Christopher Hitchens’ Challenge (renamed)

In a recent debate between Christopher Hitchens and Dr. Mark D. Roberts on the Hugh Hewitt show (which can be heard here for a limited time), Hitchens makes what he apparently thinks to be an unanswerable challenge to Mark D. Roberts. Here’s what he said:

Here’s my challenge * * * : You have to name a moral action taken or a moral statement uttered by a person of faith that could not be taken or uttered by a non-believer. I have yet to find anyone who can answer me that.

Really? How about this one: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind". (Luke 10:27a) I have yet to meet a non-believer who has, in fact, loved God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength, nor have I met an atheist that would take or utter that as an action that he would consider moral.

Next challenge?

Note: the name of this post has been changed (6/11) due to an error in identifying Christopher Hitchens' brother, Peter, as the one making the challenge. My fault.


Layman said…
Geepers. And atheists wonder why we keep bringing this subject up.

The point is not who can make a moral statement. A parrot can make a moral statement.

The point is whether atheists' current moral statements and actions, heavily influenced by a long Christianized culture, would be the same in a culture that has outgrown all of its Christian influence and relies solely on secular ethics.

The two examples history provides us to date, the communists and the French Revolutionists during the reign of terror, are not encouraging.
BK said…
Good point. I was planning on following up with that very point here in the comments or in a follow up post depending upon what was said. I would add this: the way he has worded the challenge is very vague. Of course any atheist can come up with the same moral rules -- especially when they are raised in a Christian culture. They will possibly also adopt the same moral rules as rules to live by. But the question isn't whether they could say or utter such things, but have they? The challenge that I would throw back to Hitchens would be something like this: You have to name a generally accepted moral action or statement that was not first voiced or adopted by religious people. The only one I can think of is the moral principle that it is okay to denigrate religious faith -- not much of an advance in my view.
Right, the issue is whether or not an atheistic system can really provide an objective rational for morals. Problem is, more people seem to be willing to just say, ok morals aren't objective, no bigee.
Layman said…
Or how about this moral statement:

There is a transcendent source of morality that supersedes my own opinions, desires, inclinations, or even societal conditioning.
Weekend Fisher said…
I have to agree that Hitchens has asked an irrelevant question. Here's a more relevant one: Name a moral action or moral statement that must be taken by a Christian that need not be taken by an atheist.

That's really all it takes to make the point I'd make about morality.

I mean, I have no problem at all seeing, from a Darwinist viewpoint, justifications for Hitler. From a "selfish gene" viewpoint, what's so different between that and one ant-hill exterminating another that gets into its territory?
Jason Pratt said…
Interestingly, WF, Paul whasisname (no last name ever given) eventually had to acceed to that, down in the debate we had in Layman's post which originally brought this topic up. (Chris' OP was titled "A Future For Atheistic Morality?") Which was amusing, because Paul had started the debate by critting Chris for asking the question as if atheists would have a problem with this. Uh, opps, turns out under close scrutiny Paul _did_ think atheists couldn't _really_ come up with anything that wasn't just masked amoral will-to-power language.

(As an educated guess, I expect Paul would reply that this is all a 'religious' person is doing, too. Which admittedly some or even many theistic morality theories would give him good grounds for thinking. {sigh} More on this eventually in my Ethics&t3rdPers series. Paul was a good discussant; I hope he shows up again sometime. {bowing in his direction!})

One of the First Things editors (not Neuhaus, maybe Novak; it's at the house) had an extended article this month on much the same topic. One of several related articles in fact, but this one made several good points in favor of the necessity of secular critiques, too; most interestingly these were admissions by the pope from a debate with Jurgen Habremas, an atheistic apologist who has serious concerns himself about secularism's lack of moral capital.

