When the French scientist Pierre Laplace first explained his nebular theories to Napoleon, the emperor posed to him a single question. “Where is there room in all this for God?” To which Laplace famously replied, “I have no need for that hypothesis.”
Christopher Hitchens invokes Laplace’s reply in his new book God Is Not Great. In a sense, Laplace supplies the central argument for the kind of naturalism that Hitchens espouses. The world can be entirely understood on the basis of natural laws and events. Why call upon God when he is entirely superfluous in order to make sense of the world?
As Hitchens’ title suggests, his argument goes further than this. God is not merely unnecessary, he is “not great.” The subtitle is even harsher, “How Religion Poisons Everything.” Everything? Yes, Hitchens would have us believe that whatever religion touches it corrupts and inflames.
Hitchens is an iconoclast, as is indicated by one of his earlier books, a harshly critical biography of Mother Teresa called The Missionary Position. While I found that book quite foolish and distasteful, I found myself applauding some of Hitchens’ pungent rhetoric in this one. There is plenty of room for even Christians to be outraged by some of the things going on in the churches—the blatant money-grubbing, the jaw-dropping hypocrisy, the sex scandals that would make even Hugh Hefner blush—and Hitchens is unsparing in his expose of these offenses.
When Hitchens turns to larger political conflicts, however, his arguments droop. He strains to show that the clash between the Catholics and the Protestants in Northern Ireland is motivated by religion, without answering the objection that the two groups seem to be fighting not about doctrine but about land and political autonomy. He baptizes the warfare in the Balkans as “religious” rather than “ethnic” cleansing, even though these feuds are rooted in tribe and blood. Religious differences are only incidental.
Hitchens implausibly suggests that if messianic rabbis and mullahs could be kept out of the Palestinian conflict, the issue would have been settled “decades ago.” As a mater of fact, both Zionism and Palestinian nationalism are largely secular movements and the conflict has always been based on a simple, non-religious question: who owns this land? Hitchens even seeks to portray the Shia-Sunni conflict in Iraq as a clear strike against religion. In reality the theological differences between Shia and Sunni are non-existent and the real basis of the sectarian warfare is entirely political and power-driven.