God Cannot Be Great

But what about Buddha?

Andrew Goodwin

GOD IS NOT GREAT: HOW RELIGION POISONS EVERYTHING
Christopher Hitchens
New York: Twelve Books, 2007
288 pp.; $24.99 (cloth)

It was the British philosopher and renowned atheist Bertrand Russell who delivered the most comprehensive riposte to the theists when asked what he would say, should he find himself in a postmortem state at the gates of St. Peter. His reply (quoted by Christopher Hitchens in his new book) contains the totality of objections to religious belief: “I should say, Oh God, you did not give us enough evidence.”

What on first impression seems merely witty actually turns out to be a tremendously important meta-critique of the god concept. (I am going to follow Hitchens in lowercasing the deity, on the grounds that there is nothing to lose when one risks the wrath of a nonexistent entity.) Because of course it is not just that arguments from First Cause, Best of All Possible Worlds, Intelligent Design, World Bank of Morality, and so on, are specious and have repeatedly been proved wrong; it is equally important to notice that their speciousness, combined with a perfectly complete absence of empirical evidence for god’s existence, would inevitably lead any intelligent person to rule them out. Hence, one’s apparent arrival at the gates of St. Peter could mean only this—if I am not hallucinating, then god is an epistemological sadist. Either way, while it may be agreed that god is not great, Hitchens is (for once in his life) insufficiently aggressive—the atheist position is, in the end, surely, that god cannot be great.

Nonetheless, the militant atheist in me can only gasp in admiration at Christopher Hitchens’s rhetorical skills, when, on page four (page four!), he delivers a quadruple whammy: “There still remain four irreducible objections to religious faith: that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking.” You might survey that list and deduce that Hume, Darwin, Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche are being summoned to duty. But no, the author tells us that he had reached these conclusions before he reached puberty, simply by thinking. And then, quite correctly noting that there is nothing arrogant about saying this, Hitchens provides the clincher: “I am morally certain that millions of other people came to very similar conclusions in very much the same way.” Well, he’s right, isn’t he?

What follows is not so much a systematic or philosophical critique of theism (for that you might try Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion) as an exercise in textual criticism that demonstrates inconsistencies in the Christian and Muslim holy texts, trots out the no-dinosaurs argument (that there are no creatures specified in the Bible that exceed the knowledge available to men at the time is in itself sufficient to lead us to reject the idea that these books are of divine origin), and makes the compelling argument that religion is a form of child abuse.

But then things go seriously awry. In a chapter titled “There Is No 'Eastern' Solution,” Hitchens asks someone (himself perhaps?) a poorly worded question: “How might one easily prove that 'Eastern' faith was identical with the unverifiable assumptions of 'Western' religion?” My own answer to that query is simple—you cannot easily prove a nonexistent correspondence between the three Abrahamic monotheisms and the Asian religious traditions because they are very different in scope, technique, and objective. Wasn’t it precisely the narrow-minded attitude of colonialists, warriors, and explorers, both Christian and Muslim, who insisted on understanding “Boodoo” as a god, that led to charges of idolatry and to the (related) distortion of the dharma into something Westerners might recognize? Both attitudes have been quite damaging: the first literally so, leading to the destruction of Buddhist art, temples, and culture (think of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, blown up by the Taliban in 1999); the second leading to an understandable, if ultimately unhelpful, nineteenth-century tendency toward Orientalist Mysticism to which Christopher Hitchens here unwittingly contributes—for instance, when he too refers to “the god Buddha.”

When Hitchens makes the unfortunate decision to attempt to skewer the “Eastern” solution in just one chapter of a mere ten pages, and when you notice that there appear to be no footnotes to this chapter (actually, one book is referenced, but it is listed under the wrong chapter heading), then you realize that this is not going in what we might call a Sam Harris direction—wherein the author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason concludes his scathing assault on the monotheisms with a full twenty pages dedicated to a positive appraisal of Buddhist meditation. Hitchens might have gone after the reincarnation doctrine, which, from an atheist’s point of view, is surely the most damaging and dangerous of all the Buddhist ideas (when understood as something that literally refers to the transmigration of souls) and also the most “religious.”

