Misusing capitalization in much the way it sometimes misuses facts, god is not Great is
Christopher Hitchens’ tirade against the evil of religion; it is his most-recommended book
in atheist circles. A former journalist, Hitchens is known to atheists as one of "The Four
Horsemen" — along with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett — the most
famous advocates of non-religion of their time.
In this book, Hitchens begins with a 75-word sentence and rarely composes a shorter one. He writes
as if holding back a flow of even more words, as if terrified of running out of time. And run out
of time he did, in 2011, long before I knew his name.
The book is a polemic, an organized and systematic attack on the very idea of religion, and
especially on the privileged place of “respect” it occupies in even the most educated
What I Liked Least About It
Most criticisms of god is not Great focused on the perceived insults to respected religious
figures and beliefs, which is all well and good because that was its intended purpose. Hurt
feelings among the dogmatically theistic was not a happy byproduct of Hitchens’ assault; it
was the target.
I had three problems with it.
From the first sentence to the final few pages, the author constructs sentences and paragraphs as
if building a verbal Tower of Babel, hanging words and phrases atop each other willy-nilly, chopped
up with a multitude of commas, semicolons, em dashes, and parantheses. The impression is strong
that the paranthetical phrase is his favorite literary device. Here are two examples that I
flipped to randomly:
“Now that the courts have protected Americans (at least for the moment) from the
inculcation of compulsory ‘creationist’ stupidity in the classroom, we can echo
that other great Victorian Lord Macaulay and say that ‘every schoolchild knows’ that
Paley had put his creaking, leaking cart in fromnt of his wheezing and broken-down old
“Long before modern inquiry and painstaking translation and excavation had helped
enlighten us, it was well within the compass of a thinking person to see that the
‘revelation’ at Sinai and the rest of the Pentateuch was an ill-carpentered fiction,
bolted into place well after the nonevents that it fails to describe convincingly or even
It might seem a strange criticism from me, someone also known to bloviate loquaciously, but no
one has ever held my prose out to be “elegant yet biting” — as reviewer Bruce
Secondly, I found myself doubting some of the more obscure claims from history. Not being an
erudite scholar myself, I searched online and indeed
similiar criticisms of god is not Great (in that link, scroll about halfway down before
this book is mentioned). Christian David Hart rightly points out several factual errors by
Hitchens — including mixing up two different Crusades, claiming two men who died of old age
were instead burned at the stake, and others. These errors would be acceptable in off-the-cuff
spoken remarks — or even a blog or shoddy newspaper article — but are surprising and
disappointing in a published tome with eight pages of dozens of references at the end. For me,
someone who highly values factual verification, each unverified or doubtful claim further eroded
my confidence in the book.
Lastly, the tendency to base every point on excessive anecdotal elaboration was
disappointing after having recently read Bertrand Russell’s logically-stated essays.
Illustrative yarns are important even in nonfiction, for the purpose of elucidation, but
should never be the foundation of definitive pronouncements. I expected better of such a respected
and knowledgeable writer, even if it’s uncertain he intentionally employed terminological
What I Liked Most About It
From the book, there is no question why Hitchens is considered a go-to source for quotations
when it comes to skepticism and atheism. His most famous line, now immortalized as
Hitchens’ razor came from
this book (though he’d
“What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”
Here are a few others:
“Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it.”
“One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody
— not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms — had the
smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species,
and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort,
reassurance and other infantile needs). Today the least educated of my children knows much more
about the natural order than any of the founders of religion, and one would like to think —
though the connection is not a fully demonstrable one — that this is why they seem so
uninterested in sending fellow humans to hell.”
“Many religions now come before us with ingratiating smirks and outspread hands, like an
unctuous merchant in a bazaar. They offer consolation and solidarity and uplift, competing as
they do in a marketplace. But we have a right to remember how barbarically they behaved when
they were strong and were making an offer that people could not refuse.”
Further, I like that he does not attack one religion only, giving a pass to the mystical
“Eastern” doctrines as do many skeptics in the West. He fully deals with Hinduism
and Buddhism as well, and groups all faiths into one basket. Entry to this basket requires only
two things: ridiculous assertions about the imaginary beings and demands that we must believe
them on faith alone.
From my trio of grumpy condemnations above, one might conclude I disliked this book overall. One
would be wrong. My net takeaway is that it was worth reading, but that it could have been better.
Certainly no religious person would read this book and be convinced — I say with my own
experience as a Godist in mind.
But perhaps that wasn’t the point. Maybe Hitchens’ intention was simply to bolster
the confidence of the minority of humans who look at the world rationally. Maybe it to was to
ruffle a few feathers — which it certainly did. Certainly it served to work a few phrases
into the common vernacular. "Religion poisons everything" is now used on occasion; I've seen it
in online discussions on a somewhat frequent basis. Presumably those using the phrase know it
came from this book. Even if they don’t know, success has been had.
Anticipating that someone might ask me how it compares to Dawkins’ The God Delusion,
I answer thusly: these books are two different critters, for two different types of readers.
Everything else being equal, I would recommend Dawkins’ book over this one.