sam Harris: Letter to a Christian Nation
Read those first. Read this as a recap.