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McCarraher Trounces Hitchens

In a recent review of Christopher Hitchens’ book God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything in Commonweal, Eugene McCarraher has splendidly and devastatingly critiqued this poorly-informed and overrated addition to the latest litany of militantly athiest manifestos littering the top seller lists in bookstores around the U.S.  McCarraher, always an excellent writer and social critic has delivered the best critical review of this genre of evangelical atheist books since Terry Eagleton’s fabulous flagellation of Richard Dawkins. 

Aptly titled “This Book is not Good”, McCarraher beautifully slices through Hitchens’ clumsy polemic with surgical precision.  I highly recommend his review.

Here’s the last three paragraphs of McCarraher’s review:

Hidden inside the inflated prose of Hitchens’s PR flackery is a conceit common among the educated classes: namely, that the demise of religion would usher in a new age of fearless, democratic cerebration in which each of us would “think on one’s own.” Hitchens’s paean celebrates a secular moral imagination sketched in terms of professional and managerial expertise. Defining the good life for us all in word and image, the business and technical intelligentsia comprise a cultural elite, a rival clerisy whose rhetoric of Science, Progress, and Enlightenment can mystify as effectively as did the bell, book, and candle of the priesthood. In particular, our modern notion of “Progress” has the most beguiling account of an eschatology that never ends.

Hitchens insists that he and his secular allies “do not require any priests, or hierarchy above them,” that they “need no machinery of reinforcement,” and that “sacrifices and ceremonies are abhorrent to us.” In case he hasn’t noticed, the corporate elite has constructed the hierarchy, along with a machinery of reinforcement it shares with the nation-state. And Hitchens’s uplifting predictions about the God-less future are most savagely belied by the catastrophe in Iraq, where the bogus distinction between religious and secular violence can be seen in all its ideological duplicity. While pointing to the sanguinary unreason of “fundamentalists,” the war’s advocates have offered up the lives of thousands in sacrifice to a future of Market and Democracy. An Iraqi killed by a U.S. Marine is just as dead as if she were dispatched by a jihadist. Both Hitchens and the jihadist would contend that her death is part of a larger struggle between the forces of light and darkness. To a Christian, she’s a victim of libido dominandi, whatever the discursive camouflage; to Hitchens, she’s the collateral damage of enlightenment.

So enough about the sweetness and light that await us when the gods are finally dead. The war in Iraq, like the history of the twentieth century, demonstrates that secular values provide no inoculation against credulity, madness, and butchery. Conferring a sacral aura on the market and the nation-state, secularism is a parody of religion, and its acolytes can no longer lay claim to the patent on reason and enlightenment. Blinded by the radiance of imperial righteousness, and willing to bless carnage in the most dubious of crusades, Hitchens no longer merits our attention or respect, especially on matters regarding the good life and the just city. If you doubt me, read this book.


  1. Jon wrote:

    Isn’t that the way militant atheism tends to work, “Think for yourself…unless your conclusion differs from ours, in which case you’re an idiot.”?

    Torquemada much?


    Friday, August 24, 2007 at 7:13 pm | Permalink
  2. Derrick wrote:

    Thanks for the links to the articles, Halden, they were a good read. Also, and sorry this is slightly off topic, I remember you mentioning to me that David Bentley Hart wrote a critique of Dawkins’ latest book, and I was curious if you might remember what journal/magazine it appears in so I can go read it. If it has a web address even better.

    Friday, August 24, 2007 at 9:00 pm | Permalink
  3. Bobby Grow wrote:


    thanks for this article. I saw Hitchens get trounced by a Western Muslim academic on an OPB forum. It wasn’t an formal debate, more of a round-table exchange. Although as McCarraher pointed out, they both were operating within the same epistemological socio/cultural framework.

    Saturday, August 25, 2007 at 1:16 pm | Permalink
  4. Hill wrote:

    I believe the Hart article was a review of Daniel Dennett’s book (which deals with Dawkins’ ideas). Here is the link If you enjoy the kind of hilarious and brutal rhetorical dismantling of which Hart is capable, you will appreciate this article. Dennett is certainly deserving of it.

    Saturday, August 25, 2007 at 6:04 pm | Permalink
  5. Derrick wrote:

    Thanks for the link Hill! Yes actually thats the reason I want to read it. I’m not expecting any ‘scientific criticism’ per say (Hart is, after all, trained as a theologian and not a scientist to my knowledge), but was looking forward to Hart’s brand of thesaurus-laiden tongue lashing ala Beauty of the Infinite.

    Saturday, August 25, 2007 at 7:39 pm | Permalink
  6. Derrick wrote:

    Having read the article now all I can say is ‘hilarious and brutal rhetorical dismantling’ of Dennett indeed! I almost died laughing when I reached the end of this paragraph:

    “There is not even any compelling reason to assume a genetic continuity or kinship between, say, shamanistic beliefs and developed rituals of sacrifice, or between tribal cults and traditions like Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity, or to assume that these various developed traditions are varieties of the same thing. One may feel that there is a continuity or kinship, or presuppose on the basis of one’s prejudices, inklings, or tastes that the extremely variable and imprecise characteristic of a belief in the supernatural constitutes proof of a common ancestry or type. But all this remains a matter of interpretation, vague morphologies, and personal judgments of value and meaning, and attempting to construct a science around such intuitions amounts to little more than mistaking “all the things I don’t believe in” for a scientific genus.”

    Saturday, August 25, 2007 at 8:17 pm | Permalink
  7. dan wrote:

    Hey Halden,

    I enjoyed reading McCarraher’s review but I am surprised that nobody has pressed him (here, anyway) on his reference to Iraq at the end of the review. While some of us may be convinced that the war in Iraq is simply a “continuation of business by others means” (to revise, and update, von Clausewitz’s observation), others are quite convinced that the war is a war of religion — the clash of the Christian West with the Muslim Near East. Indeed, it seems to me that, at various points, the American regime wanted to present the war in precisely this way (of course, you and I may be inclined to see this as deceptive manipulation, but I think that Hitchens would argue that it is not — and it would be up to us to show otherwise). Thus, when McCarraher writes that:

    An Iraqi killed by a U.S. Marine is just as dead as if she were dispatched by a jihadist.

    I’m sure that Hitchens would respond that the Iraqi killed by that U.S. Marine was killed by a jihadist — the only difference being that the one doing the killing is engaging in a Christian, not a Muslim, Holy War.

    Consequently, I think that McCarraher’s all-too-brief reference to Iraq actually weakens his argument (even though I agree with what he says about Iraq!).


    Sunday, August 26, 2007 at 7:24 am | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    Hi Dan,

    Actually, my understanding is that Hitchens has been an outspoken supporter of the Iraq war and president Bush. I think he views the war as the progress of secular capitalism confronting a violent fundamentalism. Thus, he’d be all for marines killing jihadists, I think!

    One of his most telling quotes on the subject is:

    “George Bush may subjectively be a Christian, but he—and the U.S. armed forces—have objectively done more for secularism than the whole of the American agnostic community combined and doubled. The demolition of the Taliban, the huge damage inflicted on the al-Qaida network, and the confrontation with theocratic saboteurs in Iraq represent huge advances for the non-fundamentalist forces in many countries.”

    Found here.

    Sunday, August 26, 2007 at 9:05 am | Permalink
  9. Michael Westmoreland-White wrote:

    Wow. I know many militant atheists who believe that Bush’s wars (Iraq more than Afghanistan) have led to increases in religious fundamentalism (especially Islamic fundamentalism) and retarded the “progress of secularism” whatever one thinks of the latter.

    Sunday, August 26, 2007 at 10:23 am | Permalink

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