There are two articles in the National Post that I think I should be discussing before going on with the Hitchens assessment, but this chapter is so important, I have decided to forego the pleasure and simply dive into Hitchens’ wonderfully restrained dismemberment of religion. (The two articles, just to mention them, before continuing, are: “My right to live trumps your right to die,” and “Euthanasia’s foes, out of arguments, settle for fear-mongering.” You will not doubt where I stand. Derek Medeima is, you will not be surprised to hear, a research hack at the Roman Catholic “Institute for Marriage and the Family.” Of course, as usual, the “institute” does not wear its heart on its sleeve, and pretends to be a “secular” organisation, thus exemplifying the typical bad faith of the religions.)
However, to go on with Hitchens book, and in particular, the fourth chapter, entitled simply “A Note on Health, to Which Religion Can Be Hazardous.” It is worth noting that Hitchens does not start with arguments against the existence of God. He starts with more mundane things such as the more general comments on religion in general in the first chapter, the focused concern of the second chapter on the danger of religion, and the digression on why God hates ham in the third. This fourth chapter follows in those footsteps, by considering the role of religion as a threat to health and well-being. At no point, however, it must be said, does his voice rise to the level of a shriek. There is no screaming, no stridency, just a cool analysis of the faults that he discerns, although he does state bluntly the criticisms that he makes of religion and its effects. In view of the widespread idea that Hitchens is strident and unrestrained in his criticism, this is important to notice. He simply points out, in a matter of fact way, how religions endanger health, whether this consists in refusal to accept vaccination against diseases, in the existence of religious psychoses, or in the violent, apocalyptic conceptions of the end of all things that seems to dominate so much religious discourse, and which, in itself, amounts to a form of mental dysfunction.
The chapter begins with a story of religious interference in a vaccination programme in the Indian state of Bengal, where an attempt was being made to eradicate polio, once and for all. Things were going well, people were getting involved, an elephant was even hired to lead a publicity parade. Society women and prostitutes teamed up to spread the word. All that was needed was a couple drops of vaccine on the tongue on two separate occasions — the second as a booster to insure immunity – but local Muslims got the idea that it was a Western plot, and that those who got the drops would become impotent and stricken with diarrhea, and so the hope of wiping polio out, as smallpox had already been, may have been dashed. Whether in Bengal or not Hitchens doesn’t say, but he points out that in Nigeria a fatwa was issued that no one was to take the drops, and before long polio was back, and being carried to other places as well — as far away as Mecca and the Yemen. As Hitchens says wryly:
The entire boulder would have to be rolled back right up to the top of the mountain. 
But is this not an isolated case? No, says Hitchens. This kind of endarkenment is endemic to religion. Thus the president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, claimed, without a shred of evidence, and in fact in defiance of everything that is known about the use of condoms, that “all condoms are secretly made with many microscopic holes, through which the AIDS virus can pass”. It was this same Cardinal Alfonso Lopez de Trujillo who claimed that continence is the only moral resort for a husband who is infected by the AIDS virus, and that, if he has sex with his wife, it is better that he infect his wife than to use a condom, and that some things (like natural unprotected sex!) are worth more than life itself. The latter report about this sociopathic cardinal is made by Uta Ranke-Heinemann (in her book Putting Away Childish Things), the first woman licensed to teach Roman Catholic theology, and also the first woman to have her license revoked because of her unorthodox reflections on the Virgin Mary. She calls the Roman Catholic Church a death cult, because suffering and death are more important to it than health and wholeness.
But Islam is no better, and sometimes worse, Hitchens says. In Indonesia, the official council of the Ulema, speaking on behalf of the Muslim scholars in Indonesia, “urged that condoms only be made available to married couples, and on prescription,” (46) thus making sure that the AIDS problem could not be solved. Pakistan said that the AIDS problem was not serious in Pakistan because of the prevalence of Islamic values. “This,” as Hitchens says contemptuously,
in a state where the law allows a woman to be sentenced to be gang-raped in order to expiate the “shame” of a crime committed by her brother. 
And he goes on to speak of ”the old religious combination of repression and denial.”
… a plague like AIDS is assumed to be unmentionable because the teachings of the Koran are enough in themselves to inhibit premarital intercourse, drug use, adultery, and prostitution,”
despite the fact that temporary ”marriages,” according to Shia law, are available throughout the Middle East, a practice which is nothing more than prostitution by another name. If you can’t eradicate something, like the celebration of the Winter Solstice, you take it on board and sanctify it.
