Though I read all the “Four Horsemen” as their books came out, and when they came out, I have never, except for a slightly more concentrated look at Dawkins’ The God Delusion, considered their “arguments” in detail, and now that one of them, sadly, has been gathered to his ancestors, it seems a good time to take a closer look at the book I so admired when I first read it, god is not Great. I have no idea how many installments this will take, but this is the first of what I hope will be an extended series of comments on Hitchens’ denunciation — Michael Lind’s word — of the biggest celebrity of all, God.
Hitchens begins by considering his growing unbelief in childhood, an unbelief which, I think, is probably almost universal to childhood, and which is so often refused permission to grow into full-scale unbelief. Whether that was due to genius on his part, or a lack of parental reinforcement, is hard to say, but the doubts he remembers from his childhood are in most respects doubts that I had myself as a child, though my doubts were systematically rooted out as time went by, by the missionary context of my upbringing, and by the almost universal conviction of those adults whom I knew at all well that the surrounding world of Muslim and Hindu, Sikh and Parsee belief, was a dark counterpoint to the light that Christians had come to India to bring. A sense of cultural superiority alone tended to subvert my childhood rebellion, which, when combined with the heavy-handedness of religious indoctrination, turned doubts into a kind of racial or cultural betrayal.
Hitchens knew no such restrictions, though he does recognise those early objections as “faltering and childish.” (3) And since I inhabited a society in which, for the most part, adults reinforced the deliverances of faith, my doubts tended to wither on the vine, instead of being pressed into new wine. But questions about the ineffectiveness of prayer, the limitedness of Jesus’ cures of a few unfortunate people, instead of curing disease as such, the brutality of hell, and the maudlin concern about sinfulness in children who could not understand the idea of, let alone blame themselves for any grievous misdoings — and I might add here, my own questions about a trinity of gods that nevertheless managed to be one, or of a virgin who yet bore a child (of which I used to say with such 10-year-old conviction that, if the Virgin Birth mattered, then nothing, surely, about religion mattered, since believing something so impossible effectively subverted our claims to know anything at all): all these occurred to me too, though with less effect, since hell itself seemed real, so real that the Joycean sermon about hell in A Portrait of the Artist seemed, when I first read it years later, to echo the words and aroused the same fears that I had heard and experienced years before when only a child — fears that still cluster about that word, and perhaps will never leave it.
Out of those childish doubts four irreducible objections to religion remain, says Hitchens:
… that it wholly misrepresents the origin of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately ground on wish-thinking. 
He does not think it arrogant to say that he had discovered these four objections before his voice had broken; and I do not think he is either, since, in one form or another, all of them had occurred to me as well, even though deeply repressed by the artificial culture in which I grew up, a small island of faithfulness and light in a sea of demonic beliefs and dark, imponderable evils.
That repression made it difficult to carry my childish doubts any farther, at least for many years, to the great impoverishment of my own life. For, as Hitchens goes on to point out, there is something truly liberating in the recognition that the religious beliefs we are taught in childhood are without exception but the dreams of childhood, dreams to which adults, unaccountably, cling as they grow older, even as they let their other childhood beliefs transmute themselves into products of imagination and creative play. This is important, and not noticed by those who criticise atheism for its failure to recognise other dimensions of the human besides science and its discoveries. As Hitchens says:
We are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe: we have music and art and literature, and find that the serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Schiller and Dostoyevsky and George Eliot than in the mythical morality of the holy books. Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and — since there is no other metaphor — also the soul. 
This is a vital recognition that needs to be remembered in talk about scientism. Scientism is the belief that everything worthwhile can be expressed in scientific terms. No one professes scientism in this sense. And while literature and art and music may not provide ”ways of knowing” in a scientific sense, they do provide the means of awareness that enrich and ennoble, and should not be sidelined, simply because they do not measure up to the canons of scientific verification.
The next point is a corollary of this. Once we recognise that imaginative works such as painting, architecture, music and literature, amongst other means of expressing intimate and personal aspects of our lives which will never rise to the epistemological heights of science, it is at least possible, as Hitchens says, ”that, once people accepted the fact of their short and struggling lives, they might behave better toward each other and not worse.” And he continues:
We believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion. And we know for a fact that the corollary holds true — that religion has cause innumerable people not just to conduct themselves no better than others, but to award themselves permission to behave in ways that would make a brothel-keeper or an ethnic cleanser raise and eyebrow. 
This is an important recognition. So many people have jumped to the defence of religion, as though, were it self-evidently the truth, it would need such defence, suggesting, what is not true, that religion is really not about belief at all, but about lovely things like compassion and love and justice and peace. This would be fine if it were clear that this is what religion is all about, but the people who are saying these things in religion’s defence are simply ignoring, as they defend it, that right now, today, religious people are blowing themselves up in crowded places, stoning women, excluding homosexuals from full participation in society, excluding women from leadership roles for reasons having to do with ancient religious prejudices about women and their “uncleanness”, and doing so many obviously inhuman things around the world that religion is seen to be the exact opposite of what it is claimed to be. Meanwhile they are ignoring that the claims that they make about being the favoured objects of a god’s love are perhaps the primary reasons why religious people not only do some good, but at the same time do so much evil.
