God is Not Great - an Appraisal  - Chapter 1


This is the Chapter 1 Page for the appraisal of the contents

of Christopher Hitchens' book, God is Not Great.

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Chapter 1: Putting it Mildly




Page Contents






Chapter Content


We have designed these pages in the following form – Chapter Content, General Comment, Specific Comments and then Conclusions – so that those who are simply interested can see in this first ‘Content' part the gist of what is in this chapter of the book. However, if you are impatient to see our assessment of what is being said, you can use the links and drop down to see how it applies to each paragraph here. Please do go eventually to the end though, and read the final ‘Conclusion' section that applies to this chapter.


P.1-4 Poor Human Examples: Account of Mrs. Watts, a teacher when he was nine – childish objections. The headmaster who spoke foolishly. Link below


P4. Indoctrination by religious institutions – “four objections to religious faith. Link below


P.5 People have moved away from belief and are rational ordinary people – “Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and …. also the soul.” Link below


P.6 Being good to one another – a belief that you can be good without belief. Link below

P.6 Ethical without Religion? - not needing to be religious to be good   Link below


P.6 Not needing machinery of reinforcement, because he simply doesn't believe. Atheists don't need the reinforcing of church services. Link below


P.7 Religious writers of the past derided for their limitations Link below


P.7 The efforts of apologists decried Link below


P.7 Squirming with sin – sacrificing self-respect Link below


P.8 Religion as man-made and hostile : atrocities have been carried out in the name of religion Link below


P.8 Secularists are more entertaining : atheists appeal to atheists Link below


P.9 There is genuine mystery in the universe : be humble in the face of mutation! Link below


P.10 Humility comes from not knowing : religions are wrong claiming they know. Link below


P.11 Not knowing is more real : religion is on the way out Link below


P.12 About his grace to appreciate widely : Bible quoting author Link below


P.13 Upset at religion being imposed : “Religion poisons everything.” Link below





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General Comment


When I first read this chapter through, without picking up individual points, I found it easy, enjoyable reading. It portrayed a man, widely read and of wide experience, accepting of others' views but not wanting to be imposed upon by their views. The title was apt. “Putting it mildly” was indeed how it the chapter appeared. (I have to warn you that this ‘nice' veneer wears thin in later chapters! In fact so strong are his later denunciations with unkind comments abounding, that I have to warn you that my conclusion is that this chapter is, I'm afraid, a totally deceptive con trick!)


At the outset of this book, we do need to observe some very basic things which are epitomised in this chapter and which will, no doubt, arise again and again in a book such as this. For those of us who might claim to have a measure of Biblical knowledge, we would say that Satan's deceptive powers are expressed in a variety of different ways. Deception is the name of the game! Much of this book, I believe, is deception; it is far from truth. Deception comes in a number of guises:


The first form of ‘deception' is that our author comes over powerfully and authoritatively, not brooking opposition and stampeding down any opposition, giving the appearance of total infallibility. He appears to give himself the position of almost divine authority. Such would be the approach of Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion who pounds away with apparent facts that soon turn out to be mere theory and speculation. Very deceptive!


The second of the deceptive approaches is that of the person who appears so reasonable that you are seduced by their niceness and really don't take in the terrible significance of what they are saying. This chapter, as devastatingly inaccurate as it is, comes to us like this. Such a mild mannered man we have here, the epitome of the civilised man; how offensive we religious people are to upset his quiet, reflective meanderings through life. Again, very deceptive!


A third form of deception is that which uses half truths. It blends truth with untruth to create an end product of its own making, to suit its own presupposed conclusions. Even more deception!


A fourth form of deception is to dump so much in one's lap that it is almost impossible to take in individual points, when the chapter goes past like a fast flowing river. It is for this reason that we will look at individual points in a moment.


