Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews


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








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There’s no shortage of hyperbole and definitive argument on the pages of Christopher Hitchens’ new book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Atheists have a new spokesperson, and he’s a worthy adversary, not necessarily because he’s smart or right, but because he’s probably the loudest and most dogmatic. God Is Not Great is another book that blames religion for many of the woes in the world, and which affirms that since the Enlightenment, religion has been irrelevant. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 8, “The ‘New” Testament Exceeds the Evil of the ‘Old’ One,” pp. 109-113:


The work of rereading the Old Testament is sometimes tiring but always necessary, because as one proceeds there begin to occur some sinister premonitions. Abraham—another ancestor of all monotheism—is ready to make a human sacrifice of his own first­born. And a rumor comes that “a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son.” Gradually, these two myths begin to converge. It’s needful to bear this in mind when coming to the New Testament, because if you pick up any of the four Gospels and read them at random, it will not be long before you learn that such and such an action or saying, attributed to Jesus, was done so that an ancient prophecy should come true. (Speaking of the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem, riding astride a donkey, Matthew says in his chapter 21, verse 4, “All of this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet.” The ref­erence is probably to Zechariah 9:9, where it is said that when the Messiah comes he will be riding on an ass. The Jews are still awaiting this arrival and the Christians claim it has already taken place!) If it should seem odd that an action should be deliberately performed in order that a foretelling be vindicated, that is because it is odd. And it is necessarily odd because, just like the Old Testament, the “New” one is also a work of crude carpentry, hammered together long after its purported events, and full of improvised attempts to make things come out right. For concision, I shall again defer to a finer writer than myself and quote what H. L. Mencken irrefutably says in his Treatise on the Gods:

The simple fact is that the New Testament, as we know it, is a helter-skelter accumulation of more or less discordant documents, some of them probably of respectable origin but others palpably apocryphal, and that most of them, the good along with the bad, show unmistakable signs of having been tampered with.


Both Paine and Mencken, who put themselves for different reasons to an honest effort to read the texts, have been borne out by later biblical scholarship, much of it first embarked upon to show that the texts were still relevant. But this argument takes place over the heads of those to whom the “Good Book” is all that is required. (One recalls the governor of Texas who, asked if the Bible should also be taught in Spanish, replied that “if English was good enough for Jesus, then it’s good enough for me.” Rightly are the simple so called.)

In 2004, a soap-opera film about the death of Jesus was produced by an Australian fascist and ham actor named Mel Gibson. Mr. Gibson adheres to a crackpot and schismatic Catholic sect consisting mainly of himself and of his even more thuggish father, and has stated that it is a pity that his own dear wife is going to hell because she does not accept the correct sacraments. (This foul doom he calmly describes as “a statement from the chair.”) The doctrine of his own sect is explicitly anti-Semitic, and the movie sought tirelessly to lay the blame for the Cru­cifixion upon the Jews. In spite of this obvious bigotry, which did lead to criticism from some more cautious Christians, The Passion of the Christ was opportunistically employed by many “mainstream” churches as a box-office recruiting tool. At one of the ecumenical prepublicity events which he sponsored, Mr. Gibson defended his filmic farrago—which is also an exercise in sadomasochistic homoeroticism starring a talentless lead actor who was apparently born in Iceland or Minnesota—as being based on the reports of “eyewitnesses.” At the time, I thought it extraor­dinary that a multimillion-dollar hit could be openly based on such a patently fraudulent claim, but nobody seemed to turn a hair. Even Jew­ish authorities were largely silent. But then, some of them wanted to dampen down this old argument, which for centuries had led to Easter pogroms against the “Christ-killing Jews.” (It was not until two decades after the Second World War that the Vatican formally withdrew the charge of “deicide” against the Jewish people as a whole.) And the truth is that the Jews used to claim credit for the Crucifixion. Maimonicles described the punishment of the detestable Nazarene heretic as one of the greatest achievements of the Jewish elders, insisted that the name Jesus never be mentioned except when accompanied by a curse, and announced that his punishment was to be boiled in excrement for all eternity. What a good Catholic Maimonides would have made!

