I think that I am getting too many readers, so it is time for me to get rid of a few. It is quite predictable that when I write against some atheist hero, a fair number of readers decide that my blog is no longer worth reading. Today, I will accomplish this pruning by criticizing the arguments of Christopher Hitchens.
Hitchens does not speak for me. He makes narrow-minded, bigoted statements that 10 minutes of rational consideration can refute. Yet, he makes them, because they are easy to make. Also, I suspect that it weighs on his mind, subconsciously if not consciously, that a more careful and accurate description of the matter would not draw nearly as large an audience.
For example, Townhall.com contains a transcript of a debate involving Christopher Hitchens and Mark Robins, moderated by Hugh Hewitt. In it, Hitchens says,
There’s a great deal of wickedness that’s attributable purely to religious belief. Morally normal people wouldn’t do these things if they didn’t think God was desiring them to do so.
The claim that we can attribute so much wrongdoing to religious belief is simply false. Furthermore, the argument against Hitchens can be drawn from claims that Hitchen himself makes and defends.
Atheism and Evil
When discussing the good that religion does, Hitchens offers the following challenge:
You have to name a moral action taken, or a moral statement uttered by a person of faith that could not be taken or uttered by a non-believer.
This is a legitimate challenge, which I gave in an earlier post on, “The Good that Atheists Would Not Do.” Here, I disagree with Hitchens on another small matter. Hitchens says that the assumption built into the claim that religion does good – the assumption that this is a good that atheists would not do – is “a slightly insulting one”. In fact, it is deeply insulting and should be considered one of the worst forms of bigotry.
However, this touches on my objection to Hitchens. Because, just as claims that religion does good in the world are claims that these are goods that no atheist would perform, the claim that religion does evil in the world are claims that these are evils that no atheist would perform.
I can repeat Hitchens’ objection. Hitchens has to name an immoral action taken, or an immoral statement uttered by a person of faith that could not be taken or uttered by a non-believer.
The immediate comeback would likely to be to name some evil and to claim that it was done in the name of God. It is certainly true that no non-believer can honestly claim to be doing evil in the name of God. However, this is not a relevant difference. The same can be said on behalf of the good that people do. No atheist can honestly claim to be doing good in the name of God. However, he can honestly claim to be doing the same good. Similarly, no atheist can honestly claim to be doing evil in the name of God. However, he can still do the same evil.
Is there any evil that a theist could do that an atheist could not do (for some reason other than belief in God)?
There is none.
Consequently, just as claims asserting the good that religion does contain the bigoted assumption that these are goods that no atheist would do, asserting the evil that religion does contains a bigoted assumption that these are evils that no atheist would do.
Just as this is no slight insult against atheists to claim that these are goods that atheists would not do, it is no slight insult against theists to claim that these are evils that no atheist would do.
Another example of this bigotry at work starts with the well-observed fact that theists ‘cherry pick’ their religious beliefs. When some atheists, such as Hitchens, attempt to explain why certain evils are done in the world, they say “because of scripture.” When they make this claim they are offering what is, in fact, a scientific explanation for a set of observations. The observations are certain evils allegedly done in the name of some God. The explanation is, “because of scripture.”
As a rational explanation for this set of observations, it utterly fails.
Imagine watching a group of workers as they pick cherries. You seek an explanation for what they are doing. As a worker plucks a cherry from the tree, you ask, “Why did you do that?” He answers, “Because it is a cherry.”
Immediately, you know that this is not inadequate. The hypothesis that the reason for his action is to pick cherries is falsified by the fact that there are a lot of cherries on the tree that he will not pick. He will only pick a certain subset of all the cherries. This tells you that, “Because it is a cherry,” is, at best, an incomplete answer.
The same is true of those who cherry-pick scripture for their moral system. Somebody comes along and asks, “Why did you pick that particular moral prescription?” The answer comes back, “Because it is scripture.” However, a great deal of scripture is ignored. This is enough to prove that the answer, “Because it is scripture,” is, at best, inadequate.
Somewhere there must be a standard that they are using to determine which scripture they pick and which they leave behind. Where does this standard come from? This standard that they use to determine which scripture to pick and which to leave is the true source of morality. Whatever this source is, it is NOT scripture.