A fifth form of deception is to appeal to extremes of history (Dawkins is a master of this), to use silly comments of people whose understanding was less than perfect (Dawkins also does that), or parade people's inadequacies in general, and in respect of religion specifically. it is the deception of one-sided extremes.


A sixth form of deception is to speak in such generalities that it is impossible to tie down the truth. The author, in this chapter at least, does this a great deal. He knows what he has in his mind, he knows the incidents that fuel his bias, the practices or ways of thinking which he objects to – but in a mild, general chapter like this, he doesn't tell us most of them! This absence leaves us with a sense of suspicion that perhaps his antecedents aren't all they might be, but who knows!


A seventh form of deception is to condemn by association. The title of the book is God is not Great but actually very little of this chapter is about God; it is mostly about people and their varying ideas and practices which often have more to do with the foibles of mankind than the reality of God or the character of God.


If you read this chapter in the book, please be aware of these strategies!


I think one further comment is in order. The subjects and comments that the author covers or makes are so numerous that I probably won't manage to pick up everything that could be picked up, so if you read the chapter and then find that I've missed something, my apologies in advance.





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Specific Comments


Because this is such a seductive chapter, it is, unfortunately necessary to comment on lots of individual points. If you accept this opening chapter uncritically, I would suggest that you need to read it again more carefully.


P.1-4 Poor Human Examples. An account of Mrs. Watts, a teacher when he was nine and her comment about God: “He has made all the trees and grass to be green which is exactly the colour that is most restful to our eyes” – “The eyes were adjusted to nature and not the other way round” – childish objections. Also the headmaster who said, “You may not see the point of all this faith now but you will one day, when you lose loved ones.”


The author falls into the usual trap – it's good for a bit of interesting narrative – of quoting people from childhood who were less than perfect and came up with less than perfect comments. It's a common strategy when arguing, to show up your opponent's weaknesses by citing people who have made foolish claims. The sneaky implication though, is that it lays a foundation of subtle undermining of how we think about ‘religious people' who clearly (according to their quotes) are a bunch of bumbling and inept and out-of-date fuddy-duddies. Not everyone is! A gracious observation of the entire spectrum of Christian believers would show an incredible range of understanding, some of it clear, some of it confused. It's not a negative reflection on God but a positive one, that says He loves us all, confused as we may be.

An Aside: On page three, there is a paragraph of quick-fire questions that we have not picked up on in these notes. If you would like to see an example of a 'torrent of questions' that threaten to overwhelm your thinking, please CLICK HERE to go to an 'aside page' to see that there ARE answers to ALL the questions posed, even if we have not covered every one of them!


P4. The “four objections to religious faith : Indoctrination by religious institutions:

•  it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos..…  

•  it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism...…

•  it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression......

•  and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking.


The first claim, that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos assumes that the beliefs and assumptions of the author's position, are in fact accurate. If you would like to go to Appendix 4 [CLICK HERE] in our appraisal of Dawkins' The God Delusion, you will see that this is not so certain as our author here would have us believe.


The second claim, that it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism is, I'm afraid, beyond my understanding, and I suspect yours too if you are honest. Solipsism is the philosophical view that self is all that exists or can be known. For the life of me I cannot see any connection whatsoever with my knowledge of the Christian faith. It has nothing whatsoever to do with me, myself, my ideas or whatever. It's all about what has happened in time-space history.


The third claim, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression seems to be a bizarre and outdated claim linked to Freud. To speak of Christianity as the result of sexual repression is the most staggering declaration of ignorance that can possibly be made. To say that it is the cause of sexual repression is likewise a declaration of misunderstanding.

That Christians, quoting the Bible, say that God's design is one man with one woman for life, is only sexual repression if you believe that unrestrained sexual liberty with as many partners of whichever sex should be the norm. Sexual health experts and psychologists jointly agree today that that latter view is a staggeringly ‘dangerous' view!


