Kindle Surprise: God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, by Christopher Hitchens

“Even a glance at the whole record will show, first, that person for person, American freethinkers and agnostics and atheists come out best.”

As anyone who knows me can attest, I am far from religious. The only times I have been in a church have been either for touristic reasons or some pre-scheduled event, such as a wedding (my own or someone else’s). I am no fan of religion, particularly the kind that causes its adherents to look down the noses at those of other beliefs or outside the faith, and especially when believers try to inflict their code on others. That said, I don’t have a particular problem with religion either. You want to believe in God (or god)? Go ahead. I’d rather judge people on actions, not ideas. If you do charitable works because the flying spaghetti monster told you, that’s certainly a lot better than not doing them at all. What you do counts. Why? Not so much.

And that’s where I part ways with devout atheist Hitchens, whose book here proves that smug superiority is, by no means, the exclusive realm of the devout. There were large chunks where the badgering and supercilious tone actually worked as a brilliant counter-point to his own argument. If this is what atheists are like, I found myself thinking, I sure as hell don’t want to be one. It’s a remarkably selective portrayal of “how religion poisons everything.” A better argument could be made that “humanity poisons everything,” since the 20th century, as religion’s importance has gradually been pushed back, has hardly resulting in a new golden era of peace and prosperity. If you look at the greatest villains in the past hundred years – Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot – they managed to wipe out millions apiece without the use of religion (whatever their personal beliefs may have been). Hitchens has to acknowledge this, and can only bleat about, for example, the Catholic church not being sufficiently opposed to Hitler.

Indeed, even when religion is invoked in conflicts, this is often more an excuse than a reason. The conflict in Northern Ireland, for example, while nominally between Protestants and Catholics, had very little to do with faith: it was more of a tribal conflict, with one group seeking to remain part of the United Kingdom, and the other wanting unity with the Irish Republic. And even that, when it wasn’t a turf war between opposing gangs of organized crime. Certainly, there are cases where religion has held back humanity’s progress, not least its steadfast reluctance to accept scientific advances, going back at least to Galileo. But blaming religion for “everything”, is like blaming baseball for all crimes carried out by someone wearing a cap. [Hitchens, I note, died of throat cancer likely caused by a lifetime smoking. God’s way, I suspect, of proving to him there are other poisons available beside faith]

Religion was – and, to some extent, still is – necessary, because of its provision of a moral glue, which helped hold society together. A belief in eternal damnation is a strong incentive that thou shalt not kill, which one tends to suspect is a good thing in general, regardless of the reason you may choose to lay off murder. Sometimes the laws supposedly laid down by the divine overlord are a product of the specific time and space in which they were created, and it’s certainly fair comment that religion’s inflexible nature causes problems. But its these religious laws which undeniably founded the basis of the modern judicial system, and again, the alternative of a world without this is not one in which Hitchens would want (or if my reaction is indicative, be allowed) to live

I’ve really got no idea to whom this book is aimed, because it’s not exactly an example of how to win friends and influence people. If you’re not already in Hitchens’ camp, you are a stupid poopy-head – I may be paraphrasing him somewhat. For anyone on the fence, as I am, the hectoring tone is incredibly off-putting, and when I had finished the book, I was left with a strong urge to seek out the nearest religious establishment and join up, just to piss the author off. That’s the result of self-congratulatory lines such as, “Perhaps you have read Anthony Powell’s tremendous twelve-volume novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time.” Of all the possible ways to incorporate a quote, could Hitchens possibly have chosen one more conceited than that?

That’s when he’s not flat-out making shit up, for example, claiming, “Nothing optional — from homosexuality to adultery — is ever made punishable unless those who do the prohibiting (and exact the fierce punishment) have a repressed desire to participate.” Citation needed, as they say on Wikipedia. Or describing circumcision as the “mutilation of a powerless infant with the aim of ruining its future sex life”. I guess it’s not just the religious who are likely to engage in hysterical, fact-averse myth-making. For as someone circumcized [by thoroughly non-Jewish parents, entirely for health reasons], I can conclusively state my sex life was not, in any way, “ruined.”

The sad thing is, Hitchens does have some good points, particularly in regard to religion’s place in the modern world. I wouldn’t argue that it makes much less sense now, when we have, for example, a scientific explanation for thunder and lightning. As the quote below suggests, the book is on more solid and convincing ground here, than on tedious chapter after chapter of poring through old religious texts, looking for contradictions at which the author can yell “Ah-ha! Gotcha!” Such low hanging fruit seems particularly inappropriate for someone so outspokenly intellectual as to, perhaps, have read Anthony Powell’s tremendous twelve-volume novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time. It’s wholly unconvincing, and proves nothing more than that atheists can be every bit as annoyingly dogmatic as the preachers of established faiths.

