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Slipped on to the iPod, Christopher Hitchens’ plummy Oxbridge tones iconoclastically sermonising on the myriad evils of religion would have made the perfect substitute for, and antidote to, the annual borefest of midnight mass or the Queen’s Speech.
It could probably have been written by nobody else alive today, despite the fact that, of the entire ‘New Atheist’ crowd, Hitchens may appear to be the least qualified. AC Grayling (Against All Gods) and Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell) are both philosophers; Sam Harris (The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation) has studied neuroscience, and Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) is a feted biologist. Christopher Hitchens is an author and journalist, and rather an opinionated one at that.
But Hitchens acknowledges within his text that he’s been writing God is Not Great his whole life – and it’s because his experiences as a journalist have allowed him to see first hand the things he’s writing about.
When he describes North Korea as being the nearest thing on earth to a pure form of theocracy, it’s because he’s been there and seen the servility of the people, and their blind worship towards the personality cult of Kim Il-Sung – still legally the President despite having been dead since 1994.
And when asked by religious broadcaster Dennis Prager whether, if approached by a large group of men in a strange city, he would feel safer or less safe, Hitchens can tell him how he actually did feel in precisely those circumstances. ‘Just to stay within the letter “B”, I have actually had that experience in Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem, and Baghdad,’ he responds. ‘In each case I can say absolutely, and can give my reasons, why I would feel immediately threatened if I thought that the group of men approaching me in the dusk were coming from a religious observance.’
There’s a personal account such as this every few pages – though it’s not to everyone’s taste. Ross Douthat of The Atlantic magazine wrote on catholiceducation.org that, ‘Hitchens’s argument proceeds principally by anecdote, and at his best he is as convincing as that particular style allows, which is to say not terribly.’ In this he is, therefore, equally convincing as many of his opponents, who also tend to argue from personal experience.
To take just one example, a friend and I once found ourselves in a late-night discussion with one of the aforementioned street-preacher types. He ‘knew’ there was a God because the Almighty had spoken to him many years ago. (The fact that he was self-confessedly off his face on class-A at the time, and had just witnessed a woman being hit by a train, apparently didn’t colour his recollection of the moment.)
Anecdotes, textual criticism, and especially satire – as per Douglas Adams’ 1998 speech Is there an artificial God? – can be the best arguments to use, if for no other reason than that they’re more difficult to wilfully misunderstand, whereas the scientific arguments can be and frequently are misconstrued.
Richard Dawkins’ popular biology books contain the clearest, most beautiful explanations of Darwinian natural selection we’re ever likely to see, and the latest in his canon, The God Delusion, features some substantial, science-based refutations of ‘the God hypothesis’. But even those few willing to read, or listen to, Professor Dawkins’ work will often contrive to misunderstand it.
Much the same is true of physical explanations of the origin of the Universe, on which this writer, as an astrophysics graduate, is more qualified to comment. The best/worst instance of these is probably Moses Didn’t Write About Creation!, a self-published tome in which Herman Cummings, who claims he is the only man on Earth who ‘really’ understands Genesis (the Biblical opening book, not Phil Collins’ band; though that might make more sense), unintentionally shows the extent of some creationists’ failure to grasp even high-school physics.
The average debate on religion hasn’t time to fit in three years’ tuition in biology and another four in physics. It’s far simpler and more useful to have a debate based on anecdote and about ‘morality’. Hitchens dismisses all the good done by religiously minded people as also being possible by atheists.
‘We believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion,’ he writes. ‘And we know for certain that the corollary holds true – that religion has caused innumerable people not just to conduct themselves no better than others, but to award themselves permission to behave in ways that would make a brothel-keeper or an ethnic cleanser raise an eyebrow.’ The fact that Judaism features specific commandments against bowing down on smooth stone but none against rape strongly suggests either that the religion is man-made (man as opposed to human) or God has his priorities entirely wrong.
Stealing Hitchens’ arguments outright would be largely pointless, of course: it would be contrary to the principle of free-thinking that he’s trying to promote; effectively replacing one Bible with another. The important thing is to have the debates at all, and as Hitchens says of those such as Hawking and Darwin, ‘men are more enlightening when they are wrong.’ God Is Not Great doesn’t have all the answers – or even many – but as a pillar to build on, there’s none better.
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Labour’s NEC has started to empower party members – but we still have a mountain to climb
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament