Christopher Hitchens’ Big Mistake(?) May 3, 2007

Christopher Hitchens’ Big Mistake(?)

Mark Oppenheimer (who generally admires Christopher Hitchens, he says) wrote a piece yesterday for the Huffington Post where he pointed out some glaring mistakes that he noticed in Hitchens’ new book God is Not Great:

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, the new book by Christopher Hitchens, contains one of the stupidest and ugliest factual errors published by a major publisher in years. Some will call the error anti-Semitic; others will just call it woefully uninformed. But it’s an error that certainly discredits the rest of the book, for it reveals how little the author has bothered to learn about the subject at hand.

First, some of the more minor mistakes:

For example, eager to show that religion does almost no good to counterbalance the evil done in its name, he argues that religion was only incidental to the civil rights movement; he seems totally unaware of historian David Chappell’s recent and widely lauded book which argues for religion’s centrality to the movement.

There are also instances, says Oppenheimer, where factual mistakes are made. For example, the author of a particular biography on Joseph Smith is referred to as “Dr. Fawn Brodie” despite the author not having a Ph.D. Also, Hitchens writes that Lubavitchers (a sect of Hasidic Judaism) “regard non-Jews as ‘racially inferior,’ which is nowhere in their teachings.”

What is the big glaring error, though, that discredits the whole book for Oppenheimer?

On p. 54, Hitchens writes, “Orthodox Jews conduct Congress by means of a hole in the sheet…” This is, as even most idiots know, a total fabrication. As a lie, it’s not as bad as the blood libel, but it’s not so far from the old tales of sexual perversion in Catholic monasteries and convents — it’s a lie meant to discredit a whole people by making them seem sexually bizarre and far outside decent society.

Snopes has an explanation of the history of this myth.

Perhaps it’s too early to go to this extreme, but one commenter writes: “Looks like Hitchens has learned how to maximize sales from Ann Coulter.”


[tags]atheist, atheism, Mark Oppenheimer, Christopher Hitchens, Huffington Post, God is Not Great, anti-Semitic, David Chappell, Joseph Smith, Fawn Brodie, Lubavitchers, Hasidic Judaism, Snopes, Ann Coulter[/tags]

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  • Logos

    I thought Hitchens said his book would be better than Harris and Dawkins books?

  • Aerik

    Dave Chapelle is a historian?!

    Seriously, that quote is totally fallacious. “zomg u guyz, people have grown up hearing religion is responsible for the civil rights movement and inspired white people to free slaves in the civil war, so the fact that people liked a single guy’s book regurgitating it proves that it must be true! lollerskates”

  • Richard Wade

    Hmm. Disappointing. I’m glad I had not yet bought the book. I would be pissed if I had spent money on it and then ran across obviously false bigoted myths such as those that Oppenheimer cites. A minor factual error is forgivable. A whole handful of lies is a deal breaker. Hitchens’ subtitle mentions poison. Look who’s talking. We don’t need more hate literature. Plenty of that on all sides.

  • Richard Wade

    Aerik, easy mistake to make.
    This isn’t Dave Chappelle the comedian. It’s David L. Chappelle Ph.D, professor of history at University of Arkansas, author of many books and articles on history, and recipient of about 20 fellowships and research grants.

    I don’t know if his book about the history of the Civil Rights Movement is correct about the role of religion, but the guy certainly has the qualifications to write one.

    That error, if it is one, doesn’t disturb me much anyway. Oppenheimer’s article has enough others to turn me off.

  • Ouch is right. I first wasn’t going to read the book, then I was because the excerpts on Slate are funny, but now I think I won’t.

    Plus, I generally think Hitchens is a prick. Which, of course, has nothing to do with the accuracy of his book.

  • I’m not sure if the sheet thing is a big deal or not, but Oppenheimer is right, it does reveal a lack of research and a willingness to grasp at anything that makes religion look bad, whether true or not.

  • Aerik

    I was making a joke with the Dave Chappelle thing. That’s why I followed it up with, “seriously…” — that implies what came just before “Seriously…” was not serious. I suggest you tweak your sarcasm detector.

