(Posted on behalf of Steve Hays.)
The following is an excerpt from a review by Sam Schulman on Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great.
At heart Hitchens is an unrelieved misanthrope. And, to his credit, he does exhibit a deeper familiarity with human depravity than any of our other anti-religionist authors, whose faith in the perfectibility of mankind is almost comically touching. The question, given his root-and-branch misanthropy, is where on earth he derives his conviction that mankind would be better off without religion.
The answer would seem to be: nowhere. Take, for instance, the phenomenon of sexual repression, which Hitchens blames on religion and regards (it goes without saying) as an unmitigated evil. But sexual repression, in one form or another, has characterized every human community in history, and always will. Religion can be a highly efficient means of enforcing sexual repression; but if it did not exist, some other means would have been found to impose limitations on the expression of human sexuality.
What, then, does Hitchens wish to put in place of religion? He calls for a new Enlightenment, and proposes that we realize its promise by imitating the Socratic method of rational thinking—a suggestion that compels him to engage in some fancy footwork in order to deny there was anything supernatural in Socrates’ insistence that he had a daimon, an inner voice, that enabled him to distinguish good from evil. But this recommendation falls into the same morass as Hitchens’s urging of Shakespeare and Tolstoy over the Bible as teachers of morality. In each case the point is not only anachronistic but odd, given that none of these sages, let alone the Enlightenment itself, is remotely conceivable apart from the religious civilization out of which they all sprang..
There is worse to come. Hitchens is what Hazlitt would call a “good hater.” He hates the idea of the fall of man. He hates the doctrine of atonement and sacrifice. He hates the notion of eternal punishment: “ordinary conscience will do, without any heavenly wrath behind it.” He hates the proscription of masturbation and the prescription of circumcision. Most of all, it emerges, he hates Hanukkah.
Why Hanukkah? It is not just the fact that, in America, the Jews borrowed “shamelessly from Christians in the pathetic hope of a celebration that coincides with Christmas,” a holiday that is itself an “annexation . . . of a pagan Northland solstice.” It is the underlying meaning of the events that Hanukkah memorializes: namely, the success of the Maccabean revolt against the heretical Jewish Hellenizers in the 2nd century b.c.e. For, as Hitchens reads it, that victory—won by a hair—allowed Jewish monotheism to survive, and thereby “eventually to lead to Christianity (yet another Jewish heresy) and thus ineluctably to the birth of Islam. We could,” he laments, “have been spared the whole thing.”
This stroke of counterhistory has been heavily prettified in the details. On the one hand, as Hitchens tells it, there were the Hellenized Jews of Palestine—suave, cosmopolitan, athletic, well educated, yearning to enjoy the finer things in life as represented by their Greek overlords. On the other hand, there were the religious fundamentalists of the day, the Jewish reactionaries seeking only to proscribe and to prescribe. In Hitchens’s reconstruction, the Maccabean revolt sounds like nothing so much as the struggle between “aesthetes” and “hearties” in the Oxford of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.
But the Maccabean wars were not like that. The Greeks were not fighting for the mellow and the metro- sexual. They aimed to pour hogs’ blood over the altar, erect statues of Jove in the sanctuary, eradicate Jewish identity itself. Had the Maccabees failed, there would have been a victory not of secular humanism over religious fundamentalism but of the pitiless Olympian gods—and their Egyptian co-deities—over monotheism and the complexities of ethical life.
Hitchens’s yearning for a world purified of Jews (and therefore of Christians and Muslims) may remind some of Nietzsche. The comparison is unfair, but inevitable. Hitchens’s sketch of a new Enlightenment posits not a world of supermen but only a mild utopia, populated by men in togas discoursing eternally on the eternal verities, a world like the one painted by the Victorian romanticist Lawrence Alma-Tadema, or envisioned by Oscar Wilde in his gullible, amateurish tract The Soul of Man under Socialism. But that is just the trouble. Shorn of the culture we have, a culture nurtured and preserved by monotheistic religion, his proffered utopia amounts to just another invitation to barbarism. Hitchens here shows himself to be more credulous and sentimental—and much more insidious—than any of the religious mythmakers he so earnestly despises.