It tends to be forgotten, as though these things were never believed, that Thomas Aquinas, for instance, justified, on the basis of his theology, the separation of the heretic from the world by death, or that Martin Luther, the hero of the Reformation, was a vicious antisemite, who believed that Jews should be murdered and the places where they lived and worshipped levelled to the ground and obliterated (vernichtet) so that no one should ever know that Jews had even passed that way. Believing that you are the darling of the gods may make you kind and compassionate, but it is equally likely to make you narcissistic and prone to lording it over those who are not as favoured as you take yourself to be. This is evidenced almost everywhere today, and it makes an unlovely counterpart to all the special pleading in which religions are being commended for the good that they do. Good and evil are simply correlative aspects of being favoured by gods. It is no accident that communicating Catholics were heavily represented in the Waffen SS, or that Muslims, when acting strictly according to the Qu’ran, the Hadith and the Sunna should be totalitarian and cruel. Making excuses for them simply will not do as a response to those who hold religion responsible for the evil that is done in the name of religion. These are characteristics deeply embedded in the religious texts. No one should be surprised when they are expressed in action.
Hitchens is often criticised for trying to claim Martin Luther King for disbelief, or to make little of the religious sources of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s opposition to the Nazis. He claims that Bonhoeffer’s position is “an admirable but nebulous humanism.” (7) But he is right to do so, because there is so much in the Christian record in history, as well as today, that militates against a genuinely religious humanism, and so much in the Christian religion still to call people to intolerance and anger. Of course, there are good people who are also religious, and there are even commandments to good things in all religious scriptures, almost without exception. But that is because they are human, not because they are religious, and looking at the evils that people do, even now, in the name of religion, makes it very clear that religion itself cannot claim its good unless it is prepared to address the evil that is done in its name, and to condemn the sources of that evil. But the latter is something they cannot do, for the sources of the good is the same as the source of the evil, and these sources are also those that give the religious the conviction that they have been blessed by their gods.
This point is put quite simply by Hitchens. The sacred books are purely human works, writings made by humans who are, biologically, only partly rational:
Evolution has meant that our prefrontal lobes are too small, our adrenal glands are too big, and our reproductive organs apparently designed by a committee; a recipe which, alone or in combination, is very certain to lead to some unhappiness and disorder. 
To put one’s absolute trust in anything created by human beings is, consequently, to hazard the good in a project that includes, as an essential part, much that is evil. And once we recognise this, and humble ourselves “in the face of [our] maker, which turns out not to be a ‘who,’ but a process of mutation with rather more random elements than our vanity might wish,” (9) perhaps we can at last recognise that earlier ideas about the sources of life and wisdom are all of them without foundation, and that, while we may know less than we thought we did, we “at least know less about more and more.” The consolations as well as the commands of religion are baseless, without any conceivable foundation in the nature of things. Religion is, as Hitchens points out, again and again, purely man-made, and this, as he says, is “the mildest criticism of religion”, but also “the most radical and devastating one,” (10) a criticism which can be summed up in the words:
The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species. It may be a long farewell, but it has begun, and like all farewells, should not be protracted.
However, he goes on to point out that, while this is his belief, “I trust that if you met me, you would not necessarily know that this was my view.” (11) This is a point which should be stressed, since so many have accused Hitchens of being spectacularly strident and rude regarding his criticism of religious belief.
Despite his disbelief, he points out, he has retained a respect for what to others is holy, and “was upset by [Orwell's] callousness about the burning of churches in Catalonia in 1936.” (11) And he goes on in some detail to speak of the respect for holy places and for other things which the religious might reverence. A necessary kindness, he thinks, because religious faith is in his view ineradicable, because we are still-evolving creatures:
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. For this reason, [he adds] I would not prohibit it, even if I thought I could. 
And he wonders whether the religious would grant him the same indulgence, believing that they are unable to do so. I agree, religion will not leave other people alone, precisely, I think, because the religious themselves harbour doubts about the truth of their beliefs, and this nagging doubt will continue to prod them into action against those who disbelieve or believe differently. And that, in short, is why Hitchens believes that religion poisons everything, because religion will never be content to be shunted off onto a cultural siding where it deserves to be, but will persist in trying to find ways to convert the world, or if not to convert, to destroy it. This does not mean that all religious people will be so motivated, but that religion itself cannot help itself, and that, wherever religion exists, there will continue to be a kind of ineradicable conflict not only with other religions, but with the growing knowledge that is being gained about ourselves and about the world in which we live. Religion cannot stand idly by, and will insist that it be heard. Having said that, it is important to note that in his criticism of religion, Hitchens does not raise his voice, or rant or engage in shrill and strident declamation. His criticism is calm and workmanlike, and it strikes me as being true.