Saturday, 26 May 2007

"Is Christianity Good for the World?" debate between Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson - Part 1

reposted from:

Theologian Douglas Wilson and atheist Christopher Hitchens, authors whose books are already part of a larger debate on whether religion is pernicious, agreed to discuss their views on whether Christianity itself has benefited the world.

Douglas Wilson is author of Letter from a Christian Citizen, senior fellow of theology at New Saint Andrews College, and minister at Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho.

Christopher Hitchens wrote, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Twelve Books). Hitchens is a visiting professor of liberal studies at the New School. He is the author of numerous books, Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, Thomas Paine's "Rights of Man," Letters To a Young Contrarian, and Why Orwell Matters. He was named, to his own amusement, number five on a list of the "Top 100 Public Intellectuals" by Foreign Policy and Britain's Prospect.

From: Christopher Hitchens
To: Douglas Wilson
Subject: Is Christianity Good for the World? Part 1

In considering the above question (for which my thanks are due to your generosity and hospitality in inviting my response), I have complete confidence in replying in the negative. This is for the following reasons.

1) Although Christianity is often credited (or credits itself) with spreading moral precepts such as "Love thy neighbor", I know of no evidence that such precepts derive from Christianity. To take one instance from each Testament, I cannot believe that the followers of Moses had been indifferent to murder and theft and perjury until they arrived at Sinai, and I notice that the parable of the good Samaritan is told of someone who by definition cannot have been a Christian.

To these obvious points, I add that the "Golden Rule" is much older than any monotheism, and that no human society would have been possible or even thinkable without elementary solidarity (which also allows for self-interest) between its members.

The Golden Rule (wikipedia)

The ethic of reciprocity or "The Golden Rule" is a fundamental moral principle found in virtually all major religions and cultures, which simply means "treat others as you would like to be treated." It is arguably the most essential basis for the modern concept of human rights. Principal philosophers and religious figures have stated it in different ways,

  • "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." — Jesus (c. 5 BC - AD 32 ) in the Gospels, Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31, Luke 10:27
  • "This is the sum of duty; do naught unto others what you would not have them do unto you." — Mahabharata (5:15:17) (c. 500 BC)
  • "What you do not wish upon yourself, extend not to others." — Confucius (ca. 551 - 479 BC)
  • "What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man." — Hillel (ca. 50 BC - AD 10)
  • "None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself." — Muhammad (c. AD 571 - 632) in a Hadith.

Though it is not strictly relevant to the ethical dimension, I would further say that neither the fable of Moses nor the wildly discrepant Gospel accounts of Jesus of Nazareth may claim the virtue of being historically true. I am aware that many Christians also doubt the literal truth of the tales but this seems to me to be a problem for them rather than a difficulty for me. Even if I accepted that Jesus—like almost every other prophet on record—was born of a virgin, I cannot think that this proves the divinity of his father or the truth of his teachings. The same would be true if I accepted that he had been resurrected. There are too many resurrections in the New Testament for me to put my trust in any one of them, let alone to employ them as a basis for something as integral to me as my morality.

2) Many of the teachings of Christianity are, as well as being incredible and mythical, immoral. I would principally wish to cite the concept of vicarious redemption, whereby one's own responsibilities can be flung onto a scapegoat and thereby taken away. In my book, I argue that I can pay your debt or even take your place in prison but I cannot absolve you of what you actually did. This exorbitant fantasy of "forgiveness" is unfortunately matched by an equally extreme admonition—which is that the refusal to accept such a sublime offer may be punishable by eternal damnation. Not even the Old Testament, which speaks hotly in recommending genocide, slavery, genital mutilation, and other horrors, stoops to mention the torture of the dead. Those who tell this evil story to small children are not damned by me, but have been damned by history and should also be condemned by those who shrink from cruelty to children (a moral essential that underlies all cultures).

The late C. S. Lewis helps make this point for me by emphasizing that the teachings of Jesus only make sense if the speaker is the herald of an imminent kingdom of heaven. Otherwise, would it not be morally unsafe to denounce thrift, family, and the "taking of thought for the morrow"? Some of your readers may believe that this teaching is either true—in the sense of an imminent redemption—or moral. I believe that they would have a difficult time believing both things at once, and I notice the futility as well as the excessive strenuousness (sometimes called "fanaticism" in tribute to the way that the two things pull in opposite directions) of their efforts. Another way of phrasing this would be to say that if Christianity was going to save us by its teachings, it would have had to perform better by now. And so to my succeeding point.

3) if Christianity is to claim credit for the work of outstanding Christians or for the labors of famous charities, then it must in all honesty accept responsibility for the opposite. I shall not condescend to your readers in specifying what these "opposites" are, but I suggest once more that you pay attention to the Golden Rule. If hymns and psalms were sung to sanctify slavery—just to take a recent example—and then sung by abolitionists, then surely the non-fanatical explanation is that morality requires no supernatural sanction? Every Christian church has had to make some apology for its role in the Crusades, slavery, anti-Semitism, and much else. I do not think that such humility discredits faith as such, because I tend to think that faith is a problem to begin with, but I do think that humility will lead to the necessary conclusion that religion is man-made.

