05/02/2007 02:33 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Hitchens' Glaring Error

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, the new book by Christopher Hitchens, contains one of the stupidest and ugliest factual errors published by a major publisher in years. Some will call the error anti-Semitic; others will just call it woefully uninformed. But it's an error that certainly discredits the rest of the book, for it reveals how little the author has bothered to learn about the subject at hand.

Before discussing that error, and the travesty of the book as a whole, I should say that I am generally an admirer of Hitchens, even with his support for the war in Iraq. His columns in Slate always seem to teach me something; his knowledge of history and international affairs is nearly unequaled in the press corps; and his writing is, if sometimes rushed and sloppy, frequently witty. I especially like his book reviews in The Atlantic. (Like New Yorker movie critic Anthony Lane, Hitchens writes great literary criticism but too little of it.) My brother, who is writing a book about political turncoats, is under orders to keep me apprised of all new Hitchens writing. And I especially admire Hitchens for The Missionary Position, his brave 1995 book explicating Mother Teresa's hypocrisy, sadism, and opportunistic alliances with bloody dictators. I am a fan of The Missionary Position because I believe that religion needs to be held up to frequent ridicule, even parody. It needs to be exposed to the light of reason, where it will sometimes wither, even die. As a man who loves religion and attends Jewish religious services, I fervently believe that we have too few Menckens, too few Tom Paines, too few Hitchenses.

It was with sadness, then, that I read God Is Not Great, which I hoped would be a thoughtful summa against religion, one with which great religious minds could do battle, just as Bertrand Russell and Father Copleston squared off about atheism on BBC radio in 1948. It is an intellectually shoddy and factually inaccurate rush-job, written with blithe ignorance of what his antagonists actually believe. Completely certain that there is no rigorous thinking in favor of religion, Hitchens is almost gleefully ignorant of important scholarship that would disprove his case. For example, eager to show that religion does almost no good to counterbalance the evil done in its name, he argues that religion was only incidental to the civil rights movement; he seems totally unaware of historian David Chappell's recent and widely lauded book which argues for religion's centrality to the movement. Then there are the factual errors. Happy to praise Fawn Brodie's biography of Joseph Smith, Hitchens elevates her to "Dr. Fawn Brodie," despite her having no Ph.D. Hitchens writes that Lubavitchers regard non-Jews as "racially inferior," which is nowhere in their teachings. And so forth.

So, what's the big error I mentioned at the beginning of this post? On p. 54, Hitchens writes, "Orthodox Jews conduct Congress by means of a hole in the sheet..." This is, as even most idiots know, a total fabrication. As a lie, it's not as bad as the blood libel, but it's not so far from the old tales of sexual perversion in Catholic monasteries and convents -- it's a lie meant to discredit a whole people by making them seem sexually bizarre and far outside decent society.

This urban legend was in the galleys of the book, but I figured that there's no way it would appear in the final version. I figured someone along the way -- a copy-editor, his Jewish editor, his Jewish publicist (a friend of mine and a great guy) -- somebody would say, "Hitch, where did you read this? It's total bullshit." But nobody did. Nor did anybody at Slate, where one imagines the book was read in galleys before somebody decided to excerpt it. In an industry filled with Jews (and plenty of smart Christians and Muslims and Hindus and atheists, too), who will catch this colossal error? Over the next couple weeks, let's watch the book reviews to see.

What to make of this? Two things, it seems to me. First, there are a lot of Jews and non-Jews willing to believe the most incredible things about Jews. Anti-Semitism is but a tiny problem in the United States, but ignorance will always be with us. Second, Hitchens doesn't get religion, and he doesn't get religious people. His book is useful as a primer against fundamentalism and zealotry, but most religious people are neither fundamentalists nor zealots. The comparison I always make is to capitalism: unbridled, libertarian capitalism is quite dangerous, but a more moderated form of the market has been a great boon to humanity, and an inability to make the distinction is a sign of intellectual feebleness. (In fact, old socialists get capitalism and religion wrong in the same way.) Hitchens sees no distinction: at one point, he implies (p. 189) that any Jew who keeps kosher is a fundamentalist. Well, there's subtle thinking for you. Hitchens seems to have done none of the reading on religion that might have broadened his thinking--no Wittgenstein, no Rudolf Otto, none of the phenomenologists who help explain why thoughtful, even intellectual people may be religious. I expected better from Hitchens, and I expect better from the rest of us.