05/14/2007 04:03 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Christopher Hitchens is Not Great

In what is perhaps one of the stranger reviews from The New York Times Book Review, Michael Kinsley writes adoringly of Christopher Hitchens, the man and the phenomenon, but little about the book in question. In the review, Kinsley tells us about Hitchens' sparkling conversation, that he is a "principled dissolute, with the courage of his dissolution: he enjoys smoking and drinking, and not just the reputation for smoking and drinking -- although he enjoys that too," and that "he is productive to an extent that seems like cheating: 23 books, pamphlets, collections and collaborations so far; a long and often heavily researched column every month in Vanity Fair; frequent fusillades in Slate and elsewhere; and speeches, debates and other public spectacles whenever offered." From this introduction, the review then turns on the following line: "The big strategic challenge for a career like this is to remain interesting, and the easiest tactic for doing that is surprise." For Kinsley, Hitchens' latest book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, is interesting precisely because it bucks Hitchens' recent trend towards the right. Though it was meant as an endorsement, it was hardly a compliment considering Hitchens' fall from grace for many of us on the left.

Nevertheless, like Kinsley, I too have a certain affection for Hitchens, not for the man so much as the role he plays as our public gadfly. Even with his stubborn defense of the war in Iraq, he makes us think by exposing our platitudes for what they are. But unlike Kinsely, I simply do not find anything of interest in this latest work. Both the book and the publicity tour have failed Kinsely's all important strategic challenge. Hitchens' arguments are entirely predictable, following a common pattern, whether in the recent crop of popular attacks on religion from those such as Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins, or the more ancient lineage represented proudly by those such as Voltaire, Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, et al.

After all, is anyone really surprised to learn that the historic faiths are guilty of self-contradictions, that religious fanatics are prone to violence, and that all religions have a human origin? There was a time when these observations were truly radical and provocative. But between then and now a gulf of religious scholarship and critique have transpired, heightening our awareness and forcing any religious devotee not only to learn the truths of his or her tradition, but also to rethink the nature of religious truth. Most (with the exception of fundamentalists) would now concede that religions are true not in the same way that science or mathematics are true, but more in line with the way a Picasso portrait conveys a subjective truth that belies the merely representational. For instance, except for the most literally minded, the Bible is not proven untrue or unreliable because it has two contradictory stories of creation in the first two chapters of the Book of Genesis, or because it has four different portraits of Christ included within the New Testament. On the contrary, an appreciation of these variances -- even contradictions -- are essential to understanding the particular nature of truth that belongs to the religious. It is precisely this insight that gives rise to contemporary hermeneutical philosophy, in which the contemporary theorists echo the claim made by Nietzsche over a century ago -- namely, "there are no facts, only interpretations."

Borrowing from that great philosophical gadfly Nietzsche even further, he is famous for his proclamation that "God is dead." But as many contemporary theologians and philosophers of religion now tell us, the death of God immediately implies the death of the death of God as a movement, or as a dogmatic expression of atheism. In other words, to speak of the death of God need not be an anti-religious rant; rather, it might very well be a religious expression of faith. Gianni Vattimo, a contemporary hermeneutical philosopher from Italy and former member of the European Parliament says this best when he writes that the death of the moral-metaphysical God "liquidates the philosophical basis for atheism." This is not to say that all beliefs are equal, that there is a moral equivalence between religion and science, or that it makes no difference whether one sticks one's head in the sand living in some pretend reality verses being on a painstaking search for the truth. But it is to say that we are all potential idolaters, and that idolatry comes in many different forms with the religious being the most recognizable and thus easiest to target.

In short, this book by Hitchens is disappointingly lazy. If I had my druthers, I would much prefer the nuance from someone like Freud, who almost a century ago chronicled how religious ideology was a human projection, how it functioned as an infantile neurosis, and how it stifled our psychological and moral development. Even with all that, Freud reminds us in The Future of an Illusion that religion is not all bad: "Religion has clearly performed great services for human civilization. It has contributed much towards the taming of the asocial instincts. But not enough." It is precisely this honest critical assessment in contrast to Hitchens' bombast that we need today.

For examples of this honest critical assessment of the meaning, as well as both the strengths and limitations, of religion in today's world, I would recommend my book with Gianni Vattimo and John Caputo entitled After the Death of God, except that one can find a similar sentiment marked in almost any other current work in philosophy of religion. The point is, this critically aware, thoughtful, and politically engaged faith is out there for anyone who has grown weary with the old clichés -- in other words, for exactly the sort of someone we once thought Christopher Hitchens was.