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2 BOOK REVIEW Faith: Part
of the problem God is Not
Great by Christopher
Reviewed by Ioannis Gatsiounis
KUALA LUMPUR - What you are about to read
is a review that almost wasn't. I mention this at
the outset because the incident in question was
informed by the book's subject, religion. This was
in a bookstore in majority-Muslim Malaysia's
glittering symbol of
modernity, the Petronas
Towers. I had just been told by the sales clerk
the store would not be carrying the title, (which
as I write this is number three on the New York
Times' nonfiction bestseller list).
face, framed by a powder blue headscarf, turned
florid as her eyes clung to the computer screen. I
requested to speak with a manager. The clerk
ignored me. I asked again. The manager would
inform me that members of Malaysia's Internal
Security Ministry had swept through the store the
day before and "requested" that the title be
removed from the shelves.
"So there is no
official ban?" I queried.
"So ... self-censorship?"
manager glanced over her shoulder, "Religion is a
sensitive issue in Malaysia."
understand that but should protecting religious
sensitivities happen at the expense of free and
open inquiry?" Put
another way, should the rest of us be stunted
intellectually because some people of faith are
thought to be susceptible to intolerance?
She murmured, "It's not that we don't have
the book, it's just we're not displaying it."
It was a subtle concession, and soon she
was retrieving a copy from the back of the store.
Book and receipt in hand, I hung a little longer
than I might have on its sweeping subtitle, How
religion poisons everything.
whom Foreign Policy magazine ranked number five in
its list of "Top 100 Intellectuals", is the latest
to speak up on behalf of what may prove to be the
most momentous movement to grow out of the
polarizing events of September 11, 2001.
Most attention has focused on the
bloodthirsty call to jihad hobbling the Muslim
world and its reactionary correlative - Bush's
"war on terror". But out of the media glare is a
swelling resistance to that mutually reinforcing
humanists include writers such as Sam Harris,
Richard Dawkins and Michel Onfray. It is
transcontinental. It is traversing the traditional
left-right political divide. It looks deeper than
the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and
colonialism-cum-imperialism in search of a cause
for religious extremism, to reveal faith itself as
an integral part of the problem.
Enlightenment before it, the movement's guiding
principle is reason. Reason of course is at odds
with many of religions' most basic assumptions
(Jesus was born to a virgin; the Koran is the
irrefutable word of God and so on). The difference
is two centuries have passed since the end of the
Enlightenment. Reason now has more weight in its
corner - more science, more philosophy, more
knowledge, more humane and sophisticated systems
of ethics and justice (ditch the cross burnings
and stoning for adulterers, says reason).
"One must state it plainly," writes
Hitchens. "Religion comes from the period of human
prehistory where nobody - not even the mighty
Democritus who concluded that all matter was made
from atoms - had the smallest idea what was going
on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy
of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet
our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as
for comfort, reassurance, and other infantile
needs)... All attempts to reconcile faith with
science and reason are consigned to failure and
ridicule for precisely this reason."
time when not all Muslims are terrorists but
almost all terrorists are Muslims, to paraphrase
Abdel Rahman al-Rashed, many reason-based writers,
intellectuals and activists taking up the crusade
against faith have focused unduly on Islam.
Hitchens is less divisive. Without glossing over
particulars, he exposes the shared absurdities of
faith. "... religion does not, and in the long run
cannot, be content with its own marvelous claims
and sublime assurances. It must seek to interfere
with the lives of nonbelievers [see bookstore
example, above], or heretics, or adherents of
other faiths. It may speak about the bliss of the
next world, but it wants power in this one."
Here is Hitchens on sex: "... all
religions claim the right to legislate in matters
of sex," even though, "Clearly, the human species
is designed to experiment with sex ... Orthodox
Jews conduct congress by means of a hole in the
sheet ... Muslims subject adulterers to public
lashings with a whip. Christians used to lick
their lips while examining women for signs of
witchcraft ... Throughout all religious texts,
there is a primitive fear that half the human race
is simultaneously defiled and unclean, and yet is
also a temptation to sin that is impossible to
Here he is on September 11: "The
nineteen suicide murderers of New York and
Washington and Pennsylvania were beyond any doubt
the most sincere believers on those planes ...
Within hours, the 'reverends' Pat Robertson and
Jerry Falwell had announced that the immolation of
their fellow creatures was a divine judgment on a
secular society that tolerated homosexuality and
Meanwhile, the evangelist
preacher Billy Graham claimed to have detailed
knowledge of the current whereabouts of the
victims, while Osama bin Laden was making similar
claims on behalf of the assassins.
Hitchens takes aim at "the tawdriness of
the miraculous", commonplace in all religions,
from Mohammed's "night flight" from Mecca to
Jerusalem to Jesus' resurrection. He says that "if
you only hear a report of the miracle from a
second or third party the odds [that it happened]
must be adjusted accordingly ... and if you are
separated from the 'sighting' by many generations,
and have no independent corroboration, the odds
must be adjusted still more drastically."
This might seem to provide enough logic to
humble believers - or at least get them to
relinquish fundamentalist convictions. But what
religion has on its side is that these miracles -
not to mention the sayings and doings of their
prophets and saviors and the supposed authenticity
of their texts - are "entirely unverifiable, and
The men who organized
religion do seem to have understood that man's
instinctive thirst for logic meant their