OK, OK: some readers took the time to point out to me that Hitchens’ God is Not Great has indeed received some mainstream press (which I hadn’t seen yet since I’d been in England). But Michael Kinsley’s review in the New York Times borders on being sychophantic, and certainly lets Hitchens’ off the hook. (Kinsley talks about how “logical” the book is. That is a stretch; it might be “syllogistic,” but any student in a decent logic or critical thinking class could slice through Hitchens’ smokescreen.)
More interesting is Stephen Prothero’s review in The Washington Post. Prothero, I think, hits the nail on the head:
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.
Finally, using the word “slumming” to describe Hitchens’ engagements with Olasky and Wilson was perhaps a bit strong (chalk it up to jet lag?). Mea culpa. However, I still think these are basically un-interesting engagments. They have a feeling of disproportionality about them (another favorite military strategy of the Bush administration, which Hitch seems to love so much–though one does wonder whether God is Not Great might decrease his number of stays in the Lincoln bedroom). I’ve no doubt that Olasky and Wilson are sharp fellows. What I’m surprised by is the fact that Hitchens finds time to engage rather marginal voices (less so with Olasky, admittedly).
And despite Hitchens’ slide here (why do so many “public intellectuals” become so incredibly stupid when it comes to religion? If I spoke about “science” or “liberalism” the way they talk about religion, I’d be laughed off the page), I continue to remain a somewhat guilty admirer of his snarky arrogance.