False gods

Religion, claims Christopher Hitchens, is bigoted, irrational and evil. But his moral certitude make

God Is Not Great: The Case Against Religion

Christopher Hitchens Atlantic Books, 230pp, £17.99

ISBN 1843545861

Christopher Hitchens, in his book God is Not Great, has conflated religion with tribalism. He lists his four "irreducible objections to religious faith". Faith, he writes, "wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos". It "manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism". It is the "result and cause of dangerous sexual repression" and it is grounded on "wish-thinking". The book goes on to elaborate with some tedium these points with chapters such as "Religion Kills" or "Is Religion Child Abuse?"

Hitchens sees only one form of religion, the chauvinistic, bigoted and intolerant brand that was embodied in the idiotic pronouncements of evangelist figures such as the late Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. He assures us that religion "spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago". "It may speak about the bliss of the next world," he writes, "but it wants power in this one." Religion is a product of "the bawling and fearful infancy of our species", and all attempts, he assures us, "to reconcile faith with science and reason are consigned to failure and ridicule".

It is easy, increasingly popular, and apparently profitable, to attack this childish brand of religious belief. This book refuses to deal with the nuances of religious thought. It ignores the great moral and ethical struggle by theologians and religious leaders such as Paul Tillich or Karl Barth to root religion in contemporary society. It never confronts the anguish faced by those who recognise the impulses we carry within us for evil as well as good. Hitchens, unequipped to deal with other expressions of religious belief, tries vainly to argue against their authenticity. He writes of Dr Martin Luther King that "in no real as opposed to nominal sense, then, was he a Christian". He disparages the faith of Abraham Lincoln and assures us that Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor put to death by the Nazis for resistance, was the product of a religious belief that had "mutated into an admir able but nebulous humanism".

This is a cheap way to avoid the harder task of exploring the varieties of religious experience, of examining the motivations and beliefs of those who strive to live what even Hitchens would have to concede is the moral life. Hitchens is so determined to demonise religion that he would have us believe that self-professed religious leaders such as King or Bonhoeffer were not really religious. The sophistry of this attempt mirrors the sophistry of those he does attack, those who misuse the Bible to persecute homosexuals, Muslims, women, artists, intellectuals and those they brand with the curse "secular humanist".

The problem is not religion but religious orthodoxy and the form it takes in human institutions. Throughout history, most moral thinkers - from Socrates to Christ to Francis of Assisi - eschewed the written word. Once moral teachings are written down they become, in the wrong hands, codified and used to enforce conformity, subservience and repression. Writing, as George Steiner has recognised, freezes speech. The moment the writers of the gospels recorded Jesus's teachings, they began to kill their message. There is no room for prophets within religious institutions - indeed within any human institution. Tribal societies persecute prophets; open societies tolerate them at their fringes. Today, our prophets are usually found not within the church but among artists, poets and writers who follow, as Socrates or Jesus did, their inner authority, an authentic religious impulse.

Those who transform faith into a creed transplant religion into a profane rather than a sacred context. Like all idol-worshippers, they seek to give the world a unity and coherence it does not possess. And with this false coherence imposed, faith withers. There are many theologians, including Reinhold Niebuhr, who themselves brand as false and dangerous the version of religion that Hitchens attacks as idolatry. Hitchens is right in going after this form of belief. He is wrong in assuming that it stands for religious thought.

Hitchens, in common with a group of anti- religious writers including Sam Harris, author of Letter to a Christian Nation, confuses the irrational with the non-rational. There is a reality that is not a product of rational deduction and not accounted for by strict rational discourse. Science and reason can do much to explain sex and sexual urges, for instance, but they are helpless, as Freud knew, before the mysterious force of love. The spiritual dimension to human existence is, likewise, non-rational rather than irrational.

Religious faith has no quarrel with science. It seeks a spiritual truth, not a scientific or historical fact. It allows us to cope with ambiguity and uncertainty, with the ultimate mystery of human existence in this morally neutral universe.

The danger, which Hitchens fails to see, is not Islam or Christianity or any other religion. It is the human heart - the capacity we all have for evil. All human institutions with a lust for power give to their utopian visions divine sanction, whether this comes through the worship of God, destiny, historical inevitability, the master race, a worker's paradise, liberté-fraternité- égalité, or the second coming of Jesus Christ. Religion is often a convenient vehicle for this blood lust. Religious institutions often sanctify genocide, but this says more about us, about the nature of human institutions and the darkest human yearnings, than it does about religion.

This is the greatest failing of Hitchens's book. He, like Harris, externalises evil. And when such writers externalise evil, all tools, including violence and torture, become legitimate in order to eradicate an evil outside of them. This world-view - one also adopted by the Christian right - is dangerous. It fails to acknowledge the impulses within us, both dark and seductive, that permit us to carry out evil, often in the name of good.

This externalisation of evil is what allows Hitchens to continue as an ardent supporter of the occupation of Iraq. He, of course, deludes himself into believing that it is reason that requires us to waterboard Muslim detainees in the physical and moral black holes that we have set up to make them disappear. It is reason that gives us the moral right to wage a war that under international law is illegal, indeed a "crime of aggression".

His assault on what he defines as the irrational force of religion permits Hitchens to sanction the abuse and subjugation of others. This is done in the name of his particular version of goodness, which he calls, repeatedly, "reason". But this, too, is a false god: more particularly, the god of death. For once you wage unprovoked wars and embrace torture, for whatever reason, you unleash sadists and killers. You become no better than those you oppose. And as an apologist for the war in Iraq, Hitchens not only has the blood of American and British soldiers on his hands, but the blood of a few hundred thousand Iraqis, too. He is no better than the apologists for radical Islam he so ardently seeks to discredit. His moral certitude is no different and the consequences are as dangerous.

Hitchens's arguments are the mirror image of those used by the fundamentalists he despises. He embraces a self-serving and simplistic view of the world. This allows him to create the illusion of a dualistic world of us and them, of reason versus irrationality. And once this vision has been adopted, as the events of the past six years prove, it is possible to view military intervention, occupation and even torture - anything that will subdue the "irrational" or "dangerous" - as necessary. "Necessity," William Pitt wrote, "is the plea for every infringement of human freedom." This is done in the name of his substitute for God, "reason" - which looks, like all personal idols, an awful lot like Christopher Hitchens.

Chris Hedges's "American Fascists: the Christian Right and the War on America" is published by Jonathan Cape