Christopher Hitchens, God is not Great
I picked up Christopher Hitchens’ God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything at Schiphol Airport yesterday on my way back to London from the Hague. I’m four chapters in and so far heartily recommend it: nice yellow cover, scathing, articulate and tendentious polemic. I would suggest that this sort of critique of religious belief and practice, not least of Christian religious belief and practice, should be required reading for anyone who aspires to lead the church beyond the intellectual and moral complacency of Christendom.
Like Dawkins’ The God Delusion, the analysis is one-sided and rather lazy at times. His survey of religious conflict in Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem and Baghdad highlights some appalling ironies and injustices but downplays the extent to which religion is exploited by the forces of nationalism and community identity. There is only a grudging recognition that obscure, ordinary people of faith ‘may have contributed to the good of the world’. And Hitchens has to my mind a seriously flawed view of Paul as a misogynist, who expresses ‘both fear and contempt for the female’, and a world-hating apocalypticist, ‘who clearly thought and hoped that time was running out for humanity’.
But it is far too easy for us, living within the protective, soothing, reassuring intellectual bubble of our faith communities, to underestimate the precariousness of our confession, and I think it is essential that we allow ourselves to be reminded from time to time that the church has a very poor historical record, that there is not a shred of evidence to support the premises of our belief system, that it is extremely difficult these days to put forward a defence of religion on rational or ethical grounds, and that there is much about the life and thought of the church today that is at best laughable and worst utterly reprehensible. Hitchens will certainly do that for us.
It seems to me that at the heart of the calling of the church as it emerges from Christendom is the challenge of constructing a way of being in the world, both practically and theologically, that offers a plausible and honest response (not necessarily a direct apologetic) to these powerful and persuasive critiques. The place to start is not the knee-jerk defence of the faith or even the attempt to dissociates ourselves from other bad religions. The place to start is simply in experiencing what it is like to be hit in the solar plexus by the more angry and determined repudiators of religion.