Playing the Indian Card

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Hitchens' Wager

Christopher Hitchens' main arguments against Christianity, and my responses:

1.Morality does not need religion

Here he simply agrees with the Catholic Church. Morality is objective and absolute; it is equally binding on all, regardless of religion or lack thereof.

But as a criticism of religion, it is simply misinformed. Straw man.

2.The Christian concept of God is a “Celestial dictatorship”

This is a categorization error. It is wrong and disastrous to give a government godlike powers. It does not follow that it is wrong and disastrous for God to have godlike powers.

Similarly, it is wrong for a government to treat us as a parent would treat children. It does not follow that it is wrong for us to treat our children as children.

3.“Vicarious suffering” (i.e., redemption through Jesus's sacrifice) is immoral.

Hitchens here exaggerates the extent to which we are individuals. We cannot ever take full credit for our own moral behaviour, good or bad. We are always influenced, for example, by how we were brought up, by our particular temptations—say, to alcohol, to laziness, to sex--by our material circumstances. A wealthy person is probably less tempted to steal; but that does not automatically make him more moral.

Indeed, it is a part of familiar, ordinary life to take responsibility for one another's acts. Do we not commonly feel shame or pride for the doings of our parents, our children, our ancestors, our compatriots? A son is arrested for drunkenness and put in jail: doesn't the father bail him out? And do we usually find that immoral, an offense against natural justice? A husband commits a crime and is imprisoned; don't the wife and children suffer? Yet wouldn't we find it somewhat immoral were they to abandon him or disown him to escape the consequences of his act?

Ultimately, we are all at some level responsible for everyone else's sins.

4.Religion demands “compulsory love.”

So? Hitchens seems to assume there is something wrong with love being compulsory. But in fact, love is compulsory. When we marry, we vow to love and to cherish. It is thenceforth indeed compulsory to love our wife or husband; we are morally obliged to do so. It is also surely morally compulsory to love our children.

Accordingly, there is nothing unreasonable in suggesting we ought also to love God, and all men.

Presumably Hitchens has been misled by all this modern talk about “free love.”

5.Why did God wait so long—98,000 years—to bring redemption?

Hitchens calculates that humankind has been on this earth for about 100,000 years. Yet Jesus appeared only 2,000 years ago, in, Hitchens says, a remote and backward part of the globe. How could a just and loving God do something that seemed so unplanned?

As Dinesh D'Sousa has pointed out, this can be looked at another way. The human population of the world has not been constant for those 100,000 years. If you calculate the actual number of people who lived before Christ, and the number of people who have lived since Christ, it is only 2% of humanity who died before Jesus appeared—and that percentage is shrinking annually.

I have argued previously in this space that Jesus's time and place, far from seeming arbirtary, actually was the first and best opportunity for for world-wide dissemination. It took 1,500 years before the Western world was again so unified as it was during the Roman Empire; this unity was needed for the rapid spread of the message. And it had to be the Western world, because it was the West that first came into contact with the entire world, in the Age of Exploration. Moreover, appearing in Palestine, in the largely Greek-speaking eastern fringes of the Empire, allowed near-simultaneous transmission to the civilizations to the east and south—Persia, India, China, and Ethiopia; the more so since Palestine, Persia and the Indus were in communication due to the Hellenization following Alexander. All but China were reached within a century after Jesus's death. Had Jesus appeared in Gaul, say, this early spread would have been much less likely.

In any case, Jesus's sacrifice is understood by Catholics to be effective not only for those who came after Jesus, but also for those who came before. Nor would even those who had not heard of Jesus have been left with no salvation—for Catholics, salvation is through Jesus's sacrifice, but not through direct knowledge of the particular name, “Jesus.”

And Hitchens contradicts himself: he complains in the same sentence both that God should have come sooner, and that he should have come to a less backward place. You can't have both. God must choose a balance of the two—and he did.

4.Hell is an appalling concept.

Elsewhere Hitchens accuses religion of being “wish fulfillment.” This being so, he contradicts himself by objecting to Hell as unpleasant. If it is, as it is, that disproves this objection.

He also contradicts his claim elsewhere of taking a purely moral stance, of insisting on holding everyone responsible for their own acts. If good and evil are absolutes, justice demands the existence of Hell. Where else are you going to put Hitler?

5.Hitchen's wager: “Name me one moral thing a religious person could say that an atheist could not say. You can't. But name me one immoral thing a religious person can say that an atheist cannot say. It's easy...”

In fact, this challenge is easily answered. When asked for the first and most important commandment, Jesus said “love God.” No atheist follows this first commandment. The first several of the ten commandments are also matters of loving and respecting God: keeping the Sabbath holy, worshipping no idols, not blaspheming. Atheists presumably blaspheme against the Holy Spirit the instant they deny the truth of religion, yet Jesus called this the one unpardonable sin.

Hitchens will no doubt simply argue that this is not a part of objective morality. If there is a God, he is wrong. So his claim of equal or greater morality for atheism is, at best, tautological.

Hitchens is also correct that religious people can commit immoralities that atheists are much less likely to—killing in the name of God, for example. But he makes this seem significant only by a false parallel with the first half of his wager. For the correct parallel, he should ask, can atheists also commit immoralities that religious people are much less likely to—killing for sheer self-interest, for example, or in the name of politics, economics, or pseudo-science? The answer is obviously, yes, and the historical balance on this score is clearly in favour of religion. Consider Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Attila the Hun, Pol Pot...

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Resolved: The Catholic Church is _Not_ a Force for Good in the World

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.