On the other hand from humility, the fantastic idea that the cosmos was made with man in mind strikes me as the highest form of arrogant self-centeredness. And this brings me to what must be (within the limits of this short essay) my closing point. We are not without knowledge on these points, and the boundaries are being expanded at a rate which astonishes even those who do not look for a single cause of such vast and diverse phenomena. There is more awe and more reverence to be derived from a study of the heavens or of our DNA than can be found in any book written by a fearful committee in the age of myth (when Aquinas took astrology seriously and Augustine invented "limbo").

I cannot, of course, prove that there is no supervising deity who invigilates my every moment and who will pursue me even after I am dead. (I can only be happy that there is no evidence for such a ghastly idea, which would resemble a celestial North Korea in which liberty was not just impossible but inconceivable.) But nor has any theologian ever demonstrated the contrary. This would perhaps make the believer and the doubter equal—except that the believer claims to know, not just that God exists, but that his most detailed wishes are not merely knowable but actually known. Since religion drew its first breath when the species lived in utter ignorance and considerable fear, I hope I may be forgiven for declining to believe that another human being can tell me what to do, in the most intimate details of my life and mind, and to further dictate these terms as if acting as proxy for a supernatural entity. This tyrannical idea is very much older than Christianity, of course, but I do sometimes think that Christians have less excuse for believing, let alone wishing, that such a horrible thing could be true. Perhaps your response will make me reconsider?


Christopher Hitchens

From: Douglas Wilson
To: Christopher Hitchens
Re: Is Christianity Good for the World?

Part 1

I want to begin by thanking you for agreeing to—as the diplomats might put it—a "frank exchange of views." And I certainly want to thank the folks at Christianity Today for hosting us.

P. G. Wodehouse once said that some minds are like soup in a poor restaurant—better left unstirred. I am afraid that I find myself sympathizing with him as I consider atheism. I had been minding my own business on this subject for a number of years when I saw Sam Harris's book on the desk of a colleague, and that led to my book in response, not to mention a review of Richard Dawkins's most recent book, and now a series of responses to your God is Not Great, all culminating in this exchange. I am afraid that my problem is this: The more I stir the bowl, the more certain fumes, mystery meats, and questions keep floating to the surface. Here are a few of them.

Your first point was that the Christian faith cannot credit itself for all that "Love your neighbor" stuff, not to mention the Golden Rule, and the reason for this is that such moral precepts have been self-evident to everybody throughout history who wanted to have a stable society. You then move on to the second point, which contains the idea that the teachings of Christianity are "incredibly immoral." In your book, you make the same point about other religions. Apparently, basic morality is not all that self-evident. So my first question is: Which way do you want to argue this? Do all human societies have a grasp of basic morality, which is the theme of your first point, or has religion poisoned everything, which is the thesis of your book?

The second thing to observe in this regard is that Christians actually do not claim that the gospel has made the world better by bringing us turbo-charged ethical information. There have been ethical advances that are due to the propagation of the faith, but that is not where the action is. Christians believe—as C. S. Lewis argued in The Abolition of Man—that nonbelievers do understand the basics of morality. Paul the apostle refers to the Gentiles, who did not have the law but who nevertheless knew by nature some of the tenets of the law (Rom. 2:14). But the world is not made better because people can understand the ways in which they are being bad. It has to be made better by Good News—we must receive the gift of forgiveness and the resultant ability to live more in conformity to a standard we already knew (but were necessarily failing to meet). So the gospel does not consist of new and improved law. The gospel makes the world better through Good News, not through guilt trips or good advice.

In your second objection, you gaily dismiss the Old Testament, "which speaks hotly in recommending genocide, slavery, genital mutilation, and other horrors." Setting aside for the moment whether your representation of the Old Testament is judicious or accurate, let me assume for the sake of discussion that you have accurately summarized the essence of Mosaic ethics here. You then go on to say that we who teach such stories to children have been "damned by history." But why should this "damnation by history" matter to any of us reading Bible stories to kids, or, for that matter, to any of the people who did any of these atrocious things, on your principles? These people are all dead now, and we who read the stories are all going to be dead. Why should any of us care about the effeminate judgments of history? Should the propagators of these "horrors" have cared? There is no God, right? Because there is no God, this means that—you know—genocides just happen, like earthquakes and eclipses. It is all matter in motion, and these things happen.

If you are on the receiving end, there is only death, and if you are an agent delivering this genocide, the long-term result is brief victory and death at the end. So who cares? Picture an Israelite during the conquest of Canaan, doing every bad thing that you say was occurring back then. During one of his outrages, sword above his head, should he have stopped for a moment to reflect on the possibility that you might be right? "You know, in about three and a half millennia, the consensus among historians will be that I am being bad right now. But if there is no God, this disapproval will certainly not disturb my oblivion. On with the rapine and slaughter!" On your principles, why should he care?

In your third objection, you say that if "Christianity is to claim credit for the work of outstanding Christians or for the labors of famous charities, then it must in all honesty accept responsibility for the opposite." In short, if we point to our saints, you are going to demand that we point also to our charlatans, persecutors, shysters, slave-traders, inquisitors, hucksters, televangelists, and so on. Now allow me the privilege of pointing out the structure of your argument here. If a professor takes credit for the student who mastered the material, aced his finals, and went on to a career that was a benefit to himself and the university he graduated from, the professor must (fairness dictates) be upbraided for the dope-smoking slacker that he kicked out of class in the second week. They were both formally enrolled, is that not correct? They were both students, were they not?

