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. Below is their exchange, one in a series that will appear on our website over the course of this month.
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. He is also the editor of Credenda/Agenda magazine and has written (among other things ) Reforming Marriage and A Serrated Edge: A Brief Defense of Biblical Satire and Trinitarian Skylarking. His Blog and Mablog site inevitably makes for provocative reading.
Christopher Hitchens wrote, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything(Twelve Books). Hitchens is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and 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
Part 6, conclusion
Quo warranto is a very ancient question, meaning "by what right?" You ask me for my "warrant" for a code of right conduct and persist in mistaking my answer for an evasion. I in turn ask you by what right you assume that a celestial autocracy is a guarantee of morals, let alone by what right you choose your own (Christian) version of it as the only correct one. All deities have been hailed by their subjects as the fount of good behavior, just as they have been used as the excuse for inexcusable behavior.
My answer is the same as it was all along: Our morality evolved. Just as we have. Natural selection and trial-and-error have given us the vague yet grand conception of human rights and some but not yet all of the means of making these rights coherent and consistent. There is simply no need for the introduction of the extraneous or the supernatural. LaPlace was only one of those who concluded that religion is essentially irrelevant to important questions: an option if you choose it, but only one among many. (I have to say that your account of him makes him sound dangerously like the repulsive Calvin, but even the great Isaac Newton and the even greater Alfred Russell Wallace were prey to all kinds of superstitious delusions as they made their marvelous humanistic discoveries.)
There seems to be no easy way to discuss this other than in personal or individual terms. You and I have no idea what it is like to be a sociopathsomeone who does not care about other people except inasmuch as they serve his turnor a psychopathsomeone who derives actual delight from inflicting misery on others. But we know that such people exist, and that they must be guarded against. I regard their existence as part of our haphazard evolution and our kinship with a nature that often favors the predator. You do not. Indeed, you apparently adopt the immoral and suicidal doctrine that advocates forgiveness for those who would destroy us. Please take care not to forgive my enemies, or the enemies of society. If I have to call such people "evil" (and I find I have no alternative), I do not deduce peaceful coexistence from that observation and do not want you being tender to them when it is my or my family's life that is at stake.
Turning from this to the surprising amount of virtue that can be found in humans, I again choose not to confect a mystery where none exists. Leaving ordinary sins to one sideI do not steal other people's property, for example, and hope for a reciprocal restraint on their part, and do not pardon such offenses when they occurI could mention something that is particular to our discussion. Every now and then, in argument, I find myself glib enough to make a cheap point or a point that might evoke instant applause from an audience. But I am always aware of doing so, or if you like of the temptation to do so, and I strive (not always with success) to resist the tactic, and rather dislike myself when I give in to it. Why do I do this? Socrates called this restraint the daemon: an inner voice that helps us toward self-criticism. Many later thinkers have defined it in discrepant ways, but a definition is something short of an understanding.
I am content to regard it as indefinable, which is where we part company. My own inclination is to regard it as a human faculty without which we could not haveI shan't say "evolved" yet againmade the smallest progress as homo sapiens. You believe that I owe this inner prompting to the divine, and you further assert that a heavenly intervention made in the last two thousand years of human history (a microsecond of evolutionary time) is the seal on the deal. You will have to excuse me when I say that I think such a belief is, as well as incredible, immoral. It makes right action dependent on a highly improbable wager on the supernatural. To state the case in another way, it suggests that without celestial sanction, you yourself would be unrestrained in your appetites and careless of other people. Awful though many of your opinions are to me, I decline to believe that you would, if you lost your faith, become base and self-centered. It is, rather, religion that has made many morally normal people assent to appalling cruelties, including the mutilation of children's genitalia, the institution of slavery, the revulsion from female sexuality, and many other crimes from which an average infidel would, without any heavenly prompting, turn away. Ask yourself this question. Can you name one moral action, or moral utterance, performed or spoken by a believer that could not have been performed or spoken by an atheist? My email is available to any reader who is willing to accept this challenge.
