peterson's Review of Hitchens Is Not Great

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Billy Shears
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peterson's Review of Hitchens Is Not Great

Post by Billy Shears »

In 2007, Dr. Daniel C. Peterson (Ph.D. UCLA, professor of Islamic Studies and Arabic at BYU), wrote a book review on Christopher Hitchens’s god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, and has been obsessed with the book ever since. Now, whenever Dr. Peterson comes across a church or religious believer who does something that is virtuous, lovely, or otherwise praiseworthy, his knee-jerk reaction is to announce the discovery and file the report of said virtue or loveliness in his “Religion Poisons Everything file,” the existence and size of which is somehow imagined to effectively refute Hitchens’s book.

Because of Dr. Peterson’s obsession with this book, I decided to read it and see for myself what all the fuss is about.

It turns out that the book is actually quite good. It provides a sweeping synthesis of Hitchens’s views of religion as informed by the deep and varied tapestry of experiences he’s had, extensive readings he's digested, and thoughts his piercing intellect produced. Hitchens’s position was that religion is obviously false; painfully so. Because of that, he doesn’t see a need to make a serious, detailed argument demonstrating as much. The point of the book isn’t to prove that religion is false, so much as it is to shout that the emperor really doesn’t have any clothes and we’d all be better off if we accepted this obvious fact.

Hitchens was fundamentally a humanist, and saw the goodness and worth in people, regardless of their religious persuasions. He ferociously formed his own opinion on issues and people, and often came to startling conclusions that differed from those of people who otherwise would seem to be his allies. For example, he was a big fan of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., but thought that Gandhi was a hypocrite who may have done more harm than good in the fight for a peaceful and independent India.

That said, if religion harmed somebody by warping their understanding of reality or damaging their innate moral compass, this book calls the religion out. If somebody strongly identifies with religionists, it is easy to take it personally and feel his distaste for religion is a personal attack on the believer himself. But if you read what he actually says, he is willing to judge somebody’s intelligence, scholarship, virtue, and value as a human being on its own merits, independent to whether or not it has been impacted by their religious persuasions.

The book isn’t without problems. Because the source material that Hitchens draws upon in this synthesis is so expansive and simply drawn from memory, he and his editor didn’t bother creating and checking footnotes for every claim or observation that he makes. So as would be expected, in several places the things he mentions on controversial topics aren’t adequately defended. And there are some mistakes. For example, when discussing how the gospels can't be taken at face value as accurate history, he says in passing that all four gospels were based on an earlier manuscript that scholars call Q. But as the illustrious readers of this forum all know, Q is really just hypothesized to be a source for parts of Matthew and Luke—not the original source of all four gospels in their entirety. Even I knew that, so it’s a bit embarrassing that Hitchens did not. However, getting this one detail wrong doesn’t change the substance of his overall point—the Gospels are not a reliable source of historical information. On the actual point, Hitchens is right.

The accusation that “religion poisons everything” is intentionally provocative and at least somewhat hyperbole. Dr. Peterson seems to think “religion poisons everything” means that all aspects of religion and religious believers are bad in every way. But that isn’t the point. The actual point is an optimistic one—that we would all be better off by embracing reality rather than sacrificing our intellectual integrity in an effort to believe superstitions that were developed by ignorant people from ignorant ages in the distant past.

Dr. Peterson doesn’t seem to understand the book at all, and adamantly, dogmatically insists that it is terrible. A couple of days ago this came up in the discussion section of Peterson’s blog, and I decided to defend Hitchens on the point. Several commenters came to Peterson’s defense and said they all knew the book is bad based on Peterson’s review. I asked them if they had read the actual book and they all indicated they had not—why bother, given how Peterson had already discredited such a terrible, terrible book?

I responded that Peterson’s review was what was really awful. Peterson clearly misunderstood the book, misunderstood the points, and on multiple occasions, misrepresented or even lied about what the book actually says. I was kindly asked to prove it. So if the community here will allow it, I’d like to write my comments here on Peterson’s “God and Mr. Hitchens.” Here is a video of the presentation:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=slQEE1BAqmA

and here is the transcript:

https://www.fairmormon.org/wp-content/u ... terson.pdf

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Re: peterson's Review of Hitchens Is Not Great

Post by Billy Shears »

Let's begin with the following two paragraphs from Dr. Peterson. Peterson said:

The story he says "has been best told by Dr Fawn Brodie whose 1945 book, No man Knows My History, was a good-faith attempt by professional historian to put the kindest possible interpretation on the relevant events." Now this is also typical of his approach, she becomes Dr. Fawn Brodie. In fact, she never had a doctorate. He does this consistently. The most obscure atheist emerges as the great so and so, the illustrious so and so where the greatest theist, Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine all are depicted as completely coolest idiots.

