Friday, June 08, 2007

Christopher Hitchens on the Evils of Religion

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, 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.

Cherry Picking

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.


Unknown said...

Great Post! I haven't read Hitchen's book and cannot seek to renounce or defend your characterization of his views. But, I do agree with you wholeheartedly that we (atheists) need to caution ourselves in pointing the finger towards religion for the evil of the world. Certainly, I think religion can be seen as a source of division in the world, and dogma may tend to thwart progress. I did watch a debate between Hitchens and Sharpton. I wasn't to big on either debater. Certainly I share some of your opinions after viewing this debate.

Anonymous said...

Alonzo, I have to disagree with you on a point: indoctrination. Religious indoctrination -- especially when the "victim" is very young -- teaches dogmatic "thinking", "us versus them" divisions, the accepting of "morality" from authority, and distrust of reason and skepticism. In most people, that indoctrination remains for life.

Also, while I agree with you that people choose some parts of religion (say, anti-gay bigotry) because they are already bigots (instead of becoming bigots because of what it says in the Bible), religion helps them feel proud of their bigotry, instead of ashamed, as they might be otherwise, in a society that condemned bigotry.

So, yes, I believe religion is to blame for a lot of things, and the world would be better (not perfect, of course) without it.

Liam said...

I would like first to say that I enjoyed reading your post and thought that you made some quite impressive points. However, I will have to disagree with you on some of them.

Firstly, while much of scripture is indeed a reflection of human evils, it is still that: a reflection of human evils. As long as people follow these laws, which were, may I add, created by people who do not have the same social moral zeitgeist that we have toda, there will be those who follow them literally. Take Osama bin Laden, for intance. He has a seemingly normal childhood upbringing, his family was well off, and he was not personally affected by Western imperialism. However, he was indoctrinated with religious teachings. The koran says that infidels are to be killed without mercy, as they are all enemies of God. Imagine how this would affect one's actions, if one actually believed this. Osama bin Laden may have some moral issues, but it is these religous teachings that allow him to commit such horrendous crimes. After all, he believes that he is doing the right thing. Similarly, his hijackers believe that if they sacrifice themselves in order to kill thousands of infidels, then they will go to heaven with the rest of their family and get 72 virgins. I doubt that people would do such things without religion. Religion may not be the root of all evil, but it allows for people to commit evil much more easily.

D.R.M. said...

I don’t accept your speculations that if you say something the majority audience disagree with, they’ll suddenly stop reading. Being confrontational tends to get more readers, in fact. Many people deliberately read stuff that annoys them.

But I agree with you. Christopher Hitchens is highly distasteful, bigoted, and insensitive. Furthermore, his Hawkish attitude is politically naïve and, if anything, has aided in spreading Islamofascism.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

pedro timoteo


You might be disagreeing with something that I did not say.

I would not deny that religion is impotent - as some people seem to argue. People use religious arguments to promote a particular attitude because they expect those arguments to have an effect. And they are not wrong to do so.

My objection is with the claim that the evil that you can get people to do using religion is evil that they cannot be convinced to accept in the absence of religion.

Or, against Liam's comment, "I doubt that people would do such things without religion."

The will not likely do things for the sake of obtaining 72 virgins in an afterlife without religion - that is true. Yet, whever it is you are getting people to do for the 72 virgins you can get people to do for some other reason - as long as the agent believes that the act is one that fulfills the more and the stronger of his desires.

Patriotism, master race, any mode of thought that divides the world up into groups of "us" (e.g., "atheists") and "them" (e.g., "theists") is capable of convincing people to commit attrocities for the sake of the "us" group in order to do away with the "them" group.

As I said, if we were not capable of approving of these things without religion, then they would have never been written into scripture.


The claim that I lose readers when I write something critical of "heroic" atheists is a matter of observation. I have done so in the past, and obtained the results that I described.

We will see what happens this time. Perhaps the pattern will not hold.


Anonymous said...

I don't completely agree with your analysis of Hitchens' take on religion, but you certainly won't be losing me as a reader!

I've only been following your blog for a short time and I think it's essential to have some moderate voices of reason in the atheist movement.

There have been a few atheists join the political discussion forum I belong to, and they are sold on the concept of waging war with the religious. Religious moderates are being overtaken by fundamentalists, and I'm beginning to wonder if the same thing is happening among atheists! Where the atheists who make the most aggressive, inflamatory statements are the only ones who get any attention from the press, and become the darlings of the movement. I can't help noticing that of all the people debating at the Beyond Belief 2006 conference, Scott Atran's ideas are never mentioned in the mainstream media.

I think some of these experts are using their scientific credibility to make uninformed statements. Dawkins, for instance, claims that organized religion is dying in Europe and claims Europeans are becoming atheistic without any awareness of the fact that New Age type spiritualism is rising in its place. Americans may have a low ranking in acceptance of evolution, but twice as many English believe in astrology as Americans.

I still feel that religiously based belief poses special problems because of what Daniel Dennett refers to as religious dogma's protection from critical analysis.

For the most part, religious practise does not harm a free society. At that Beyond Belief conference, Scott Atran pointed out to Harris that is belief that the majority of people could leave religion for naturalism was based on his own beliefs, not any real analysis.

Sheldon said...

"The will not likely do things for the sake of obtaining 72 virgins in an afterlife without religion - that is true. Yet, whever it is you are getting people to do for the 72 virgins you can get people to do for some other reason -"

Thinking about this, I have come to the conclusion that I wouldn't do anything for 72 virgins in the afterlife. Now, if somebody out there has an atrocity for me to commit for 72 virgins in this life, that is something I might consider. LOL

ON a serious note, is there any correlation between criticizing an "atheist hero" and the length of your posts?

Sheldon said...

"There have been a few atheists join the political discussion forum I belong to, and they are sold on the concept of waging war with the religious."

I also think there is some problems of lumping (versus splitting) among atheists. They seem to think that if somebody believes in God, then it automatically follows that they are righty fundy zombies. But religious belief is much more nuanced and less out there for alot of believers. I know lots of liberal religious believers for example, that support gay rights, or birth-control in schools for example.

Anonymous said...

religion has ways been for the meek and weak willed the sheep andpeople with little hope.beleive structures have been at the will of the is alot easier to think that someone is watching over u, to take the pressure of your life. the problem is us. we are just another animal on this planet but most people put us high on the scale, as if we were better.we are not.belief is a good thing but when one belief says another is wrong thats when you get problems.there is no need for pointing the planet kill the people and leave it to the animals that live in nature not the ones who work against it.

Anonymous said...

"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."

Wrong. Human sacrifice.
This theoretical nonsense of absolutes. It's the sanctioned evil that is the important thing, not the individual nutcase.

Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.