The point, as Hitchens makes clear, is that religion and science are incompatible, so that religion’s relationship with medicine is always problematic. Say that they are compatible as much as you like, science still breaks religion’s monopoly hold over the culture. Scientific medicine, then, cuts across religious myths about healing which are still very powerful, as a glance at evangelical or catholic Christianity would show. The “miracles” in the New Testament, for example, are almost one and all miracles of healing. Saints, in the Roman Catholic tradition are made according to the number of miracles attributed to prayer addressed to a person now dead. And people still flock to places like Lourdes, Saint-Anne de Beaupré, Medjagorie, Fatima, or the bathing ghats at Varanasi on the Ganges, in order to plead for a cure for their ailments. Lourdes claims that, of all the many millions of pilgrims who are brought to Lourdes to pray for a cure, only 60 or so cures have been “verified” — whatever that means. All of this empty hopefulness against a backdrop of religion’s interference in the practice of scientific medicine, from the refusal to accept polio immunisation just mentioned, to the widespread opposition to immunisation against the human papillomavirus in the United States. Hitchens comments:
To accept the spread of cervical cancer in the name of god is no different, morally or intellectually, from sacrificing these women on a stone altar and thanking the deity for giving us the sexual impulse and then condemning it. 
And yet this kind of thing is done again and again in the name of religion. How many people in Africa have died because of the AIDS virus because of the Roman Catholic condemnation of the use of condoms or lies told about them? We don’t know, but it is arguably a very large number. How many women in the United States will develop cervical cancer because of a refusal to use an immunisation whose use is argued, by religious opponents, to be an encouragement to promiscuous sexuality? Again, the number of victims of religious interference will be unacceptably high.
Hitchens mentions, in connexion with this and the ridiculous Roman Catholic attitude towards contraception, that the Bush administration, in the twenty-first century, when so much is known about disease and its causes, refused “to share its foreign aid budget with charities and clinics that offer advice on family planning,”  a refusal which made its way into the policy of the Conservative Canadian government. According to the Toronto Star, in an article with the link title, “Harper is a complete panderer” (though the headline reads: “Canadians don’t want foreign aid spent on abortions: Harper”), the Prime Minister told the House of Commons on 27th April 2011, that
Canadians want to see their foreign aid money used for things that will help save the lives of women and children in ways that unite the Canadian people rather than divide them.
I am not one of Harper’s imagined Canadians with such a wish. The tie with evangelical Christianity (of which Harper is one) is not so obvious in Canada as in the United States, since in Canada politicians seldom “do God” in public; nevertheless, the source of this kind of policy — which is in stark contrast with that of earlier governments – in the Prime Minister’s conservative Christianity, pandering to evangelical Christians in the electorate, is clear. In the United States these things are more clearly spelled out. The reason for opposition to immunisation against the human papillomavirus (HPV) is opposed for reasons having to do with Christian beliefs about the restriction of sexual intercourse to marriage, and about genital disease being an appropriate punishment for the immoral use of sexuality. Precisely the same belief is held with regard to AIDS, as Hitchens points out. Just as HPV is a condign punishment for the illicit use of sex, AIDS is the appropriate penalty for homosexuals who indulge in “unnatural” acts. This, however, as Hitchens points out, simply ignores the fact that
… female homosexuals not only do not contract AIDS (except if they are unlucky with a transfusion or a needle), they are also much freer of all venereal diseases than even heterosexuals. 
Which obviously puts paid to the silly religious notion that disease is a penalty for supposed moral turpitude.
After warming to his subject as just summarised, Hitchens goes on to speak about other religious practices which too often get passing grade simply because they are religious. He points out with what outrage and revulsion normal people would respond to the spectacle of an older man with a baby’s penis in his mouth. But the man has an explanation ready to hand. He is a “mohel”, and his authority comes from an ancient text which prescribes the removal of the prepuce of the penis, sucking it into the mouth, “and spitting out the amputated flap along with a mouthful of blood and saliva.” I should record here my own horror when reading (some years ago) an introductory book on Judaism in which this practice was described, and that I stopped reading the book at this point, and never returned to it. Yet, despite the fact that this procedure led, in New York, to the death of two boys, and the infection of a number of others with genital herpes, still the practice, however unhygienic, and despite its disturbing associations, was considered a protected act under the Constitution of the United States.
Of course, circumcision is not restricted to boys, and a form of female circumcision — now generally called “female genital mutilation” (FGM), though this term is seldom extended to males in the form of MGM – is widely practiced by Muslims, and those of other religions who come from Muslim majority areas of the world. It consists in the excision of the clitoris, and the external labia of the vulva, and often extends to infibulation, or sewing of the vaginal slit, leaving only a small aperture for menstrual blood. Hitchens says that the sutures remain, but this, I think, is not true. The aim is that the wound will heal and the injured parts of the vagina will fuse together, and it is this unnaturally fused skin that is broken on the wedding night, thus assuring the bride’s virginity. Female circumcision is outlawed in many countries, although it is still often performed in secret. Male circumcision, however, is still widely practiced, and while it is strongly discouraged in some jurisdictions, there is, apparently, very little legislation governing the practice, although a non-binding research paper in Queensland, Australia, suggests that “routine circumcision of a male infant could be regarded as a criminal act.” (For more on this see the entry under Circumcision and Law in Wikipedia.)