I am fond in particular contrasting Dr. Fawn Brodie, who did not have a doctorate, with Mr. William Albright of Baltimore, who is considered by many of the leading archaeologists, leading Old Testament scholar of the 20th century. And yet, he is just -- Mr. William Albright of Baltimore, he happened to teach at Johns Hopkins, founded the traditional biblical studies there, but it doesn't count because he was some sort of believer.


First off, let's give credit where credit was do. It is true that Professor Fawn Brodie never earned a doctorate--she merely had a Master's degree from the University of Chicago. However, Professor Brodie was in fact a fully tenured professor at UCLA. So Dr. Peterson was right about this--in order to properly reflect her education and academic position, she should be referred to as Professor Brodie, not Dr. Brodie. I'm not sure if this honest mistake makes any difference whatsoever in the strength of Hitchens's argument, but technically, Dr. Peterson was right on this one narrow point.

But what mistakes did Peterson make in what is quoted above?

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Re: peterson's Review of Hitchens Is Not Great

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Billy Shears wrote:
Fri Apr 24, 2020 6:51 pm
Several commenters came to Peterson’s defense and said they all knew the book is bad based on Peterson’s review. I asked them if they had read the actual book and they all indicated they had not—why bother, given how Peterson had already discredited such a terrible, terrible book?
The true miracle of Sic et Non is that piranha can be trained to respond in support of Dr. Peterson.

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Re: peterson's Review of Hitchens Is Not Great

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Billy Shears wrote:So if the community here will allow it, I’d like to write my comments here on Peterson’s “God and Mr. Hitchens.” Here is a video of the presentation:
I for one vote to allow it! It's quite an honor to have you posting here, Billy.
Billy Shears wrote: I'm not sure if this honest mistake makes any difference whatsoever in the strength of Hitchens's argument
Lol! Well, it depends on who the audience is. As we've seen, Coach P. essentially has a one-track apologetic, and that apologetic has everything to do with whether somebody has a Ph.D. and if that somebody happens to believe something favorable to religion or Mormonism, no matter how weak the position is.

Interestingly, I doubt that anyone not directly affiliated with Sic et Non, would use Sic et Non as a counter-example to Hitchens' claim that religion "poison's everything".

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Re: peterson's Review of Hitchens Is Not Great

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Gadianton wrote:
Fri Apr 24, 2020 8:52 pm
Billy Shears wrote:So if the community here will allow it, I’d like to write my comments here on Peterson’s “God and Mr. Hitchens.” Here is a video of the presentation:
I for one vote to allow it! It's quite an honor to have you posting here, Billy.
Absolutely. I've been a fan of Dr. Shears's comments on "Sic et Non" for quite some time.

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Re: peterson's Review of Hitchens Is Not Great

Post by Everybody Wang Chung »

Welcome Billy. I’ve enjoyed your posts over at Sic et Non.

Unfortunately, there is now a good chance you will be banned. Coach Peterson obsessively reads every post and attempts to punish posters for their contributions here.

Regardless, welcome!

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Re: peterson's Review of Hitchens Is Not Great

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After repeatedly stating that Dr. Peterson’s review of Hitchens made evident that he didn’t understand the book, a commenter by the name of Kiwi57 solemnly issued a formal “call for references,” making it clear my sacred honour now depends upon my ability to substantiate my claim to how bad Dr. Peterson’s review is. So, I posted a substantive response that detailed a few of my misgivings. However, the response never actually made it public. It has now been 24 hours since I posted the response, and it is still stuck in a “Pending” status on Disqus, presumably awaiting moderator approval.

Because Kiwi57 issued this “call for references” and Dr. Peterson upvoted the request, I am doing them the favor of reposting my review of Dr. Peterson’s review here. Dr. Peterson adamantly stands by his review and assures us that he fully understands the book, having read god Is Not Great twice. Since this issue is so important to him, I hope he takes the following as constructive criticism.

To illustrate how bad the review is, I am going to analyze in detail the two paragraphs quoted above. Below, italics are quotes of Peterson, and bold are quotes of Hitchens.

