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8/24/08

Christopher Hitchens : The Challenges, part I of III

I admit that I am at a loss as to what the qualifications to any answer proposed to Mr. Hitchens’ challenges might entail.

To read/Or not to read


We have all been in such situations have we not? When someone asks you a question and they are so eager to give you a certain response that they are not even listening to your answer but just waiting for you to pause for three nanoseconds so that they can take the lid off of their canned response. It happened to me recently, some asked me a series of questions and regardless of my answers they were dead set on coming to a preconceived conclusion. Yet, upon considering their conclusion, I noted that they disregarded my statements and simply pushed their desired conclusion right through my statements as if they were irrelevant—pragmatism is not a virtue.

What I am going on and on about? During the debate between Christopher Hitchens and Alister McGrath which was entitled “Poison or Cure? Religious Belief in the Modern World” (reviewed here) Mr. Hitchens proposed a series of challenges. The problem is that the challenges are stated in a generic manner. That is, in a generic enough manner that I am afraid that any answer will be discredited due to a preconceived conclusion, which is that the challenges cannot be answered viably. The challenges presuppose that they are unanswerable and thus, appear to be crafted in a generic enough manner so as to make them very small and difficult target to hit.

I thought to parse the challenges into three parts and so deal with them in three posts. Let us consider the first part:
“I have a challenge which I have now put in print on the Christianity Today Website and in many other places. It's this: if it's to be argued that our morality or ethics can be derived from the supernatural, then name me an action, a moral action taken by a believer or a moral statement uttered by one, that could not have been made or uttered by an infidel, a non-believer.”

My first observation is that these challenges are based upon presuppositions. They are obviously based on Mr. Hitchens’ worldview and also upon his misunderstanding of alternate worldviews—namely the Judeo-Christian worldview. Thus, I will attempt to respond by elucidating those portions of his challenges which are premised upon miscomprehensions of the Judeo-Christian worldview. While other theists, deists, etc. can respond according to their own, my responses will be based a Judeo-Christian presupposition.

From a Judeo-Christian perspective this portion of the challenge is a non-issue for various reasons. Please note that by non-issue I do not mean unimportant or invalid as a logical question but I mean that this portion is premised upon a misunderstanding and is evidence of lack of knowledge.

Moral actions and statements are prompted by God, whether they proceed forth from the sayings and doings of a prophet or from a non-believing infidel. It is a category mistake to take a claim such as, “God is the author of the moral law” and assume that it means that no one can access that law without a direct and conscious relationship with God.

In crafting this portion of the challenges Mr. Hitchens is responding to an argument that no one has made. Rather, he is arguing against his own misunderstandings and with direct violations of that which the Bible does state and thus he is setting up a straw man.

A biblical texts aught suffice as a response:
“…for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them” (Romans 2:14-15)

21 comments:

  1. It's strange to see how poorly Hitchens has understood this point. I think his train of thought must have good something like this:

    "Theists think that morality comes form God, but I can't think of a single moral action that God-believers can do that I can't."

    For one, he radically misunderstands the point. Of course he can help old ladies across the street. But the has no moral reasons to do so.

    Second, if God exists then there are a great deal of actions he cannot perform. He cannot worship God, for example.

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  2. "Love the Lord your God."

    I don't see how a non-believer could do that.

    Of course, Hitchens is conflating the ontology of morality - what morality IS - with the epistemology of morality - how we come to know moral truths.

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  3. "That is, in a generic enough manner that I am afraid that any answer will be discredited due to a preconceived conclusion, which is that the challenges cannot be answered viably. The challenges presuppose that they are unanswerable and thus, appear to be crafted in a generic enough manner so as to make them very small and difficult target to hit."

    Or, your answer is flawed. I am guessing the latter.

    "Moral actions and statements are prompted by God, whether they proceed forth from the sayings and doings of a prophet or from a non-believing infidel. It is a category mistake to take a claim such as, “God is the author of the moral law” and assume that it means that no one can access that law without a direct and conscious relationship with God."

    I honestly have no idea exactly what you are saying here.

    "In crafting this portion of the challenges Mr. Hitchens is responding to an argument that no one has made."

    ... Please tell me you aren't that ignorant? You've heard of the Pope Benedict XVI, our current pope? He published one of his encyclials than declared atheism was responsible for some of the greatest tradgedies of the 20th century.

