Christopher Hitchens and eating pork: a microcosm for the debate about religion and reason

The weirdest chapter of ‘God is Not Great’ illustrates a lot of the problems with the book as a whole.


The third chapter of Christopher Hitchen’s anti-religious screed ‘God is not great’ is entitled ‘A short digression on the pig; or, why heaven hates ham.’ It’s devoted to dissecting the Jewish and Islamic prohibitions on eating pork. He writes that “this apparently trivial fetish shows how religion and faith and superstition distort our whole picture of the world.”

I want to present my own suggestion for a microcosm: this strange little chapter for the whole of ‘God is not great.’ Hitchens is undoubtedly a hugely talented polemicist. However, rather than ensuring the validity of what he writes, his skill with words often serves to obscures the logical or factual errors in his argument, that would become evident much faster if presented by a lesser writer.

Reading his chapter on pork the following problems become apparent:

It’s irrelevant to most religions

Porcophobia (a word which as far as I can tell Hitchens coined) is only a feature of Judaism and Islam yet forms part of Hitchen’s indictment of religion as a whole. A Christian, a Hindu, a Buddhist or a Baha’i might legitimately ask: what has this got to with me and my faith?

Hitchen’s response to that would likely be that not eating pork is just the most ‘tenacious’ of the fetishes that religion promotes and that ‘all religions have a tendency to feature some dietary injunction or prohibition.’ In response, I would ask: is there anything useful to be gained from trying to apply a single critique to the multitude of divergent and distinct commandments on food and drink? Can you really say the same thing is wrong with Jewish kosher, Hindu vegetarianism and Baha’i teetotalism?

This is a point one can extrapolate out to the idea of critiquing religion. Hinduism postulates that there are thousands, while Buddhism typically has none. Therefore, surely they should be criticised on different grounds.

He winds up acknowledging that it might be wrong to eat pork after all


Having spent several pages ridiculing people who refuse to eat pork; Hitchens sneaks the following rather dramatic about turn into the penultimate paragraph of the chapter: “the pig is so close to us, and has been so handy to us in so many respects, that a strong case is now made by humanists that it should not be factory-farmed, confined, separated from its young, and forced to live in its own ordure.”

Elsewhere in the book we have examples of other religiously inspired that Hitchens has to concede might have a point – Quakers, Martin Luther King and Martin Niemoller for example.

He makes rationality carry too much weight

Hitchen’s justification for the double standard whereby humanists can legitimately decide not to eat meat but religious people can’t is that “this is a decision that we can make in the plain light of reason and compassion.”

It may not be rational for a Jew or Muslim to single out pork among all other meats. However, there is no rational reason that I find it distasteful to eat dog or insects. It’s just my culture. But despite that I imagine few atheists would see my reaction as immoral and indeed many would share it.

Nor would all of the notoriously hard drinking and smoking Hitchens’ own decisions have stood up to a rationality test. But rationality is not all there is to life.

He assumes religions are irrational

Even if we accept rationality as being invariably desirable that’s not necessarily a mark against religion.

We can perhaps locate reasons for ‘irrational’ beliefs. It could be that dietary restrictions build a sense of community among believers or provide them with a daily connection with their heritage. C.S Lewis suggested that stopping ourselves doing innocuous things could be practice for preventing ourselves indulging in things that cause genuine damage.

More broadly, there is a long tradition of grounding faith in reason: look back to Aquinas or in the present at Keith Ward.

The secular world generates plenty of irrational nonsense

Especially about diet but about plenty of other stuff too.

4 thoughts on “Christopher Hitchens and eating pork: a microcosm for the debate about religion and reason

  1. Pingback: Blogging about faith: What do you want to read? | Matter Of Facts

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