A Response to Hitchens’ “God Is Not Great”

Father Cantalamessa Analyzes Attack on Religion

ROME, SEPT. 24, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Here is the text of a commentary written by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical Household, in response to an essay on religion and evolution written by Christopher Hitchens.

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CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS AND THE END OF EVOLUTION

A few weeks ago an anonymous benefactor saw to it that I received a free Italian edition of an essay by the Anglo-American journalist Christopher Hitchens, titled “God Is Not Great,” subtitled “How Religion Poisons Everything” (Giulio Einaudi, Turin/New York 2007).

I’m quite sure his aim was not to provoke me, but to help me out of the deception I find myself in as a believer and as a TV commentator on the Gospel.

Let me say at once that I’m grateful to my unknown friend. Many of the author’s reproaches against believers of all religions — the book treats Islam no better than Christianity, which shows considerable courage on the part of the author — are well founded, and must be taken seriously so that the same errors of the past are not repeated in the future. The Second Vatican Council states that the Christian faith can and should benefit even from the criticisms of its attackers, and this is certainly one of those cases.

But Hitchens, in my view, makes a mountain out of every molehill. He claims to follow the Gospel principle of judging the tree by its fruits, but as for the tree of religion, he only considers the rotten fruits, never the good ones. The saints, the geniuses and benefactors given to humanity by the faith or nourished by it, count for nothing.

Using the same principles — I mean, by considering only the dark side of an institution — one could write a “black book” about any of the great human realities: the family; medicine (just think what it was used for at Auschwitz); politics and science, and about the author’s own profession, journalism (how many times has it been, and still is, in the service of tyrants and serving the interests of powerful groups!).

No one is exempt from his criticisms. Francis of Assisi? “A mammal who was said to have preached to birds!”

Mother Teresa of Calcutta? “An ambitious Albanian nun” made famous by the book “Something Beautiful for God,” written about her by Malcolm Muggeridge. In other words, Mother Teresa is just one of many products of the media age!

Pascal concludes his account of his discovery of the living God with the words: “Joy, joy, tears of joy.” And C.S. Lewis describes his conversion as being “surprised by joy,” but for Hitchens “there is something dreary and absurd” in these two authors, as in all believers: a fundamental absence of happiness. (“Why does such a belief not make its adherents happy?”)

Dostoyevsky is one of the main witnesses for religion, but the arguments put into the mouth of the rebel atheist Ivan are given more attention than those of the pious Alysosha who, as is well known, reflects much more closely the thought of the author himself.

Tertullian becomes a “church father” so that his “credo quia absurdum” — I believe because it is absurd — can be interpreted as the thought of Christianity as a whole, whereas it is well known that when he wrote these words (here interpreted outside of their proper context and in an inexact way) the Church considered Tertullian a heretic.

Strange that the author should criticize Tertullian, because if there is one apologist he resembles, like a reversed reflection in a mirror, it is precisely the African: The same energetic style, the same will to triumph over his adversary by burying him under a mass of apparently — but only apparently — insuperable arguments: quantity replacing quality of argument.

An English reviewer (J. Cornwell of The Tablet) has compared the author of this book to “a tired old prizefighter throwing weary punches at an inert punching-bag while the true champ he’d like to duff up is absent from the gym.”

He does not demolish the true faith, but a caricature of it. Reading the book, I was reminded of the sport of clay pigeon shooting: The ready-made targets are hurled into the air, and the marksman, aiming his shots with fine precision, blasts them to bits effortlessly.

Hitchens attacks the various religious fundamentalisms with an opposite kind of fundamentalism. In the Italian secular newspaper La Repubblica, Renzo Guolo wrote: “Hitchens’ work looks like the militant manifesto of a world that appears polarized between the disturbing champions of fundamentalism, with their crazy projects for new, totalitarian ethical states, and the supporters of an integral neo-secularism which undervalues the search for meaning on which many are engaged in this age of the ‘end of the narratives.'”

Hitchens shows signs of another kind of fundamentalism too: Although with the opposite intention, he reads Scripture, especially the Old Testament, in exactly the same way as certain biblical fundamentalists of the American evangelical variety — literally, without any effort to contextualize or interpret the text historically. This enables him to speak of “the nightmare of the New Testament.”

But Christopher Hitchens is an intelligent man. He foresees that religion will survive even his attack, just as it has survived countless others before it, and he goes to the trouble of providing an explanation for this embarrassing fact.

“Religious faith,” he writes, “precisely because we are still-evolving creatures, is ineradicable. It will never die out, or at least not until we get over our fear of death, and of the dark, and of the unknown, and of each other.”

Religion is only a provisional, intermediate state, connected with the situation of man as “an evolving being.” Thus the author tacitly assumes the role of one who has single-handedly broken through this barrier, anticipating the end of evolution and “returning” to earth, like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, to enlighten poor mortals about the way things really are.

I repeat: One cannot fail to acknowledge the author’s extraordinary erudition and the relevance of some of his criticisms. The pity is, by trying to win the argument hands down, he fails to convince.



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  1. Dan

    I’m just going to focus on one part of the essay that especially caught my attention:

    But Hitchens, in my view, makes a mountain out of every molehill. He claims to follow the Gospel principle of judging the tree by its fruits, but as for the tree of religion, he only considers the rotten fruits, never the good ones. The saints, the geniuses and benefactors given to humanity by the faith or nourished by it, count for nothing.

    Did these saints, geniuses and other benefactors, do their remarkable deeds because of religion though, or in spite of it?

    Geniuses such as Newton and Copernicus, both unarguably devout, are esteemed for going against dogma.

    And saints and other benefactors, it could easily be said, cared for other people merely because it’s the socially constructive thing to do.

    Now, it could equally be said that the bad sides of religion are not necessarily because of religion, but in spite of it, as well. Or could it? Current knowledge about the psychology of altruism and sociopathy suggests that religion is associated strongly with both extremes of behaviors.

    Moreover, comparison of human societies that are more and less religious, on the whole, suggest that “Godless” societies have come closest to achieving low rates of lethal crime, early mortality, and even abortion.

  2. Dan,

    Your question,

    Did these saints, geniuses and other benefactors, do their remarkable deeds because of religion though, or in spite of it?

    need some answer. I would like to give my own understanding of this matter.

    People can do good deeds even without religion but what will be their deepest motive on doing such thing.Doing good to others could be more humane and beneficial based on the doctrine of the church because it offers not only a humanistic point of view. But something that is supernatural in nature.

    Sorry, but I have never encountered any study that a “Godless” society have come closest to achieving low rates of lethal crime, early mortality, and even abortion




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