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  • Archive for July, 2008

    Hitchens – God Is Not Great VII

    Friday, July 25th, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

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    In my extended review of Christopher Hitchens, “God Is Not Great,” we have finally reached chapter two. This is one of the problems with the Neo-atheists, as there are so many blatant errors and problems in their writings and with their arguments that even just picking out just some of the most obvious ones takes many posts. There were for example many more problems in Chapter one that I easily could have addressed, but I have decided to move one and will attempt to pick up the pace a bit with the hopes of one day finishing.

    Hitchens begins this chapter asking why the belief in “infinitely benign and all-powerful creator” (pg 15) who watches over and cares for us, and who has prepared eternity for those who obey him, does not make believers happy? He goes on to state that, “religion does not, and in the long run cannot, be content with its own marvelous claims and sublime assurances. It must seek to interfere with the lives of nonbelievers, or heretics, or adherents of other faiths.” (pg 17) His prime example for this was Mother Teresa actions against a change in Irish Law to allow divorce.

    To Hitchens and the other neo-atheists, no doubt this is a powerful and devastating indictment of religion. My reaction, on the other hand, is more along the lines of shaking my head and saying, so many errors, so little time.

    Let’s start with Hitchens’ question about happiness. The simple fact is that believers are, as a general rule happier, as many polls have demonstrated. For example, an extensive survey of teenagers and young adults last year found that those who said that religion or spirituality was the most important thing in their lives were a third more likely to be happy than those for whom it was not important. So the premise of Hitchens argument is just false and the question we should be asking is why are so many of those who reject God unhappy? But I suspect the answer to this question would not support Hitchens as well.

    Hitchens’ broader claim about interfering with the lives of nonbelievers is not so clear cut, though his prime example reveals some significant problems with his reasoning. Now it is certainly true, that Christians have at times interfered with the lives of non-believers. But this is not the black and white question implied by Hitchens.

    While Hitchens points to negative examples of such interference to bolster his case, what about the positive examples? What about those Christians who felt compelled to interfere in the slave trade because they believed it to be immoral? What about those Christians today who feel compelled to interfere for the poor, the sick, and the persecuted around the world? Would the world really be a better place if Christians just closed their eyes to such suffering, as not any of their business? Would the world really be a better place if, instead of vigorously fighting to end the slave trade, William Wilberforce had adopted the secular motto of “who am I to judge”?

    Just as Christians tend to be happier than atheists, numerous polls also show that Christians are more charitable as well. For example, the United States is not only more religious than Europe; it is the most charitable country in the world; and not only in total dollars, but in percentage of Gross National Product as well. In fact, the US gave more than twice as much as percentage of GNP than its closest competitor, England, and more than ten times than the far more secular France.

    Even if you factor in Government “contributions,” in addition charitable giving by individuals, the US still gives nearly 50 percent more than England, and over twice as much as France. This difference between secular vs. religious giving continues within the United States as well, as states where religion is strong and important tend to out give the more secular states.

    So while Hitchens bemoans interference, it is often good and to be commended rather than attacked. Even his example of Mother Teresa opposing a change in divorce law is problematic, though not surprising. I have frequently been told by secular opponents that my position on this or that political issue is invalid because it is “religious.” Carried to its logical conclusion such reasoning would make Christians and other people of faith second class citizens, whose very participation in the democratic process was suspect.

    It would seem that for many secularists in democracy people are free to enact the social policies they want, just as long as those social policies cannot in any way be considered religious. Hitchens suggest that the Catholics could continue to follow their church’s teaching on divorce without “imposing them on all other citizens.” In other words, do what you want, but keep your religious noses out of social policy, that is for us secularist to determine based on what we think our reason tells us at any given moment.

    Of course if the secularist were correct, one could just as easily ask why even have a Government policy on divorce or marriage at all. Just let everyone do whatever they want, for as soon as you have any policy at all, someone will not like it. While secularist I have talked to object to such counterarguments, when you look at the social trends and recent court rulings, that seems to be exactly where we are headed.