Instead, Hitchens takes shortcuts, such as his unconvincing critique of the Dalai Lama. Now, I am not a follower of the Dalai Lama. I know very little about him; I have never read, nor do I own, a single book by the great Tibetan teacher. However, there are two things that I do know about him, and for which I think he deserves the admiration of Buddhists and atheists the world over. The first is that he has said, repeatedly and in plain language, that he is not a special person or a supernatural being, but an ordinary man. The second point of significance is his comment that if science proved Buddhist teachings incorrect in any way, then Buddhism would have to change.

One might have expected that a book written by a well-informed journalist who is appalled at the irrationality of religion would have found space to mention this. Instead, Hitchens insists that the Dalai Lama claims to be appointed by “heaven” and that he “anoints” Hollywood stars like Richard Gere as “holy.” He then deploys one book, the only source cited in his reflections on Buddhism, to critique the dharma, and that book is . . . Zen at War, by Brian Victoria. It’s a clever choice, one that suits the author’s desire to demonstrate the unreason of “Eastern” teachings by showing how the Zen establishment supported Japanese fascism, and I’ll grant that these are matters that should give Buddhists great pause for thought. But Hitchens’s choice reveals that he is out of his depth and would have done well to restrict his critique to the assault on monotheism.

Hitchens shows not the slightest interest in the exploration of consciousness, nor in the meaning of transcendent experience. You will search God Is Not Great in vain for any discussion of the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, or the Five Core Precepts, but all you will find there is the One Convenient Footnote. When Hitchens concludes his section on Buddhism with the staggeringly inept barb that it is “a faith that despises the mind,” I was left pondering an ethical problem. Would I like to discover that his research was this poor throughout his book? Or not? It’s an interesting question.

“It can even be argued that Buddhism is not, in our sense of the word, a 'religion' at all.” Better that Hitchens had left it at that. Indeed, Daniel Dennett’s recent Breaking The Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon hardly mentions Buddhism and provides a definition of religion that would exclude it: “Social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.” It is clear that the atheists (or “the brights,” as Dennett and Dawkins laughably suggest we might say) have a problem with Buddhism, but much as we may like to take the agreeable exit from this debate that is offered by Sam Harris (meditation as a type of science, a first-person exploration in the uncharted waters of “consciousness”), Hitchens’s uncompromising and categorical condemnation of all religion, including Buddhism, is worth considering.

Buddhism does not have a “heaven,” but it does lead many people to embark on an endless trek up the slopes of Sugarcandy Mountain, in search of permanent peace, everlasting calm . . . nirvana! Buddhism tells us to trust our own experience; but it also requires us to check in with teachers to find out what our experience “means.” Buddhism tells us that we must suffer; but we read with anguish stories of suffering people who had to be consoled by teachers because they were worried that they would not get enlightened before they died, and would not reach you-know-what.

So what is religion? It is, surely, a form of culture. And Christopher Hitchens appears strangely resistant to this idea. “Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and—since there is no other metaphor—also the soul.” This would be a fine statement if it were not for the fact that literature and scripture are not mutually exclusive (something Hitchens himself acknowledged a few years ago, while singing the poetic praises of the King James Bible, in a review of Adam Nicolson’s wonderful book God’s Secretaries), and if it were also the case that we could agree upon a definition of “literature.” Hitchens seems worried that there is nothing to sustain his view of the future, because we do not have a common culture, not unless he can get everyone else to love George Orwell as much as he does.

Nonetheless, he offers a wonderful demolition of literalist readings of the Bible and the Quran. This can only be helpful. But it leads to an unfortunate tendency to take these texts literally—which most people do not do, because they do not know what is actually in the founding texts of their religion. Actually, the atheists all miss what is increasingly a substitute for “old-fashioned” ideas about god—this is the narcissistic notion that Everything Happens for a Reason, that the universe has special plans for moi. Hitchens notices one especially disgusting monotheistic version of this (God spared me, thank the Lord!) but does not look into the utter pervasiveness of this idea; if he did so, he’d have to acknowledge that it is essentially not a religious idea at all, but an existential form of bad faith.

Hence, while one can easily imagine a world thousands of years from now in which the three monotheisms have become minor cults, it is much harder to imagine a humanity that never engages in magical thinking. Christopher Hitchens almost acknowledges this when he writes: “Sigmund Freud was quite correct to describe the religious impulse, in The Future of an Illusion, as essentially ineradicable until or unless the human species can conquer its fear of death and its tendency to wish-thinking. Neither contingency seems very probable.” Indeed. But getting to know your own mind, in my experience, certainly helps.

Andrew Goodwin is professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco.

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