Christopher Hitchens, the author of "God is Not Great", commonly challenges theists to name a moral statement or a moral action that an atheist cannot also make. He offers this challenge as an answer to the proposition that atheists have a problem with morality.
On the charge that atheists have a problem with morality, I have a different response that I would like to propose.
One of the tactics that defines bigotry is the tactic of claiming that members of their target group have a problem with morality - which they assert without the slightest bit of evidence to back it up. They do this in order to dehumanize and to promote fear of the target group. The claim that atheists have a problem with morality is not a claim that people are driven to by the evidence. It is a claim that people are driven to by a want to hate others, and of inflating their own self-image by attacking others.
In other words, it is not my duty as an atheist to prove that I am innocent of this accusation of immorality. It is their duty to prove that I am guilty. To assume my guilt – to prejudge me without evidence – is a paradigm case of prejudice and shows that the accuser, not the accused, is the one who has a problem with morality.
However, since Hitchens has offered his challenge, others have tried to answer it. One answer that I have encountered recently is a pair of articles by Brian Lockhart: Responding to Hitchen's Ethical Challenge and Responding to Hitchens: Morality can, but need not, come from religion.
Lockhart starts off by saying that Hitchens is asking the wrong question. Lockhart then asks a different question. This is a very common way for a demagogue to cheat. "I cannot answer your question so let me ask myself a different question that I can answer."
The question that Lockhart seeks to answer is, "Does religion cause people to behave more morally than they would have otherwise behaved." He then goes on to answer this question by providing anecdotal evidence of three people who began to behave more morally once they "found God".
He tells the story of a soccer player, Tom Skinner, who, at one time, would have responded to an assault from a racist bigot with violence. After finding God, when assulted, he would instantly forgive his assailant and walk away.
Lockhart wrote about C.S. Lewis' transformation from a bitter person who avoided relationships to an open Christian sharing his life with others. And Lockhart wrote about the improvements in the quality of his own relationships once he found God.
I grew up in a church, but I distinctly remember the first time the Christian doctrine of grace actually made sense to me the summer after my sophomore year of college. I used to be a very bitter person. Since then, because of the recognition of God's grace, I have experienced an improved ability to forgive. Consequently, every relationship I have is different. My junior year, others said I literally changed before their eyes as they watched me become a better friend, son, brother, etc.
Problem #1: Lockhart's examples are anecdotal.
Lockhart's examples are like the claim that prayer cures illness because "I knew somebody who was sick whom the doctors had given up any hope on, who prayed daily, and was miraculously cured." Yes, and the obituary pages are filled with the names of people who prayed just as hard and just as devoutly who nonetheless died; and the front pages with the names of children who could have been saved if the parents had tried medicine instead of prayer.
I am saying that I need to recognize God's grace to better forgive. One cannot argue with testimony. To claim that another worldview would have the same effect on me is unfounded arrogance.
No, it is unfounded arrogance to trust anecdotal evidence and 'testimony' – to assume that one knows what the right answer is and to allow no objections to be raised against it. Research is filled with examples that show testimony to be extremely unreliable. From optical illusions, to studies where researchers stage a crime and then ask eye witnesses what they witnessed, to confabulation, to planted memories, to experiments involving choice under controlled conditions where the researcher can determine the agent's reasons for action better than the agent can.
Evolutionary theorists can explain why testimony is so unreliable. In the wild, if we do not perceive that we are on the top of the cliff, or how far that branch is from this branch, or the predator stalking us from the bush, we die. The advantage goes to those who can most accurately perceive threats and mates in the outside world. But it gives us no advantage to know our own mental processes.
The antelope needs to be able to perceive lion-sign in the brush and to run away when lion sign reliably suggests the presence of a lion. The antelope gains nothing from a better understanding of its own beliefs about lion-sign or his desire to run.
So, we have a theory that explains how unreliable testimony is, and empirical research to back up the theory. It is not 'unfounded arrogance' to go with empirical observation backed by theory. It is 'unfounded arrogance' to go against empirical observation backed by theory and to rely instead on anecdotal evidence cherry-picked and interpreted to give the illusion of supporting one's favorite hypothesis.
Problem #2: Real meaning requires real value.
Lockhart also wrote:
I concluded that Hitchens misses the point of religion. The purpose of adhering to religious beliefs is not to be better than nonbelievers, it is to improve oneself and find meaning for moral actions that were otherwise absent.