The fourth claim, that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking is again outdated Freudian thinking. I didn't think that Freud held much credibility these days. The author is apparently living in the past. Charles Colson in How Now Shall We Live? wrote:

“We could argue that the myth of human goodness to which modern culture has succumbed is best explained by the psychology of atheism, which is itself a form of wish fulfilment – a deep desire to be free from all external authority and from any transcendent source of morality.” (my emphases added)

To go to our Apologetics page on Wishful Thinking, please CLICK HERE


This little paragraph on page 4 provides a classic illustration of complete misrepresentations of the truth that can be so easily slipped in under the guard of the gullible and unwary because it appears so smooth and so knowing.


P.5 People have moved away from belief and are rational ordinary people – “Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and …. also the soul.”

This is part of the atheists' wish list. Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion bemoaned the fact that atheists were so ineffectual because religious people held the high ground in so many parts of society. Modern man increasingly doesn't “go to church” in Western societies but that is a far cry from giving up religious beliefs. The truth is that there actually is a spiritual hunger in the modern, materialistic West.

Another Aside: For a detailed examination of this section on page 5 which almost appears as an 'atheist's creed, please CLICK HERE.


P.6 Being good to one another? “We speculate that it is at least possible that, once people accepted the fact of their short and struggling lives, they might behave better toward each other and not worse.” “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 caused 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 an eyebrow.”

Yet more of the atheist's wish list, referred to in the Colson quote above as the “myth of human goodness” A careful assessment of modern Western societies clearly shows that there is more, not less, antagonism in human relationships today.


P.6 Ethical without Religion? “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 caused 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 an eyebrow.”

This is one of those cases that I referred to as the sixth form of deception above, where he has things in his mind but doesn't say them because, I suspect, if they were brought out into the cold light of day, they would be clearly seen to be questionable. I suspect that the author has in mind either various expressions of world religions past or present, or individuals who have been less than civilised while purporting to hold religious beliefs. We'll come on to all of those later.


In his book Is Religion Dangerous, Keith Ward, after carefully examining some of these things, concluded,

“It is not religion that causes intolerance. It is intolerance that uses religion to give alleged ‘moral' support to the real cause of intolerance – hatred of those perceived or imagined to be oppressors or threats to one's own welfare.”

Certainly some people can live an ethical life without religion, but as Dawkins showed, the best that it can then be is ethics based on ‘self-serving needs'. The major ethical changes for good that have come in Western societies have, by and large, come because of Christian influence. You can check it out!


P.6 Not needing machinery of reinforcement. There seems a misunderstanding here. Although it must be accepted that there are religious people who feel that they do have to do their various religious activities to bolster their beliefs and perhaps even appease their apparent deity, for traditional, Biblical Christian faith, such activities are an expression or outworking of love rather than a required act of submission. It is a popular misconception that we have here.


P.7 Deriding religious writers of the past for their limitations. “Augustine, Aquinas… These mighty scholars may have written many evil things or many foolish things… there are no more of them today… and will be no more of them tomorrow. Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago”

This is a bit of an odd section because speaking of some of the ‘greats' he says, “These mighty scholars may have written many evil things or many foolish things” Now this is again one of his generalities that is utterly meaningless without content. Do we claim that such men were always right in what they wrote? Of course not! Yet we are left wondering why some of these brilliant thinkers are being derided here. And as for his, “Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago” this is just atheistic arrogance at its best and which hardly bears comment.


P.7 The efforts of apologists derided: “How much effort it takes to affirm the incredible! The Aztecs had to tear open a human chest cavity every day just to make sure the sun would rise. Monotheists are supposed to pester their deity more times than that, perhaps, lest he be deaf.”