Now this is also typical of his approach, she becomes Dr. Fawn Brodie…

Touché. The tenured UCLA professor Fawn Brodie didn’t have her doctorate. This was a careless mistake and has no bearing on Hitchens’s point but yes, he should have referred to her as simply Fawn Brodie or Professor Fawn Brodie, not Dr. Fawn Brodie.

… He does this consistently. The most obscure atheist emerges as the great so and so…

That is false. I scoured the book for people who Hitchens calls “great”, and I could only find two occasions when he called somebody “great” who could even arguably be considered an “obscure atheist”, i.e. the great Ibn Warraq (page 68) and the great Colonel Robert Ingersoll (page 324). The other people he called great were in fact great, were not in the least obscure, and more often than not, were not atheists: the great devotional painters and composers (page 12), the great paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould (page 157), the great Mark Twain (page 282), William Lloyd Garrison, the great orator and founder of the Liberator. Mr. Garrison was a splendid man by any standards… (…and a believer in God. Page 305), …who burned Servetus (one of the great thinkers and questioners of the day) (…and a protestant theologian, page 402), …as the great laureate of Poland, Czeslaw Milosz, phrased it in his antitotalitarian classic…, (page 423) the great Lessing put it very mildly in the course of his exchange… (page 481, Gotthold Lessing was not an atheist).

So yes, on rare occasions Hitchens will describe an atheist who could possibly be considered obscure as “great,” but more much more frequently, he reserves that term for people who are widely recognized as great, whether they are atheist or not.

Returning to Peterson…

… the illustrious so and so…

That is false. Hitchens never calls anybody “illustrious”. The term does show up once in the book, however. Hitchens quotes Pope Pius XII (the one who Dr. Peterson assures was in no way a Nazi sympathizer), who wrote the following letter four days after assuming the papacy in 1939, To the illustrious Herr Adolf Hitler, Fuhrer and Chancellor of the German Reich! Here at the beginning of Our Pontificate We wish to assure you that We remain devoted to the spiritual welfare of the German people entrusted to your leadership…May the prosperity of the German people and their progress in every domain come, with God’s help, to fruition!.

…where the greatest theist, Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine all are depicted as completely coolest idiots….

This is false. On page 11, Hitchens explains how you don’t have to be a believer to pursue truth and beauty, and that doing so will bring us into contact with belief and believers, from the great painters and composers to the works of Augustine, Aquinas, Maimonides, and Newman. These mighty scholars….

Hitchens doesn’t depict Aquinas and Augustine as idiots. He depicts them as “might scholars” who come from an age when we understood very little about the nature of reality. After lambasting some of the false and harmful things that Aquinas and Augustine taught, Hitchens said, One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody—not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms—had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance, and other infantile needs). (page 108)

Clearly, he recognizes Aquinas and Augustine as mighty scholars, not idiots. But he also recognizes the fact that the theology that they made up was done so from a period when nobody, including philosophers with ideas that were on the right track, “had the smallest idea what was going on.”

I am fond in particular contrasting Dr. Fawn Brodie, who did not have a doctorate, with Mr. William Albright of Baltimore, who is considered by many of the leading archeologists, leading Old Testament scholar of the 20th Century. And yet, he is just ‘Mr. William Albright of Baltimore.’

This is a lie. First of all, the book does not say “Mr. William Albright of Baltimore.” It just says William Albright of Baltimore. Dr. Peterson dishonestly inserted the word “Mr.” into Hitchens’ mouth in order to bolster his point. Is this an indication of how weak he knows the point really is?

In general, Hitchens doesn’t prop up anybody with their academic credentials. For example, Dr. Steven Hawking, the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, was merely Hawking (page 14 and 15) or Steven Hawking (page 110). He occasionally will call somebody Dr. so and so or Professor so and so, but much more often, he simply states their names, and like the scholar referred to simply as Hawking, the less he says about somebody’s background the more he assumes the reader already knows. Just as atheists shouldn’t be offended that Hitchens refers to Dr. Steven Hawking as merely Hawking and doesn’t mention his superlative post at Cambridge, theists shouldn’t be offended that Dr. William Albright of John Hopkins is merely William Albright.