This problem is compounded by the fact that our cherry pickers are not picking cherries. In the case of religious ethics, religious people do not only pick scripture that fits their ethics (leaving the rest behind), they pick moral principles that are not to be found in scripture. They accept the abolition of slavery and certain principles fundamental to democracy even where there is nothing in scripture that advocates a democratic form of government.
Where do theists get these principles?
“Scripture” utterly fails to explain the phenomena in question. Yet “scripture” is what certain atheists such as Hitchens say is the source of great evil. That evil does not come from scripture, it comes from whatever source people use to determine which parts of scripture to accept, which to reject, and which to add to scripture.
There is one last problem with the idea that evil comes from scripture. This is the historical fact that, whatever made it into scripture is something that people thought of and accepted well before they wrote it into scripture.
Scriptures were not handed down by God. It seems strange to have to say this to an audience that is made up substantially of atheists. However, the proposition, “Scripture is responsible for this evil,” can come only if we forget, momentarily, where scripture itself came from. It came from a set of ideas that humans adopted without any divine intervention at all – ideas that a pre-scripture people still came to think of as good ideas.
This directly contradicts Hitchens’ claim that, “Morally normal people wouldn’t do these things if they didn’t think God was desiring them to do so.” Morally normal people were the ones who decided (and are still deciding) that a God wants them to do these things. The reason they claim that God desires these things is because they want God to desire these things, and they want God to desire these things because they want these things. Or, at least, they wanted these things at the time they were inventing and defining God.
Everything in scripture is evidence of what humans are capable of dreaming up and finding acceptable in the absence of scripture, because this was where scripture came from.
Every evil that has found its way into scripture is an evil that humans are capable of accepting in the absence of scripture. If this were not true, then these evils would not have found their way into scripture to begin with.
Every evil that people cherry-pick out of scripture is an evil that humans are capable of accepting in the absence of scripture. If this were not true, then people would not see these evils as ripe for the picking. They would ignore these evils, as they ignore all passages that report things that they reject.
Religion is not the source of these evils.
One of the sources of evil is a human tendency to divide the world up into groups of ‘us’ and ‘them’ – and to embrace easily refutable claims that ‘us’ – the master race, the chosen people – are immune to the evils that afflict ‘them’ – the lesser beings. It is found in the ease with which people embrace and cheer those who say, “If we can only rid the world of ‘them’, the world would be a better place.”
The idea that religion is the root of all evil is one of those easily refutable claims. It takes only a few minutes of reflection to hold that the evils that we find in religion are evils that have a source outside of religion, and that atheists have no magical immunity from the true source of evil.
It is an issue of which theory best explains and predicts a set of observations. Either religion is the root of all evil (in which case we are left wondering how that evil got into scripture in the first place), or people have an inherent affinity for philosophies that divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’ that tend to blind them to poor arguments used in defense of these divisions. This explains both the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ of scripture, and why many atheist fail to see the flaws in their own ‘us’ versus ‘them’ philosophies.
This alternative hypothesis predicts that if religions were to disappear, and atheists ruled the world, that atheists would find other (equally unreasonable) reasons to divide the world into groups of ‘us’ and ‘them’, and the violence would not diminish. We cannot end the violence by ending religion. We can only end the violence by fighting the root causes of evil that afflict the religious and non-religious alike.
As long as atheists divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’ on religious grounds, they leave themselves vulnerable to the causes of evil that can be found in our nature. If religion is the root of all evil, we can ignore the tendency to embrace unreasonable claims that ‘we’ are inherently superior to ‘them’ and must rid the world of ‘them’ if we are to know peace. We can simply refuse to ask, “Is this claim that ‘they’ are responsible for all evil – and it is not to be found elsewhere – truly reasonable?”
I know, in order to boost readership I am supposed to join those defend this claim. Humans have a basic affinity for these types of assertions and to embrace those who make them. However, having a fundamental desire to accept certain types of beliefs does not make them true, or make the willingness to embrace them moral. In fact, reason suggests that the opposite is true. So this is what I write, instead.