What you are doing is saying that Christianity must be judged not only on the basis of those who believe the gospel in truth and live accordingly but also on the basis of those baptized Christians who cannot listen to the Sermon on the Mount without a horse laugh and a life to match. You are saying that those who excel in the course and those who flunk out of it are all the same. This seems to me to be a curious way of proceeding.

You conclude by objecting to the sovereignty of God, saying that the idea makes the whole world into a ghastly totalitarian state, where believers say that God (and who does He think He is?) runs everything. I would urge you to set aside for a moment the theology of the thing and try to summon up some gratitude for those who built our institutions of liberty. Many of them were actually inspired by the idea that since God is exhaustively sovereign, and because man is a sinner, it follows that all earthly power must be limited and bounded. The idea of checks and balances came from a worldview that you dismiss as inherently totalitarian. Why did those societies where this kind of theology predominated produce, as a direct result, our institutions of civil liberty?

One last question: In your concluding paragraph you make a great deal out of your individualism and your right to be left alone with the "most intimate details of [your] life and mind." Given your atheism, what account are you able to give that would require us to respect the individual? How does this individualism of yours flow from the premises of atheism? Why should anyone in the outside world respect the details of your thought life any more than they respect the internal churnings of any other given chemical reaction? That's all our thoughts are, isn't that right? Or, if there is a distinction, could you show how the premises of your atheism might produce such a distinction?


Douglas Wilson

From: Christopher Hitchens
To: Douglas Wilson
Subject: Is Christianity Good for the World?

part 2

This is mildly amusing casuistry which—aside from its recommendation of Wodehouse—contains nothing that distinguishes it from Islam or Hinduism or indeed humanism. Were I a Christian, I would be highly unsettled by the huge number of concessions that Wilson makes. Since I am not a Christian, I mutter a mild "thank you" for his admission that morality has nothing at all to do with the supernatural. My book argues that religious belief has now become purely optional and cannot be mandated by anything revealed or anything divine. It is one among an infinite number of private "faiths," which do not disturb me in the least as long as its adherents agree to leave me alone.

Since Wilson does not even attempt to persuade me that Christ died for my sins (and can yet vicariously forgive them) or that I am the object of a divine design or that any of the events described in the two Testaments actually occurred or that extreme penalties will attend any disagreement with his view, I am happy to leave our disagreement exactly where it is: as one of the decreasingly interesting disputes between those who cling so tentatively to man-made "Holy Writ" and those who have no need to consult such texts in pursuit of truth or beauty or an ethical life. The existence or otherwise of an indifferent cosmos (the overwhelmingly probable state of the case) would no more reduce our mutual human obligations than would the quite weird theory of a celestial dictatorship,whether Aztec or Muslim or (as you seem to insist) Christian. The sole difference is that we would be acting out of obligation toward others out of mutual interest and sympathy but without the impulse of terrifying punishment or selfish reward. Some of us can handle this thought and some, evidently, cannot. I have a slight suspicion as to which is more moral.

On a recent visit to Arkansas, I ran into a huge billboard near the Little Rock airport which simply said "JESUS." This struck me as saying too much as well as too little, and I had almost forgotten it until Wilson's evasions brought it back to mind.

— Christopher Hitchens

* * *

From: Douglas Wilson
To: Christopher Hitchens
Re: Is Christianity Good for the World?
Part 2

I am glad that you found my response mildly amusing. I am also grateful we share an appreciation for Wodehouse. And I am extremely glad that you would like me to begin talking about the death of Christ for sin—which I fully intend to do. But the pattern the New Testament gives us is to address the need for repentance first and then to talk about the need for faith in Christ as Savior. Within the boundaries of our discussion, repentance would be necessary because you have embraced the internal contradictions of atheism, all for the sake of avoiding God (Rom. 1:21; Ps. 14:1-2). So we will get to the gospel, but I am afraid I am going to have to ask you to hold your horses.

So, back to the business at hand, the business of intellectual repentance. Dismissing something as casuistry is not the same thing as a demonstration of casuistry, and refusing to answer questions because the other guy is being evasive is quite a neat trick … if you can pull it off.

I am afraid you misconstrued my acknowledgement that—with regard to public civic life—atheists can certainly behave in a moral manner. My acknowledgement was not that morality has nothing to do with the supernatural, as you represented, but rather that morality has nothing to do with the supernatural if you want to be an inconsistent atheist. Here is that point again, couched another way and tied into our topic of debate.

Among many other reasons, Christianity is good for the world because it makes hypocrisy a coherent concept. The Christian faith certainly condemns hypocrisy as such, but because there is a fixed standard, this makes it possible for sinners to fail to meet it or for flaming hypocrites to pretend that they are meeting it when they have no intention of doing so. Now my question for you is this: Is there such a thing as atheist hypocrisy? When another atheist makes different ethical choices than you do (as Stalin and Mao certainly did), is there an overarching common standard for all atheists that you are obeying and which they are not obeying? If so, what is that standard and what book did it come from? Why is it binding on them if they differ with you? And if there is not a common objective standard which binds all atheists, then would it not appear that the supernatural is necessary in order to have a standard of morality that can be reasonably articulated and defended?

