Reviews of Hitchens’ book are already appearing. Here’s one from Bruce DeSilva of the Associated Press. I found two items of interest.
The first is an amusing instance of an error in word choice. DeSilva writes:
Hitchens is the reincarnation of H.L. Mencken, the penultimate social critic of the first half of the 20th century, who used words like gunshots and considered most Americans “boobs.” Of course, reincarnation is another notion that could induce paroxysms in both of them.
I suspect both gentlemen would also be driven to distraction by a writer who says “penultimate,” (which means “next to last,”) when he surely meant “preeminent,” (which means “of maximal distinction.”)
But that’s just me being snarky. The point I really wanted to discuss was this:
This is, of course, a familiar augment. Hitchens has nothing new to say, although it must be acknowledged that he says it exceptionally well.
But what is the point of writing such a book? Surely, it will change no minds. Surely, with a title like this, it will not be read by anyone who does not already agree with it.
Hitchens is, if he will forgive the religious reference, preaching to the choir.
The idea that no minds will be changed by Hitchens’ book (and before that Dawkins’ book and before that Harris’ book) is one of those cheap little points that permits the critic to seem amused and above it all without having to engage in any actual arguments.
But what, precisely, is the evidence that no minds will be changed by the book? The contrary bleats from the intellectually lazy notwithstanding, the fact remains that people change their religious opinions all the time. Even within my own small circle of acquaintances I know people who have gone from atheism to Christian faith, from Christian faith to atheism, and from one religious group to another religious group. Something is causing all of this movement.
DeSilva protests that Hitchens’ arguments are unoriginal and familiar. Well, familiar to whom? To people already immersed in this sort of literature, perhaps. But now try to imagine that you’re a teenager growing up in a culturally conservative midwestern town. All of the religious influences you encounter are not merely Christian, but probaby evangelical or fundamentalist. Then you’re browsing in Barnes and Noble one day and stumble on to books with titles like The God Delusion or God is Not Great. Is it really so far-fetched to think that such books might point such a person to a different way of looking at things?
So, yes, I think some people’s minds will be changed by these sorts of books. But mere persuasion is not the only reason for writing them. You also write them to inject certain ideas into the cultural conversation. It might be a relatively small subset of the population that actually reads Hitchens’ book. But the ideas he expresses will also reach people via his public presentations and his television appearances. Through blog reactions and press reviews. All of this coverage adds up to a real influence on the culture. Every major news outlet has done stories on the resurgence of atheism over the last few years, precisely because of people like Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and now Hitchens. Can anyone seriously claim that the cause of gaining public acceptance for atheism has been hurt by this fact?
That is why I am so amazed by non-religious people who believe the proper approach is for atheists to be very polite and deferential and to basically be quiet about their views. Has that approach ever been successful at anything? Minority opinions don’t become majority opinions when the minority cowers in the corner, or asks politely that people consider its point of view.
Hitchens and the others are performing a valuable public service by writing their books. The folks who worry overmuch about offending religious people, or who protest that some bit of irrelevant theological esoterica has been overlooked, or that religion is too irrational a phenomenon to be treated logically should be ignored.