One question that came up in a discussion of Christopher Hitchens’s book god is not Great was: Hitchens is blunt, brutal, and uncompromising. So who on earth is his target audience? Religious people won’t read past the first few pages, and the people who will finish it already agree with him. And is he really doing anyone any favors by being so loud and obnoxious?
Some of the standard answers were discussed at the meetup: it galvanizes the troops. Religious people will read it to know the enemy. He is a significant voice in the debate, and you can’t just ignore him; if you’re going to argue for God, you have to have some sort of reply to Hitchens.
But another answer occurred to me: like many atheists, I suspect, I held on to religion for quite a long time because I thought you were supposed to, because it didn’t occur to me that I could just opt out of the whole thing.
I think that if there had been someone like Hitchens around in the 80s when I was trying to find a religion I could live with, someone who was willing to just come out and say look, religion isn’t “flawed”, it isn’t “an approximation of truth”, it isn’t “flawed humans’ best effort to understand the transcendent”, it’s a load of fetid dingo’s kidneys and here’s why, then I would have jettisoned the whole thing more quickly.
Plus, let’s face it: iconoclasm can be fun. If you’ve ever played death metal or gotten a tattoo to annoy your parents, you understand this. I’m sure there are people who’ll read Hitchens simply because he’s one of those People You’re Not Supposed To Like. And they may come out with the attitude that yes, it’s okay to speak out against patent nonsense.
And the more people feel that way, the more religion’s armor against criticism erodes, and religion has to defend itself on its own merits. And we all know how that ends.