So what’s the deal with Hitchens including the phrase “of Baltimore”? If you read the passage in context, Hitchens is talking about how you could hardly throw away an orange peel in the Holy Land without hitting a fervent excavator, and is comparing William Albright of Baltimore to the French Dominican archaeologist Roland de Vaux, and Israeli archaeologists who are among the most professional in the world…the first of them was Yigael Yadin… The point of mentioning Baltimore was to illustrate the point that archeologists were descending on the Holy Land from all quarters.

Just as it isn’t a slight on Roland de Vaux to mention he is from France or to mention that Yigael Yadin was from Israel, it isn’t a slight on Albright to mention he is from Baltimore.

Dr. Peterson was so busy combing through the book looking for grievances, he lost all sight of the forest for the trees and totally missed the points the book was making. Either that, or the review was engineered to talk about the book without given the reader any inkling about what it actually says.

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Re: peterson's Review of Hitchens Is Not Great

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Who was that professor that got into a debate with regard to the Book of Mormon? The one who was totally thrashed? This is ending up like that. Mr. Peterson from Provo is really looking foolish right now.

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Re: peterson's Review of Hitchens Is Not Great

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Welcome, Billy Shears!

Rest assured, Dr. P will kick and scream that you have taken the time to highlight instances of his uniquely eloquent brand of dishonesty.

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Re: peterson's Review of Hitchens Is Not Great

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Doctor CamNC4Me wrote:
Sat Apr 25, 2020 8:08 am
Who was that professor that got into a debate with regard to the Book of Mormon? The one who was totally thrashed? This is ending up like that. Mr. Peterson from Provo is really looking foolish right now.

I think you are referring to Bill Hamblin who was defending the historicity of the Book of Mormon in a debate with Phillip Jenkins.

See here.

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Re: peterson's Review of Hitchens Is Not Great

Post by Dr Exiled »

Welcome Billy Shears! I have also been a fan for some time. Anyway, I think you made a great point when you said:
Dr. Peterson was so busy combing through the book looking for grievances, he lost all sight of the forest for the trees and totally missed the points the book was making. Either that, or the review was engineered to talk about the book without given the reader any inkling about what it actually says.
Coach P realizes that too much discussion about a topic might encourage some to actually study the topic at hand. That generally leads the curious down "prohibited" rabbit holes and out of Mormonism. So, Coach drills his team on the art of discussing/dancing without disclosing too much, lest the innocent chapel Mormon discover the nonsense.

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Re: peterson's Review of Hitchens Is Not Great

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I see Coach P and his little cabal of cowards have again taken up the funny little habit of twisting usernames into barbs. This is the very thing Louise Midgley was crying about on Ms. Colvin’s blog. It’s no wonder Louise couldn’t hack it without his big oafish friend protecting him.

- Doc

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Re: peterson's Review of Hitchens Is Not Great

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Billy,

You've doled out a significant butt kicking. You are absolutely right that our dear coach reads for talking points and not comprehension. Your explanation seems reasonable to me, that citing credentials in general had to do with how well the figure was known, but it probably wasn't something Hitchens was consciously aware of. You definitely obliterated coach's charge that it was partisan .

I can only imagine this is the tip of the iceberg, and so I hope you continue with your evaluation of the apologists' work on Hitchens.

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Re: peterson's Review of Hitchens Is Not Great

Post by Billy Shears »

Thank you for the warm welcome.

I do find at least one section of one chapter of god Is Not Great to be somewhat cringeworthy, as it does provide some material for people who want to criticize the details of the book while assiduously avoiding the actual point. The section in question is, as the reader may guess, Hitchens’s overview of the origins of Mormonism. Presumably based upon little more than his imperfect memory of what Professor Fawn Brodie says in No Man Knows My History, Hitchens presents a derisive overview of the origins of Mormonism. As an example of his wit, Hitchens parenthetically mentions, The great Mark Twain famously referred to [the Book of Mormon] as “chloroform in print,” but I accuse him of hitting too soft a target, since the book does actually contain “The Book of Ether.”

So in this section of his review, Dr. Peterson scores several points. For example, he scores a point when he points out the following thing Hitchens said:

Speaking of the policy on priesthood and blacks and the Mormons, they had still another “revelation” more or less in time for the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1965 and had it divinely disclosed to them that black people were human after all.

Now apart from this slightly misstated theological content of the revelation (I think we knew they were human), I am puzzled by how they actually got the date of 1965. He explains early on his methodology consists chiefly in using Google that’s his research technique. But even on Google, I think they have the date right and there is no ambiguity about it. This is not a debated or obscure historical issue. June of 1978 is not all that close to the Civil Rights Act of 1965, but it fits his thesis to argue that it was connected with Civil Rights Act.