So I am not saying you have to believe in the supernatural in order to live as a responsible citizen. I am saying you have to believe in the supernatural in order to be able to give a rational and coherent account of why you believe yourself obligated to live this way. In order to prove me wrong here, you must do more than employ words like "casuistry" or "evasions"—you simply need to provide that rational account. Given atheism, objective morality follows … how?

The Christian faith is good for the world because it provides the fixed standard which atheism cannot provide and because it provides forgiveness for sins, which atheism cannot provide either. We need the direction of the standard because we are confused sinners. We need the forgiveness because we are guilty sinners. Atheism not only keeps the guilt, but it also keeps the confusion.

— Douglas Wilson

From: Christopher Hitchens
To: Douglas Wilson
Part 3

Here is a minor example of how the complacency of the religious allows them to be rude (and crude) in a manner which they might not so easily permit themselves in everyday discourse. I am quite familiar with the verse from the Psalms that describes me as a fool, and corrupt and abominable as well. (In my book, God Is Not Great, I point out that the psalmist was so delighted with this conceit that he reproduced it almost word for word at the opening of Psalm 53.) No great surprise—and no real offense taken—to find myself similarly dismissed as a dumb and vain ingrate in the epistle to the Romans. It's true that I never asked to be saved and don't want anyone to be martyred for me—or to martyr themselves against me, for that matter. All I ask of the apostle Paul is that he and his followers and emulators leave me alone.

On the much more pertinent question of the origin of ethical imperatives, which I believe to be derived from innate human solidarity and not from the supernatural, let me likewise offer an instance from each Testament. Let us assume that the tales can be taken at face value. Is it to be believed that the Jews got as far as Sinai under the impression that murder, theft, and perjury were more or less all right? And, in the story of the good man from Samaria, is it claimed that the man went out of his way to help a fellow creature because of a divine instruction? He was clearly, since he preceded Jesus, not motivated by Christian teaching. And if he was a pious Jew, as seems probable, he would have had religious warrant and authority NOT to do what he did, if the poor sufferer was a non-Jew. It is belief in the supernatural that can make otherwise decent people do things that they would otherwise shrink from—such as mutilating the genitals of children, frightening infants with talk of hellfire, forbidding normal sexual practices, blaming all Jews for "deicide," applauding suicide-murderers, and treating women as Paul or Muhammad thought they should be treated.

I have nowhere claimed nor even implied that unbelief is a guarantee of good conduct or even an indicator of it. (I have sometimes thought that atheists have a slight superiority in one respect, in that we come to our conclusions without any element of self-centered wish-thinking about death.) But an atheist can as easily be a nihilist, a sadist—even a casuist.

On the matter of Stalin and the related question of secular or atheist barbarism, I shyly call your attention to chapter seventeen of my little book, which attempts an answer to this frequently asked question. Until 1917, Russia had been ruled for centuries by an absolute monarch who was also the head of a corrupt and bigoted Orthodox Church and was supposed to possess powers somewhat more than merely human. With millions of hungry and anxious people so long stultified and so credulous, Stalin the ex-seminarian would have been a fool if he did not call upon such a reservoir of ignorance and servility, and seek to emulate his predecessor. If Mr. Wilson would prefer to compare like with like and point to a society that lapsed into misery and despotism by following the precepts of Epicurus or Spinoza or Jefferson or Einstein, I will gladly meet him on that ground.

— CH

* * *

From: Douglas Wilson
To: Christopher Hitchens
Part 3

There are a few slight confusions that I would like deal with briefly within the scope of my first few paragraphs. Weather permitting, I would then like to take just a short space to address the central point which you have (again) missed. The remainder of my time will be spent on your claim concerning the origin of ethical imperatives. I would like to do all this in order to set the stage for our unfolding discussion of the central reason why Christianity is good for the world—it is good for the world because Jesus died for the life of the world.

WASP says "What utter nonsense!"

First, the confusions. The point of citing Psalm 14:1 was not to infer that I thought you were "dumb." In the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, folly is a moral question, not a matter of intelligence. I am quite prepared to cheerfully grant (and not for the sake of the argument) that you are my intellectual superior. But our discussion is not about who has more horsepower under his intellectual hood—the point of discussion is whether your superior car is on the right road. A fast car can be a real detriment on a dark night when the bridge is out. And you insist on continuing to wear the sunglasses of atheism.

Now the second confusion concerns your citation of the parable of the Good Samaritan. The popular name for the parable should have been a giveaway—you acknowledge that the protagonist of the story was "from Samaria," but you miss that this was an ethnic and racial issue and not a question of where he happened to live. The man beat up by the side of the road was a Jew, the priest and Levite who passed by on the other side were Jews, and the man who stopped was a despised half-breed, a Samaritan. But you say that it was probable that the Samaritan was a Jew, which inverts the whole story and indicates to me that you have not really been reading the text very closely (Luke 10:27-37). But to answer your point in even bringing the story up, the Samaritan did not need the teaching of Jesus to do what God desired here. Jesus cited the story as an exposition of the second greatest commandment, which is to love your neighbor as yourself. A certain lawyer had asked Jesus to "define neighbor" in order to justify himself, and Jesus then told this story to illustrate the point of an ancient law. So the duty to love our neighbor was revealed to Old Testament writers about a millennium and a half before the Samaritan fulfilled it in his charitable act.