    Still, my comment remains valid. Hitchens is criticized for having an inaccurate view on history because another guy, who grew up being told religion is good, injected religion as the cause of the civil rights movement. It was basically “Hitchens has all this evidence of religious hypocrisy and debauchery, but David Chappell told me what I wanted to hear, so that proves it!”

  • Richard Wade

    Oops, I missed the cue about your sarcasm. For some reason I thought your use of “seriously” was expressing earnestness about the rest of the statement. Sorry about that.
    My first thought when I read that part of the article was similar; so what if one author has a different take on it that Hitchens didn’t acknowledge. That’s why that “error” if it even is one was not of much concern to me. Some of the others mentioned by Oppenheimer are more disturbing, if he is correct.

    I think I’ll pull back my disapproval and reserve judgment while I listen more to others’ reviews.

  • David Chappell

    I’m David Chappell and I wrote a book that Mark Oppenheimer referred to. I don’t know how Mark O quoted me, but he is generally a scrupulous and careful writer, and you people should read his books and articles.

    For the record: in my book, I REJECT the idea that “religion” drove the civil rights movement.

    I write about something called PROPHETIC RELIGION. I define this narrowly. Only a very few black leaders had the power to inspire masses to acts of self-sacrifice. These prophetic black leaders were often rebelling against “the” black church (which never existed as a monolith). The black church could be quite conservative. It could sometimes be an opiate. It was many things to many people.

    I think Reverend Wright and some of his defenders often misrepresent “the black prophetic tradition.” I think we only have one instrument to help us discern who’s a true prophet: the rear-view mirror. Anybody who calls himself a prophet–and makes his own congregation feel very comfortable about themselves and focuses all the rebukes on people outside his own community–has a hard time meeting any reasonable historical standard of a prophet.

    (Conventionally, historians of religion distinguish Prophetic religion from Priestly. Prophetic means disruptive: it rarely appears in pure form, most often at the beginning of a new religion or sect, i.e., the destruction of an old religion. If you have heating and air-conditioning bills, mortgage payments, etc., it’s pretty hard to be a prophet.) Rev. Wright may some day look like a Prophet. Who knows?

    Jesus looks like one, but few of his followers do. I write about six men and women who appear to fit the bill, on occasion, before they died or returned to normal, unprophetic life. That’s in my book on the civil rights movement, A Stone of Hope (2004).

    Chris Hitchens might learn a lot about religion if he considered that the Pagan Romans attacked Christians because Christians were “atheists.” Christians didn’t have the nerve to believe in a supernatural being: they believed in a mere man. So the Romans said. (See Robt Wilken’s book, Xians as the Romans Saw Them.) Karl Barth–the greatest 20th c. Xian theologian–echoed the Romans’ view. Most people who call themselves Xians really are atheists, Barth said. They lack the existential nerve to take a leap into the unknown.

    I think Xians and atheists–true atheists and true Xians–have a lot in common: skepticism about a lot of conventional wisdom in our culture. (I concentrated on skepticism about Progress–which Marx called “that great Pagan idol”– in my book.) As a young atheist years ago, I was drawn to the bravery of a few in the civil rights movement. It’s a kind of intellectual and moral as well as physical courage. I don’t think you can understand it without understanding the way most people in the movement accounted for it: in religious terms. But they rejected all the BS about “religion” that you guys reject. I think if you distinguish that rare “prophetic” moment from the maintenance of normal, priestly religion, you’ll get it. I’m just using that as a label for that rare contagion of excitement that seizes people at the founding of a new religion. They’re usually criticized–as ML King and others in my book were–for being faithless and irreligious. They’re scorned and often persecuted by the keepers of normal religion. Thank you. DC

  • Russell

    WTF? Hitchens writes: “Orthodox Jews may NOT conduct congress by means of a hole in the sheet, but…” Maybe this guy Oppenheimer should actually check his facts before going on a pointless rant and making himself look like a fool

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