So yes, Peterson is right. It was a full 13 years after blacks received full civil rights in the United States that blacks were deemed eligible to receive the full blessings of the gospel in the Mormon church (silly Hitchens, he’d be forced to concede Mormonism is really great if he’d just get the basic facts right!). But Hitchens did qualify what he said with more or less, so maybe Peterson only deserves a half-point for this one.

A few thoughts. First, it is a lie that Hitchens “explains early on his methodology consists chiefly in using Google that’s his research technique.” He never mentions Google or even the Internet in the text, and if you look at his references for the chapter in question, he lists Roughing It by Mark Twain, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel Dennett (without mentioning the Ph.D. Dennett earned at Oxford), and The Golden Bough by Sir James George Frazer. The dazzlingly broad and literary-oriented nature of the things Hitchens mentions throughout this unique synthesis of ideas make it clear that his primary sources are literature and personal experience, not Google.

Peterson claims that Hitchens’s thesis is that the blacks receiving the priesthood was connected with the Civil Rights Act. This is false. In context, this is why Hitchens brought up the blacks and the priesthood:

If anything proves the human manufacture of religion, it is the way that the Mormon elders resolved this difficulty. Confronted by the plain words of one of their holy books and the increasing contempt and isolation that it imposed upon them, they did as they had done when their fondness for polygamy would have brought federal retribution upon god’s own Utah. They had still another “revelation”… (page 287)

Hitchens was exactly right on this one. As mainstream values and sensibilities have evolved, the church has evolved too. The lag between the secular civil rights and the eligibility of blacks to be fully eligible for the blessings of Mormonism illustrate how Mormon values lag societal values.

More generally, Hitchens’s thesis is that all religion is obviously false and made up, and that since it originates in the mind of man, we can expect to find patterns driven by psychology and sociology in how religions form and operate.

For example, he says:

Some people may be insulted at even the suggestion of a comparison here [between cargo cults and mainstream religion], but are not the holy books of official monotheism absolutely dripping with material yearning and with admiring—almost mouthwatering—descriptions of Solomon’s wealth, the thriving flocks and herds of the faithful, the rewards for a good Muslim in paradise, to say nothing of many, many lurid tales of plunder and spoils? Jesus, it is true, shows no personal interest in gain, but he does speak of treasure in heaven and even of “mansions” as an inducement to follow him. Is it not further true that all religions down the ages have shown a keen interest in the amassment of material goods in the real world? (page 271)

That is an example of one of Hitchens’s main points in this chapter, and if he would have actually conducted some research on the Internet, he may have learned how perfectly Mormonism fits this pattern, where it explicitly promises its adherents will become kings and queens, gods and goddesses in the next world, if only they donate 10% of their lifetime income to the LDS Church, thereby helping the church continue to grow its financial surplus of over $124 Billion in for-profit assets.

This illustrates what I think is the real reason Peterson is so obsessed with this book and with misrepresenting it (including to himself)—its analysis of faith hits way too close to home.

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Re: peterson's Review of Hitchens Is Not Great

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Billy: thanks for sharing your meticulous comparative analysis. It is quite illuminating and I am enjoying your observations very much.

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Re: peterson's Review of Hitchens Is Not Great

Post by honorentheos »

Let me add to those welcoming you, Billy Shears.
Billy Shears wrote:
Sun Apr 26, 2020 7:49 am
Some people may be insulted at even the suggestion of a comparison here [between cargo cults and mainstream religion], but are not the holy books of official monotheism absolutely dripping with material yearning and with admiring—almost mouthwatering—descriptions of Solomon’s wealth, the thriving flocks and herds of the faithful, the rewards for a good Muslim in paradise, to say nothing of many, many lurid tales of plunder and spoils? Jesus, it is true, shows no personal interest in gain, but he does speak of treasure in heaven and even of “mansions” as an inducement to follow him. Is it not further true that all religions down the ages have shown a keen interest in the amassment of material goods in the real world? (page 271)

That is an example of one of Hitchens’s main points in this chapter, and if he would have actually conducted some research on the Internet, he may have learned how perfectly Mormonism fits this pattern, where it explicitly promises its adherents will become kings and queens, gods and goddesses in the next world, if only they donate 10% of their lifetime income to the LDS Church, thereby helping the church continue to grow its financial surplus of over $124 Billion in for-profit assets.

