The conflict between believers of different persuasions and degrees on the one hand, and between believers and non-believers on the other, is one of the running battles of our times, stoked into a series of flashpoints by terrorism, the Bush presidency, the renascence of religious chauvinism, and worldwide debates over the meaning of secularism.
God is Not Great: Twelve Books, 308 pages, Rs810
Where religion has demonstrably been the cause of violence, many have argued that we need to emphasize the enlightened and moderate aspects of religion to help keep the peace. We are variously reminded that we need to be true to the precepts of Jesus Christ, that Islam is a religion of peace, that Hinduism is a religion of tolerance, and so on.
Christopher Hitchens will have none of it. The latest book by this restless and prolific journalist and intellectual, a relentless debunker of fraud and hypocrisy and a partisan of secular and rational values, is a thoroughgoing attack on religion called God is Not Great. As Hitchens sees it, religion is a relic from the infancy of our species, “the period of human prehistory where nobody had the smallest idea of what was going on”.
His book is a systematic polemic, two parts reasoned argument to one part sarcasm, on “the improbability of god, the evil done in his name, the likelihood that he is man-made, and the availability of less harmful alternative beliefs and explanations” for everything we attribute to god, from happenings in our own lives (Hitchens is highly amused by the idea that god is tuned into each one of us) to victories in war and natural disasters. His trenchant, vigorous prose style (just as religious people are always certain of their access to truth, Hitchens is always reliably pugilistic and adversarial) here lays into religion from all sides.
Firstly, Hitchens alleges, religion’s account of the origin of the world at the hands of god is false, and has been proved so by the theory of evolution, which outlines the ascent of homo sapiens over millions of years by the process of natural selection. Far from being god’s chosen people in part or whole, we share much of our DNA with lower animals. The attempt by religious people to co-opt this truth by interpreting it as “intelligent design” directed by god is a joke.
Secondly, the great religious texts of the world, which believers understand as the word of god by way of revelations granted to one or more prophets, are full of inexplicable lapses and inconsistencies. These show that they are entirely man-made and the motivations behind them were the usual human motivations of desire for power and authority. In three barnstorming chapters, Hitchens lays bare the problems with the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Quran. Among the incriminating details about these books is that their context is not universal, but “oppressively confined and local”—that is to say, they refer not to people but, suspiciously, to specific peoples who must then carry the torch. For what reason should these documents from a certain time and place, with their ethical insight often counterbalanced by a tribal and brutal morality, have jurisdiction over all humanity, as their adherents have always believed? “God did not create man in his own image,” writes Hitchens. “Evidently, it was the other way about.”
And thirdly, Hitchens argues that human beings are naturally solipsistic, and although religion in theory moderates this by holding human beings to the will of a higher authority, in practice it aggravates human egoism and fosters violence. It assures human beings that god cares for them individually and it makes them contemptuous not only of non-believers, but also believers of other faiths, both of whom religious majorities have ruthlessly persecuted in the past and now, in our multicultural age, are taught to “tolerate”. Why should any self-respecting person agree to be tolerated by another?
Yet, as even Hitchens concedes, despite the toppling of so-called revelation by reason, we are not likely to see the end of religion anytime soon, because the need for religion is seemingly hard-wired into us. The need of the hour, rather, is to impose restraints upon the casual and serious trespasses of believers, who must recognize that the rule of law takes precedence, at least in this world, over the rules of their gods. If religious faith is here to stay, we must in our multi-religious global village find a way of making tribalism accountable to reason and universalism or, else, perish in its wake.
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