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Elgin’s Books


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  • Archive for March 7th, 2008

    Hitchens – God is not Great I

    Friday, March 7th, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

    Listen to the MP3

    This week I begin my review of Christopher Hitchens, “God is not Great,” the third of the big three in the current crop of atheist books. In some respects, Hitchens’ offering is much better as it seems to have a deeper understanding of religion, than Sam Harris’ The End Of Faith, or Richard Dawkins’, “The God Delusion”, but it is much more uneven as serious argument is suddenly marred by outbursts that are little more than cheap shots, hatred and at times bigotry.

    Still Hitchens arguments, while often better stated, share many of the same problems I have already discussed in my reviews of Harris’ and Dawkins’ books. For example, early on in chapter One Hitchens attempts to describe what atheism is, or at least, what it is not.

    “Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason… we do not hold our convictions dogmatically: the disagreement between Professor Stephen Jay Gould and Professor Richard Dawkins, concerning “punctuated evolution” and the unfilled gaps in post-Darwinian theory, is quite wide as well as quite deep, but we shall resolve it by evidence and reasoning and not by mutual excommunication.” (pg 5)

    Now there are several problems is this passage. First I have to admit that I find this somewhat amusing for a rather abstract reason. At various times in the history of Christianity something referred to as negative theology has been popular. Negative theology is the attempt to describe God by saying what he is not, as in statements such as God is not a created being. One of the criticisms of negative theology is that such negations ultimately say very little if anything. Which is somewhat how I felt after reading Hitchens definition of atheism; as the more I read it, the less it seemed to say.

    And this goes to the heart of one of the problems with atheists’ arguments. If Hitchens’ definition above is read very strictly, it says little more than that there is no organization in atheist belief and that while they may share some things in common there really is no such thing as atheism. For example, I have had many self-proclaimed atheist say that they rely solely on science and reason. But this flatly contradicts Hitchens’ negative definition of atheism. So are these people atheists?

    But that is the thing about atheists, while they believe that the religious are a coherent group where anyone who is religious must defend anything ever done by anyone else who was religious, whatever their motive, or how nominal their belief, atheism on the other hand is not a group, or as Hitchens put it, not a belief or faith. They as atheists never have to defend what others atheists have done, unless of course they like what they did, then they can claim it as an expression of atheism.

    You can see this in his claim that a “proper statistical inquiry” would find that “the faithful” commit more crimes of greed or violence than atheists. If “the faithful” is defined broad enough, and “atheist” narrow enough, I have no doubt that this would be true, but it would only be as valid as the definitions. The recent Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey claims that 78.4% of Americans are Christians and 89.7% are religious, while only 10.3% are secular, with only 1.6% claiming to be Atheists.

    Given these statistics I am sure that the nearly 90% who are religious would have a higher rate of violent criminality than the 1.6% who are atheists. But, I am also sure that most pastors would be happy if just everyone who attended Church regularly, about half of those who claim to be religious, were fully committed to serving the Lord. But most atheist lump all believers from all religious beliefs together as if they were the same.

    As for his statement that “we do not hold our convictions dogmatically” such claims are often only in the eye of the beholder. One only has to point out one of the many problems with evolution, to an atheist to see a display of dogmatism in action.

    In addition, as I point out in my book, Christianity and Secularism, everyone has beliefs that ultimate must depend on faith to some extent. This includes atheists. So while atheists like to portray themselves as driven by reason and evidence while theist are driven by dogmatism and faith, such a view is not only self-serving, but false.

    There are quite large difference among Christians on a whole range of issues such as was the earth created in 7 literal days less than 10,000 years ago, or is the earth billions of years old? Even Christians who believe the Bible to be the inerrant word of God, can be found on both sides of this question, and contrary to Hitchens implications, most get along quite nicely, often worshipping together.

    Sure if one judges all religions and all followers as essentially the same, and focuses on the worst actions of the followers of religion, then religion comes off pretty bad. But then if you focus only on the negative, anything can be rejected. But if one looks at the larger picture, weight both the pros and cons, the picture is nowhere near as bad as Hitchens tries to paint it, and in fact Christianity come off quite well.

    This is Elgin Hushbeck, asking you to Consider Christianity: a Faith Based on Fact.