    In fact it is one of the more common arguments on the internet, accusing atheism of being resonsible for atrocities or asking how atheists can be moral. Just because you haven't heard of the argument doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

    "“…for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them” (Romans 2:14-15)"

    And you decalare your point. I'm sorry, but at this point I am going to have to go with a specific interpretation that is, quite simply bizarre. God designs our conciousness. Of course, since there are people without them (sociopaths) God has also decided who will be saved and who is damned. In short, you are denying the entire doctrine of free will AND declaring that God arbitrarily decides who is punished and who is saved. In short, you are stating God is evil. The only way out is to declare that God is bound by differant rules, eliminating the concept of morality.

    josh

    So you only do behavior if you are given a reason to do so? That isn't morality- it is intelligent self interest.

    As for worhipping God as a good actions...? This isn't D&D, where the Gods draw power from worship. This is about Gods that have power regardless of the actions of humans. As such, worship, prayer- all these are meaningless. An all powerful God needs no worship, no prayers,no temples, nothing.

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  4. "That is, in a generic enough manner that I am afraid that any answer will be discredited due to a preconceived conclusion, which is that the challenges cannot be answered viably. The challenges presuppose that they are unanswerable and thus, appear to be crafted in a generic enough manner so as to make them very small and difficult target to hit."

    Or, your answer is flawed. I am guessing the latter.

    "Moral actions and statements are prompted by God, whether they proceed forth from the sayings and doings of a prophet or from a non-believing infidel. It is a category mistake to take a claim such as, “God is the author of the moral law” and assume that it means that no one can access that law without a direct and conscious relationship with God."

    I honestly have no idea exactly what you are saying here.

    "In crafting this portion of the challenges Mr. Hitchens is responding to an argument that no one has made."

    ... Please tell me you aren't that ignorant? You've heard of the Pope Benedict XVI, our current pope? He published one of his encyclials than declared atheism was responsible for some of the greatest tradgedies of the 20th century.

    In fact it is one of the more common arguments on the internet, accusing atheism of being resonsible for atrocities or asking how atheists can be moral. Just because you haven't heard of the argument doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

    "“…for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them” (Romans 2:14-15)"

    And you decalare your point. I'm sorry, but at this point I am going to have to go with a specific interpretation that is, quite simply bizarre. God designs our conciousness. Of course, since there are people without them (sociopaths) God has also decided who will be saved and who is damned. In short, you are denying the entire doctrine of free will AND declaring that God arbitrarily decides who is punished and who is saved. In short, you are stating God is evil. The only way out is to declare that God is bound by differant rules, eliminating the concept of morality.

    josh

    So you only do behavior if you are given a reason to do so? That isn't morality- it is intelligent self interest.

    As for worhipping God as a good actions...? This isn't D&D, where the Gods draw power from worship. This is about Gods that have power regardless of the actions of humans. As such, worship, prayer- all these are meaningless. An all powerful God needs no worship, no prayers,no temples, nothing.

    ReplyDelete
  5. This is a very good analysis. The atheist assumes that Christianity is only about doing enough so-called good deeds to earn a place in heaven. They don't understand that what good things we do is not a requirement in order for a relationship with God; it is a by-product of it. But they are (on purpose) missing the point in order to misrepresent Christianity so that he can use fallacy to make it equivalent to any belief-system with any deity. Furthermore what we call Christianity is not nor was it ever originally preached or described as a religion; it is a kingdom. And in active form, the Kingdom of God is within us, NOT merely outside us. Christ is the King over it, and thus He is the Owner (Lord). Therefore if a person is ever going to have a relationship with God, they must approach Him on God's terms, and not their own.

    I think it is funny to watch atheists try to teach active, fervent, Holy Spirit led and empowered Disciples of Christ how and what it means to be a Christian. It is like a complete stranger walking up to you and telling you that they can tell you how to be your mother's child. But as soon as we crack open the Bible (the constitution of God's Kingdom) in order to describe our relationship with God, these arrogant skeptics whine and squeal as if in torment when the word of God is used. Then Atheist is immediately exposed as a fraud because (as you pointed out) the skeptic has NO reference point for truth nor justice to be of any use for their listeners.

    The Message That We ALL Were Meant To Hear

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  6. Wow, there are some really great comments here so far. I especially liked Mr. Speaker for the Dead's post, (maybe it's that darn cute little kitten?)

