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Faith, Morality & Christopher Hitchens

I believe that a non-religious atheist has exactly the same potential to be a moral person as a religious person (atheist or otherwise), so it is important that I do not let Christopher Hitchens sway my opinion to the contrary. Hitchens manages the seemingly impossible - he makes Professor Dawkins seem like a puppy dog. While Dawkins merely implies the violation of human rights by denying religious families the right to be, well, families, Hitchens seems to be quite happy to endorse the murder of Muslims, which he apparently considers "a pleasure".

I'm open to the idea that the sensible course of action is to ignore Hitchens - that I only add fuel to his fire by talking about him. But on the other hand, I am reminded of Edward Burke's idea that "The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing."  My diverse religious beliefs make it hard for me to fall silent.

Hitchens, in a typically polemic tirade for the Washington Post's On Faith section, lays the following challenge:

Name a moral statement or action, uttered or performed by a religious person, that could not have been uttered or performed by an unbeliever.

I'd like to answer this for the benefit of the open minded. Here are five moral statements I can truthfully make that an unbeliever cannot:

  1. My faith in Jesus encourages me to forgive Christopher Hitchens for his intolerance.
  2. My faith in Sufi (the Muslim spiritual tradition) encourages me to make peace with all religions, as each religion reveals part of the truth of God.
  3. My Zen Buddhism teaches me that violence and the advocation of violence will result in further suffering.
  4. My faith in Hindu metaphysics assures me that there are many different paths to enlightenment, including both the theistic path of devotional worship, and the non-theistic path of knowledge.
  5. My Discordian beliefs remind me that we all have freedom of belief since no one belief system can be more True than any other.

Now a non-religious person can certainly speak these statements, but presuming we may take honesty as a virtue, they are only truthful (and hence moral) when spoken by a religious person. Would I claim because of these statements I am more moral than any atheist? Absolutely not. Only that religious motivations lead to different moral statements and actions than non-religious motivations, both of which are valid ways to derive an ethical system.

I ask that atheists demonstrate their morality by denouncing Hitchens' hate-mongering, and that religious people demonstrate their morality by forgiving Hitchens for his bigotry. To paraphrase Jesus: "forgive him, for he knows not what he does."


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1. Nothing really encourages me to forgive Christopher Hitchens for his intolerance - but I do it anyway - he's no worse than many.
2. Nothing (especially not the religions themselves) encourages me to make peace with all religions - but tis folly to oppose their right to exist*, so I do it anyway.
3. My experience teaches me that violence and the advocation of violence will result in further suffering - all one needs for this is a combination of history and schoolyard feuds.
4. Nothing assures me that there are many different paths to enlightenment, its an open question. If it is possible to alter one's consciousness in such a way, I'd see both the theistic path of devotional worship, and the non-theistic path of knowledge, as merely forms laid over an essentially personal and human physical process, and I'd be most interested in discovering the true nature of this process than seeking enlightenment through these forms.
5. String theory(!)* reminds me that we all have freedom of belief since no one belief system can be more True than any other.

* Seriously, liberal views must allow freedom of belief since true belief can't be changed from without.

I've heard Hitchens call Stalinism a form of religion, and I've heard him list Newton as a secular thinker. So, if I understand him correctly, he hates religion for the simple, circular reason that, by his definition, "religion" comprises institutions and world-views that are to be hated.

But maybe I shouldn't say "hate". Whether you prefer "contrarian" or some other tag, he does seem to take great pleasure in argument. I think he's scared to death--I mean really truly terrified beyond reason--of those people, those historical forces, that have killed people for holding or expressing the wrong opinions, the wrong beliefs.

I can't defend his views on the US-Iraq war. I can' defend his hyperbolic mythologizing. Still, some days it's more fun to disagree with Hitchens than it is to agree with most people. (Present company excepted, of course).

Finally, some feedback! I was going a bit kooky waiting... :)

I admit to going off the deep end on this one (plus ca change...) Originally, I was going to write an open letter to Hitchens - but then I read up a little more and discovered the most atrocious racism I have seen in a mainstream journalist in recent years. It rattled me, and also convinced me that a balanced dialogue with Hitchens probably wasn't an option.

zenBen: "Seriously, liberal views must allow freedom of belief since true belief can't be changed from without."

What a great sentence!

caller #6: Like you, Hitchens' logic seems oddly circular to me. He does seem to have a very convenient definition of religion in terms of self-fulfilling abhorrence.

I would be a lot more open to Hitchens' role as a counterpoint if I could find the "point" to which he is offering balance. I guess this is my problem: I'm just not finding this balance at all in the media on the topic of religion. It's irrational theists versus irrational atheists. Perhaps that is what sells papers.

I worry (probably irrationally) about the anti-theist movement because I am mindful of Arendt's "Origins of Totalitarianism". Despite Hitchens' bizarre and unfounded allegation that monotheism leads to totalitarian government, Arendt's study shows the pattern begins with racism, which in turn leads to imperialism, and finally to the totalitarian regime, ruled by terror and enforced ideology.

I have great faith in the people of the US to be able to resist any attempt to turn their own country into a totalitarian regime - but I cannot quell my concerns that an anti-theist totalitarian regime is a plausible possibility at some point in the future if we don't find a way to stabilise intra and extra-religious tensions.

Anti-Muslim racism is particularly pernicious as one can 'sell' this both to anti-theist atheists and "Christian supremacists"...

Alright - deep cleansing breath. :)

The bottom line is, like Dawkins, Hitchens is at least opening up the discussions on religion. For most of my life, I kept my religious views to myself because it was considered impolite to wave one's religion around. But in the face of such rampant anti-religious prejudice being placed right into the heart of the mainstream media I now feel I not only have a mandate to talk about religion, I have an obligation.

And not, of course, because I want to sway people to any of my own religions, but rather because I want it to be abundantly clear that there's more to religion than Creationism and Al Qaeda.

Thanks once again for the comments!

While I pretty much agree with all of your points, Chris (and those made by the other commenters), I have contention with zenBen's point #3: in my experience (ignoring "history," in the larger sense), TOTAL violence negates further suffering (there's only one side left). Our historical experience with that is generally fascist or despotic, and they are - by and large - "detestable" philosophies.

Of course, the flip side of this is like Aikido's concept of "blending," in which there is no violence, and begets the same end result. Some balance of the two served me well during my schoolyard days, so I have a problem wholly condemning violence as an answer. I certainly used it to less-than-deleterious (and, in my perception, "morally right") effect during that period.

"Tactical application of violence" is the only way I can think to describe that without going into a long rant about the redefinition of "surgical strikes" and "total war." ^_~ Can violence be "moral?" I suppose it all depends on who's asking and who's answering, really. But - isn't that the whole "human condition" dilemma in the first place?

zanbowser: "Can violence be moral?"

The answer, as you shrewdly observe, depends upon the ethical system of the individual. While my personal ethics adhere to non-violence, I do accept that other people have notions of "just war" and so forth, and thus "just violence".

As a simple example, few people think it is wrong for the police to be allowed to use violence in apprehending criminals - provided the violence used is what is required, and not excessive. Part of the problem, perhaps, is that when violence is allowed, it is difficult to limit it to a minimal case.

I think we'll end up looking at this issue again, in the context of ethics of war if nothing else.

Thanks for the comment!

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