A person cannot find meaning where there is no meaning to be found.
In saying this, I am not saying that life (or the things we can do in our life) has no meaning or no value. That is false. I am saying that real meaning requires real value. Since God almost certainly does not exist, the meaning or value that one finds in serving God almost certainly does not exist.
In order for a life to have real meaning, it must be attached to real-world value.
Lockhart allows that an atheist can find meaning without God.
I stated that God is necessary for morality to have meaning. This was way off base and, quite frankly, arrogant. I now recognize that people find meaning in places that I do not, and I cannot argue with where people find their own meaning.
But this leads to an important difference between the two world views. Person A finds meaning in bringing health to a sick child, but does so only on the condition that a loving God exists. In the absence of a God, he is indifferent to bringing health to a sick child - it has no value. Person B, on the other hand, values bringing health to a sick child for its own sake. Regardless of whether or not a God exists, a child has been brought to health. The child suffers less and knows more happiness and comfort. To Person B, that has value for its own sake.
Let us combine this with Lockhart's statement, "God can be neither proved nor disproved." If this is true, then the meaning that Person A is trying to find cannot be proved or disproved. He can only reach the conclusion that his act of bringing health to a sick child has meaning as a matter of faith, not fact. Furthermore, even if a God exists, we need further evidence of what God values to know anything of the value of brining health to a sick child. What if God enjoys the suffering of a child, and created a world in which there were so many ways for children to suffer in order to satisfy this need? Then, what does this do to the value of bringing health to a sick child?
However, the value that Person B finds in bringing health to a sick child is not at all contingent on the existence or the interests of a God.
Unlike the type of theist that Lockhart writes about, where value depends on the existence of a God, there are few (if any) atheists where value depends on the non-existence of a God. This type of theist says, "If there were no God, these things are meaningless." The atheist says, "Even if their is a God, these things would still have value. No God who fails to respect the value if bringing health to a sick child is worthy of my respect." When the atheist fixes value in something that even the theist knows to be real - the health of a child - the atheist's value becomes much more solid, and much less a matter of faith, than the theist's value.
There is a separate argument to be made that the person who values the health of a child for its own sake – without regard to whether or not a God exists – is more noble than the person who would be indifferent to the health of a child if no God exists. The first person will see reason to continue to treat sick children regardless of his beliefs about God. To him, bringing health to children is what has value and meaning, not serving God. Whereas the second person, if he were to come to believe that no God exists, would throw up his hands and say that none of this has any value or meaning, and judge the fact that children sicken and die as insignificant.
As a matter of fact, I do not think that there are very many Christians who are as vicious as they often paint themselves to be. People who claim that the health of a child would have no value to them without God, I suspect, would still value the health of a child in the absence of a God. They simply like to claim that the health of a child would have no meaning, as a way of giving their religion a significance it does not have. They are as unlikely to become indifferent to the suffering of a child in the absence of a god as they are unlikely to become indifferent to their own physical pain.
The Meaning of Friendship
This brings us back to the first question, the question of testimony. Lockhart said that the quality of his relationships improved once he acquired a certain interest in God. However, now that he has acquired these relationships, would he abandon them if he should now come to doubt God's existence? If he would, what would that say about the quality of those relationships, compared to the quality of the atheist's relationships?
Could Lockhart seriously go up to the most important person in his life today and say, "If not for the existence of God, your welfare means nothing to me. You could be screaming in the worst agony, and I could rescue you with the touch of a button, but I would find no value in doing so, unless I also believed that a God exists."
For me, a person who could say such a think does not really value me as a friend. If he valued me as a friend, he would care about my suffering even if no God existed. As I care about the welfare of my friends, even though I believe that no God exists. Who is the better friend? The person whose concern for your welfare is contingent on the belief in a God, or the person whose concern for your welfare does not come with conditions?
Hitchens asked the question of whether there is a moral act or statement that a theist can make that an atheist cannot make. The types of examples that Lockhart brought up do not answer the challenge. To the degree that belief in a God contributes to the quality of a person's life and, in particular, improves the way he treats others, Lockhart has to argue that atheists are incapable of realizing those same values. Either that, or he must argue that relationships that are conditional on a belief that a God exists are somehow 'better than' relationships that do not have these types of conditions placed on them.