Mark added: {{the issue is whether or not an atheistic system can really provide an objective rational for morals. Problem is, more people seem to be willing to just say, ok morals aren't objective, no bigee.}}

The second problem is certainly a problem, too; but it stems from a concession to a denial of the first problem. Which is why Paul's example is famiiliar in my experience: start off protesting that atheists can too come up with an objective rationale for morals; and then after awhile concede that the basis, even if objectively real, isn't _itself_ moral in quality which kinda reductively nixes the objective morality claim. After which the 'no biggee' is heard. {g}

And, as I pointed out in my second entry (and the third one, to some extent), it isn't that such systems are necessarily inconsistent. They just aren't actually _ethical_. But a practical question then comes up: what are we to _teach_ concerning this (ostensible) truth? As I noted, for the ethical pragmatist to function with power in his society, he has to take advantage of the misunderstanding of other people about an effective appeal to an intrinsically ethical objective standard (whether the characteristics of that standard are coherently spelled out or not.) If the people aren't taught misleading things, the pragmatist's powerbase is zorched. When the people find out the pragmatist is willing to mislead the people in order to have power over them, his credibility will be shot. (Or the remnants of his credibility. Which we had a sad example of recently, too, hm? {coughJoftushack})

This problem is not to be confused, however, with attempts by secularists to locate an objectively real and objectively _ethical_ standard in the interpersonal relationships of multiple persons. This attempt may run into a few similar problems, but it's a different kettle of fish than sourcing to a merely (though rationally) _invented_ ethic.

Jason Pratt said…
Oh, btw Bill, I feel kind of silly asking, but I figure other readers may not know either: who is _Peter_ Hitchens?? Is that Christopher Hitchens' other name? Is it an ironic title of some sort?

BK said…
Whoops. Peter Hitchens is Christopher's brother. I seem to recall that the debate commenced with mentioning Peter's disagreement with Christopher and I just wrote Peter by accident. Gonna' fix that right now.

How embarrassing . . . .
Jason Pratt said…
Eh. It could be more embarrassing. You could have decided to just insist that the title read 'Christopher' instead of 'Peter' anyway, even with the title still up there for anyone to immediately check for themselves, never accepting any correction on it across several weeks of people trying their best to tell you differently... {coughhackJoftusagainwheeze}{g!}

So look at it that way; by _that_ (consequentialistic?) standard, you're galactically far ahead. {beam!}

Weekend Fisher said…
BK ... is that picture of yours Bob the Tomato with a dye-job?
BK said…

I never thought of it that way, but why not? LARRY!
Edwardtbabinski said…
Moral and ethical instincts preceded the writing down of the first "comandments." In fact for a million years or more before modern day human beings arose on earth, apes already had formed socieites and probably engaged in the same reconciliation behaviors we see apes engaging in today, including holding out one's hand, shaking hands, hugging, kissing, after fighting.

As for times of human upheavals like the French Revolution, or the communist revolution, what about the fact that Christians were killing each other and killing pagans, and killing Muslims and killing Jews and witches for centuries before that, and holding public executions and burning books. (Quite an object lesson in an age without radio or TV, everybody goes to the execution.) Study the Thirty Years War for example, the Hundred Years War, The English Civil War, the St. Bartholomew Day Massacre, and many others.

Early American Puritan preachers taught that if the Indians would not convert, they deserved to be exterminated like the Canaanites.

America's own revolution against the British in the 1700s pitted Christian against Christian, in other words people believing in the God, Christ, and creationism, still fought and killed one another. It wasn't atheism bringing them to blows but simply some other matter. (America's revolutionaries rejected any system of divine kingship such as Great Britain practiced, and instead opted for "all men being created equal," and governments "of the people and by the people").

America's Civil War in the 1800s only happened after a tremendous increase in church attendance, after Sunday Schools were invented and tracts were being handed out en masse for the first time, and that war against pitted Christians against Christians. Ten years prior to the Civil War, three nationwide Christian denominations split in two over the issue of whether or not ministers ought to own slaves, and even the northern ministers didn't disagree that the laity could own slaves. Thus was formed the Southern Baptist, Southern Methodist, and Southern Presbyterian denominations, whose members also cried out loudly for political secession of the Southern states from the Northern states ten years later, which led to the Civil War, a war in which more American soldiers died than in all wars afterwards, including both World Wars, right up to the Gulf War. Read "The Civil War as a Theological Crisis" by a Wheaton Professor, who also admitted in an interview that he broke down and cried while researchging his book after he realized the kinds of intractible theological differences that existed between Christians that helped lead up to the Civil War, that deepened resentments and devilish enthusiasms and that helped sustain the war longer than it ought to have continued.

