Saturday, April 25, 2009

Why Christopher Hitchens is wrong about the moral necessity of atheism

If you are not familiar with Christopher Hitchens, then you should watch his segment in this clip.

To show why I don't buy his argument I want to go to some of the basics of Christian theology. I'm going to focus on his argument in light of Christianity, not in light of religions.

The Bible makes the claim that everything, presumably even the universe itself, was invented by a deliberate act of God. He then further went on to create all living beings on earth, including humans. During the history of humans God has interacted with them to lay down a divine law which all humans are required to obey. Furthermore, God was born on Earth as Jesus to save us from our sins so that we can enjoy eternal life in heaven after our life from this world has ended.

This, of course, does not complete all the claims of Christianity, but it is a good baseline for the purposes of this discussion.

Hitchens argues that the proposition of this argument is immoral because God is forcing a code of morality on us that we are forced to follow under condemnation of eternal damnation, and it has been imposed on us in a dictator-like fashion and we do not get any say so, or allowed to voice our opinions on the subject ahead of time.

If we accept, if only for the sake of argument, that the claims of Christianity are true as I have outlined above, then are Hitchens' assertions true? Let's look at who God is. He is the creator. Problems such as string theory, the Higgs Boson and such as not problems, he invented all of these various laws and pieces them together. On top of that he built our minds and knows the what makes us "tick."

So if we accept these ideas then it seems rather likely that God would care for us a lot and would want us to live in a manner that is conducive to happiness. Presently we have psychology and sociology to try and explain how our mind works so that we can better understand how to live happy lives. Since God already has access to this information, he has given us rules to follow to live a happy life.

God would not just make up random rules for no good reason just to watch us suffer as we try to follow them. Instead he would give us useful rules that help build a peaceful and happy society. In the Bible God is often referred to as Father. As our creator he is like a father. Father's are usually associated with discipline. A good father doesn't just make up random rules and then get upset with his children when they don't follow them. A good father makes up useful rules and punishes his children when they don't follow them, so that as adults they will have a good set of values to be a happy and productive adult and pass that down through his or her children at a later time.

To define God's rules as a dictatorship may be correct, but it is only a matter of choosing harsh words to describe a gracious act. It is good that God, our loving creator, has given us a set of rules to help us live happy and productive lives. And it behooves us to obey them.

Think of a pupil at piano lessons. The pupil cannot possibly go in knowing more than the teacher if the pupil has not previously played the piano. Therefore it is only good sense for the pupil to listen to the teacher and follow instruction as best as he or she can. If the teacher is good and cares for the pupil, then the pupil has the prospect of becoming a good piano player. If God is good and loves us, which the Bible asserts is true, then he will provide us with the tools to live a happy life. Therefore it is good that God has given us his commandments, and it is good when we obey those commandments.

However, there is a second component to this. Simply following God's rules is not enough. Christian theology does not say that living a good life is good enough for God. Not only do you need to do good, but you also need to love God. The letter of God's law for morality and how we are to conduct our lives is not sufficient to be favorable in God's eyes. It is through obedience and love that we find favor with God. An atheist who lives what would otherwise consider to be a moral life is not favorable to God according the scriptures.

It is absolutely unreasonable that a God that has spent so much time, effort and emotion in to us should not require that we love him back.

I would like to step back and approach this from one other angle with a short pause to discuss the problem of the dual existence of evil in our world and a good god. The proposed problem goes like this. If a person was dying in a ditch and another person passed by and didn't save him is that person good? Well, it depends on a few things. The first thing we would want to know is if the person walking by saw the person in the ditch. If not then we cannot make any moral judgement on him. We certainly cannot expect a person to work on a problem they don't know exists. If he did notice the person in the ditch then we need to know a second question. Did he have the ability to save the person in the ditch? If the answer is no, but he did try then we can conclude that he probably has some sort of goodness about him. If the person passing by did see the person int he ditch, and had the ability to save that person, then we could conclude with great certainty, that he is not a moral person. So, given the amount of evil that occurs on a daily basis, how can we call an omnipotent and omnipresent god, good?

The response goes like this. A man invents a robot. He is proud of his invention and takes it into a store to show it off to others. While the robot is walking down an isle of plates it starts to walk into a stack of them, threatening to break them so he intervenes and pushes the robot away. This continues until the robot is finally clear of the isle. The man then exclaims, "Look at my robot. He is good. He can walk down an isle of plates and bowls and not break anything." His conclusion would not be well received. The only reason the robot didn't break anything was because the creator intervened. Likewise, we would not have the ability to be "good" without the ability to create problems.

Likewise, when we are born with healthy bodies, we are not praised for this accomplishment, and if we are born with birth defects, we don't chastise the child for failing. These things are not the fault of the child, so we do not make judgments against or for them for it. However, when a group of able bodied people compete at a sport, we praise the victor for their accomplishment. The ability to fail is necessary for success. Without Hitler's ability to fail, there would be no reason to praise the work of Mother Theresa, Mohammad Ghandi, or Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. Evil is necessary for good.

This does not solve the problem of natural evil, such as a person dying in an avalanche, but that is beyond what I am trying to get at here.