You say, incidentally, that this kind of law was bringing coals to Newcastle—Moses came down from the mount and told people that murder, theft, and perjury were wrong, and all the assembled rolled their collective eyes. "We already knew that!" But the problem is that ancient man didn't know that, and modern man still doesn't know it. To state some of the issues that are subsumed under just one of the three categories you mention is to point to controversies that continue down to this day. Consider some of the issues clustered under the easiest of these three to condemn—murder. We have abortion, infanticide, partial-birth abortion, euthanasia, genocide, stem-cell research, capital punishment, and unjust war. Murder is the big E on the eye chart, and we still can't see it that clearly.

Man, both ancient and modern, certainly knows the entire law of God if it is his own ox being gored, but the purpose of a law code is to have one standard in place for all parties when individuals want to set aside the standards of civilized life to suit themselves. And we need as much help with that as ancient man ever did.

Now we really need to address the point you continue to miss. I am not talking about whether atheists must do evil, or if they can do evil. I have denied the former, and you have now granted the latter. But that is not the point. We are not talking about whether your atheism compels you to run downtown this evening to shoot out the street lights. I grant that it does not. And we are not talking about whether atheists can do vile things. You grant that they can. We are talking about (or, more accurately, I am trying to talk about) whether or not atheism provides any rational basis for rational condemnation when others decide to misbehave this way. You keep saying, "I have come to my ethical position." I keep asking, "Yes, quite. But why did you do so?"

So the point is not whether we could rustle up some nice places governed by atheists or some hellholes governed by Christians. If given a choice between living in a Virginia governed by Jefferson and living in a Russia under the czars, I would opt to live under your beloved Jefferson. Fine. But this is not a concession, because it is not the point.

Take the vilest atheist you ever heard of. Imagine yourself sitting at his bedside shortly before he passes away. He says, following Sinatra, "I did it my way." And then he adds, chuckling, "Got away with it too." In our thought experiment, the one rule is that you must say something to him, and whatever you say, it must flow directly from your shared atheism—and it must challenge the morality of his choices. What can you possibly say? He did get away with it. There is a great deal of injustice behind him, which he perpetrated, and no justice in front of him. You have no basis for saying anything to him other than to point to your own set of personal prejudices and preferences. You mention this to him, and he shrugs. "Tomayto, tomahto."

I am certainly willing to take the same thought experiment. I can imagine some pretty vile Christians, and if I couldn't, I am sure you could help me. The difference between us is that I have a basis for condemning evil in its Christian guise. You have no basis for confronting evil in its atheist guise, or in its Christian guise, either. When you say that a certain practice is evil, you have to be prepared to tell us why it is evil. And this brings us to the last point—you make the first glimmer of an attempt to provide a basis for ethics.

You say in passing that ethical imperatives are "derived from innate human solidarity." A host of difficult questions immediately arise, which is perhaps why atheists are generally so coy about trying to answer this question. Derived by whom? Is this derivation authoritative? Do the rest of us ever get to vote on which derivations represent true, innate human solidarity? Do we ever get to vote on the authorized derivers? On what basis is innate human solidarity authoritative? If someone rejects innate human solidarity, are they being evil, or are they just a mutation in the inevitable changes that the evolutionary process requires? What is the precise nature of human solidarity? What is easier to read, the book of Romans or innate human solidarity? Are there different denominations that read the book of innate human solidarity differently? Which one is right? Who says?

And last, does innate human solidarity believe in God?

From: Christopher Hitchens
To: Douglas Wilson
Part 4

Here is the reason why I lay so much stress in my book on the importance of William of Ockham and his justly celebrated razor. Why on earth—if you excuse the impression—do the faithful spend so much time creating a mystery where none exists? And why do they insist on inserting unwarrantable assumptions?

I take the plain meaning of the passage in Luke (in a section that is clotted with stories about the casting out of devils and other embarrassing sorceries) to be the duty to others in distress. Surely it loses much of its force if the lesson is about discrepant ethnicities of which we cannot in any case be certain? Nothing can "invert" the message to emulate the Samaritan and to go "and do thou likewise."

You dilute the purity of this—which is morally intelligible to any atheist or humanist—by saying that there is a millennium and a half delay between the "revelation" of this simple act of charity and its anecdotal fulfillment. You also appear to find no distinction between the intelligible injunction to "love thy neighbor" and the impossible order to love another "as thyself." We are not so made as to love others as ourselves: This may admittedly be a fault in our "design," but in such a case the irony would be at your expense. The Golden Rule is to be found in the Analects of Confucius and in the motto of the Babylonian Rabbi Hillel, who long predate the Christian era and who sanely state that one should not do to others anything that would be repulsive if done to oneself. (Even this strikes me as either contradictory or tautologous, since surely we agree that sociopaths and psychopaths actually deserve to be treated in ways that would be objectionable to a morally normal person.)

When you say that men have never known nor yet understood the essential principle, however, you speak absurdly. Ordinary morality is innate in my view. But if, in yours, it is still not known, then centuries of divine admonition have also gone to waste. You are trapped in a net of your own making. Take a look at the list of actual or potential crimes that you mention. Genocide is not condemned by the Old Testament and neither (as you well know and have elsewhere conceded) is slavery. Rather, these two horrors are often positively recommended by holy writ. Abortion is denounced in the Oath of Hippocrates, which long predates Christianity. As for capital punishment and unjust war, the secular and the religious are alike at odds on the very definitions that underpin any condemnation. (When you include "stem-cell research," by the way, I assume that you unintentionally omitted the word "embryonic.")

