I am reading God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens. The purpose of his book is not to eradicate religion, but to bolster the atheist position in public discourse. Religious conversation, writes Hitchens, is “the beginning—but not the end—of all arguments about philosophy, science, history, and human nature. It is also the beginning—but by no means the end—of all disputes about the good life and the just city."
In chapter 13, “Does Religion Make People Behave Better?” Hitchens answers the objection that atheism encourages immorality. He begins by attacking some of religion’s success stories. He argues that the advances made by Dr. Martin Luther King and other abolitionists came more from their familiarity with humanism than it did their Christian conviction. He continues that Ghandhi’s work has been overrated and that it has even done more harm than good.
Hitchens then turns the argument and recounts examples of how religion has made people worse—specifically in the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur.
Hitchens grants that some religious people are moral, but that religious people are a mixed bag. He received death threats from Muslims who disapproved of his refusal to join their campaign against Denmark, and he witnessed a Muslim cab driver show extraordinary honesty and piety by returning a large sum of money to his wife that she left in his cab. “Which of these to versions of faith,” asks Hitchens, “is the one to rely on? . . . [I]f all Muslims conducted themselves like the man who gave up more than a week’s salary in order to do the right thing, I would be quite indifferent to the weird exhortations of the Koran.”
While Hitchens might be more tolerant to religious people if they were moral, he disagrees that morality can prove religion. People do things with all kinds of strange motivations. Just because a story motivates someone to act morally, it doesn’t mean that the story is true.
The most poignant part of the chapter is in Hitchens recounting a debate between the atheist A. J. Ayer and a Bishop Butler. When Ayer said that he saw no evidence for the existence of any god, Butler responded, “Then I cannot see why you do not lead a life of unbridled immorality.” Hitchens doesn’t defend all of Ayer’s lifestyle decisions, but insists that calling him immoral would be a “travesty of the truth.” On the other hand, Butler’s comments reveal that if Butler didn’t see evidence of god, that he would have led a life of unbridled immorality. Hitchens notes that this is why “When priests go bad, they go very bad indeed, and commit crimes that would make the average sinner pale.”
While there are some good points in this chapter, Hitchens’ argument fails. First, while he may be able to see humanistic principles that could have explained Dr. King’s behavior, this is certainly not the explanation that King himself would have offered for his behavior. The same has to be said for other Christian abolitionists and humanitarians.
But Hitchen’s failure to do Dr. King justice is not the main reason his argument fails. Hitchens’ biggest error is in reading his own atheist worldview into the argument from morality. To Hitchens, the morality argument is only one of motivation. To Christians, the morality argument is one of ability. In other words, Hitchens interprets the morality argument as “The Christian stories we tell motivate us to do good because we are afraid of divine retribution and eager for heavenly rewards.” In reality, the Christian argument is “The Holy Spirit works in people of faith enabling them to do good deeds.” Our faith doesn’t just motivate us to do good; it enables us to do good.
Hitchens’ response to his own argument from morality holds up. Just because someone is motivated by a story doesn’t mean that the story is true. However, his response does not defeat the real Christian argument from morality. If central tenets of Christianity include “The one true God Yahweh is at work in the world through the Holy Spirit,” and “The Holy Spirit enables moral living in the community of faith,” then the presence or absence of morality in the community of faith is evidence for or against the truth of Christian dogma. I’ve mentioned before on this blog that this is part of Wolfhart Pannenberg’s argument for God.
Does religion make people behave better? No. But the Holy Spirit does.
So, what about Hitchens’ question of which examples to choose from? Well, therein lies the rub. Does the Rwandan genocide disprove Christianity? Yes and no. Were those participating Christians? How would we know? They certainly claimed to be. But not everyone who claims to have faith actually has faith (Matt 7:21). Does that mean that no one who participated in the genocide was a Christian? Wouldn’t that reduce the argument from morality to tautology? (God is real because Christians are moral, but only the moral Christians are real Christians.)
The sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit is not complete this side of resurrection. There is a sense in which we are still awaiting our redemption. Thus, while the Spirit makes people of faith more moral, He does not make them perfect. Ultimately, I cling to the sanctifying work of the Spirit as evidence for God. When I see Christians behaving badly, my faith in God is diminished. But, I see far more good than bad in the Christian community and the argument from morality holds up to me.
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