I like Christopher Hitchens. I've read a few of his books, and he writes well -- of course. He's self-righteous and filled with vituperation and he is scandalously unfair. He's gung ho for the war in Iraq. So far, he's me. But he has the typical lefty skewed view of Vietnam, and hates Nixon and Agnew and Kissinger and suchlike. Well, so what. Old news. Oh, and he hates God. Here, we have to differ.
He recently finished a book tour for his literary effort purporting to show how good atheism is -- God Is Not Great. Well, he's right: god isn't great. Is that the god he means? No, alas. He means not only god, but God. He has, you see, conflated the two. Allah and Krishna and whatever god Buddhists have, and the Mormon god (way off on his planet), and the Hale-Bopp god of the self-castrating Heaven's Gate cult, and the weener god of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. You know ... god. And into this witch's cauldron he puts God. How odd. Can't he tell the difference?
Hitchens is a smart guy. I'm not going to read his book -- not doing a lot of apologetics anymore -- but I'm certain he presents his case in an amusing and appealing way. And along with the blindness that we must expect, he will ask some good questions, difficult for the religionists to answer. Perhaps I flatter myself, but those are the kind of questions I like. So:
When someone mentions some good thing that a religionist has done because of his faith, Hitchens replies that he can believe it, "as long as it's admitted that many people behave worse because of their religion. My challenge: name an ethical statement or action, made or performed by a person of faith, that could not have been made or performed by a nonbeliever. I have since asked this question at every stop and haven't had a reply yet."
Gentle Reader, please do allow your humble servant to essay to venture to commend to your attention a response, most unworthy though it will be of your esteemed notice.
Are atheists capable of charity? Of self sacrifice? Of course. Nobility and gentleness and courage and genius and adherence to duty? Certainly. Is there any meaningful distinction in terms of capabilities, character or temperament between some atheist and some theist? Is one more capable than the other of temperance, of personal transformation, of finding an inner peace? Or, is one more inclined to cruelty or wantonness? -- or genocide? -- or blasphemy?
No. Religion, even the One True Mystery -- OTM -- has no greater power to operate upon the soul than any other technique of psychology ... understanding of course that soul and psyche are the same thing, and that religion and philosophy differ not in the slightest in their abilities to impose apparent meaning upon manifest chaos. As for spirit, that would be a different matter, but nothing in the preceding list deals on that plain, which is inaccessible and incomprehensible to the natural, the unregenerate man.
Is there no meaningful distinction, then? There is one. Hitchens' question was carefully crafted. Our reply will be as careful. He asked for an ethical statement or action, made or performed by a person of faith, that could not have been made or performed by a nonbeliever. We have only to clarify with a definition before we proceed: "ethical" is that which is true and touches upon right conduct. Is there some true and righteous action that only a man of faith could have done?
I cannot speak to other faiths. They are not mine, and I believe them to be false. But as for my faith, there is this. There is only one faith that teaches the insufficiency of mankind. There is no atheist who has ever thought this, and there is no other religion that has ever taught this. The atheist thinks that he is sufficient to fulfill the entire meaning of life, which can only be to live ethically in a random universe, or to seek pleasure before the void of death swallows forever the brief moment of warmth that is everything that life can be; or he thinks that the very idea of sufficiency is meaningless, because existence itself is meaningless. Every other religion teaches that whatever it is that god is, and whatever fate awaits the human soul in whatever version of the afterlife might be postulated, that ultimate fate is determined by a deal between god and man, contingent upon that man's obedience to the dictates of that god.
Then there is my faith. My faith teaches that no one is capable of pleasing God. God can only be pleased by what is perfect, and no human is perfect. How is this relevant to Hitchens' question? Is there some ethical action that only a man of faith could have performed? There is one ethical, one true and righteous action that only one man could have performed. I speak, of course, of Jesus.
He committed a sufficient act. He substituted, sacrificed, his perfect life for the imperfect lives of humanity. For his own purposes, God requires that sin be paid for by death. Sin is a capital offense. It's not an unheard-of idea -- the death penalty has always been the punishment for treason. God set up the world along implacably just lines: everyone dies. Well, everyone is a sinner, so where's the complaint? No room for clemency or mercy, in such a system. God has no mercy? He says he does. What's the solution?
Justice must be served. It is served by a substitutionary death. Someone has to die. Since Justice is blind, anyone will do. Well, not just anyone. Someone of infinite worth, and some sinless someone upon whom death has no claim, who might therefore raise himself again from death, should he have the power. Jesus. The debt has been paid, yet the one who paid it is none the poorer. Life, after all, is his, and abundantly.
That's quite a story, isn't it. Who could have made up such a fantastical tale? What fabulist ever did? None. Here then is a second answer to Hitchens' question. Is there some ethical statement that only a man of faith could have made? Well, Jesus said that he is the way, and the truth, and the life. He said that no one could come to God, save through him. He said that he had the power to lay down his life and to take it up again. He said that he could grant eternal life. No man could make these statements, and be ethical. No mere man. Yet Jesus made them. Either he was right, or he was not ethical. (If you think you see a third alternative, you'll have to ask -- that's a whole different discussion.)
I would consider that being the Saviour of mankind meets Hitchens' requirement. It must be ethical. His only objection could be that it never happened. (That would of course be the third alternative.) But we can defuse Hitchens' argument with a very simple observation. He does not believe it happened. He believes it did not happen. He believes. It is his faith that it did not happen. His faith. Which makes him a man of faith, a believer. Rather a problem for him, I should think. Rather demonstrates the self-refuting nature of his position.
There are no nonbelievers.