This illustrates what I think is the real reason Peterson is so obsessed with this book and with misrepresenting it (including to himself)—its analysis of faith hits way too close to home.
That's a brilliant observation. One encounters people of many different motivations for affirming belief in God or some faith system. And among them are people who found a source for hope, for forgiveness, for self-worth, for encompassing compassion and love. And through it some find more reason to reach out and embrace humanity.

But Dr. Peterson has told us that he found religion beneath him...until he read a pulp press fictionalized imaging of how the LDS afterlife offers infinite increase for those on the inside, and infinite comeuppances for those outside. This promise and vision of immortal self-aggrandizement became the spark that lit his coal-fired testimony to burn with righteous contempt and the hoped for day when all who scorn him and his beliefs will know with perfect, painful and eternal knowledge that they were oh so very wrong.

You don't really read or hear much from apologists of the FARMS variety speaking of Christ in the language of a debtor crushed under an unpayable burden who found relief through no real merit on their part. Instead, Jesus is a slightly elevated peer-God who opened doors that they will themselves go through to claim their portion of the same inheritance. And that inheritance is all the more sweet knowing so many who mocked them will spend eternity groveling in some lower kingdom forever faced with the proof of Dr. Peterson and crowd's ultimate victory.

I can see why a book that undermines that premise would be able to cut deep enough to deserve a decades plus running put down long after the movement of new atheism essentially stopped being a topic of contemporary conversation.

ETA: I don't know if not capitalizing Peterson in the OP title was an artistic choice or otherwise but I like it given the theme.

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Re: peterson's Review of Hitchens Is Not Great

Post by Gadianton »

LOL!

So the biggest mistakes are found in the chapter on Mormonism? You know, Billy, this isn't an atheist-specific problem. The apologists also get bent out of shape over William Lane Craig not taking the required time to understand the Mormon position properly. Craig is significant because he's probably the most important living apologist in the world by DCP's standards.

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Re: peterson's Review of Hitchens Is Not Great

Post by Billy Shears »

Gadianton wrote:
Sun Apr 26, 2020 11:05 pm
LOL!

So the biggest mistakes are found in the chapter on Mormonism?
Not exactly.

To clarify, I’m not sure if the errors regarding Mormonism are truly big. They just pop out at me more given my own acute familiarity with the subtopic and sensitivities of not daring say anything about Mormonism that I can't back up with irrefutable evidence. In the 14 pages on Mormonism, the following 9 mistakes are things that either Peterson or me noticed:

1- He mistakenly refers to professor Fawn Brodie as Dr. Fawn Brodie.

2- Hitchens introduces Joseph Smith by saying he modeled himself after Muhammad; according to
Hitchens, Joseph Smith was a gifted opportunist who, despite couching his text in openly plagiarized Christian terms, announced that ‘I shall be to this generation a new Muhammad’ and adopt as his fighting slogan the words, which he thought he had learned from Islam, ‘Either the Al-Koran or the sword.’

3- That in the 1826 trial, Joseph Smith actually admitted to defrauding citizens by organizing mad gold-digging expiditions and also to claiming to possess dark or ‘necromantic’ powers, and that smith was convicted in the trial.

4- That Joseph Smith refused to show the golden plates to anybody(!).

5- Peterson claims that that Hitchens misspells “Lehi” as “Lephi.” This is false; Lehi is spelled correctly (at least in the Kindle edition of the book).

6- Peterson did correctly point out that Hitchens misspells the word “Cumorah” as “Cumora”.

7- It represents that antebellum Missouri Mormons as being even more racist than the non-Mormon Missourians at the time (or maybe the takeaway is that the Mormons enshrined the racism in the Book of Abraham which made it harder to stop being racists as the decades went by).

8- That the priesthood was extended to blacks “more or less” in time for the Civil Rights Act of 1965.

9- It slightly misrepresents the logistics of baptism of the dead, saying, Every week, at special ceremonies in Mormon temples, the congregations meet and are given a certain quota of names of the departed to ‘pray in’ to their church.

To be fair, Dr. Peterson might count more than 9 errors. For example, Dr. Peterson quotes Hitchens as saying Joseph Smith was a gifted opportunist whose cleverness was to unite cupidity with half-baked anthropology. This Hitchens-speak in actually the combination of two different sentences in two different paragraphs. Nevertheless, I think the resulting sentence represents Hitchens’s views well-enough and in fact is true-enough, although you need to read each paragraph in their respective entirety to completely understand Hitchens's point. Even though I think it is accurate, Peterson might count it as being inaccurate.