    Anyway,

    I would deny Hitchens the ability to distinguish between acts that are moral or immoral.

    If the Christian grants to him the ability to arbitrate between acts at the outset of the discussion, then he/she has already given Mr. Hitchens the debate.

    As Mr. Mariano said in the blog; Hitchens is approaching this question with false presuppositions.

    Perhaps this would be a better formulation of the question:

    "Given the truth of the Christian worldview, how come I as a God-hating Atheist (with a bad hair-do) can perform all the same moral acts that you Christians can?"

    Thus stated, this is easily answered (and HAS been answered numerous times in the past. See Thomas Boston’s "Human Nature in its 4-fold State.")

    But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come.
    For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good,
    treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; Avoid such men as these.
    - 2 Timothy 3

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  7. Samuel said :

    >So you only do behavior if you are given a reason to do so? That isn't morality- it is intelligent self interest.<

    I can't understand why you would say that. Presumably, it is RATIONAL to do something for reasons, not selfish. Are you admitting that an atheist doesn't have any reasons for acting morally?

    >As for worhipping God as a good actions...? This isn't D&D, where the Gods draw power from worship. This is about Gods that have power regardless of the actions of humans. As such, worship, prayer- all these are meaningless. An all powerful God needs no worship, no prayers,no temples, nothing.<

    Whether God needs worship is outside of the question of whether or not it is right to worship him. It may not be necessary for me to tell my wife that I love her (she knows it already) but it certainly seems right that I do.

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  8. professor x,

    If someone doesn't hold your beliefs, it doesn't automatically follow that they don't understand them. Personally, I was raised Catholic. I went to Catholic school for 12 years, went to church at least twice a week for many years. I was an altar server, a boy scout, and received all the sacraments up to confirmation. I've read the Bible several times. I understand how powerful it all seems.

    But I also know how easily fooled people can be. Look at the followers of frauds like Peter Popoff, João de Deus, and Sylvia Browne. Most of them are otherwise perfectly intelligent, rational people. But they accepted outrageous claims without any real facts or evidence to back them up. I look at any supernatural claim, including many religious claims, the same way. There's too much absurdity, and too little evidence for me to buy into such things. That doesn't mean that I wasn't a Christian before, nor that I don't understand it now.

    Lastly, Christianity most certainly has been preached and described as a religion. What difference would labeling it as anything else make? Furthermore, kingdoms today are either anachronistic holdovers of a by-gone era, or self-serving dictatorships in third-world countries. They're no longer considered necessary, or desirable.

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  9. professor x: I think it is funny to watch atheists try to teach active, fervent, Holy Spirit led and empowered Disciples of Christ how and what it means to be a Christian.

    I understand. I find it funny when active, fervent Christians try to tell atheists what motivates their atheism. I've lost count of how many times someone has tried to explain to me that the reason I'm an atheist is because I don't want to submit to God, or because I'm mad at God, or whatever stereotype that person has about atheists.

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  10. "if it's to be argued that our morality or ethics can be derived from the supernatural, then name me an action, a moral action taken by a believer or a moral statement uttered by one, that could not have been made or uttered by an infidel, a non-believer."

    This isn't the dilemma that Hitchens would hope it to be. All he's saying to the belief that morals are supernatural in origin is "no they're not!".

    No examples have been presented (have ever been presented)that show that atheists have arrived at the same moral conclusions as theists independent and isolated from the prevailing theistically derived cultural/religious/ or historical moral values of their societies.

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  11. I've heard this argument from Christians before, and it usually goes something like this:

    If atheists do good, it is evidence that God is working in them.

    If Christians do good, likewise.

    If atheists do bad, it is proof that atheism is evil.

    If Christians do bad, either they are not "real" Christians, or it just goes to show that we are all sinners.

    The problem with this "argument" is that it is content-free. That is, it simply takes for granted that God exists and interacts with people in certain ways, and interprets what we see to fit that worldview. It is non-falsifiable.

    If we want content, there are two questions we must ask. One- do Christians (or Jews, or any other believers) behave better than atheists? And two: is there any evidence that there exist objective standards for good and bad, and/or a God who dictates them? Anything else is just wordplay.

    I suspect, but I can't know for sure, that Hitchens was trying to ask the first question. If so, he didn't word it very carefully. I must say, even though I'm an atheist, and although Hitchens is very witty and clever, he doesn't represent atheism very well, imho. If you want a harder target, try Daniel Dennett or Richard Dawkins.

