TIA Tuesday: god is not Great

We’re up to Chapter 9 of TIA, which brings us to Christopher Hitchens. Reading the first few pages, one gets the impression that Vox feels a certain kinship for Hitchens, if not a grudging admiration. That, however, does not stop him from criticizing. After a few pages, we get to the first substantial critique, based on a published debate between Hitchens and theologian Doug Wilson. Vox claims that Hitchens bobs and weaves, avoiding Wilson’s pointed question about where atheists get their morality.

From the very first of his six responses to Hitchens, Wilson is forced to repeatedly ask Hitchens for his atheist basis of respect for the individual, for the reason why an individual should care one way or another about what Hitchens, or anyone else, happens to believe is good or evil, and exactly what the fixed standard by which Hitchens declares Christianity to be not good happens to be. After initially ignoring the question, followed by evasive digressions into everything from etiquette to Epicurus, from Spinoza to innate human solidarity, from slavery to stem cell research, Hitchens finally breaks down under the unrelenting pressure and answers

The debate was published in Christianity Today, and is arranged (not surprisingly) so that the theologian gets the last word. On the other hand, this arrangement also gives Hitchens the initiative in posing the questions and raising the points that his opponent will need to address. And he raises a number of cogent issues:

  1. Though Christians claim morality comes from God, there is no evidence our moral standards originated with Jesus or with Moses or with any other Biblical figure
  2. Early moral teachings in the Bible are often barbaric and immoral themselves, including the notion that sacrifice can absolve the guilty and the practice of infant genital mutilation
  3. Christianity uses rigged scorekeeping, taking credit for the good works of good Christians, but disclaiming responsibility for the bad actions of bad Christians, in order to create an artificial facade of virtue

Wilson’s response to the first point is to essentially concede the point that morality does not come from Christianity (a concession that Vox fails to mention for some reason). All men do have a certain innate moral sense, Wilson admits, but he echoes C. S. Lewis’s superstition in ascribing credit for this moral sense to God. Not a bad answer, rhetorically speaking, nor is his answer to the third point, in which he compares Christianity to a professor who has some students that pass and some that fail. Not really good answers, either, but at least they’re answers.

In response to the second point, however, Wilson makes the first dodge. “Why should you care?” he asks Hitchens, seeking to turn the Old Testament accounts into the atheist’s problem. But this is a red herring. Suppose the atheist can’t answer. Suppose he does not know where morality comes from. Does this change anything at all about the fact that the Old Testament God commanded infant genital mutilation, and gave instructions from Mt. Sinai to His people on how to sell their daughters into sexual slavery? Whether or not the atheist understands psychology and sociology well enough to explain the origin of morality, the fact remains that a God who was the source of moral standards ought to be moral Himself. It doesn’t matter whether He delivers these standards by writing them on stone tablets or directly on human hearts; if His own actions are not moral, He is either not the source of morality, or He is a liar.

Hitchens, naturally, spots this evasion right away, but he gives Wilson’s point a concise and elegant answer.

The existence or otherwise of an indifferent cosmos (the overwhelmingly probable state of the case) would no more reduce our mutual human obligations than would the quite weird theory of a celestial dictatorship,whether Aztec or Muslim or (as you seem to insist) Christian. The sole difference is that we would be acting out of obligation toward others out of mutual interest and sympathy but without the impulse of terrifying punishment or selfish reward.

Vox’s claim notwithstanding, Hitchens did indeed give Wilson a direct and accurate answer to his question. Mutual interest and sympathy are indeed the basis from which all human morality is drawn. An individual is better off being part of a society in which the participants assist each other and refrain from doing harm. The moral rules which promote social harmony are thus in everybody’s mutual interest. And if that were not enough, we all have a certain instinctive sympathy for one another, providing us with an additional, powerful motivation not to cause or allow harm. As we accumulate more experience over time, we may learn better which behaviors are helpful and which are harmful, thus leading to an ongoing refinement of our moral sense. But the morality itself is rooted in ordinary sympathy and mutual self-interest.

