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
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 earthif you excuse the impressiondo 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 thiswhich is morally intelligible to any atheist or humanistby 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 fallsas we believe it must and to some extent already hasthen 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 questiondo 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 casean atheist boaster and braggart or a hypocritical religious oneI 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
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 disobediencereligious 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 gospelerwith 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 anywhich 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 topicone 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 gunsso 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 deathwhen 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.
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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)