There is so much else in this chapter worthy of comment. The whole issue of homosexuality, for instance, or the abuse of children by Roman Catholic clergy, and its subsequent widespread cover up, raise very serious concerns. The fact that religious psychoses are relatively common, a whole ward in Jerusalem being set aside for those with the “Jerusalem Syndrome,” the fantastic and deluded belief that they have been specially anointed by god to proclaim the end of days, points up concerns we should have regarding the effect of religion on the human psyche. And Hitchens reminds us that all three monotheisms hold in esteem someone who believed that god had commanded him to sacrifice his son. And even if one can interpret this story as opposition to child sacrifice, as is often done, it does not follow that the story is one in which humanity shines through. Indeed, it is cold-blooded and brutal in its understanding of the relationship between god and men. Freeing Abraham from his obligation to kill his son may be an act of grace, but the implication is clear: it is god’s right to demand such a sacrifice, a demand that was made good, in the Christian myth, in respect of his own son.
On the whole, then, Hitchens’ summation of his argument:
Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organised religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience. 
And then, when you consider, as Hitchens says, that there is, running through the whole of religion a kind of heedless nihilism in the expectation of the day of judgement, when all that has been achieved by the intelligence and ingenuity of human beings will be simply nullified in favour of reward to those who have refused to question or to doubt, and who have bought unthinkingly into the repression and subversion of their ordinary humanity, the record of religion, and its undeserved immunity to criticism and ridicule, clearly makes religion a danger to us all, but first of all to those who contrive to ignore the deep inhumanity and evil of so much that they call sacred, making themselves as small and insignificant and servile as possible, so that they can express in their own person religion’s overbearing self-concern and its malice towards those who do not believe.
And this means, as Hitchens says, that we are faced, not only with people who do not understand the germ theory of disease, or the consequences of their religious morality on people’s health and well-being: the problem is deeper than this. Religion itself is a disease of the mind so severe that it cannot distinguish between sober fact and fantasy. He tells us that he laughs (contemptuously, I think, but also with real concern) when he considers those who read the Koran,
with its endless prohibitions on sex and its corrupt promise of infinite debauchery in the life to come: it is like seeing through the “let’s pretend” of a child, but without the indulgence that comes from watching the innocent at play. 
Just think, if you will, what this portends, that people invested in fantasy, cannot even see that what they believe is a fantasy. Those who say, like Bart Ehrman, in his New Statesman article (in the Christmas issue edited by Richard Dawkins) ”Dark side of the manger,” that we “should be careful not to rush to denigrate the myths of others, as those tables are oh so easily turned,” (14) miss an important point. It is one thing to see that the myths of others are only, after all, myths; it is quite another thing when those myths are taken by those others to speak a higher truth. The Christmas myth, as Ehrman points out, has a dark underside, but this is because it was taken to be a true account of god and man and their relationship. When the Muslim myth leads suicide bombers to carefully shield their genitals from the effects of the blast, so that they will be preserved for the debauchery of the afterlife, we are dealing with something that is at once more and less than a myth. It is more than a myth because it is believed to be literally true. It is less than a myth, because its absurdity can be seen by anyone who is not invested in its truth. Contrary to Ehrman, it seems to me essential to denigrate and even to mock myths which are given a religious status, a status in terms of which the myth itself is given the right to rule over both believers and unbelievers.
And so I will end with the ”three provisional conclusions” from this chapter that I think are not only provisional, but importantly true:
The first is that religion and the churches are manufactured, and that this salient fact is too obvious to ignore. The second is that ethics and morality are quite independent of faith, and cannot be derived from it. The third is that religion is — because it claims a special divine exemption for its practices and beliefs — not just amoral but immoral.
And then Hitchens makes the distinction which I have just tried to make:
The ignorant psychopath or brute who mistreats his children must be punished but can be understood. Those who claim a heavenly warrant for the cruelty have been tainted by evil, and also constitute far more of a danger. 
I think these conclusions belong, appropriately, at the end of the chapter, and not in the middle, where they are in danger of being overlooked. Religion is a disease of the mind. It permits people simply to ignore the provenance of their beliefs, or the contested contexts in which they came to be moulded to form an orthodoxy. It permits Mormons to take seriously, and ignore the ridiculousness of the claim that Joseph Smith found golden plates upon which his fake Book of Mormon was written in an unknown tongue. It permits Muslims to accord almost divine status to a warlord, and debauchee, and the master of a protection racket, who would brook no contradiction, and urged his followers to kill anyone who disagreed. It still permits Christians to make claims for a man, born in first century Galilee, to which no intelligible meaning can be given. We can understand children’s fantasies, and even adults can relax and enter, by suspending disbelief, into stories that fascinate and entertain. The attempt to transform such fantasies into reality is the sign of a deranged mind. Religions are guilty of doing this, and for this reason they are both ridiculous and dangerous, whatever comfort the devout may find in living in them as if they were true.