Christopher Hitchens on violent religion

I have just read an excellent critique of Christopher Hitchens' book God is Not Great (by Andrew Shepherd, a free-lance researcher and teacher in New Zealand).

The essays was called "Face to Face with Violence: Hitchens and Religion, Hospitality, and Peace-Building" and is found in a forthcoming collection of essays called Taking Rational Trouble over the Mysteries (Pickwick, 2013).

I confess that I have not read Hitchens' book but if the argument contained in it is anything like that set forth and critiqued by Shepherd I am shocked and staggered!

To caricature the summary, it appears that the argument is predicated on a simplistic association of violence and religion that is myopic in its understanding of both violence (many kinds of violence are simply passed-by; perhaps because they implicate secular societies too much) and religion (which is understood in purely functional terms). Religion is more or less defined as violent and violent behaviour is more or less defined as religious. So Hitchens can, of course, list of many instances of religious violence. But when he considers counter-examples things start to get silly:

* atheistic violence (which the twentieth century saw many shocking examples of) Hitchens redefines as "religious."

* instances of religious non-violence (e.g., Martin Luther King Jr) are redefined as secular-inspired rather than Christianity-inspired. Why? Because Christianity is violent so King's peaceful work cannot have been inspired by Christianity. (A claim that anyone even remotely familiar with King will know is simply false.)

I am almost lost for words. That an intelligent person could try to argue in such a fashion seems almost beyond belief. A stunning ability to decide on a theory in advance and then not to allow any evidence to get in the way of it.

Even more worrying was what appeared to be Hitchens' positive, unapologetic, and indeed even gleeful affirmation of the use of lethal violence against certain religious groups. Apparently violence is bad ... unless it is used by secular humanist governments to enforce and defend secularism. Then it is good. (Although, as it is violent would it not be ... religious?)

(OK, I have simplified things above, but ...)

Shepherd then offers a much more helpful and hopeful analysis of religion and violence, drawing on the philosophers Derrida and Levinas.

There are very serious issues to do with religion and violence that need addressing — everyone knows that religion can most certainly be linked to violence. However, if we want constructive solutions to religious violence then the resources for them will need to come from within religious traditions themselves.


You should check out William Cavanaugh's lecture (and excellent book, "The Myth of Religious Violence") on the subject. He deals with Hitchens quite efficiently. His critique goes beyond mere definitions and demarkations (What is religion? What is secular? Etc.) to include a more penetrating analysis of the use to which the myth of religious violence has been put, justifying secular violence as rational over and against irrational and therefore super-threatening religious violence. Really, reaaly interesting and good stuff!
Robin Parry said…
Thanks Arni,

That does sound helpful. I will keep my eyes peeled.

David said…
I don't see, Robin, how you can call a review of a book excellent without having first read the book. In any event, it isn't wise to depend on a reviewers opinion of an author's work as a substitute for forming one's own.
numo said…
I think Hitches was a polemicist, and he certainly was popular Over Here, where he lived during later life.

While I have not read the book, I must confess that when Hitches switched from (broadly speaking) liberal to conservative political views, he became unnecessarily provocative and often unkind - cf. his use of the term "Kristallnacht" to describe all kinds of things that are nothing at all like the devastating attacks/pogroms of the *real* Kristallnacht.

I've not really wanted to read "God is Not Great," though his book on Mother Teresa is on my "to-read" list, if only because (from what little I know about it) he said a lot of things - based in fact - that needed to be said, at a time when she had become An Exalted Person in the US media and in public opinion in general. (Which is a whole separate topic; apologies for the drift.)

I do look forward to seeing your take on Hitchens' book at some point down the road.
numo said…
Oops - my "n" key got sticky!

Anonymous said…
It might be well to read Peter Hitchens' book "Rage Against God" where he goes into aspects of athiestic violence, particularly in the former Soviet Union and it's Blocks. Peter, Christopher's brother, assert that there has been more violence and brutalities associated with secular ideologies that in any conflict associated with religion. Furthermore, that even within the conflicts of religion, other factors such as territorial greed, political nationalism, and ambition come into play.

Peter Hitchens, in this book, shows how he found the faith in God that is lacking in his brother. He had hopes to impress this upon his brother before he passed.
Robin Parry said…
Thanks for the recommendation anonymous
Anonymous said…
You didn't read Hitchen's book? You scared? How convenient. Yet, how mindless of you.

Popular Posts