Part 2 of series: god is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens: A Response
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Few books will divide the house more than god is not Great. Atheists will happily devour it; religious folks will find it most distasteful. My guess is that few books are more polarizing than this particular volume.
Yet I think I can say something about god is not Great that everyone can agree with: It is filled with purported statements of fact. Those who like Hitchens may be unhappy with “purported,” but surely they must understand that by using this word I’m not necessarily denying the truthfulness of Hitchens’s claims. I’m simply noting that god is not Great is filled with thousands of statements that appear to be factual.
The is worth mentioning because many books on religion and philosophy contain endless arguments and ideas, but not many so-called facts. Books like these are valuable, of course, but they are often hard to assess. Arguments and ideas cannot be easily tested as to their truthfulness. Claims of fact often can be check out rather quicly (but not always, of course. It’s a little hard to verify the fact of the Big Bang or the existence of quarks.).
For example, if I were to say that god is not Great offers several arguments that are valid and many that are invalid, which I do in fact believe, this thesis would take quite a bit of effort to demonstrate. That’s the main point of this extended blog series on god is not Great. But if I were to say that the cover of god is not Great is blue, this could be easily checked out. You could quickly disprove my purported statement of fact by comparing it with the data. And this comparison would not bode well for me, since the cover of god is not Great is quite clearly yellow. One might call it mustard or ocher or “bananaish” or some other variety of yellow, but blue simply won’t work.
The obvious fact that god is not Great contains many apparent facts, therefore, gives us an advantage in trying to evaluate its overall truthfulness. If Hitchens tends to get his facts right, then we would do well to pay close attention to his claims, even those that are not factual per se. He will have shown himself to be a reliable witness and a careful thinker. If, on the contrary, he gets many of his facts wrong, then we would rightly be inclined to doubt what he writes about many things and chalk it up to sloppy thinking.
This fact-checking approach seems to provide a fair and rational way forward in our effort to evaluate god is not Great. In fact, it keeps us within the realm of the rational and scientific, a realm that Hitchens almost seems to regard as the kingdom of God. Yet the plethora of purported facts in this book also makes such evaluation difficult. Why? Because this book contains so many different alleged facts concerning so many different subjects. Yes, religion is in the center of Hitchens’s target, but he tends to shoot with buckshot rather than a silver bullet. god is not Great contains page after page of ostensible facts having to do with history, culture, literature, philosophy, theology, and current events, in addition to religion. Thus it would be difficult for the average person to evaluate Hitchens’s claims without doing a whole lot of research for a whole long time.
Christopher Hitchens knows more about many things than I do. Right or wrong, his grasp of history exceeds mine, as does his knowledge of current events and even certain religions, mainly Islam. But there are a few topics in which I have greater expertise than Hitchens. Given his apparently naÃ¯ve and curiously modernist view of human knowing, (“Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith.” p. 5), I may know epistemology (the philosophy of knowledge) better than he. Likewise with philosophical ethics. I am quite sure that I have much more knowledge of what it’s like actually to be a Christian than Christopher (whose name in Greek means “Christ-bearer” by the way). I’m sure he’d quite happily grant me this advantage over him. And I’m positive that I know the New Testament and the field of New Testament studies better than Hitchens. This isn’t a matter of boasting. One would hope that somebody with a Ph.D. in New Testament actually had a bit of expertise in the field. While Christopher Hitchens was traveling the world as a journalist, I was burrowed into the library at Harvard, studying ancient languages and documents, and reading more New Testament scholarship than anyone other than a scholar would find valuable.
Therefore, as I read god is not Great, wading through Hitchens’s rhetorically-charged version of many purported facts, I was especially attentive to his statements about the New Testament and related scholarship. Would he get these “facts” right? Would he say things that most honest scholars, no matter their theological persuasion, would affirm? If Hitchens scored relatively high in his truth score when it came to the New Testament, then I’d be inclined to believe him about other things as well. He would have shown himself to be a careful thinker, researcher, and writer. If, however, Hitchens scored low in his New Testament truth score, if he made obvious errors and biased misstatements, then I would tend to question his reliability about other statements of fact as well.
The bad news for Christopher Hitchens is that he gets a low mark for accuracy when it comes to his statements about the New Testament and New Testament scholarship. In fact, I found fifteen factual errors in this material. I also identified sixteen statements that show what I consider to be a substantial misunderstanding or distortion of the evidence, even though a few scholars might agree with Hitchens. That’s why I distinguish between factual errors and misunderstandings/distortions, in an effort to be clear and fair.
If my evaluation is anywhere near correct, this does not reflect well upon god is not Great, since the New Testament material comprises only about 6% of the whole book. How many other errors fill the pages of this book? I’ll let suitable experts answer this question. But the obvious implication of what I discovered is that Christopher Hitchens is not a reliable reporter of facts, probably because has not done his homework adequately. He is, after all, a brilliant man with an inquisitive and well-tuned mind. Given my evaluation of his errors in the field I know best, however, I’m inclined to question his statements of “fact” concerning many other things. And my disbelief is not a belief. It’s a reasonable conclusion based on the facts of Hitchens’s numerous mistakes and misstatements.
Of course for this conclusion to be valid, I need to show specifically where Hitchens makes errors in his treatment of the New Testament and New Testament scholarship. I won’t be able to do this responsibly in this post, since I’ve already put up more words today than most readers prefer in a single blog entry. I’ll begin to examine Hitchens’s mistakes tomorrow.
In the meanwhile, if you own a copy of god is not Great, why don’t you see if you can spot any errors. Most of them can be found in pages 110 through 120.