    This is Elgin Hushbeck, asking you to Consider Christianity: a Faith Based on Fact.

    Hitchens – God Is Not Great VI

    Friday, July 11th, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

    Listen to the MP3 

    This week I return to my extended review of Christopher Hitchens, “God Is Not Great,” Hitchens concludes his first chapter, describing his father’s funeral where he spoke on Philippians 4:8

    Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report: if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

    For Hitchens, this is a “Secular injunction” that shines “out from the wasteland of rant and complaint and nonsense and bullying which surrounds it.” (p 12)

    The last part of Hitchens’ comment can only be seen as at best hyperbole.  In fact, what immediately precede this passage are injunctions to: rejoice, be gracious, don’t worry, pray, and be thankful, though I guess that these were corrupted by the “rant” about prayer. On the other side, what follows this supposedly “secular injunction” is an encouragement to not only think about these things, but to put them into practice.

    Ultimately Hitchens comments make no sense.  The immediate context does not support his description of a “wasteland of rant and complaint and nonsense and bullying,” nor does the broader context of the letter, the New Testament, or even the Bible as a whole.   Such distorted hyperbole may be as red meat to his fellow atheists, to be uncritically swallowed, but it hardly supports his claim that he is representing the rational position.

    His description of this as a secular injunction is likewise problematic.  Why is this injunction secular? Is it because the word God does not appear in the passage? The context is certainly not secular. This injunction comes as at the conclusion of the letter, in the passage Paul is summing up what it means to live as true Christians.

    As a side note, I can’t help but wonder if Christians down through the ages had really taken these words to heart, how different the writings of the neo-atheists would have been, as a great deal of their critiques involve Christians who did not live up to the teachings of Bible.

    Still, there are two main problems with Hitchens claim that this is a secular injunction. The first is that some of these words lose their meaning apart from a context that involves God. Granted terms like true and honest have secular meanings, thought it is worth noting that as society has become increasingly secular both of these terms have  suffered. For example, it now common among those strongly influenced by secularism to believe that truth is relative, and thus is different from person to person. There is no such thing as absolute truth.

    Terms such as lovely and good report are even more problematic.  It would be very difficult to claim that as society has become more secular it has become lovelier, or that it has even exulted the lovely.  A survey of modern art would quickly show the opposite.  In fact noted the historian Jacques Barzum summed up the last 500 years of the cultural life in Western Civilization in the title of his book as From Dawn To Decadence

    Finally, terms such as pure and virtue are inherently moral and thus require a moral context before they have any meaning at all.  For example, pure in the context Paul meant is something vastly different that pure in a racial context. In fact I would argue, based on the teachings of the Bible that pure in a racial context is irrelevant and to advocate it is evil.

    In short the injunction itself is meaningless unless given a context or framework in which these terms can be understood. Christians have a clear framework in which to understand this injunction. Secularism has no such clear framework. Secularists are free to fill in the blanks however they see fit.  Most do this from the culture in which they live, which in Western cultures means one strongly influenced by Judeo-Christian values.

    As such it is very possible that Hitchens and I would have a great deal of agreement as to what this injunction is saying, but where we agreed, it is not because I am adopting a secular framework, but rather because Hitchens views overlap those derived from the Bible.  But even if we assume that these terms had some universal meaning apart from Christianity, that would still not make this a secular injunction, for there is the problem why should it be enjoined.  What is the secular imperative to embody these attributes? There isn’t any.

    Sure a secular rational in favor could be constructed. But a secular rational against could likewise be constructed. This is because secularism itself is neutral. In fact in the context of evolution, the key imperative would be to survive, and so whenever lying or injustice served the aim of survival, then it should be done. In the Christian context, truth and justice are attributes of God. Since we are created in his image, we should likewise embody these attributes. Not just when it serves our personal interest, but at all times.  For as Paul said in the next verse,

    Likewise, keep practicing these things: what you have learned, received, heard, and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you.

    This is Elgin Hushbeck, asking you to Consider Christianity: a Faith Based on Fact