Christopher Hitchens’ debate with Douglas Wilson (Part 7)

Christopher Hitchens vs. Douglas Wilson Debate at Westminster Theological Seminary, Part 7 of 12

PART 3

5/15/2007 07:42 AM

Christopher Hitchens

Here is a minor example of how the complacency of the religious allows them to be rude (and crude) in a manner which they might not so easily permit themselves in everyday discourse. I am quite familiar with the verse from the Psalms that describes me as a fool, and corrupt and abominable as well. (In my book, God Is Not Great, I point out that the psalmist was so delighted with this conceit that he reproduced it almost word for word at the opening of Psalm 53.) No great surprise—and no real offense taken—to find myself similarly dismissed as a dumb and vain ingrate in the epistle to the Romans. It’s true that I never asked to be saved and don’t want anyone to be martyred for me—or to martyr themselves against me, for that matter. All I ask of the apostle Paul is that he and his followers and emulators leave me alone.

On the much more pertinent question of the origin of ethical imperatives, which I believe to be derived from innate human solidarity and not from the supernatural, let me likewise offer an instance from each Testament. Let us assume that the tales can be taken at face value. Is it to be believed that the Jews got as far as Sinai under the impression that murder, theft, and perjury were more or less all right? And, in the story of the good man from Samaria, is it claimed that the man went out of his way to help a fellow creature because of a divine instruction? He was clearly, since he preceded Jesus, not motivated by Christian teaching. And if he was a pious Jew, as seems probable, he would have had religious warrant and authority NOT to do what he did, if the poor sufferer was a non-Jew. It is belief in the supernatural that can make otherwise decent people do things that they would otherwise shrink from—such as mutilating the genitals of children, frightening infants with talk of hellfire, forbidding normal sexual practices, blaming all Jews for “deicide,” applauding suicide-murderers, and treating women as Paul or Muhammad thought they should be treated.

I have nowhere claimed nor even implied that unbelief is a guarantee of good conduct or even an indicator of it. (I have sometimes thought that atheists have a slight superiority in one respect, in that we come to our conclusions without any element of self-centered wish-thinking about death.) But an atheist can as easily be a nihilist, a sadist—even a casuist.

On the matter of Stalin and the related question of secular or atheist barbarism, I shyly call your attention to chapter seventeen of my little book, which attempts an answer to this frequently asked question. Until 1917, Russia had been ruled for centuries by an absolute monarch who was also the head of a corrupt and bigoted Orthodox Church and was supposed to possess powers somewhat more than merely human. With millions of hungry and anxious people so long stultified and so credulous, Stalin the ex-seminarian would have been a fool if he did not call upon such a reservoir of ignorance and servility, and seek to emulate his predecessor. If Mr. Wilson would prefer to compare like with like and point to a society that lapsed into misery and despotism by following the precepts of Epicurus or Spinoza or Jefferson or Einstein, I will gladly meet him on that ground.

— CH

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