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.
Seems to me people largely do what they're going to do anyway, regardless of their religious affiliation. A kind person will be kind, a ruthless person will be ruthless. If religion makes any difference, then it makes a difference as a facilitator, rather than as an instigator, of morals.
Posted by: Paul Sunstone | July 17, 2007 at 06:46 AM
Yes, and also a facilitator/instigator of immorality/mental illness as well.
Posted by: T. Bob | July 17, 2007 at 11:53 AM
I agree completely: morality has nothing to do with religion; and in fact, much immoral and unethical behavior is perpetrated by religious zealots.
Well argued point.
Posted by: Mystic Wing | July 17, 2007 at 02:08 PM
The atheist must accept moral responsibility for their own actions because there is no one else to blame or reward, whilst a theist can avoid moral responsibility for their actions cos either god or the devil made 'em do it.
Posted by: Helen | July 17, 2007 at 08:12 PM
Hitchens appears to be a very angry person especially towards religion. He was raised catholic that may explain it.
His brother peter has some interesting observations about his brother Christopher. Peter comes across in his writings about his brother as compassionate and humble quite the opposite as his brother.
It must really bug Hitchens that he has Christ in his first name.
Why the difference between brothers? I watched him on cable news recently and when the subject was the Catholic Church and priests, Christopher became very emotional and upset. Why?
Becoming that emotionally upset usually has more to do with our own inner turmoil than showing compassion towards those children that have been abused by priests.
I think Christopher needs to be shown compassion by others including religious people as I suspect but don’t know that he is hurting inside. As a side note I have not found to date one religious person that knows the difference between compassion and sympathy.
Anthony de Mello a catholic priest who has been censored by the pope taught that religious beliefs often had the opposite effect on the morality of a society. He noted that natives in the jungle were doing pretty well and getting along fine then they were taught religious beliefs and things started to go downhill from there. Stealing and fighting etc.
Ok Darwinists don’t get to carried away on this story as proof of no god or spirit within or cosmic consciousness or intelligent universe or whatever.
Anthony de Mello is in good company as Master (Meister) Eckhart was also censored by the pope and Eckhart was one of the greatest of catholic mystics.
Flying though a tall building and yelling god is great does suggest there might be something to Anthony’s teachings.
Posted by: researcherseeker | July 27, 2007 at 02:14 AM
again sorry for the mixup.
hey those were some pretty deep thoughts you threw at me.
need some time to think on them.
yoga time now
thanks for taking the time to share.
Posted by: william | August 12, 2007 at 10:56 PM