Going back to the robot and his creator. When the creator intervenes to prevent the robot from breaking the dishes, nobody chastises him for doing so. Nobody looked at his intrusion as barbaric, unjust, or evil. It is right for a creator to require good out of his creation. We are fortunate to have more liberties than the robot. Doing good is not required of us, but requested. God is less of a tyrant than the robot's creator. He lets us know what we should do and then gives us the option to conform or not. We have been graced with both a free will and a set of proper instructions.

Now, this does not cover a defense of each of God's rules, requests, or actions, nor is it an exhaustive defense of the actions of those who proclaim to follow the rules of God. It also does not touch on issues such as hell, the genocide ordered to build the holy land, the historical evidence (or lack thereof) of many of the Bible's accounts, nor does it cover the evidence (or lack thereof) that any such God actually exists. It is merely a defense of the idea that a creator would give us rules and tell us that we are absolutely expected to follow these rules, and love him for it, and that such compliance is not immoral or degrading.


  1. Since you have accepted the basic claims put forth in the Bible, I have the following to say as a follow-up to your post:

    God started by himself. There was nothing. No pain, no suffering, no hurt, no want, no need...just nothing.

    From this void he decided to create something. He decided to create man. He did not do so with partial knowledge. He didn't make most of man and then leave the details to work themselves out. He didn't create the good parts and hope for the best on the bad stuff.

    No, it was total knowledge--down to every spin on ever quark in atom in every man. Every desire, every need, every want, they were all created by God.

    And this goes for the devil as well. When God was alone, there was no devil. There was only God, and when he brought the devil (and the other angels) into being he did so with full knowledge. Every ability, every vice, every weakness, every thought. Again, it was all not only known by God, but EXPLICITLY created.

    So when God's creations met in the garden of eden (which God created, of course) there was in fact nothing unknown going on. Given god's powers, it is simply impossible for him NOT to be 100% responsible for the outcome.

    Even if God were to have given the angels and man some magical ability to make random decisions on their own, I fail to see how that magic would be outside the realm of God. God created the free will. He created every atom in every person. Every personality characteristic in every angel, etc.

    It was all known. Not just known from a "this will probably happen" standpoint, but KNOWN in the sense that he had EVERY SINGLE VARIABLE.

    And remember, he started with nothing and conjured all of this on his own, by himself, using his powers of omniscience and omnipotence.

    So all the outcomes were his. This is plain to see for anyone who logically looks at the story. To blame man for "man's" actions is intellectually absurd, and it's far below you, my friend. Any omnipotent being that creates every fiber of a creature, out of thin air, and then blames that creation for its actions is either not omnipotent/omniscient or it is evil.

    But those aren't really our choices. Option three is the real answer, which is that it's all made up, by man, who is just a humble form of life in the universe that we don't understand.

    This answer is good enough for the intelligent. Break the chains, my friend. Break the chains.

  2. Thanks for the response.
    The dilemma is one I used to ponder when I was in high-school and read the bible much more than I do today.
    If God created literally EVERYTHING, then he also invented Lucifer. If he is also omnipotent, then he knew the consequences of this action, and it does not seem unreasonable to include evil as a list of his inventions.
    As a list of possible solutions to this problem, as well as other parts of the bible, it may be plausible to conclude that God is an egomaniac. This conclusion does not seem to contradict God's own assertions of his self, as recorded in the bible.
    I've also wondered if the possible answer is that God did not in fact invent everything. A simple example of this may be logic. Maybe the fact that 1 + 1 != 3 has more to do with the properties of this universe, but more that in any other possible incarnation of existence it could not possibly be true. Possibly, if there is an infinite number of dimensions, it still holds true that 1 + 1 = 2.
    On top of such rules of logic, it seems plausible that even God is bound by spiritual laws. Perhaps it is a necessity that he can never lie, or that he must forget the sins that have been repaid by blood shed. perhaps even he does not have the power to change these "rules."
    Hitchens may point at that I am admitting that this is all just a sick game on God's part, and are just sitting down here suffering for his own amusement, and so he is therefore immoral according to the bible's own assertion of who he is.
    In fact, I would argue that the bible definitely backs up parts of his claim.
    "God is all-powerful with a determination to carry out His purpose and plan throughout time into eternity" 1 Corinthians 29:11.
    All of this craziness we call time and space is for "His purpose and plan throughout time and eternity."
    But going back to why would God create creatures that he knows ahead of time are going to disobey him, the book of Romans actually addresses this issue directly.
    "Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will?
    Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?
    Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?" Romans 9:19-21.
    The answer is not very satisfactory for the philosopher who asserts his right to ask questions and either receive or otherwise find an answer. The response is simply that God has made us, and we are to just accept that he has made us how we are, because he is God and has the right to do such things. This gets back to the egomaniac solution that I started with.
    While atheism may be a simple solution to these problems, it is hardly a solution for the wonders he has worked in my life with expediency and exact conclusion when I thought all was hopeless.

  3. You say Hitchens is wrong, but provide no evidence to back up your claims. Where, for example, can you prove that God did anything or even exists?

  4. I am not saying he is wrong that there is no God. That's not the point he makes in the clip I linked to. His point is that even if there is a god, it is so monstrous that being a follower of such a thing would be immoral. My argument is simply if the God that is reported to exist in the Holy Bible, then it would be immoral to not be a follower.