To your needlessly convoluted subsequent question: Atheists are by no means "coy" on the question of evil or on the possibility of non-supernatural derivation of ethics. We are simply reluctant to say that, if religious faith falls—as we believe it must and to some extent already has—then the undergirding of decency falls also. And we do not fail to notice that a corollary is in play: The manner in which religion makes people behave worse than they might otherwise have done. Take a look at today's paper if you do not believe me: See what the parties of God are doing in Iraq. Or notice the sordid yet pious tradesmanship of Ralph Reed, Jack Abramoff, and the late Jerry Falwell. The latter's bedside is the one at which you should be asking your question—do you dare to say that a follower of Albert Einstein or Bertrand Russell would be gloating in the same way at their last hour? In either case—an atheist boaster and braggart or a hypocritical religious one—I trust that both of us would know enough to be quite "judgmental." I would differ from you only in not requiring any supernatural sanction or in claiming to be smug enough to possess such a power.

I am sorry to see that you sarcastically refer to Thomas Jefferson as "my" beloved. Do you not respect him also? And why can you not summon enough charity to believe that a non-believer can give blood, say, for no return, out of the sheer satisfaction of doing a service that involves only a benefit and no loss? According to you, my doing this is pointless unless I accept the incredible idea that, after hundreds of thousands of years of human life and suffering, God chose a moment a few thousand years ago to finally mount an intervention. You will have to accept sooner or later that a good person can be born who cannot force his mind to believe such a fantastic thing. At that point, you will see that your strenuous conditions are surplus to requirements.

In closing, I reply to your clumsy observation about my motor vehicle by citing Heine, who said:

In dark ages people are best guided by religion, as in a pitch-black night a blind man is the best guide; he knows the roads and paths better than a man who can see. When daylight comes, however, it is foolish to use blind old men as guides.

The argument that you have been making was over long before either of us was born. There is no need for revelation to enforce morality, and the idea that good conduct needs a heavenly reward, or that bad conduct merits a hellish punishment, is a degradation of our right and duty to choose for ourselves.

* * *

From: Douglas Wilson
To: Christopher Hitchens
Part 4

You refer to the faithful "creating a mystery where none exists." May I get you to agree that the question "Why is there something here rather than nothing at all?" does not fall into that category? If you and I were standing on a little thought-experiment balcony watching either the moment when the cosmic boilers blew, giving us the Big Bang, or watching the first glorious creational response to God's fiat lux, can we agree that at that moment Ockham's razor would be of absolutely no use to either of us?

If Jesus had told a story about a black man stopping to help a beat-up white guy in Mississippi in the 1950's, and you retold the story later with the merciful one now suitably white, I think it would be appropriate for me to point out the inversion, and that the story had been significantly changed and weakened. And when I said that the Good Samaritan fulfilled an ancient law, I did not say that obedience to this law was dormant during the intervening time. Of course it was not. But neither was disobedience dormant, and Jesus was confronting a particular form of institutionalized disobedience—religious hypocrisy.

On the question of morality, you say that you are "simply reluctant" to say that if religious faith falls, then the undergirding decency must fall also. But your behavior goes far beyond a mere "reluctance to concede." Your book and your installments in this debate thus far are filled with fierce denunciations of various manifestations of immorality. You are playing Savonarola here, and I simply want to know the basis of your florid denunciations. You preach like some hot gospeler—with a floppy leather-bound book and all. I know the book is not the Bible and so all I want to know is what book it is, and why it has anything to do with me. Why should anyone listen to your jeremiads against weirdbeards in the Middle East or fundamentalist Baptists from Virginia like Falwell? On your terms, you are just a random collection of protoplasm, noisier than most, but no more authoritative than any—which is to say, not at all.

You say that I need to admit that a "good person can be born" who can't get his mind around what I am saying about Jesus. But my initial claim has been far more modest. I am simply saying that a good person needs to be able, at a minimum, to define what goodness is and tell us what the basis for it is. Your handwaving—"ordinary morality is innate"—does not even begin to meet the standard.

There are three insurmountable problems for you here. The first is that innate is not a synonym for authoritative. Why does anyone have to obey any particular prompting from within? And which internal prompting is in charge of sorting out all the other competing promptings? Why? Second, the tangled skein of innate and conflicting moralities found within the billions of humans alive today also has to be sorted out and systematized. Why do you get to do it and then come around and tell us how we must behave? Who died and left you king? And third, according to you, this innate morality of ours is found in a creature (mankind) that is a distant blood cousin of various bacteria, aquatic mammals, and colorful birds in the jungle. Your entire worldview has evolution as a key foundation stone, and evolution means nothing if not change. You believe that virtually every species has morphed out of another one. And when we change, as we must, all our innate morality changes with us, right? We have distant cousins where the mothers ate their young. Was that innate for them? Did they evolve out of it because it was evil for them to be doing that?

Now this is how all this relates to the assigned topic of our debate. We are asking if Christianity is good for the world. As a Christian discussing this with an atheist, I have sought to show in the first place that atheism has nothing whatever to say about this topic—one way or the other. If Christianity is bad for the world, atheists can't consistently point this out, having no fixed way of defining "bad." If Christianity is good for the world, atheists should not be asked about it either because they have no way of defining "good." Think of it as spiking your guns—so that I can talk about Jesus. And I want to do that because he is good for the world.

