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God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything Paperback – April 6, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From The Washington Post

Reviewed by Stephen Prothero

A century and a half ago Pope Pius IX published the Syllabus of Errors, a rhetorical tour de force against the high crimes and misdemeanors of the modern world. God Is Not Great, by the British journalist and professional provocateur Christopher Hitchens, is the atheists' equivalent: an unrelenting enumeration of religion's sins and wickedness, written with much of the rhetorical pomp and all of the imperial condescension of a Vatican encyclical.

Hitchens, who once described Mother Teresa as "a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud," is notorious for making mincemeat out of sacred cows, but in this book it is the sacred itself that is skewered. Religion, Hitchens writes, is "violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children." Channeling the anti-supernatural spirits of other acolytes of the "new atheism," Hitchens argues that religion is "man-made" and murderous, originating in fear and sustained by brute force. Like Richard Dawkins, he denounces the religious education of young people as child abuse. Like Sam Harris, he fires away at the Koran as well as the Bible. And like Daniel Dennett, he views faith as wish-fulfillment.

Historian George Marsden once described fundamentalism as evangelicalism that is mad about something. If so, these evangelistic atheists have something in common with their fundamentalist foes, and Hitchens is the maddest of the lot. Protestant theologian John Calvin was "a sadist and torturer and killer," Hitchens writes, and the Bible "contain[s] a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre."

As should be obvious to any reasonable person -- unlike Hitchens I do not exclude believers from this category -- horrors and good deeds are performed by believers and non-believers alike. But in Hitchens's Manichaean world, religion does little good and secularism hardly any evil. Indeed, Hitchens arrives at the conclusion that the secular murderousness of Stalin's purges wasn't really secular at all, since, as he quotes George Orwell, "a totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy." And in North Korea today, what has gone awry is not communism but Confucianism.

Hitchens is not so forgiving when it comes to religion's transgressions. He aims his poison pen at the Dalai Lama, St. Francis and Gandhi. Among religious leaders only the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. comes off well. But in the gospel according to Hitchens whatever good King did accrues to his humanism rather than his Christianity. In fact, King was not actually a Christian at all, argues Hitchens, since he rejected the sadism that characterizes the teachings of Jesus. "No supernatural force was required to make the case against racism" in postwar America, writes Hitchens. But he's wrong. It was the prophetic faith of black believers that gave them the strength to stand up to the indignities of fire hoses and police dogs. As for those white liberals inspired by Paine, Mencken and Hitchens's other secular heroes, well, they stood down.

Hitchens says a lot of true things in this wrongheaded book. He is right that you can be moral without being religious. He is right to track contemporary sexism and sexual repression to ancient religious beliefs. And his attack on "intelligent design" is not only convincing but comical, coursing as it does through the crude architecture of the appendix and our inconvenient "urinogenital arrangements."

What Hitchens gets wrong is religion itself.

Hitchens claims that some of his best friends are believers. If so, he doesn't know much about his best friends. He writes about religious people the way northern racists used to talk about "Negroes" -- with feigned knowing and a sneer. God Is Not Great assumes a childish definition of religion and then criticizes religious people for believing such foolery. But it is Hitchens who is the naïf. To read this oddly innocent book as gospel is to believe that ordinary Catholics are proud of the Inquisition, that ordinary Hindus view masturbation as an offense against Krishna, and that ordinary Jews cheer when a renegade Orthodox rebbe sucks the blood off a freshly circumcised penis. It is to believe that faith is always blind and rituals always empty -- that there is no difference between taking communion and drinking the Kool-Aid (a beverage Hitchens feels compelled to mention no fewer than three times).

If this is religion, then by all means we should have less of it. But the only people who believe that religion is about believing blindly in a God who blesses and curses on demand and sees science and reason as spawns of Satan are unlettered fundamentalists and their atheistic doppelgangers. Hitchens describes the religious mind as "literal and limited" and the atheistic mind as "ironic and inquiring." Readers with any sense of irony -- and here I do not exclude believers -- will be surprised to see how little inquiring Hitchens has done and how limited and literal is his own ill-prepared reduction of religion.

Christopher Hitchens is a brilliant man, and there is no living journalist I more enjoy reading. But I have never encountered a book whose author is so fundamentally unacquainted with its subject. In the end, this maddeningly dogmatic book does little more than illustrate one of Hitchens's pet themes -- the ability of dogma to put reason to sleep.