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  12. It seems to me that the argument that everyone has access to the moral law that some god authored whether or not they believe in that god fails on at least two points. One obvious one is that moral codes are and have been different in different cultures - a single authored set of moral laws accessible to everyone should result in societies with identical or very similar moral codes. This is particularly troublesome if you assume that these moral laws are somehow universal and objective.

    Now, if you engage is some special pleading to explain why different cultures have different moral codes, then the god argument seems to fail due to Occam's razor - the god proposition is simply not needed to explain morality and moral behavior.

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  13. I would like to submit an argument from the Bible itself that flatly contradicts your answer.

    "The fool has said in his heart, 'There is no God.' They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good." (Psalms 14:1 (KJV))"

    If you allow that an atheist can and has done a good act, you flatly contradict the Bible or you must admit that the Bible is fallacious. The choice is yours.

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  14. Well, even I a 'fool', can see that your dilemma is not really valid. The Psalms are definitely poetic in nature and therefore should be granted poetic license. Poems are neither valid or invalid, they are measured by how evocative they are. Now, even if one should be so silly as to take Psalms 14:1 as a statement of fact then fallaciousness doesn't enter the picture: facts are just either true or false. But even as a simple statement of fact, the escape from the dilemma is the definition of a 'fool'.

    Form some bible study website:

    The word fool in the Bible means, someone that is lacking in common sense, understanding; someone who is dull, sluggish, silly, stupid, foolish. The term draws to mind a person that makes bad choices when it comes to God, morals, personal habits, or eternity.

    So, if we accept the above definition, then it would not be the case that all who say in their heart 'There is no God' are fools. Fools are just a subset of atheists. I would contend that if the Psalm is correct then the following statement is also correct:

    "The fool has said in his heart, 'There is a God.' They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good."

    In other words, belief in God or in any of the other gods is no protection from being a fool.


    On Wed, Oct 1, 2008 at 5:29 PM, Connor wrote:

    Connor has left a new comment on the post "Christopher Hitchens : The Challenges, part I of I...":

    I would like to submit an argument from the Bible itself that flatly contradicts your answer.

    "The fool has said in his heart, 'There is no God.' They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good." (Psalms 14:1 (KJV))"

    If you allow that an atheist can and has done a good act, you flatly contradict the Bible or you must admit that the Bible is fallacious. The choice is yours.

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  15. If we accept the Psalms as poems, might we not then accept the Bible as a work of literature and grant it license to use metaphors and other such figurative language? Might not then the whole Bible, or more specifically, the new testament, be an allegory, or purely symbolic in nature? It would then be considered merely a work of art and not strictly true.

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  16. To borrow a phrase from an old commercial "parts is parts". The different books of the Bible are of a different types, written with different purposes in mind. Most I think should be thought of as literature, some as history, and some as poetry - but some like, the letters from Paul are just what they appear to be. To treat the whole of the Bible in just one way - as just stories, or just poems, or just history or just exhortations or as just literal truth - would be a mistake.

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  17. so to treat it as truth would be a mistake?

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  18. To treat the whole of the Bible as literal truth, would be worse than a mistake - it would be inane (imho).

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  19. So how to we decide which part of the word of God is true? Or, more to my point, how could the word of God be false and still be the word of God?

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  20. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  21. Connor said ...
    So how to we decide which part of the word of God is true? Or, more to my point, how could the word of God be false and still be the word of God?

    Well, I would say, you decide the truth or falsity of any statement in the Bible in the same way that you decide the truth or falsity of any other statement.
    Assuming, just for the sake of discussion, that God exists and inspires men to write stuff, that doesn't men that other men, falsely believing that they are inspired by God, don't also write stuff that is not what God would want written. We know that people often claim that God inspired them to say and do things that any sane person would see as wrong or stupid (see Oral Roberts and Pat Robertson). There is no reason to think that people like that did not exist back when the books of the Bible were set down on paper. It is quite possible that their stuff got included and stuff that God wanted in, got left out. So, treat it all with a healthy does of humanism and reasonable doubt.

    But my main point is, that some parts of the Bible are just not meant to be treated as "True" or "False" - in the same way that a piece of music or a poem or a good piece of fiction is not meant to be treated as "True" or "False".

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