I like your joke about the reduction of mirth to a spasm (there was a solemn critic of P.G. Wodehouse who defined the smile in terms of "naso-labial" contractions), but I think you let yourself down a bit with your Hallmark conclusion. I dare say that I could add to the list of joys and even include one or two subjects which Christianity and other religions have made difficult to discuss in public. However, I shall select my own recent investigation of my DNA, which can now be sequenced and analyzed. I was perfectly happy with the "revelation" of my own kinship with other species and quite overwhelmed by the skill and precision of those who allowed me to do it. A lot of wit and beauty and intelligence had to go into the confirmation of my status as an evolved animal, just as a great deal of dullness and stupidity is required for the continuing denial of it.
I think we shall do better if we do not resist evidence that may at first sight appear unwelcome or unsettling, just as we shall do better if we refuse conclusions for which there is no evidence at all.
* * *
From: Douglas Wilson
To: Christopher Hitchens
Part 6, conclusion
Let me begin my final installment with my thanks to you for agreeing to this debate, as well as my thanks to Christianity Today for being such an amiable host.
Turning to our discussion, I would like to begin by noting several points of minor agreement. First, I do enjoy our shared appreciation of Wodehousealthough I have to say I was disappointed with your failure to pick up the Wodehousian echoes in my "Hallmark" conclusion.
Secondly, I quite agree with you that we ought not to "resist evidence that may at first sight appear unwelcome or unsettling." But this is not really a deep agreement, for we immediately go on to differ over which one of us is failing to honor this quite obvious principle. I have shown that you refuse to consider evidence for the fact that your assumption of what the universe actually is does not allow for valid descriptions of that universe to arise from within it. If one were to spill milk accidentally on the kitchen floor, and someone else came in and wanted to know what had happened, the one thing we can be sure of is that such an inquiring mind wouldn't ask the milk. The milk wouldn't know. It's the accident.
On the question of morality, you again attempt an answer: "My answer is the same as it was all along: Our morality evolved." There are two points to be made about this reply. The first concerns evolved morality and the future, and is a variation on my previous questions. If our morality evolved, then that means our morality changes. If evolution isn't done yet (and why should it be?), then that means our morality is involved in this on-going flux as well. And that means that everything we consider to be "moral" is really up for grabs. Our "vague yet grand conception of human rights" might flat disappear just like our gills did.
Our current "morals" are therefore just a way station on the road. No sense getting really attached to them, right? When I am traveling, I don't get attached to motel rooms. I don't weep when I have to part from them. So, in the future, after every ferocious moral denunciation you choose to offer your reading public, you really need to add something like, "But this is just a provisional judgment. Our perspective may evolve to an entirely different one some years hence," or "Provisional opinions only. Morality changes over time"POOMCOT for short. It would look like this: "The Rev. Snoutworthy is an odious little toad, not to mention a waste of skin, and his proposal that we prosecute the brassiere editors of the Sears catalog on pornography and racketeering charges is an outrage against civilized humanity. But POOMCOT."
This relates to the second point, which concerns evolved morality and the past. When dealing with people whose moral judgments have differed from yours, do you regard them as "immoral" or as "less evolved?" The rhetoric of your book, your tone in these exchanges, and your recent dancing on the grave of the late Jerry Falwell would all seem to indicate the former. In your choice of words, the people you denounce are to be blamed. The word fulminations comes to mind. You write like a witty but acerbic tenth-century archbishop with a bad case of the gout. But this is truly an odd thing to do if "morality" is a simple derivative of evolution. Are you filled with fierce indignation that the koala bear hasn't evolved ears that stick flat to the side of his head like they are supposed to? Are you wroth over the fact that clams don't have legs yet? When you notice that the bears at the zoo continue to suck on their paws, do you stop to remonstrate with them?
Your notion of morality, and the evolution it rode in on, can only concern itself with what is. But morality as Christians understand it, and the kind you surreptitiously draw upon, is concerned with ought. David Hume showed us that we cannot successfully derive ought from is. Have you discovered the error in his reasoning? It is clear from how you defend your ideas of "morality" that you have not done so. You are a gifted writer, and you have a flair for polemical voltage. But strip it all away, and what do you have underneath? You believe yourself to live in a universe where there is no such thing as any fixed ought or ought not. But God has gifted you with a remarkable ability to denounce what ought not to be. And so, because you reject him, you have great sermons but no way of ever coming up with a text. When people start to notice the absence of texts, the absence of warrant, the absence of reasons, you adjust and compensate with rhetorical embellishment and empurpled prose. You are like the minister in the story who wrote in the margin of his notes, "Argument weak. Shout here."
