Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Is Christopher Hitchens Right?

Christopher Hitchens wrote an article yesterday for Slate.com decrying “the wall of silence” within the Roman Catholic Church that has shielded abusive priests from legal prosecution. In the article, Hitchins issues a Reaganesque call to Pope Benedict to tear down this wall.

Though this is often not the case, I must admit that I find myself agreeing with Christopher Hitchens on a number of points. For instance, Hitchens is right that there ought not be “men and institutions that are above and beyond our laws.” The abuse of defenseless children (as well as shielding the perpetrators) is inexcusable, and it ought to be punished. Not only do I agree with this, but I think the vast, vast majority of Christians would as well. Far more importantly than majority rule though is the fact that the Bible agrees with it, and thus it is the true Christian position.

He is also right in his unspoken (yet implied) sense that forgiveness ought to be available for “sins like divorce, abortion, contraception, and homosexuality between consenting adults.” It is not that these are not sins (though there certainly is diversity of Christian opinion at the very least on contraception), rather that the grace of God is larger yet than ANY sin, and the blood of Christ Jesus is capable of cleansing one of ALL unrighteousness.

Where Hitchens is wrong though is in his assumption that those who hold to certain unbiblical positions and yet call themselves Christians, are indeed the voice of true Christianity. Thus they become the straw man that he (rightly) argues against.

Hitchens also states, “Invariably and without exception, (Christians) inform me that without a belief in supernatural authority I would have no basis for my morality.” Hitchens is slightly off base here. The argument is not that the belief in a supernatural authority is the basis for morality, but rather that the actual existence of a supernatural authority is its basis.

The idea is basically this: Without a divine law-giver, there can be no over-arching law of morality. Hitchens is right to condemn child rape. But on what basis? It is on the basis of the fact that it stands in opposition to the moral law which emanates from the character of God. There is morality, therefore there must be a God. This is quite different than saying you have to believe a certain set of precepts in order to have morality.

May the lesson that we as Christians learn from this all be twofold:

1) Let us live Christ-like lives in the midst of our world so that they can see what the true Body of Christ looks like, making it harder for them to caricature who we are.

2) Let us take care not to use the same tactics in our argumentation, but rather seek an honest and open discourse wherein we attempt to truly understand what others are saying so that we can rightly apply the truth of the gospel to their thoughts.


Campbell Scribner said...

"The idea is basically this: Without a divine law-giver, their can be no over-arching law of morality. Hitchens is right to condemn child rape. But on what basis? It is on the basis of the fact that it stands in opposition to the moral law which emanates from the character of God. There is morality, therefore there must be a God."

You know much more about this than I do, but I am sure that Hitchens would counter that one can have morality without universality or metaphysics. From a liberal point of view, child rape is wrong because it is detrimental to both individual growth/dignity and to societal cohesion. It is counter to our nature, insofar as that nature is social, and ought to be controlled by community censure and secular law. In fact, he might argue that sort of control would be more valid because of its rational, human origins rather than deriving from the commandments of an unknowable God.

Just as the belief in a divine morality does not guarantee obedience to it (see the Catholic Church), neither does atheism necessarily imply amorality. The conservative critiques of pragmatism and "secular humanism" as ethically rudderless does not do justice to robust liberals like Dewey, S. Hook, or R. Bourne. All of them found democratic values scientifically defensible while also embracing a flexibility and toleration that they could not find with absolutist philosophies.

Three good books on the subject:
Casey Nelson Blake, "Beloved Community"

Robert Westbrook, "John Dewey and American Democracy"

Edward Purcell, "The Crisis of Democratic Theory"


Pete Scribner said...

Cam –

Thanks so much for reading and even more so for commenting! You know that I greatly appreciate your perspective on things not only in spite of the fact that it often differs from mine, but precisely for that reason.

You state that a liberal point of view would suggest that an act can be determined to be wrong on the basis of the fact that it is “detrimental to both individual growth/dignity and societal cohesion.” I guess I would go back to my original point: “Says who?” If it is merely that a certain culture has come to this conclusion, then we have a problem, because cultures could just as easily decide (and in fact have in the past decided) that they have no problem with the most heinous of actions. I stand convinced that they would still be immoral, regardless of the cultural ennui in which they are perpetrated.

You also suggest that Hitchens might argue rational, human controls rather than deriving morality “from the commandments of an unknowable God.” I’ll agree that Hitchens would argue this and I’ll even concede that perhaps the conclusion is correct, given the premise. But I would add that this “unknowable God” has condescended to make himself known (through the person of Jesus Christ and through the Bible). We indeed can only know about God those things which he has made known, but he has made much known.

As for the idea that atheism might imply amorality, I completely agree with you. In fact, that was part of the point I was trying to make in my response to Hitchens. I will readily admit that there are countless people who do not believe in God and yet act in moral ways…and I am thankful for them and their deeds! Beyond this, I know myself far too well to presuppose that belief in God leads to absolute morality. The argument is not that theistic belief produces moral actions, but rather that morality itself (as a concept) falls apart without some objective source (i.e., God).

Thanks again for your thoughts!