Copyright 2007, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* God is getting bad press lately. Sam Harris' The End of Faith(2005) and Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion (2006) have questioned the existence of any spiritual being and met with enormous success. Now, noted, often acerbic journalist Hitchens enters the fray. As his subtitle indicates, his premise is simple. Not only does religion poison everything, which he argues by explaining several ways in which religion is immoral, but the world would be better off without religion. Replace religious faith with inquiry, open-mindedness, and the pursuit of ideas, he exhorts. Closely reading major religious texts, Hitchens points to numerous examples of atrocities and mayhem in them. Religious faith, he asserts, is both result and cause of dangerous sexual repression. What's more, it is grounded in nothing more than wish fulfillment. Hence, he believes that religion is man-made, and an ethical life can be lived without its stamp of approval. With such chapter titles as "Religion Kills" and "Is Religion Child Abuse?" Hitchens intends to provoke, but he is not mean-spirited and humorless. Indeed, he is effortlessly witty and entertaining as well as utterly rational. Believers will be disturbed and may even charge him with blasphemy (he questions not only the virgin birth but the very existence of Jesus), and he may not change many minds, but he offers the open-minded plenty to think about. June Sawyers
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Read the first chapter of Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great [PDF].

Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Twelve (April 6, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0446697966
  • ISBN-13: 978-0446697965
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2,035 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,420 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Scott Bresinger on May 14, 2007
Format: Hardcover
After looking through some of the other customer reviews found here, I was dismayed by the amount of "blog-style" entries: that is, people who may have only glanced at the title or saw Hitchens promoting the book on CNN or YouTube and decided to just speak up, either in support or condemnation. However, if you're curious about the book and just want to know what to expect, may I humbly offer some actual information?

Hitchens, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, author of books too numerous to mention and contributor to smaller magazines such as Free Inquiry, adds to the recent renaissance of pro-atheist books with his own provocatively-titled contribution. Whereas Sam Harris (The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason) sees dire warnings and Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion offers a defense of science, Hitchens uses his long experience in journalism to illustrate the madness that results when faith is unchallenged by reason. Dawkins has been criticized for adopting a harsh tone (an assessment I disagree with), but Hitchens is the one who really pours on the anger and witty derision.
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Format: Hardcover
My favorite part of the book is the last third. By that time Hitchens has made his arguments about how Religion Poisons Everything and is now rebutting the best intellectual arguments against his thesis. What would become of human decency, morality and ethics without religion? How do you address the inherent human need to believe in something and take comfort in a higher power? What are the god-less alternatives and aren't those institutions as bad or worse? Doesn't religion provide stability to society by pacifying individuals in times of darkness and uncertainty? It is hard to sum things up and provide sound bytes about something as complex as religion, but my take-away from this book is that any religion (by design) has the ingredients of becoming totalitarian, when successful; and totalitarianism of any kind leads to ultimate power corruption.

Hitchens makes his arguments and rebuts the best counter-arguments with passion and panache. If you are amongst the majority of people in the world - believers - his irreverent sense of humor may lead you to immediately brush him off as a partisan hack; while the unbelievers will get a kick out of each of the thousands of punchlines that Hitchens artfully mumbles. However, if you belong to the third category - an intellectual who chooses to look beyond a bi-polar view of the world when it comes to religion - I would urge patience with Hitchens' indulgence as a genius linguist (when you have it, it is hard not to flaunt it!) and you will find this book extremely rewarding and will not go un-satiated. If you are seriously debating the merits and demerits of religion as an institution in the society we live in, you have glanced at the perfect place, no matter what your affiliations.
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Format: Hardcover
When I came to read the reviews (out of curiosity) on Amazon, I first went on to read the one-star reviews. I was amused that many have clearly not read the book, but felt that their defense and protection of the faith was necessary. Many voice their maliciously gleeful prophecies of Hitchens ending up in hell alternating with those who in their gracious piety wish him "saved" from this otherwise inevitable fate. Others go into long nervously complex and defensive discourses to draw "aha! now I can rest easy" conclusions as to why Hitchens was all wrong about their specific brand of faith. A stark parallel to how religious texts are designed to make things convoluted and abstruse with riddles within riddles and side-winds for every long-wind with the end result to successfully befuddle and consequently beguile the masses.

I do not see this book as a detailed thesis and nor did I expect Hitchens (nor do I think this is possible) to be an expert on each tedious detail relating to every religion. I find this quite irrelevent to the intent of the discourse in the book. Further, I do not see this as some juvenile battle between the virtues of all believers versus all non-believers. I must add that one big difference between how religion (as opposed to a lack thereof) manages to impact the lives of all is it's need and very mission to impose, interfere, and establish.

I see this as a book as something that improves our perspective and understanding of an age-old subject that has a huge bearing on all our lives. It makes us observe and be mindful of our primitive brains, impulses, and tendencies. It forces us to sit back and think of the absurdity in so many of the decisions and interactions we take for granted all around us.
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