Wilson’s reply, amazingly enough, is to accuse Hitchens of avoiding the question. Having successfully changed the subject from the morality of the Old Testament God to the subject of Hitchens’s ability to explain where morality comes from, Wilson clings tenaciously to his original evasion, despite Hitchens’s answers, and plays the role, at least, of the victorious debater, despite his inability to address Hitchens’s original point.

Vox is partly right. Wilson was indeed driven to repeat his argument six times. Not because Hitchens had no answer, but because Wilson didn’t. Only by continuing to pretend that Hitchens had no answers could Wilson maintain the pretense that he’d out-argued the atheist. Even though Hitchens repeatedly answered his questions, Wilson simply could not, or would not, understand the simple point of the answers he was being given. Ignorance, it seems, can indeed be more useful than understanding—for certain purposes.

Vox, of course, is all over himself cheering for Wilson, and especially for the “hammer” that Wilson supposedly dropped at the end of the debate.

Wilson’s correct response is that a constantly evolving standard is, by definition, not a fixed one, and moreover, the less-evolved cannot be reasonably held to the same standard as the more highly evolved.

One need only look at Old Testament morality, with its polygamy, genital mutilation, and slavery, to see how Christian morals have indeed evolved over the past few thousand years. One thing hasn’t changed, though. Apparently it is still ok with God to lie, to mislead, and to obfuscate the truth, as long as you’re doing so for the benefit of the Gospel. Faced with the fact that Hitchens directly answered Wilson’s point, and Wilson persistently evaded Hitchens’s, Vox simply lies about the debate, and claims that Hitchens dodged the issue. And isn’t that a great way to discuss the results of a debate over morality? [Update: Nah, strike that. I can't eliminate the possibility that Vox simply has a blind spot when it comes to understanding the secular basis for morality. It's not fair to accuse him of lying when there's a possibility that he simply fails to grasp the significance of Hitchens's answers. I withdraw the earlier charge.]

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Posted in TIA, Unapologetics. 8 Comments »

8 Responses to “TIA Tuesday: god is not Great”

  1. Ric Says:

    I am really enjoying these posts. Thank you. You’ve driven me to have a glance at TIA (with my nose held), and I have looked over the chapters side by side with your critiques. You eloquently and succintly tear Vox a new one.

  2. jorgaba Says:

    These morality arguments are always frustrating because when theists say “morality”, they specifically mean a reified list of rules imposed from the top-down from some absolute authority. They just get confused when you say atheists can have morality without gods. How, they wonder, do atheists get their list of rules without an authority to post it for them? No matter what you say, if you fail to explain how commandments can exist without a “commander”, they’ll declare victory.

    I’ve found it easier to just work within the theist’s implicit definition of morality, and argue that, no, of course atheists don’t have “morality”, and we don’t need it. Why would anyone need “morality”?

    This then prompts the theist to explain condescendingly that there must be SOME reason I haven’t been raping and murdering all morning.

    To which I say, well, those things are inconsistent with my interests, and they offend my sense of empathy. I cooperate because it is in my best interest to cooperate. I want to live in a cooperative world where people look out for one another, so I contribute to that and I try to convince people it’s in their best interest too. Also, watching harm come to other is emotionally distressing to me because I have an innate sense of empathy. I like to avoid distress, so I try to prevent others from coming to harm.

    This usually then tips off a, “well, where does your empathy come from”, to which I can say something like, empathic emotional responses would have a selection advantage to the extent that they facilitate cooperation, yada, yada, yada.

    Yes, its a semantic trick, but by sticking to the argument on concrete terms and refusing to address morality in the abstract at all, one manages to avoid the mystical, essentialist baggage that theists insist on dumping into it. (Two other abstract concepts that often get the same treatment: “reason” and “love”).

  3. gingerly Says:

    Good article. I don’t know where I read it, but someone said that morality is ONLY about alleviating suffering. I think that’s a perfect description. It’s certainly not about someone’s rules in a book.