“How much effort it takes to affirm the incredible!” Oh please! The only reason apologists spend so much time is that they have so much baseless, uninformed and ignorant chatter to counter. Pestering their deity…lest he be deaf? Is this an oblique reference to the prayer practices of Islam? To read fuller comments on prayer, please CLICK HERE


A HEALTH WARNING! I said it in the Introduction but it bears repeating here, but the central flaw of atheists, such as this author, is to lump together all religious faiths and practices. I speak for Christianity alone, which has a number of staggering claims to uniqueness and which mark it out from any other so-called world religion. I wish such writers as this author would have the integrity to not make sweeping statements that apparently wish to include Christianity, when the truth is that those statements should be made in respect of other world religions who need to stand under the intellectual microscope on their own. If you want to fire on other world religions, fine! But don't lump unique Christianity in with the rest; you only display your ignorance!


P.7 Squirming with Sin - sacrificing self-respect: “How much self respect must be sacrificed in order that one may squirm continually in an awareness of one's own sin?”

Dawkins gets confused with this as well. Do all atheists? What we're struggling with here is the varied expressions or outworkings of practice of faith. Yes, some religions do not have an answer to the problem of sin. Indeed some branches of Christianity do not apply the Bible and so struggle with the ideas of sin.

In the traditional, Biblical form of Christianity, anguishing over sin is the prerogative of the pre-believer, the person who has not come to faith in Christ. For the believing Christian, sin is not the focus, but forgiveness, which releases worship, praise and thanks. I suspect that this oft-repeated mantra of the atheists is, in fact, an expression of their own deep-down guilt which they have no way of dealing with. When they condemn Christianity in this way, they are simply expressing their lack of understanding.


P.8 Religion as man-made and hostile. “Past and present religious atrocities have occurred not because we are evil, but because it is a fact of nature that the human species is, biologically, only partly rational.”

If you would like to take Christianity out of the equation, then I am quite happy for you to speak of religion as man made and, indeed, so often hostile. If you would like to define ‘religion' as ‘man-formulated beliefs about a deity, and the way we relate to that deity', then I am happy for you to go with that as you seek to apply it to what, to many, appear the unsatisfactory world religions.

If you try to apply it to Christianity, I have to suggest you are way off base and are displaying your lack of knowledge and understanding of the origins, veracity, integrity and expression of true, traditional, Biblical Christian faith. To see more what that actually is, please go to Appendix 6.  CLICK HERE  


P.8 Secularists are more entertaining. “Darwin… Hawking… Crick … These men are more enlightening when they are wrong, or when they display their inevitable biases, than any falsely modest person of faith who is vainly trying to square the circle and to explain how he, a mere creature of the Creator, can possibly know what the Creator intends.”

When atheistic scientists are wrong or biased they are more interesting? In the same way as Jack the Ripper is interesting? Oh, but they are being compared to a “modest person of faith” (a nice description!) who is “vainly trying” (according to the author's view maybe) “to square the circle and to explain how he, a mere creature of the Creator, can possibly know what the Creator intends.” The author clearly hasn't examined in an open-minded fashion, all the evidence and therefore comes from a view that says, “There isn't a God, therefore no God means he can't speak and therefore people can't know.” Circular arguing that ignores the evidence! I still think such people are far more interesting than muddled, speculative atheistic scientists.


P.9 There is genuine mystery in the universe. “Now at last you can be properly humble in the face of your maker, which turns out not to be a “who” but a process of mutation with rather more random elements than our vanity might wish.”

Funny bit this, full of romanticism that tries to sound noble. As I've quoted elsewhere, Richard Dawkins had to write his Unweaving the Rainbow because his previous book left people complaining about “its cold, bleak message”. References to mutation in this section presumably refer to atheistic neo-Darwinism which reduces everything to accidental, chaotic and meaningless cells. That isn't humbling; it is depressing, and such atheists as the author and Richard Dawkins are constantly struggling to dress up their empty philosophy and make it look not only palatable, but really worth while believing in. That is what so much of this chapter is about!


P.10 Humility comes from not knowing. “Religion is man-made. Even the men who made it cannot agree on what their prophets or redeemers or gurus actually said or did….. the believers still claim to know… to know what “he” demands of us – from our diet to our observances to our sexual morality..”