Jesus Christ is good for the world because he came as the life of the world. You point out, rightly, that loving our neighbor as we love ourselves is impossible for us, completely out of our reach. But you take this inability as a state of nature (which the commandment offends), while the Christian takes it as a state of death (which life offers to transform). Our complete inability to do what is right does not erase our obligation to do what is right. This is why the Bible describes the unbeliever as a slave to sin or one who is in a state of death. The point of each illustration is the utter and complete inability to do right. We were dead in our transgressions and sins, the apostle Paul tells us. So the death and resurrection of Christ are not presented by the gospel as medicine for everyone in the hospital, but rather as resurrection life in a cemetery.

The way of the world is to abide in an ongoing state of death—when it comes to selfishness, grasping, treachery, lust, hypocrisy, pride, and insolence, we consistently run a surplus. But in the death of Jesus that way of death was gloriously put to death. This is why Jesus said that when he was lifted up on the cross, he would draw all men to himself. In the kindness of God, the Cross is an object of inexorable fascination to us. When men and women look to him in his death, they come to life in his resurrection. And that is good for the world.

From: Christopher Hitchens
To: Douglas Wilson
Part 5

If you insist, I shall concede that the significance of the Samaritan lies in his ethnicity. It's not a very impressive parable to begin with, though when I was taught it first in Sunday school, it was held up as an example of universal charity (with the added implication, not strange to us for some reason, that pious people are no more likely to behave with love and compassion than are others). Incidentally, what do we know about the ethnicity of the man who fell among thieves, or of the tribal character of those thieves if it comes to that? Surely you should be able to pronounce with authority on those details, too?

I agree that the origins of the cosmos are obscure—mysterious, if you like—to both of us. It's still you who makes the mystery, though, by insisting that very recent developments on this tiny speck of a planet on the edge of a galaxy are what impart significance to the entire "Big Bang" or divine first cause. To ask what caused either is to invite, as you are aware, an infinite regression of questions about what caused either of those causes. In my book I cite the great [Pierre-Simon, Marquis de] LaPlace, who opened the modern era by saying that accounts of the cosmos and its workings were now complete, or incomplete, on their own terms. They did not require a "god." Belief in a deity has been optional ever since. Believe it if you choose, but be aware that it raises more questions than it answers (actually it doesn't answer any important questions) and is thus highly vulnerable to Ockham's trusty edge. Deists used to agree with you about a Creator but were not religious in that the assumption of such an entity did not license the further assumption that he or she desired to intervene in human affairs, let alone the assumption that the torture and death of a single individual in a backward part of the Middle East was the solution that we had been awaiting for tens of thousands of years of brutish Homo sapiens existence.

Apply something of the same reasoning to the origins of morality. I say that our "innate" predisposition to both good and wicked behavior is precisely what one would expect to find of a recently-evolved species that is (as we now know from the study of DNA) half a chromosome away from chimpanzees. By the way, do not take that as a denigration of humankind. Primate and elephant and even pig societies show considerable evidence of care for others, parent-child bonding, solidarity in the face of danger, and so on. As Darwin put it:

Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well-developed, or nearly as well-developed, as in man.

We can now observe this to be the case. But animal and human "altruism" is contradicted by the way in which species are also designed to fight with, kill, dominate, and even consume each other. Humans are capable of even greater cruelty because only they have the imagination to inflict it. I do not think that this indicts the Creator who made them this way, because I long ago dispensed with the assumption that there is any such entity. Thus, it is you and not I who are left with the questions about God's coexistence with evil. See where your talent for needless complexity has left you.

The fluctuations between social and anti-social conduct are fairly consistent across time and space: some societies have licensed cannibalism but they tend to die out, and others have licensed human sacrifice and infanticide (usually under the influence of some priesthood). But I answer your question by making the pragmatic observation that, if we surrendered to our lower instincts all the time, there would be no language in which to write this argument between us and no society in which we could find an audience. The struggle to assert what is positive in our human capacity—I don't mind Lincoln's metaphor of our "better angels" if you promise not to take it too literally—is arduous enough. If I take myself, I find that I can derive pleasure from giving blood for free and also from contemplating the deaths of my clerical-fascist enemies in the ranks of Al Qaeda and even from the misfortunes of others who do not threaten me. I am sure you could give parallel examples of your own. But telling us that we are created sick and then ordered to be well is no help in clarifying this problem. And telling us that the solution to it only became available some two thousand years ago, according to some highly discrepant and self-contradictory accounts, cannot strike me as anything but absurd. What on earth is proven—except your own vulnerability to making tautologous statements—by the claim that "Jesus Christ is good for the world because he came as the life of the world"? You cannot possibly "know" this. Nor can you present any evidence for it. And its corollary—that without Jesus we are abandoned to wickedness in all its forms—has the horrible implication that worthy actions are pointless unless accompanied by your own rather ill-grounded faith. As I say, believe it if it helps you. But do not insult the millions of people who have done the right thing without requiring any such supernatural authority. And do not tell me that I must be in love with death if I dissent from your view. That's too much. Your Christianity, in case you have not noticed, has actually made you a less compassionate and thoughtful person than, without its exorbitant presumptions, you would otherwise be.