WW1 also pitted Christians against Christians and was a source of great disillusionment throughout Europe. (More soldiers died of influenza during that war than from guns, shells and poison gas.)

All that being said, I'm not forgiving communism by any means. But the story there is also more complicated than most people realize. Communism appealled to poor downtrodden peoples such as the Russian people who were extremely poor and taken advantage of horribly by both state and church which were both merged tightly in pre-communist Russia.

The communist revolution itself took place during a time of upheavel in Europe, during the last year of Europe's own World War 1. So the Russian people fell for promises of a "worker's paradise," and fell for the truth of Marx's all-knowing "dialectical materialism" and divisions of history, which involved unquestionable inevitabilities, or so Marx believed.

After WW1 Germany sunk into a great depression and grasped at judgmental politicians and judgmental religious views, promising unquestionable answers, putting the Nazis in power, who reacted extra strongly against the rise of "Jewish Bolshevism" in nearby Russia. So the mutual fears and hatreds between Germany and Russia helped sparked an escalating growth of fanatical denunciations in both nations.

Germany by the way was one of the most Christian nations in Europe when a dictator took power there. And most Protestants were taken with Hitler, even Christians and politicians in Europe and the U.S. praised Hitler's early trimphs in getting Germany's economy back up (before even the U.S. was able to do so), getting Germany's enthusiasm and pride back, and for clearing Germany's streets of criminals (unfortunately whomever Hitler imagined to be a criminal was next on his list, Jews, gays, gypsies, political dissidents).

The fact remains, Germans were not irreligious. They had Christian beliefs. But nations can go overboard after they suffer a great depression and start admiring firmly responding judgmental leaders and ideologies.

(Neither is a Christian nation immune to diseases run amock as the medieval Black death proved. As the countless cases of dysentery proved during America's Civil War, which killed more soldiers than bullets did.)

Now a quotation from Aldoux Huxley's book, "Ends and Means":

The desire to justify a particular form of political organization and, in some cases, of a personal will to power has played an equally large part in the formulation of philosophies postulating the existence of meaning in the world. Christian philosophers have found no difficulty in justifying imperialism, war, the capitalistic system, the use of torture, the censorship of the press, and ecclesiastical tyrannies of every sort from the tyranny of Rome to the tyrannies of [Calvin's] Geneva and [Puritan] New England. In all cases they have shown that the meaning of the world was such as to be compatibel with, or actually most completely expressed by, the iniquities I have mentioned above -- iniquities which happened, of course, to serve the personal or sectarian interests of the philosophiers concerned. In due course, these arose philosophers who denied not only the right of Christian special pleaders to justify iniquity by an appeal to the meaning of the world, but even their right to find any such meaning whatsoever. In the circumstances, the fact was not surprising. One unscrupulous distortion of the truth tends to beget other and opposite distortions. Passions may be satisfied in the process; but the disinterested love of knowledge suffers eclipse. [p. 314-316]
0 said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
0 said…
Since when is loving a deity that you can't properly prove exists moral?
Unknown said…
How does having faith in Bronze Age Mythology make you moral? Having faith in something you have absolutely no evidence exists is not moral. That is like me saying believing in aliens is a moral act. Your reasoning (if you can call it that) is silly.
BK said…

With all due respect, you are assuming so much in your comment as to verge on the silliness that you decry. It isn't "Bronze Age Mythology" -- it isn't myth at all (at least, not in the sense that you seem to mean). I do have evidence that God exists -- you simply reject it. Believing in aliens obviously would not have the same moral implication as believing in a being who is the source of all righteousness, goodness, mercy and justice.
David Young said…
I raised the Hitchens challenge question a week ago and got four answers to four different questions. You have chosen one of the four, namely 'Name something which would be considered a virtue by a believer but not by an unbeliever'. To rise to the challenge, you need to answer the original question instead.

Here is another way of putting it:
Describe an act which a non-believer would call moral/virtuous but would not perform, while a believer would perform it.

Don't all rush at once.

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