A Response to Peter Hitchens, Part II

After our last go-round, Peter Hitchens has posted a further reply. I encourage you to read it in full before reading my response, which follows below:

Once again, Peter Hitchens has utterly failed to address the point that even religious moral codes, allegedly based on the will of a perfect and changeless deity, have changed dramatically over time - in virtually all cases for the better. We no longer own slaves, as the Bible permits us to do; we no longer stone disobedient children or require rape victims to marry their rapists, as it commands us to do. The expansion of rights for women and minorities, the spread of democracy and secularism, the rise of science and the Enlightenment - all these unquestionably positive trends occurred in the teeth of fierce resistance from religious defenders of the status quo. In most cases, once this social progress was complete, those same religious authorities then stepped into the breach and pretended they had supported it all along.

It's no surprise that he won't come to terms with this point, since his entire position is based on the idea that clinging to God's unchanging word is the only way to prevent society from collapsing into chaos. That belief stands refuted by reality: we have departed in many ways from what the Bible commands, and we're better off because of it. (Need I point out the irony of a confirmed member of the Anglican church making this argument? You know, the denomination that was founded because one guy wanted to change a religious law about divorce?)

I simply dispute the assertion by our host that there is no evidence to support Christian belief. There is such evidence.

I don't intend to rehash that entire vast debate, so I instead want to draw my focus tightly around the one point that no one can deny, which is that there is no non-human moral authority. And that is correct. No matter the nature of your moral dispute, the only opinions you'll ever hear are from human beings. The archaeological evidence, or lack thereof, supporting a set of stories about an itinerant Jewish rabbi who did magic tricks two millennia ago doesn't change this. No divine beings are present in the world giving us commands. All we have to guide us are other human beings, some of whom claim they speak in the name of a deity.

An atheist in a society still governed by the Christian moral law has great personal advantages. The almost universal idea among the college-educated young, a sort of crude J.S.Mill belief that 'nobody has the right to tell me what to do' is a very powerful force in modern western societies, excusing as it does a great deal of sexual promiscuity and drug-taking which do immense damage and create huge unhappiness, for which those responsible often do not even realise they are to blame.

So, if I may paraphrase, Hitchens' argument is that people become atheists because they want to take drugs, have promiscuous sex, and indulge all their other selfish and hedonistic impulses.

Really, I can't overstate how how fatuous and disappointing this is. I had hoped he would have something more to offer than crude and insulting stereotypes. Let me be the first to inform him that there are atheist police officers, doctors, politicians (including his own deputy prime minister), civil servants, and more. Precisely because we lack belief in an afterlife, we have the strongest possible reason for wanting this world and this life to be better: more free, more just, containing less suffering and more happiness. Religious believers, by contrast, can always put off working for justice on the grounds that it will inevitably come about anyway, whether they look forward to a personal afterlife in paradise or the future arrival of God's kingdom.

As I stated earlier, and as he again ignored, rejecting religious authorities' unsubstantiated decrees about morality doesn't equate to rejecting morality itself. This is a slanderous insult which pretends that only religious believers care about right and wrong. True nihilists, in my experience, are extremely rare; most atheists, just like most religious people, have values which guide them in seeking the good.

Also, I'd reiterate an excellent point made by another commenter, atimoshenko: If we really wanted to squander our lives in dissipation, why would we need to be atheists, as opposed to simply believing in a god who permits those activities? Why not join some neo-Dionysian cult, for example? From Hitchens' perspective, I can only surmise, this would be like having your cake and eating it too - all the drugs and the orgies, plus you get to keep on believing in an intentional and purposeful universe. Yet we haven't seen any mass defections to the New Reformed Church of the Maenads.

But [an atheist] can also see that if these advantages would pretty rapidly disappear if everyone discovered them and exploited them.

Once again, this argument fails to accord with readily observed facts. If this were true, we wouldn't be speaking out in public, wouldn't be attempting to persuade others to free themselves of religion; we'd keep our disbelief quiet and and let the moral majority support our debauched lifestyles. This isn't what we see. The reason I speak out, and the reason many atheists speak out, is because we see many ongoing evils in society that emanate from religion; and because we're confident that people in general will be better, not worse, when they give up belief in superstition and turn their attention fully to this world.

Image: Henry VIII, founder of the Anglican church, via Wikimedia Commons

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