Thanks to Middle Earth Journal, I learned about an exchange between Michael Gerson and Christopher Hitchens concerning whether religion is necessary for people to act morally.
Gerson started it off with his "What atheists can't answer." With a title like that he should have known that an answer would be forthcoming. In fact, it took Hitchens just a day to come back with "An Atheist Responds."
Hitchens, author of God is Not Great, is a tough guy to argue with. In this case, though, a middle school debate team could have handled Gerson with one argumentative hand tied behind their collective back. That's how lame Gerson's feeble attempt to link religiosity with morality was. He ended with:
Atheists and theists seem to agree that human beings have an innate desire for morality and purpose. For the theist, this is perfectly understandable: We long for love, harmony and sympathy because we are intended by a Creator to find them. In a world without God, however, this desire for love and purpose is a cruel joke of nature -- imprinted by evolution, but destined for disappointment, just as we are destined for oblivion, on a planet that will be consumed by fire before the sun grows dim and cold.
This form of "liberation" is like liberating a plant from the soil or a whale from the ocean. In this kind of freedom, something dies.
I've re-read these paragraphs several times. I still can't figure out what Gerson is talking about. He grants that people are innately moral. But then he says that if our capacity for morality is natural, rather than God-given, somehow human existence becomes meaningless.
As I pointed out in my "Morality comes from nature, not God" post, there's nothing chancy about evolution. So to say that our desire to be moral is a "cruel joke" – that's what's funny. Gerson seems to want to impose his theological fantasies on reality, anthropomorphically arguing that something is wrong with nature because everything and everyone dies: people, planets, suns.
Hitchens, on the other hand, gets morality right. This is my favorite part of his atheist's response.
Here is my challenge. Let Gerson name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by a believer that could not have been uttered or done by a nonbeliever. And here is my second challenge. Can any reader of this column think of a wicked statement made, or an evil action performed, precisely because of religious faith? The second question is easy to answer, is it not? The first -- I have been asking it for some time -- awaits a convincing reply. By what right, then, do the faithful assume this irritating mantle of righteousness? They have as much to apologize for as to explain.
Today I finished up painting some supports that were added to our carport to better assure that it remains standing after the Big One (earthquake) that will hit the Pacific Northwest someday. Which points to one reason not to believe in God.
I haven't spent one nanosecond praying to tectonic plates to spare us from devastation. There wouldn't be any point. They're going to do what they have to do. But if I believed that God was in charge of everything that happens here on Earth, I'd be seriously pissed with the dude if He allowed an earthquake to trash our house.
Why, my Internet connection could be lost for weeks. That really would make life meaningless.
But I digress. My mean reason for bringing up the carport was to relate my frame of mind as I went from post to post with my paint can and brush. I enjoyed the work, aside from a few awkward moments balancing on a shifting woodpile while trying to get to a just-out-of-reach board.
I knew that my wife was going to like the new look of the carport. So would anyone else who lived in our house (we're planning to live here for many more years, but, hey, you never know what the future will bring). I put more care into my painting than the job really required, because I had a feeling that the work I was doing could easily live on after me.
So I wasn't doing it just for myself and my wife. Back in my devotional days I would have dedicated this seva (service) to my guru, or to God. However, today I simply painted with the same quasi-selfless attitude of "not for me, but for thee." The only difference is that I didn't personalize or particularize "thee."
I just painted the best I could. When I'd finished with the supports I decided to paint a white electrical cord brown that interfered with the feng shui of our earth-toned carport. I could have finished with the cord hanging from the rafters more quickly if I hadn't painted both sides of it – including the top that's only visible to bats (and they can't see, right?)
How would believing in God or a divine being have made a difference to what I was doing? My actions, thoughts, and feelings would've been the same regardless. People who want to do good will act morally whether they're religious or not.
Their religiosity just becomes an extraneous add-on, a God-made-me-do-it explanation that sounds righteous but is totally unnecessary.
Like Hitchens said, there isn't any ethical action that could be done by a believer, but not an unbeliever.