In May 2007, Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great, debated activist and Christian minister Al Sharpton at the New York Public Library (transcript here, video here [scroll down to May 7, 2007]). Throughout the debate, Sharpton challenged Hitchens on the basis that Hitchens was criticizing religion and its associated beliefs, but not the existence of God itself. The following exchange is representative of this line of discussion:
AL SHARPTON: I think you probably had a bad Sunday school teacher, (laughter) because a lot of what you’re saying is based on dogma and has nothing to do with one’s belief in a supreme being. You’re discussing again religions, dogmas, denominations, not the existence or nonexistence of God. . . . But I think that, again, the basic core question of God goes way beyond any example, no matter how witty or humorous, of those that come in God’s name because it is the dictates of denominations or organized religious groups that tell you what to eat and what to wear and who to sleep with and all of that—that has nothing to do with the existence of an order to the universe that is clear and evident. That science, I think, confirms that it evolved from somewhere—that’s how I relate to God.
* * *
I think you’re confusing the misuse of religion with the existence of God. There are those that have no religious affiliations at all that believe in God. There are people that don’t deal with organized church at all that still believe in God, so when you say “God is not great,” let’s not then debate “organized religion is not great,” or “some that have exploited organized religion is not great.” You, in the title of your book—and I have had a chance to go through your book—attack God, not those that express that they are therefore standing in God’s place or representing God.
Hitchens held his own (no surprise), but a point he never made forcefully enough can be stated simply: “If a person may experience and know God outside of religion, how does that person know anything about the nature or attributes of that God?” It is only through the “religions, dogmas, denominations” Sharpton mentions that people claim to know anything about God: what he’s like, what he wants people to do and not do (i.e., morality), what rewards or punishments await humanity, what happens after death, etc. We have a word for people who believe God reveals his will directly to them outside of a religion: schizophrenic. At the very least, a person without a religion must admit that they are going by what they “feel” to be right, which is the same as admitting they’re making it up.
It is for this reason that criticism of individual religions and religious beliefs is important and valid. Atheists and other freethinkers must never yield when, having laid bare the nonexistent foundations of particular beliefs, religious people accuse them of dealing only with a “caricature” of God (the old man in the clouds) and not with the real, transcendant deity. Theologians love to make this argument in a condescending tone, particularly if they are not biblical literalists. “Silly atheist,” they say, “God is so much bigger than any religion mediated by fallible humans can convey.” Nonsense. If God is more than what religions say, how do they know what that “more” is? They don’t, and can’t, without just making it up. Take down a religion, and you take down its god.