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A Response to Peter Hitchens, Part III

Peter Hitchens has written two further comments on my previous post, in one of which he states that he'll be bowing out of the debate from this point on. So be it; there are, of course, many respects in which we disagree, but I appreciate the time and effort he's put into this conversation. That being said, I still intend to have the last word.

The fact that men professing to be Christian believers try to rewrite or reinterpret the laws of God does not get rid of the idea that, to be true moral laws, those laws have to be beyond the power of man to alter. That is, it has to be possible to discover, and state, that men have departed from them.

Since Mr. Hitchens has left the discussion, this question will probably have to stand as rhetorical, but I'll pose it anyway: How does one "discover" God's will? If you're interpreting it wrongly, how could you find that out?

I'll return to a point I raised earlier, the case of slavery. The forced servitude of human beings is condoned throughout the Bible, both in the Old Testament and the New (where Jesus works slavery into a parable as if it were the most natural thing in the world, favorably comparing God to a slave owner who beats his slaves for disobedience, and where Paul tells slaves that it's blasphemous for them to disobey or rebel against their owners). In antebellum America, preachers cited these verses as proof that slavery was a divinely sanctioned institution. Were they wrong to do this? How could a Christian know?

As it happens, I do believe there's an objective morality, just as Peter Hitchens does. But the difference between us is that mine is an empirical standard: it's based on happiness and well-being, which are qualities that exist in the real world. Based on these principles, I can construct an argument against slavery by showing how it's destructive to human life and happiness. But Hitchens' moral code is based on an otherworldly standard - the will of God - which doesn't seem to be based on anything that we can observe. And as I've said many times throughout this discussion and as he, finally, acknowledges, there is no divine moral authority active in this world, giving commands and telling people when they're displeasing him. All we have to rely on are human beings, each of whom put forward their own varying beliefs about what God wants. What is the process, if any, by which we can determine whose interpretations are right and whose are wrong?

I was the one who pointed out that Japan, a highly civilised and in many ways admirable country, was pretty much devoid of religious belief. What I do say is that the particularly lovely form of civilisation achieved in a very few states in recent centuries, that of ordered liberty under the law without a strong state, is only attainable when Protestant Christianity is embraced and followed widely. Japan, for instance, relies very heavily on oppressive conformism and hierarchy, and much less on the individual conscience freely operating.

That all sounds like a very high-minded and noble ideal - "ordered liberty under the law without a strong state". The only problem is that Hitchens plainly doesn't believe it. How do I know this? Just look at his words immediately following:

And I would not be surprised if almost all of the above atheist examples disagreed with me on the following litmus subjects (I could come up with many others): divorce (I think it should be much more difficult); drugs and alcohol (I favour deterrence of drug abuse through severe criminal penalties imposed for possession, and the reintroduction of severe restrictions on the sale of alcohol); crime and disorder (I favour the due punishment of responsible persons, and regard 'community penalties' and 'rehabilitation' as futile)...

If Hitchens' ideal vision was of a society "without a strong state", where "the individual conscience [is] freely operating", he wouldn't need to institute harsh penalties for crime and drug use, he wouldn't need to make it difficult to get a divorce, he wouldn't need to reintroduce restrictions on the sale of alcohol: individual citizens, following their own consciences, would freely choose to abstain from these things. Clearly, what he's proposing is a stronger state, one where the government and the laws enforce his preferred model of behavior on people whether they want to follow it or not. What was it he was saying about "oppressive conformism and hierarchy" again?

The British state is these days run on largely atheist lines, which is one of the reasons why our police officers are increasingly armed when they used not to be, why jury trial has been whittled away almost to nothing, why the rule of law is incessantly violate by the state itself, and the state is far stronger, why our doctors are worse-trained than they used to be, our hospitals dirtier than they used to be, our schools worse than at any time for 100 years, for example.

The "everything is getting worse" gambit is a standard plaint of conservatives, and has been since the days of the ancient Assyrians. But there are at least as many positive trends that Hitchens neglects: By today's standards, people of past eras were shockingly tolerant of racism, sexism, and casual brutality, and much progress has been made in reversing these ugly attitudes. Warfare as a means of resolving international disputes has virtually ceased. Literacy, life expectancy, and other indicators of societal well-being are on the rise. A smaller percentage of the population is living in poverty now than ever. Women and minorities have more rights and more freedoms. As much as there is still to be done, the world as a whole is more free, more fair, more secular, more prosperous, more democratic than it ever was at any point in history.

