I am continuing in my extended review of Christopher Hitchens book “God Is Not Great,” and the question of whether religion makes people behave. There is of course, as Hitchens points out a long list of Christians, to use Hitchens term, misbehaving. But as I said last time, there are deeper issues here, which while fairly complicated can be summarized by into two areas. The first is just who is a Christian. The second, is when a Christian misbehaves, are they doing it because of or in spite of their religion.
Concerning the first question, what does it mean to be a Christian. From a theological point of view this is actually pretty easy, a Christian is anyone who has entered into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. While easy theologically, is not very helpful here. Only God really knows the heart. We might have pretty good guesses about some people in history as to whether or not they were actually in a saving relationship with Jesus, but we cannot know.
While less theologically accurate a better definition for this question would be someone whose behavior was influenced by the teaching of Christ. While this initially sounds better, there are still many problems.
For example what level of influence is enough to be considered a Christian. If someone once heard of Jesus’ teaching in Luke 6:31 “Do to others as you would have them do to you” and that sounded good to them so they decided it would govern how they lived their lives, would be enough to count as Christian?
On the other hand what about someone who attends church regularly, but more out of convention or tradition then out of any deeply held belief, and the teaching of Christ have little if any actual impact on how they live their life?
Or what about someone who never attends Church and simply happens to have grown up in a Christian country and is influenced only to the extent that Christian teaching are pervasive in society? Would a gang member who never attends church, but who wears a cross be considered a Christian?
Even within the church, is a person who seeks and gets church office, not out of any real religious belief, but out of a desire for power, prestige, money, etc, a Christian? This is an important question because this would describe much of the church hierarchy during the Middle Ages, and the corruption in the church they brought about led to the reformation.
To see the effect these questions have, lets consider one standard criticism of Christianity, all the atrocities committed by the Christians explorers of the New World. Of these explores, who were the Christians? Where they the ones who committed the atrocities frequently out of lust or greed, or were the priests, who wrote home complaining about how the native peoples were being abused and exploited, asking for the king or church or both, to end it. In fact the latter is one of the reasons these atrocities were so well documented. Was it those seeking to exploit the native peoples, or those who resisted this exploitation, and who sometimes gave their lives trying to protect them?
But none of this seems to matter very much to Hitchens. They can be considered religious, they misbehaved, and the enough for his argument. In fact in his haste to condemn religion and cast dispersions, he at time drifts into error and confusion, if not counter argument.
For example, in writing about Islam and slavery, he references the comments of the ambassador of Tripoli to Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, referring to the latter two as “two slaveholders.” Now it was true that Jefferson did own slaves, but Adams, being from Massachusetts didn’t. Even more confusing, Hitchens said earlier that Jefferson was a deist, which he labels the compromise position before Darwin and Einstein (pg 66) and elsewhere has argued that he may have been an atheist. So just what was the point of calling these two men “slaveholders.” Was it just a gratuitous slander? Was it an attempt to show the hypocrisy of the Founding Fathers, or that American Christianity was no better than Islam? This is one of the problem with Hitchens. While it is clear he is attacking and smearing, often it is not always clear how those attacks and smears actually relate to his overall argument, at least in any rational way.
What makes it even more mystifying, is after nearly twelve pages of these examples, he finally comes to his argument, which he starts by saying that “The first thing to be said is that virtuous behavior by a believer is no proof at all of … the truth of his belief.” (p. 184-5) This is all well and good and Hitchens is quite correct here. What is mystifying is his following point where he claims, “By the same token, I do not say this if I catch a Buddhist priest stealing all the offerings left by the simple folk at his temple, Buddhism is thereby discredited.” (p. 185) Oh, really?
The vast majority of his book, is how religious people have acted badly and how this discredits religion. Remove that component from his book, or the other Neo-Atheist books for that matter, and you are left with very little. We will look at the rest of his argument next time.