When reading the Mormon pages in isolation, the comparison between Mormonism and Islam seem weird and way overblown. But in context, Hitchens is trying to show the patterns and similarities in revealed religion. There were a couple of comparisons between Muhammad and Joseph Smith that Dr. Peterson did not point out:

Mormon partisans sometimes say, as do Muslims, that this cannot have been fraudulent because the work of deception would have been too much for one poor and illiterate man.

Like Muhammad, Smith could produce divine revelations at short notice and often simply to suit himself (especially, and like Muhammad, when he wanted a new girl and wished to take her as another wife).


In all, the only “mistake” that I think is significant is saying Joseph Smith refused to show the golden plates to anybody. While technically this is true—in reality the plates didn’t exist and Joseph Smith really didn’t show authentic plates to anybody—you simply can’t say nobody saw the plates without dealing with the ostentatious testimony of the three and eight witnesses. Dr. Peterson speculates that Hitchens doesn’t mention this because he wasn’t aware of it. My opinion is that having read Roughing It Hitchens was aware of it, but found the contrived demonstration so unconvincing that it wasn’t worth mentioning.

Billy Shears
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Re: peterson's Review of Hitchens Is Not Great

Post by Billy Shears »

In a textbook case of psychological projection, Dr. Peterson said, Let me go through a few miscellaneous errors here that I think are illustrative, again Hitchens’ seriousness and how seriously he should be taken. One of my favorite is an epigraph that he has at the heading of one of his chapters, he is trying to show that all serious Christian thinkers are idiots. And so, he has to take on one of the biggest, Thomas Aquinas, the greatest philosopher of the Middle Ages and certainly in the West. Thomas Aquinas is given a quote, it’s placed in his mouth, “I am a man of one book;” the Bible obviously. Now I could not remember ever running across a quote like that from Thomas Aquinas, any passage that ever said that. In fact anybody who has read Thomas Aquinas knows that he is constantly citing Aristotle, early Greek commentators on Aristotle, Avicenna, Arabic philosophers, he is drawing on all sorts of sources. He is a man of scores if not hundreds of books. By the standards of Middle Ages, this guy is a walking library. So why would he say, “I am man of one book?” Well, what a big surprise, he didn’t. Hitchens says he said it, but he didn’t. In fact if you do a Google search for him, again I am trying to follow Hitchens’ research methodology here, you come up with a quotation attributed to him which is actually probably not authentic either where he says, “beware of the man of one book.” That’s the opposite.

Dr. Peterson’s ability to fit so many false and misleading things into such a relatively small set of sentences is impressive, in its own way.

First, is Hitchens trying to show that all serious thinkers are idiots? No. Peterson saying this proves that either he didn’t understand the book, was too lazy to have actually read it, or is knowingly lying about what it says. Illiterate, lazy, or liar. Those really are the only basic alternatives.

The epigraph is in the beginning of chapter five, which is entitled, “The Metaphysical Claims of Religion Are False.” The thesis of the chapter approaches the exact opposite of what Dr. Peterson claims. The chapter begins by referring to an idea first introduced in the first chapter: that Augustine, Aquinas, Maimonides and Newman were mighty scholars who did impressive mental feats. But, given their time and place, they didn’t have any clue about the nature of reality, and the religious ideas they were grappling with were in fact all made up. That’s the truth of the matter. Their ignorance of reality is, in the words of Hitchens, the plain reason why there are no more of them today, and why there will be no more of them tomorrow. Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago: either that or it mutated into an admirable but nebulous humanism, as did, say, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a brave Lutheran pastor hanged by the Nazis for his refusal to collude with them. We shall have no more prophets or sages from the ancient quarter, which is why the devotions of today are only the echoing repetitions of yesterday, sometimes ratcheted up to screaming point so as to ward off the terrible emptiness. (Does that last point remind anybody else of the latest proclamation from general conference?)

So regardless of how hard they try, neither William Lane Craig nor anybody else will ever be another Aquinas, and neither Russell M. Nelson nor anybody else will ever be another Paul or Joseph Smith who uses spiritual means to produce a provocative new religious “truth.” The point is not that “all serious Christian thinkers are idiots” as Dr. Peterson falsely claims. The point is that we now know religion is false and that because of that knowledge, there cannot be serious new revelation or serious new religious-based philosophy. Our knowledge of reality precludes such things.