  4. jim Says:

    Good approach. Interesting that, for theists, ‘morality’ requires a SuperCop type of authority brandishing the ‘big stick’ threat of hell to force us to knuckle under. Oops…wait a minute! Aren’t Christians still sinners, making them inherently immoral, despite the supposedly indwelling Holy Spirit? And surely, there are non-Christians who live their lives in a relatively moral fashion…perhaps, even, superior to some Christians? This being the case, isn’t all this talk about sources of morality superfluous?

    Furthermore, don’t we generally appreciate ‘good’ actions emerging from plain old human sensibilities, more than those grudgingly performed under threat of harm? I mean, does ANYBODY appreciate love, or kindness, or sympathy directed towards them, if those things are motivated by fear? Such ‘morality’ smacks of artificiality to me, as I believe it would to almost anyone. Doesn’t the ideal of human interaction require the ingredient of authenticity, as opposed to a grudging sort of obedience to a barbaric Sky King?

    Examined closely, the existence of what we call morality seems easily explained by the natural evolution of human sensibilities refined through human interaction. Meanwhile, the ‘top down’ theory is rife with logical problems and absurdities. If anything, gods are created to help enforce what we want anyway. Unfortunately, no religious system is perfect, having been produced by people with conflicting desires and motivations…both the internal kinds, as well as those which exist amongst the aggregate. But holding onto outmoded systems of superstition that fly in the face of modernity serves no one. Time to grow up.

  5. Galloway Says:

    “. . to see how Christian morals have indeed evolved over the past few thousand years ”

    And don’t forget St Augustine (4th century) and St Aquinas (13th century?), if memory serves, both advocating torture and murder to deal with stubborn heretics. Christian morality, as you point out, has been evolving for millenia.

    I’ve never understood Vox’s contention that even ‘moral’ atheists are guilty of being moral parasites. This isn’t true, but even if it was, who cares? Humans have progressed by building on the accomplishments of previous generations, not by continually having to reinvent the wheel. Speaking of which, one might accuse Vox of being a ‘technology parasite’ for using wheels invented by pagan cavemen.

  6. valdemar Says:

    People like Vox are moral parasites because they get a free ride on the enlightened values of Western, liberal democracies. The kind of wacky theology Vox comes up with (and his dumb buddies applaud) would have got him burned at the stake in more truly Christian times.

  7. Arthur Says:

    It’s not clear to me how the American Christian can look around at–never mind at the world, or other religions, or anything complicated–can look around at this country, as it exists right now, and claim to follow a creed that has a fixed and standardized and absolute morality. This was a major feature of that Hitchens/Wilson debate, and of many others, and I’m confused that an apologist can get away with even making the claim.

    My sister is a Christian, inasmuch as she believes in God, loves Christ, attends church at least weekly, sings in the choir, all that. She arrived at this position all by herself–our parents gave us no religious upbringing of any kind. She also believes in rights to assisted suicide, abortion on demand, and marriage for homosexuals. There might be more (oh, the separation of church and state), but any one of these would suffice (I think) to make the point that there is more than one way to look at the world even if you’re churchy.

    I guess the short form is: there’s a lot of ways to be Christian. Christians know it, and so does everybody else. Wherefore the claim to absolute anything? Before you upbraid the supposedly relativistic mote in a skeptic’s eye, shouldn’t somebody attend to the big old apparently relativistic beam in the church’s eye? Did I get that reference right? I’d be so proud.

    Seriously, though, is this an elephant in a room, or is this one of those things that only skeptics wonder about? I mean, the Christian world community hasn’t been reading from one script since at least the Reformation, right? Or am I missing something?

  8. Arthur Says:

    Boy that was long and unnecessary. I apologize. It was past my bedtime.

    What I meant to say was: why isn’t the very existence of denominations in the world today a problem for apologists who claim to have a fixed and immovable morality supporting them?