However, he fell into the same error as do the Christians, in assum­ing that the four Gospels were in any sense a historical record. Their multiple authors—none of whom published anything until many decades after the Crucifixion—cannot agree on anything of impor­tance. Matthew and Luke cannot concur on the Virgin Birth or the genealogy of Jesus. They flatly contradict each other on the “Flight into Egypt,” Matthew saying that Joseph was “warned in a dream” to make an immediate escape and Luke saying that all three stayed in Bethlehem until Mary’s “purification according to the laws of Moses,” which would make it forty days, and then went back to Nazareth via Jerusalem. (Incidentally, if the dash to Egypt to conceal a child from Herod’s infanticide campaign has any truth to it, then Hollywood and many, many Christian iconographers have been deceiving us. It would have been very difficult to take a blond, blue-eyed baby to the Nile delta without attracting rather than avoiding attention.)

The Gospel according to Luke states that the miraculous birth oc­curred in a year when the Emperor Caesar Augustus ordered a census for the purpose of taxation, and that this happened at a time when Herod reigned in Judaea and Quirinius was governor of Syria. That is the closest to a triangulation of historical dating that any biblical writer even attempts. But Herod died four years “BC,” and during his rulership the governor of Syria was not Quirinius. There is no men­tion of any Augustan census by any Roman historian, but the Jewish chronicler Josephus mentions one that did occur—without the oner­ous requirement for people to return to their places of birth, and six years after the birth of Jesus is supposed to have taken place. This is, all of it, quite evidently a garbled and oral-based reconstruction un­dertaken some considerable time after the “fact.” The scribes cannot even agree on the mythical elements: they disagree wildly about the Sermon on the Mount, the anointing of Jesus, the treachery of Judas, and Peter’s haunting “denial.” Most astonishingly, they cannot con­verge on a common account of the Crucifixion or the Resurrection. Thus, the one interpretation that we simply have to discard is the one that claims divine warrant for all four of them. The book on which all four may possibly have been based, known speculatively to scholars as “Q,” has been lost forever, which seems distinctly careless on the part of the god who is claimed to have “inspired” it.

Sixty years ago, at Nag Hammadi in Egypt, a trove of neglected “Gospels” was discovered near a very ancient Coptic Christian site. These scrolls were of the same period and provenance as many of the subse­quently canonical and “authorized” Gospels, and have long gone under the collective name of “Gnostic.” This was the title given them by a cer­tain Irenaeus, an early church father who placed them under a ban as heretical. They include the “Gospels” or narratives of marginal but sig­nificant figures in the accepted “New” Testament, such as “Doubting Thomas” and Mary Magdalene. They now also include the Gospel of Judas, known for centuries to have existed but now brought to light and published by the National Geographic Society in the spring of 2006.

The book is chiefly spiritualist drivel, as one might expect, but it offers a version of “events” that is fractionally more credible than the official account. For one thing, it maintains as do its partner texts that the supposed god of the “Old” Testament is the one to be avoided, a ghastly emanation from sick minds. (This makes it easy to see why it was so firmly banned and denounced: orthodox Christianity is noth­ing if it is not a vindication and completion of that evil story.) Ju­das attends the final Passover meal, as usual, but departs from the customary script. When Jesus appears to pity his other disciples for knowing so little about what is at stake, his rogue follower boldly says that he believes he knows what the difficulty is. “I know who you are and where you have come from,” he tells the leader. “You are from the immortal realm of Barbelo.” This “Barbelo” is not a god but a heav­enly destination, a motherland beyond the stars. Jesus comes from this celestial realm, but is not the son of any Mosaic god. Instead, he is an avatar of Seth, the third and little-known son of Adam. He is the one who will show the Sethians the way home. Recognizing that Judas is at least a minor adept of this cult, Jesus takes him to one side and awards him the special mission of helping him shed his fleshly form and thus return heavenward. He also promises to show him the stars that will enable Judas to follow on.


While Hitchens turns a clever phrase on more than a few pages of God Is Not Great, many readers will find that much of this book is boring. Fellow atheists will find an anecdote or two to add to one’s repertoire, and religionists will understand the thinking of one critic. Few beliefs will change as a result of this book. The rhetoric may be dialed a notch or two higher, thanks to Hitchens.


Steve Hopkins, June 25, 2007



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