Christopher Hitchens’ debate with Douglas Wilson (Part 9)

Christopher Hitchens vs. Douglas Wilson Debate at Westminster Theological Seminary, Part 9 of 12

PART 4

5/18/2007 03:30 PM

Christopher Hitchens

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 earth—if you excuse the impression—do 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 this—which is morally intelligible to any atheist or humanist—by 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  lsewhere 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 falls—as we believe it must and to some extent already has—then 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  therwise 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 question—do 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 case—an atheist boaster and braggart or a hypocritical religious one—I 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.

* * *

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