Your invitation to us to try to "name one moral action that could not have been performed or spoken by an atheist" shows that you continue to miss the point. We have every reason to believe that such atheists, performing such deeds, will be as unable as you have been to give an account of why one deed should be seen as good and another as evil. You say you have no alternative but to call sociopaths and psychopaths "evil." But you surely do have an alternative. Why not just call them "different"?
A fixed standard, grounded in the character of God, allows us to define evil, but this brings with it the possibility of forgiveness. You reject forgiveness, but at the end of the day this means that you don't believe there is anything that needs forgiveness. This means you have destroyed the idea of evil, regardless of what you might "call" behaviors that happen to be inconvenient for you.
I noted from your book that you are a baptized Christian, so I want to conclude by calling and inviting you back to the terms of that baptism. Everyone who has been baptized into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is carrying in their person the standing obligations of repentance, belief, and continued discipleship. Your Christian name Christopher means "bearer of Christ," your baptism means the same thing, and the Third Commandment requires you not to bear or carry that name in vain. Some, as you have done, revolt against the terms of this discipleship, but it does not mean that the demands of discipleship are somehow negated or revoked. I do not bring this up in order to upbraid you. I do not know if you departed from the faith because you drifted from it, bolted from it, or were chased out by hypocritical Christians. Regardless, the kindness of God is revealed to all of us in Christ, and everyone, whatever their story, has to come to terms with this kindness.
Jesus was not just one more character in history, however importantrather, he was and is the founder of a new history, a new humanity, a new way of being human. He was the last and true Adam. But before this new humanity in Christ could be established and begin its task of filling the earth, the old way of being human had to die. Before the meek could inherit the earth, the proud had to be evicted and sent away empty. That is the meaning of the Cross, the whole point of it. The Cross is God's merciful provision that executes autonomous pride and exalts humility. The first Adam received the fruit of death and disobedience from Eve in a garden of life; the true Adam bestowed the fruit of his life and resurrection on Mary Magdalene in a garden of death, a cemetery. The first Adam was put into the death of deep sleep and his wife was taken from his side; the true Adam died on the cross, a spear was thrust into his side, and his bride came forth in blood and water. The first Adam disobeyed at a tree; the true Adam obeyed on a tree. And everything is necessarily different.
Christ told His followers to tell everybody about thisabout how the world is being moved from the old humanity to the new way of being human. Not only has the world been born again, so must we be born again. The Lord told us specifically to preach this Good News to every creature. He has established his great but welcoming household, and there is room enough for you. Nothing you have ever said or done will be held against you. Everything will be washed and forgiven. There is simple foodbread and wineon the table. The door is open, and we'll leave the light on for you.
Copyright © 2007 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Hitchens' God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, Thomas Paine's "Rights of Man," Letters To a Young Contrarian, and Why Orwell Matters; and Wilson's Letter from a Christian Citizen, Reforming Marriage, and A Serrated Edge: A Brief Defense of Biblical Satire and Trinitarian Skylarking are available from Amazon.com and other retailers.
Wilson's Blog and Mablog has posts in response to God is Not Great, as well as other topics.
Hitchensweb.com has links to Hitchens' online articles.
Hitchens debated Al Sharpton on May 7.
Books & Culture articles about Hitchens and Wilson include:
Can You Reason with Christians? | A response to Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation. (May 7, 2007)
Christopher Hitchens Explains It All for You | Move over, Sam Harris; another atheist wants the pulpit. (Books & Culture, April 30, 2007)
Book of the Week: Strange Bedfellows | Christopher Hitchens and Christopher Caldwell collaborate on a collection of political writing. Has the millennium arrived unnoticed? (Books & Culture, January 27, 2003)
Uncompromising Positions | Hitchens and Orwell (Books & Culture, November 1, 2002)
Mr. Wilson's Bookshelf | "Wayfaring Stranger" (Books & Culture, November 17, 2006)
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more