So, is Hitchens trying to show that Aquinas is an idiot who only read one book and wasn’t interested in non-Christian philosophy? No! If Peterson would have read the book and comprehended what he was reading, he would have known that most of the chapter headed by this epigraph is very complementary of medieval thinkers. (If you will pardon the Tannerism, I will highlight various words in the following quote to emphasize the point, in case the reader missed the point while mining for things to take offense about).

The scholastic obsessives of the Middle Ages were doing the best they could on the basis of hopelessly limited information, ever-present fear of death and judgment, very low life expectancy, and an audience of illiterates. Living in often genuine fear of the consequences of error, they exerted their minds to the fullest extent then possible, and evolved quite impressive systems of logic and the dialectic. It is not the fault of men like Peter Abelard if they had to work with bits and pieces of Aristotle, many of whose writings were lost when the Christian emperor Justinian closed the schools of philosophy, but were preserved in Arabic translation in Baghdad and then retransmitted to a benighted Christian Europe by way of Jewish and Muslim Andalusia. When they got hold of the material and reluctantly conceded that there had been intelligent discussion of ethics and morality before the supposed advent of Jesus, they tried their hardest to square the circle. We have nothing much to learn from what they thought, but a great deal to learn from how they thought.

One medieval philosopher and theologian who continues to speak eloquently across the ages is William Ockham...
The next few pages go into the thoughts of this particular medieval theologian, all very flatteringly, with complements such as his thoughts being impressive, and not just for the time.

So, did Aquinas actually say what is attributed to him here? And what is meant by it? According to a substantial Wikipedia page, what’s been attributed to Aquinas for centuries is the Latin phrase, hominem unius libri timeo. Dr. Peterson translates this as “beware of the man of one book,” but the editors of Wikipedia translate it as, “I fear the man of a single book.” So does being a man of a single book mean you are an idiot as Dr. Peterson alludes? Does fearing a man of a single book mean you are afraid of idiots? According to Wikipedia, being a man of a single book, as originally understood, is a good thing—it indicates mastery. Quoting Wikipedia:
The literary critic Clarence Brown described the phrase in his introduction to a novel by Yuri Olesha: "[Aquinas's] words are generally quoted today in disparagement of the man whose mental horizons are limited to one book. Aquinas, however, meant that a man who has thoroughly mastered one good book can be dangerous as an opponent. The Greek poet Archilochus meant something like this when he said that the fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing."

The poet Robert Southey recalled the tradition in which the quotation became embedded: "When St Thomas Aquinas was asked in what manner a man might best become learned, he answered, 'By reading one book'; 'meaning,' says Bishop Taylor, 'that an understanding entertained with several objects is intent upon neither, and profits not. The homo unius libri is indeed proverbially formidable to all conversational figurantes. Like your sharp-shooter, he knows his piece perfectly, and is sure of his shot."
So, was Google Hitchens’s research methodology as Dr. Peterson again tells us? Plainly, no. It’s ironic that every time Dr. Peterson repeats this lie of his, it is in the context of using Google to contradict what Hitchens actually said.

In summary, it appears that Hitchens slightly misremembered the quote. The quote (whether misquoted or not) doesn’t support the assertion that all theists are idiots, and it doesn’t even support the assertion that Aquinas was an idiot. And the thesis of the chapter that this epigraph leads isn’t about the idea that all serious Christian thinkers are idiots. It isn't about that. At all.

I am left wondering if some serious Christian thinkers are idiots, but since I wouldn’t classify Dr. Peterson as a serious Christian thinker, no examples come to mind.

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Dr Exiled
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Re: peterson's Review of Hitchens Is Not Great

Post by Dr Exiled »

I think Coach and his team over-use the tactic of exaggerating/misrepresenting/misquoting their targets. It becomes too transparent and diminishes credibility.

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Doctor CamNC4Me
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Re: peterson's Review of Hitchens Is Not Great

Post by Doctor CamNC4Me »

Well, Dr. Exiled I think some quotes from r/exmormon today are in order:

“ Typical Mormon argument: debate the meaning of the words used rather than the point being made.”

“ Yep! And cling to every slip of the tongue.”

“Amen, argumentum ad dictionarium is totally their favorite fallacy.”

I’d add that mopologists strain at gnats while ignoring elephants, and have more in common with the Ministry of Truth than academia.

- Doc

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