And if we want to make people better still? The way to do that is clear: what people need isn't more religion, it's education, jobs, a responsive government, peace and security, fulfilling jobs that pay a living wage. If these opportunities are absent, the religiosity of the population is irrelevant. The high rates of societal ills in some of the most religious areas of America refute the simplistic morality-play thinking that all we need to do to make people better is make them more religious.

If I say that the Bible must be read intelligently, and that different parts of it have different significance (a platitude, really), I am accused of 'picking and choosing'. Of course, if I insisted that it had universal binding Koranic force in every syllable, I would be accused of 'fundamentalism' and jeered off the stage.

I doubt you'll find that atheists object to intelligently reading the Bible, teasing apart the source material, or analyzing the varying beliefs and influences of its authors. What we object to is people who do all that and then go on to declare, on the basis of nothing in particular, that they know which of the parts that are left over really are God's handiwork. We see no more basis for that claim than for the fundamentalists who assign the same status to the entire book. What we object to is the imputation of superhuman wisdom or moral authority to any human-created book, or any part thereof. We believe that no book or idea should be granted any more authority than it can claim for itself on the basis of reason.

Imagine if there were Shakespearean fundamentalists who believed that the Bard's plays were divinely inspired, that every word of them came direct from God to William Shakespeare's pen, and that together they comprised the unsurpassable guide for how human beings should live. We'd mock them, and rightly so; whatever their literary merit, most of them aren't suitable as guides for moral behavior. But now imagine there were Shakespearean moderates who acknowledged the earlier source material that Shakespeare drew on, the real-world political compromises that shaped his plots, and even the possibility that some of the plays were written by other authors... and yet believed that all these encrustations could be scraped away, leaving behind the pure and infallible Word of Shakespeare which should be obeyed without question. Is that an improvement? Would we be inconsistent if we rejected this position as well? Or would we be justified in saying that, no matter how critically you treat the text, it means nothing if one of your starting premises is wrong?

If I say (as I believe) that I cannot know that God exists, and that belief in God must always remain a matter of choice, and that I quite understand that some people prefer not to believe in God, my olive-branch is brushed aside, and I am deluged with abuse...

The "olive branch" that Hitchens has extended to us consists of saying that we're atheists because we want to be free of moral standards, because we want to spend our lives in untrammeled hedonism, and that we hypocritically choose this lifestyle for ourselves while relying on sober and dutiful Christians to maintain society and support us in our dissipation - so yes, I would think that the abuse in that case is quite justified. We're perfectly capable of recognizing when we're being insulted and responding in kind.

If I speculate, quite reasonably, on my view that where we are free to believe different things (in the absence of testable knowledge) we generally believe what we wish to believe, and that the interesting part of the discussion must therefore be 'why do I want to believe what I believe', I am told that I am crudely accusing atheists of being wicked people.

Well, yes, because he is accusing us of that. (Maybe the part of that sentence he objects to is "crudely"? Maybe he's saying that what he's really doing is sophisticatedly accusing atheists of being wicked people.)

As far as I can see, my contention about the possibility of an absolute morality is a simple statement of fact, once again unobjectionably platitudinous. It is in fact more or less circular. The idea of an absolute morality depends on God, as the Christian idea of God depends on the idea of an absolute moral law. Men and women far smarter than any of us have gone into this repeatedly, and all attempts to construct a God-free moral absolute have come to grief on the shoals of logic.

Needless to say, most of us would laugh at this smugly naive rhetoric. There's nothing difficult about coming up with a moral system that doesn't rely on a divine enforcer; freethinkers have been doing it throughout history, and most of their proposals look pretty similar. Getting people to adopt that secular morality, I admit, has proven to be harder - but that's only because of the efforts of religious apologists who spread the lie that rejecting their morality is equivalent to rejecting all morality, a falsehood that Peter Hitchens has done his part to promote. Happily, we have reason to believe that as the world grows more secular, it will increasingly be only a hard core of dogmatic and unbending believers who continue to cling to this self-serving prejudice.

Image: Things were not better when this was the map of the world. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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