* * *

From: Douglas Wilson
To: Christopher Hitchens
Part 5

I am afraid your argument is tangled up with greater difficulties than the ethnicity of the Samaritan, and so that issue really need not detain us any longer. I have been asking you to provide a warrant for morality, given atheism, and you have mostly responded with assertions that atheists can make what some people call moral choices. Well, sure. But what I have been after is what rational warrant they can give for calling one choice "moral" and another choice "not moral." You finally appealed to "innate human solidarity," a phrase that prompted a series of pointed questions from me. In response, you now tell us that we have an innate predisposition to both good and wicked behavior. But we are still stuck. What I want to know (still) is what warrant you have for calling some behaviors "good" and others "wicked." If both are innate, what distinguishes them? What could be wrong with just flipping a coin? With regard to your retort that my "talent for needless complexity" has simply gotten me "God's coexistence with evil," I reply that I would rather have my God and the problem of evil than your no God and "Evil? No problem!"

After this many installments, I now feel comfortable in asserting that I have posed this question to you from every point of the compass and have not yet received anything that approaches the semblance of an answer. On this question I am tempted to quote Wyatt Earp from the film Tombstone—"You gonna do something or just stand there and bleed?"—but I think I'll pass. Earp was not very much like the Good Samaritan.

But it is interesting that the same thing happens to you when you have to give some warrant for trusting in "reason.". I noted your citation of LaPlace in your book and am glad you brought him up here. LaPlace believed he was not in need of the God hypothesis, just like you, but you should also know he held this position as a firm believer in celestial and terrestrial mechanics. He was a causal determinist, meaning that he believed that every element of the universe in the present was "the effect of its past and the cause of its future."

So if LaPlace is why you think belief in God is now "optional," this appeal of yours actually turns into quite a fun business. This doctrine means (although LaPlace admittedly got distracted before these implications caught up with him) that you, Christopher Hitchens, are not thinking your thoughts and writing them down because they are true, but rather because the position and velocity of all the atoms in the universe one hundred years ago necessitated it. And I am not sitting here thinking my Christian thoughts because they are the truth of God, but rather because that is what these assembled chemicals in my head always do in this condition and at this temperature. "LaPlace's demon" could have calculated and predicted your arguments (and word count) a century ago in just the same way that he could have calculated the water levels of the puddles in my driveway — and could have done so using the same formulae. This means that your arguments and my puddles are actually the same kind of thing. They are on the same level, so to speak.

If you were to take a bottle of Mountain Dew and another of Dr. Pepper, shake them vigorously, and put them on a table, it would not occur to anyone to ask which one is "winning the debate." They aren't debating; they are just fizzing. You refer to "language in which to write this argument," and you do so as though you believed in a universe where argument was a meaningful concept. Argument? Argument? I have no need for your "argument hypothesis." Just matter in motion, man.

You dismiss the idea that the death of Jesus—the "torture and death of a single individual in a backward part of the Middle East" — could possibly be the solution to the sorrows of our brutish existence. When I said that Jesus is good for the world because he is the life of the world, you just tossed this away. You said, "You cannot possibly 'know' this. Nor can you present any evidence for it."

Actually, I believe I can present evidence for what I know. But evidence comes to us like food, and that is why we say grace over it. And we are supposed to eat it, not push it around on the plate—and if we don't give thanks, it never tastes right. But here is some evidence for you, in no particular order. The engineering that went into ankles. The taste of beer. That Jesus rose from the dead on the third day, just like he said. A woman's neck. Bees fooling around in the flower bed. The ability of acorns to manufacture enormous oaks out of stuff they find in the air and dirt. Forgiveness of sin. Storms out of the North, the kind with lightning. Joyous laughter (diaphragm spasms to the atheistic materialist). The ocean at night with a full moon. Delta blues. The peacock that lives in my yard. Sunrise, in color. Baptizing babies. The pleasure of sneezing. Eye contact. Having your feet removed from the miry clay, and established forever on the rock. You may say none of this tastes right to you. But suppose you were to bow your head and say grace over all of it. Try it that way.

You say that you cannot believe that Christ's death on the Cross was salvation for the world because the idea is absurd. I have shown in various ways that absurdity has not been a disqualifier for any number of your current beliefs. You praise reason to the heights, yet will not give reasons for your strident and inflexible moral judgments, or why you have arbitrarily dubbed certain chemical processes "rational argument." That's absurd right now, and yet there you are, holding it. So for you to refuse to accept Christ because it is absurd is like a man at one end of the pool refusing to move to the other end because he might get wet. Given your premises, you will have to come up with a different reason for rejecting Christ as you do.

But for you to make this move would reveal the two fundamental tenets of true atheism. One: There is no God. Two: I hate Him.

WASP: How can an atheist hate something that does not exist?,1159,n,n

23. Comment #44481 by peahix on May 25, 2007 at 12:12 am

re comment #20, i just read this debate too, and in my opinion, it wasn't that wilson was a "worthy adversary," more that hitchens seemed to have taken a very lazy/bored approach with his responses. there were many easily dismissable points made by wilson that hitchens simply ignored, which, to the uninformed reader, comes off as hitchens not having any good answers for those points.

it seems odd, since presumably in this format, each side could take as long as they wanted to consider and compose a reply. maybe they were limited on the word count of their replies, i don't know, but surely hitchens could have come up with economic retorts that addressed many more points than he did.

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