Preaching to the unconverted

Jack Miles is distinguished professor of English and religious studies at UC Irvine. He is the general editor of the forthcoming "The Norton Anthology of World Religions."

FIGHTING the good fight for atheism isn’t as easy as it looks. The fighter must, on the one hand, proclaim that religion is fading fast and for good reason yet, on the other, rouse fellow or prospective atheists to be on guard against it. If his audience takes the warning seriously, it may wonder whether there is not something to religion after all; if it takes the death notice seriously, it may wonder why the author is bothering to write.

The atheist alternative has been around from the beginning, after all. How dispiriting it must be for the neo-atheist pamphleteer to pick up “The Cambridge Companion to Atheism” and read even Chapter 1, “Atheism in Antiquity.” To be sure, several recent works of anti-religious polemic have had heartening success in the marketplace, but even reliable allies are beginning to show signs of market fatigue. Thus, James Wood, a professed atheist reviewing for the New Yorker, writes: “I have an almost infinite capacity for the consumption of atheist texts, but there is a limit to ... the number of times one can be told that the Bible is a shaky text, and that Leviticus and Deuteronomy are full of really nasty things.”

Such is the challenge facing Vanity Fair’s Christopher Hitchens, self-described as “a tentative and amateur foreign correspondent,” leading “a rather tranquil and orderly life: writing books and essays, teaching my students to love English literature,” but a man nonetheless who “[has] been writing this book all my life.” What his lifelong effort has consisted of, to judge from the now-published result, is the assembly of an anthology of outrageous instances of misconduct under religious auspices. What Hitchens offers, beyond the reporting of these outrages, is the emotional power of his denunciation of them. Here is an example that I find both typical and thrilling:


“By all means let an observant Jewish adult male have his raw-cut penis placed in the mouth of a rabbi. (That would be legal, at least in New York.) By all means let grown women who distrust their clitoris or their labia have them sawn away by some other wretched adult female. By all means let Abraham offer to commit suicide to prove his devotion to the Lord or his belief in the voices he was hearing in his head. By all means let devout parents deny themselves the succor of medicine when in acute pain and distress. By all means -- for all I care -- let a priest sworn to celibacy be a promiscuous homosexual. By all means let a congregation that believes in whipping out the devil choose a new grown-up sinner each week and lash him until he or she bleeds. By all means let anyone who believes in creationism instruct his fellows during lunch breaks. But the conscription of the unprotected child for these purposes is something that even the most dedicated secularist can safely describe as a sin.”

As the orator mounts through that withering, seven-fold repetition of “By all means,” imagine excitement building in the audience and erupting in a roar of applause at his righteous climax: “But the conscription of the unprotected child.... “ The strength of this book is the undeniable eloquence of its indignation -- in Alexander Pope’s famous phrase, “What oft was thought but ne’er so well express’d.” Its weakness is that the thinking in it has indeed oft been thought. Rhetorically, Hitchens, a repentant and affectingly rueful Marxist, could rally a band of timid schoolboys to storm the Winter Palace. But did the paragraph just quoted tell you anything you did not already know or change your mind about a single thing you did know?

Despite the fact that “religion poisons everything,” to quote Hitchens’ subtitle and the refrain in his early chapters, he regards it as “ineradicable. It will never die out, or at least not until we get over our fear of death, and of the dark, and of the unknown, and of each other.” Given that this despair is his premise, it should come as no surprise that his closing call to action -- a single paragraph on his final page -- is rather half-hearted and slapdash. He calls for a “new Enlightenment” with a platform of just three planks: 1) literary study, attending to both aesthetics and ethics, that “can now easily depose the scrutiny of sacred texts that have been found to be corrupt and confected” (this reads rather oddly: Does he mean to depose the enthroned texts or, in the legal sense, depose previously muzzled critics?); 2) unfettered scientific inquiry; and 3) “most importantly,” the divorce of our sexual lives from fear, disease and tyranny. He cautions: “We have first to transcend our prehistory and escape the gnarled hands which reach out to drag us back to the catacombs and the reeking altars and the guilty pleasures of subjection and abjection.” But if the effects of that prehistory are as “ineradicable” as he says they are, what hope have we?

Hitchens’ book lacks any definition of religion more intellectually ambitious than the just-cited “fear of death, and of the dark,” etc. Fellow atheists Daniel Dennett, David Sloan Wilson, Marc Hauser and others -- touched on glancingly or not at all in this book -- have found the very religious durability that so frustrates Hitchens a fascinating and legitimate challenge for evolutionary psychology. And contemporary religious thought has followed this research with more interest and sympathy than one would guess from his assertion that “Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago.” And yet, “god is not Great” must be judged a success on its own terms, for its terms are not those of exploration and persuasion but of expose and taunt. Hitchens does not speak to the theistic majority of the world but about that majority to the atheistic minority, and in terms that it will relish.

For him, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a “nebulous humanist.” Mahatma Gandhi was “an obscurantist” who would “impose his ego on the process [of Indian independence] and both retard and distort it.” The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a plagiarist, an orgiast down to his last hours on this Earth, and “in no real as opposed to nominal sense ... a Christian.” The Dalai Lama is “a medieval princeling” who, whatever his charm and presence, is the continuation of “a parasitic monastic elite” and who “tells us that you can visit a prostitute as long as someone else pays her.”

Most contemporary controversialists aim to turn their worthier foes into friends, taking to heart another of Pope’s astute criticism couplets: “Cursed be the verse how well soe’er it flow / That tends to make one worthy man my foe.” Hitchens is different, at least here. He finds the worthy man of religion so nearly a contradiction in terms that persuasion is pointless. One cannot win such people over, he implies, one can only smash them, rhetorically, and then only to delight those for whom they are already smashed. In that sense, but only in that sense, “god is not Great” must be judged a smashing success.