The BBC's “Intelligence Squared” recently held a debate between atheists and Catholics on the proposition “that the Catholic Church is a force for good in the world.” Sadly, the Catholics lost badly. This is not just my opinion: the audience was polled before and after the debate.
On the face of it, the choice of debaters was more than fair. For the atheists, Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry. For the Catholics, a Conservative MP—Anne Widdicombe--and an African archbishop. The archbishop at least, one would expect, would be a professional dealing with amateurs.
Nor is Christopher Hitchens that formidable. He's great fun to listen to, but I've seen him beaten cleanly by Dinesh Desouza, and I hear even from atheists that he was humbled in a debate last spring with William Craig. He says the same things in every debate, so it would seem an easy thing to have answers ready.
It was as if the Catholics did not really want to defend the Church; as if they were apologetic in the first place for being Catholic. They were neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm about it all.
The fundamental flaw in their approach in the debate, to my mind, is that they allowed and accepted the premise that religion was strictly about ethics—albeit that was aided by the premise of the debate. Still, “doing good in the world” can mean more than good deeds. Yet, to argue for the good of the Catholic Church, Widdicombe managed to do no better than pointing out that Catholic Charities spends a lot of money in the Third World—more than any government. The archbishop said almost the same, defending the Catholic Church by comparing it to the multinationals that presumably have “exploited” Africa. One felt that he was making the point that he was an African first, and a Catholic only second.
This notion that religion is no more than an admonition to “do good” has always bothered me, and it seems very common. Not just for Christianity—I remember once giving a talk on the Hindu epic, The Ramayana, and being questioned afterwards by a troubled young Hindu woman who noticed that Rama seemed to behave quite unethically, by firing an arrow into the back of one of two brothers engaged in a duel. How could this be?
But, as William Blake said, “if religion is morality, then Socrates is the saviour.” For religion, ethics is a sideshow. The Catholic Church is not there to support Catholic Charities. Indeed, if you read Jesus's parables closely, you will find that they are often morally scandalous. The story of the faithful servant, for example, actually praises the servant who gets most interest on the money lent—for usury.
Christopher Hitchens can therefore cite an endless number of morally scandalous suggestions in the Bible, and so claim that Christianity is “immoral.” If one is concerned primarily with morality, he has a point—because it is concerned with more than morality, religion is not always a reliable guide to what is strictly moral. King David kills a man to take his wife. Lot sleeps with his own daughters. Jesus advises we take no thought for the morrow. Yahweh tells Abraham to kill his own son. Jesus says that we should despise our father and mother. And on and on. Hitchens is quite right to point out that the doctrine of original sin violates moral justice, as does the doctrine of fogiveness of sin. In a truly just universe, nobody would suffer for the sins of another.
Do not misunderstand my point: good and evil are absolute values, and ethics is important. But we do not need religion to teach us ethics. As Kant demonstrated, and as the Church teaches, basic ethics are objective, carved in our hearts, in our conscience. They are equally binding on us all, regardless of religion or lack thereof. Their relation to religion is this: first, the existence of absolute values like good and evil imply the existence of God, the absolute absolute. Second, religion helps us to behave ethically; it gives us a counterweight to the temptations of self and of common opinion. Third, religion provides an epistemological foundation for ethics—an objective vantage point from which good and evil can be known in themselves, apart from our personal circumstance. Fourth, they give an ontological grounding to ethics—if the rules are established by God, they are indeed absolutes, and so more compelling than had they evolved arbitrarily by natural selection as simply what is useful to survive.
But what, then, is religion really about? It is about salvation, of course. It is about knowing God. It is about getting from “here,” the imperfect material and social world, to the world of the spirit, the invisible kingdom of God, aka “heaven.” Call it Nirvana or the Pure Land if you prefer.
Hitchens is therefore correct to point out that all religions seem to have a kind of “death wish.” They do indeed look forward to the world ending; they do indeed look forward to death. For the same reason, they are also ultimately hostile to a purely social morality, to “the Law,” morality understood as a force preserving the order of this world. Because it is a creature of this world, and supports this world, such a morality is an idolatry; the goal of religion is the next. That is why the first commandment, in both its Old and New Testament formulations, is not to love our neighbour, but to love God.
It may have been only right, then, that the Catholics lost the debate on the premise as stated: “that the Catholic Church is a force for good in the world.” Its kingdom is not of this world, and, while in this world, it is not of it. Ultimately, this world can go hang.