“The study of literature and poetry, both for its own sake and the eternal ethical questions with which it deals, can now easily depose the scrutiny of sacred texts that have been found to be corrupt and confected. The pursuit of unfettered scientific inquiry, and the availability of new findings to masses of people by easy electronic means, will revolutionize our concepts of research and development.”

Kindle Surprise: Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville

“I do not dream, der Grimnebulin. I am a calculating machine that has calculated how to think. I do not dream. I have no neuroses, no hidden depths. My consciousness is a growing function of my processing power, not the baroque thing that sprouts from your mind, with its hidden rooms in attics and cellars.”

Almost bailed on this one quite early. I had qualms going in based on my presearch – that’s research before reading. Basically, I had several books by the author, and wanted to find out which one was his first book, but also discovered the author stood for some fringe left-wing group in the 2001 General Election. Oh-oh: set “political soapbox threat level” to orange. Then, it opened with a prologue off densely obscure descriptive passages, followed by a first chapter that ends with a kinda graphic description of a sexual encounter between the hero and his insectoid lover. [Well, it’s perhaps not THAT graphic, but the concept is easily far enough out there, to be disturbing]. If I’d realized at the time that the book was 867 pages long, I might have skipped it too. Fortunately, the Kindle does not care for such things: all books look the same, regardless of their length.


I say, “fortunately,” since even though this took about six months to get through, read almost entirely on my 15-minute break at work, it’s a wonderfully inventive piece. Even my political fears were largely unfounded: while depicting what could be described as a police state, this is a minor aspect, and actually seems a fairly high-functioning regime. It’s set in the world of Bas-Rag, and in particular the city of New Crobuzon, where a multitude of races more or less co-exist. As well as the insectoid Khepri, you have the avian Garuda, the Cactacae (take a guess), the aquatic Vodyanoi, and so on. Science and magic are both in play, converging in a kind of occult steampunk known as “crisis energy”, which the hero Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin researches in his shared warehouse.

He is commissioned by a Garuda, Yagharek, who has lost his wings, and wants Isaac to provide an artificial alternative. Following a fairly complex set of incidents, doing so unleashes a plague on the city, in the form of a pack of slake moths – insects that suck the minds of their victims dry, leaving them drooling idiots, and which operate across multiple dimensions, making them almost impossible to kill. Oh, and if you look at them, you’re toast, as their wings form patterns that instantly hypnotize any viewer – no saving throw. Taking them down before they breed will require Isaac to form, and handle, a very shaky alliance between creatures, even more bizarre than those already described.

It becomes easy to understand why the author needs 867 pages for this. Part of it is his desire to construct a full world, so he includes a fair amount of stuff that’s not strictly necessary to the plot – politics, religions, etc. – which helps flesh out the bare bones. And you can multiply all those aspects by each of the species involved, with all the description that entails, although it never feels like pointless padding, Miéville doing a good job of mixing it well with sequences that move the plot forward. The results are positively cinematic, and I’d love to see this as a film, even if that would likely take a couple of hundred million to do it justice.

On the other hand, even beyond a massive budget, there are aspects here which would be very difficult to translate; yet removing them would undeniably weaken the effectiveness of the work as a whole. One character vanishes in the second-half, then returns, and it’s hardly a happy ending. And Miéville also pulls a switch very late on, with a reveal concerning the nature of another character – arguably, the most “heroic” in the entire book – that causes both us and the other participants to re-evaluate their entire relationship to that entity. If it works well on the printed page, the result would be almost impossible to pull off on the screen, since it’s so much of a deviation from cinematic structure.

I was somewhat annoyed by some of the pretentious little flourishes, such as persisting in spelling it “chymical”, and never using a two-syllable word when a five-syllable one can be located in his thesaurus. Miéville’s efforts to explain the “crisis engine,” a device which plays a key role in the plot, were also a dismal failure, descending into a mire of tedious pseudo-occult philosophigobbledygook that was completely unenlightening. However, you can’t expect a book of this mammoth size to exist without a few weak spots, and the positives, such as the battles against the slake moths, are page-turners of the highest order. If you’re looking for a richly-detailed work of imagination, with as much effort put into the setting as its plot and characters, this comes highly recommended.

“Old stories would tell how Weavers would kill each other over aesthetic disagreements, such as whether it was prettier to destroy an army of a thousand men or to leave it be, or whether a particular dandelion should or should not be plucked. For a Weaver, to think was to think aesthetically. To act–to Weave–was to bring about more pleasing patterns. They did not eat physical food: they seemed to subsist on the appreciation of beauty.”