There is a simple denial here of the possibility of revelation from a Supreme Being and a deriding of religious believers who “still claim to know… to know what “he” demands of us – from our diet to our observances to our sexual morality.”

I presume, in respect of Christianity at least, this is a reference to the Old Testament law. The only comment that really needs making here is that if there is a God who designed and created this world (initially, perfectly – see Appendix 6 referred to above) then surely he would be the best person to suggest how we work best. But as Colson pointed out (see above) the atheist's wish-thinking desperately wants to avoid any all-knowing and all-wise authority figure. Such rejection comes from what the Bible calls rebellion, which in psychological terms might be explained as insecurity, the fear that this Being cannot love me, so I must stand on my own two feet and reject what I see as the threat from Him.


P.11 Not knowing is more real. “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.”

The claim here is that belief in God is now outdated: We have grown up, is the claim, and it's time such belief disappeared off this earth. You mean like some of the atheistic regimes in the world that are bringing such enlightenment to their people?

Life, wholeness, freedom and goodness are seen where genuine Christianity lives. It works! Check it out, and it's alive, well and flourishing. To quote the apostle Paul, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.” (1 Cor 13:11 ). Yes there are childish versions of Christianity around the globe and surely they will disappear, but don't confuse them with the real, adult version which is alive and growing!


P.12 His grace to appreciate widely – Bible quoting author. “I … selected as my text a verse from the epistle of Saul of Tarsus…. because of its haunting and elusive character … and for its essentially secular injunction, and because it shone out from the wasteland of rant and complaint and nonsense and bullying which surrounds it.”

This part of the chapter conveys grace and acceptance. This is the deception. Yes, he says, I can appreciate your beliefs and when I'm around you, I'll go along with what you do (sounds like a good Hindu) for I can pick out the good bits – without God. This would have a more solid feel to it if earlier he had not spoken so vigorously (P.5) about what “we” believe or don't believe. There was a real put down for “you” (implied) religious dogmatists! This is the man who walks among the religious infants of the world, and (although he prefers not to say it blatantly) looks down on their childish, outdated beliefs. That is what is conveyed here. So if you are a religious believer, it's time to grow up. If you are thinking about being a religious believer, don't be so childish! There are those who would suggest that such talk is in fact childish and irresponsible, ignoring the facts of history and of life.


P.13 Upset at religion being imposed. “Religion poisons everything.” Yes, he is ready to “respect” these various beliefs he lists, but doesn't want them imposed on him. Leave me alone! I think ‘respect' in this context means hold a tongue-in-cheek toleration of your funny little beliefs. As for ‘leave me alone' I think that is definitely tongue-in-cheek because here he is writing a book with outlandish comments, decrying the beliefs of millions, and is saying, I don't want to hear your side. Please stay away.





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On this page we have

  •  highlighted some of the key points he makes,
  •  warned about seven forms of the strategy of deception,
  •  responded, point by point, to the points he makes.


His style in this chapter is to appear reasonable, intellectual, mild-mannered and even possibly bemused by the childish, outdated and often weird goings on of the religious community. Yet, underneath it all, there are glimmers that he is not as tolerant as he would like to make out. His goal is to demean these religious communities. In later chapters his veneer slips!


To do this he uses six of the seven elements of the strategy of deception, no doubt unwittingly. To remind you,

  •  he seeks to convey an ‘adult reasonableness',
  •  he uses half truths,
  •  he dumps so much on us that it is almost impossible to take in when reading casually,
  •  he uses extreme examples on one hand, while on the other he speaks in such generalities as to make it almost impossible to reply,
  •  he seeks guilt by association, creating a subtle slur on a God who could have such mixed up followers.


Remember, this is a book that seeks to uphold the proposition that “God is Not Great” – well that's what it says by the title, but this chapter wasn't anything about it, so we'd better read on.





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