Falling Awake

Just Darts Since 2009

Is Christianity Good for the World?

Christopher Hitchens debated theologian Douglas Wilson on the question, “Is Christianity Good for the World?”

The real question, of course, is not whether Christianity is “good,” but whether it is true.  If it’s true, the good will follow.  If it isn’t, its “goodness” is irrelevant.  But I didn’t host the debate.

Christopher Hitchens has a new book out called God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, which I haven’t read.  I have read quite a bit of Hitchens, and now I’ve read this debate, and it has convinced me that I don’t really need to read the book.

Hitchens is a powerful debater.  He demolished James Galloway a couple of years ago at a debate held in New York City on the proposition that “The war in Iraq was necessary and just.”  (Hitchens was–and is–in favor of the Iraq War.)  I like reading his work when I agree with him, but I find him just as compelling when I disagree with every word he says.  You have to think about why you disagree with him, and I like to think.  Sometimes.

Anyway, why do I think it’s not really necessary to read his book?  In the debate against Wilson, he exposes his lack of understanding of Christian belief.  Mr. Hitchens is under no obligation to study Christianity–not even before writing a book that claims it is not only wrong, but evil–but if he can’t be bothered to try to come up with arguments that serve to refute authentic Christian teachings as opposed to his own garbled understanding of them, I can’t be bothered to read his book.

Here are some of his statements (from the debate) that I think will show you what I mean:

  • “…the “Golden Rule” is much older than any monotheism… no human society would have been possible or even thinkable without elementary solidarity (which also allows for self-interest) between its members.”

You can–perhaps–explain tribal solidarity through a process of evolution (which is Hitchens’ explanation of all morality), but the Christian commandment to love your enemy is–as far as I am aware–unique to Christianity.  Hitchens never mentions this commandment, preferring the easier, more general case of the Golden Rule.

———————

  • “In my book, I argue that I can pay your debt or even take your place in prison but I cannot absolve you of what you actually did. This exorbitant fantasy of “forgiveness” is unfortunately matched by an equally extreme admonition—which is that the refusal to accept such a sublime offer may be punishable by eternal damnation.”

Unless Mr. Hitchens is caricaturing the Catholic sacrament of reconciliation, I cannot imagine what he means.  No one is claiming that any mere human can absolve anyone of sin.  That’s what God promises he will do.  And you can call eternal damnation a punishment, or you can call it a choice.  God allows everyone to exercise his free will, and without consequences free will would be a fiction.

————————

  • “On the much more pertinent question of the origin of ethical imperatives, which I believe to be derived from innate human solidarity and not from the supernatural, let me likewise offer an instance from each Testament. Let us assume that the tales can be taken at face value. Is it to be believed that the Jews got as far as Sinai under the impression that murder, theft, and perjury were more or less all right? And, in the story of the good man from Samaria, is it claimed that the man went out of his way to help a fellow creature because of a divine instruction? He was clearly, since he preceded Jesus, not motivated by Christian teaching. And if he was a pious Jew, as seems probable, he would have had religious warrant and authority NOT to do what he did, if the poor sufferer was a non-Jew.”

I think you could certainly make the argument that before the ten commandments were given to the Jews, murder, theft and perjury were considered to be excusable.  Under certain circumstances.  Consider the Muslim: a large percentage of Muslims believe that the murder of, theft from, or perjury about non-Muslims is not only “pretty much all right,” but in certain circumstances required of the faithful.  The ten commandments let the Jews know that these were sins, no matter who committed them, and no matter who the victim was.  And that was a pretty big paradigm shift, no?

As for the parable of the Good Samaritan, I’m not sure Mr. Hitchens is all that familiar with it.  The Samaritan was not “probably a pious Jew”: he was a Samaritan.  Of course he was not motivated by Christian teaching: he was Christian teaching.  He was a fictional character in a parable told by Jesus to illustrate the commandment: “Love Thy Neighbor.”  As such, the tale follows directly from the ten commandments and the importance God places upon loving even your enemies.

————————

In this post I’ve looked only at the parts of the discussion where I think Mr. Hitchens misunderstands Christianity.  The bulk of the debate is on whether religion (in this case, Christianity) is necessary to live a moral life.  The key question is: where does an atheist get his code of ethics from?  Read the whole thing if you have a chance.  I just want to point out one question Mr. Hitchens asks at the end of the debate that leads him so close to the truth:

“Every now and then, in argument, I find myself glib enough to make a cheap point or a point that might evoke instant applause from an audience. But I am always aware of doing so, or if you like of the temptation to do so, and I strive (not always with success) to resist the tactic, and rather dislike myself when I give in to it. Why do I do this?”

I love the fact that he’s asking this question, because the question shows that Mr. Hitchens is a decent man who is just missing the whole point of life, the universe and everything.

To break down his question:

  1. You know what the right thing to do is.
  2. It’s not especially hard to do the right thing.
  3. You do the wrong thing anyway.
  4. You regret having done the wrong thing.

Why?

Because you, like the rest of us, are a fallen creature.  You know that something is wrong with you.  And you know that you are powerless to perfect yourself.

That’s the bad news.  But there’s Good News, too.

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4 responses to “Is Christianity Good for the World?

  1. INFJ June 21, 2007 at 4:15 pm

    I guess that “do as you would be done by,” comes out of a natural evolutionary process according to Hitchens. This would be a necessary evolutionary step otherwise we would have destroyed each other. He’s probably right but how does he explain this “elementary solidarity?” The only reasonable explanation, in my view, is that it is a God given component of every human being – conscience.

    The punishment for “refusal to accept” what he calls “the exorbitant fantasy of forgiveness,:” may be because of a misunderstanding of Christian belief. Mainline Christians believe in the expiation of sin by and through the death of Christ on the cross, and this act is what makes salvation possible. Some fundamentalist groups believe that that you will be damned if you do not become Christian and accept Christ. If this is his understanding then I don’t blame for his “refusal to accept this sublime offer.” This would leave out all the saintly people of other religions. Catholic Christians believe that forgiveness is available to all people of good will who practice their faith
    in good conscience.

    A priest once told me, “If you have Christ you have love – if you have love you have Christ, even if you don’t know his name. All He required was that we follow His one and only commandment, love one another.”

  2. amba June 30, 2007 at 1:23 pm

    Good links! Thanks. I took the liberty of making them live.

  3. amba June 30, 2007 at 1:28 pm

    Blogrolled, too.

  4. Mike Kriskey June 30, 2007 at 7:42 pm

    Thanks!

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