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Elgin’s Books


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  • Archive for December, 2008

    Hitchens – God Is Not Great XXVI

    Friday, December 19th, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

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    In Chapter fifteen of his book “God Is Not Great,” Christopher Hitchens tries to make the case that “Religion is not just amoral, but positively immoral.”(pg 205)  Last time I examined his claims for the first three of his points  and ended by pointing out that, while I can see why Hitchens might see the atonement of Christ as a myth, he does not say why it is immoral?  Strangely, he does somewhat  address this point, not in the section on the atonement, but in the beginning of the next section which he labels as dealing with his final two points,  eternal reward and the imposition of impossible tasks.

    Pointing to the example of Sidney Carton in “A Tale of Two Cities,”  Hitchens says that while he could  “serve your term in prison or take your place on the scaffold… I cannot absolve you of your responsibilities. It would be immoral of me to offer, and immoral of your to accept.” (pg 211) 

    Two issues immediately came to mind upon reading this.  The first was the ever present question of  the basis on which Hitchens would say this was immoral?  However, there is a deeper problem for when it comes to the major views of the Atonement, none are focused on the absolution of responsibility and several are focused on the payment of the price for sin, something Hitchens seems to be ok with.   So, just exactly what Hitchens means  by this, is at best unclear.

    From there Hitchens moves on to address religious laws that are impossible to obey. There are a couple of problems with Hitchens complaint, not the least of which is Jesus’ statement to the Pharisees and how they “abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition”  (Mark 7:8 ISV) which would seem to fit many of Hitchens examples. 

    But even beyond this there are problems.  Several of Hitchens examples deal with how some religious groups make allowances for prostitution, such as the practice among some Muslim clerics to sanction short term marriages that will last just a couple of hours.  Does Hitchens really believe that it is impossible for men to avoid availing themselves of the services of prostitutes?  If not, then why is this included in his discussion of  commandments that are impossible to follow?

    At first Hitchens seem to be on somewhat better ground when he complains about the 10th commandment which he describes as forbidding  “people to even think about coveting goods in the first places” (emphasis in original).   But comparing Hitchens claim to that actual command quickly reveals problems.  The commandment is not about coveting goods, but coveting that which belongs to someone else. Again is this so impossible?

    Part of the problem here is Hitchens is never very clear by what he means by impossible to follow.  Impossible to follow for everyone, in the sense that while not everyone will use the services of a prostitute, some cannot seem to resist the temptation. Or by  impossible does he mean  impossible for individuals to follow all the time?  Then there is the problem that even if this was clearly defined and it was impossible,  it would not automatically follow that the rule is itself immoral. For example, everyone has at some pointed has lied, and therefore one of the most obvious candidates for Hitchens’ category of rules that are impossible to keep would be the rule against lying.  Yet few would want argue that it is immoral to have a rule against lying.

    Now while Hitchens does not make the case very well, there is the issue that given our sinful nature, as the Bible clearly states in Romans, 3:23 “all have sinned and continue to fall short of God’s Glory.” (ISV) But the problem here is not in the laws, but in our in our sinful nature.   Hitchens see this as itself a problem claiming “nothing could be sillier than having a ‘maker’ who then forbade the very same instinct he instilled,” (pg 214) though  this argument somewhat ignores the fall.

    Hitchens ends with a somewhat muddles discussion of the golden rule, and how we act out of self -interest. In all this confusion,  distortion and rambling, Hitchens never quite gets around to addressing the immorality of eternal reward and punishment.  But then that is part of the problem.  Hitchens is not presenting a well thought out and reasoned argument.  He just makes bold claims and then used them as an excuse to launch attacks on religion, or at least what he describes as religion as most of the time he is really only attacking a distorted strawman of his own creation, and thereby frequently leaving the reader puzzled as to what his actual argument is really trying to say, other than that Hitchens does not like religion.

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

    Hitchens – God Is Not Great XXV

    Friday, December 12th, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

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    In my extended review of Christopher Hitchens’ book “God Is Not Great,” I have reached chapter fourteen, “There Is No ‘Eastern’ Solution.”    That Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism and all other eastern religions get but a single chapter, and relatively small chapter at that, demonstrates that Hitchens main concern is with the three monotheistic faiths.   I am confident that the adherents of eastern religions will find much to object to in Hitchens brief critique, but I will leave it to them to defend their own faiths and will move on Chapter fifteen, “Religion as an Original Sin,” where Hitchens’ tries to make the case that “Religion is not just amoral, but positively immoral.”  (pg 205)

    Based on some of the criticisms addressed last time, this immediately raises the question of what foundation is Hitchens using as a basis for his moral claims, and why should his foundation be accepted? But these are questions that atheists rarely answer.

     I will come back to the question of foundations in a moment, but first Hitchens list five points he finds immoral.

    • Presenting a false picture of the world to the innocent and the credulous
    • The doctrine of blood sacrifice
    • The doctrine of atonement
    • The doctrine of eternal reward and/or punishment
    • The imposition of impossible tasks and rules (pg 205)

    Hitchens does not spend much time on the first point as he has addressed it earlier. But his claim that this is not just wrong but immoral deserves a reply and it immediately brings us back to the question of moral principles.  I can understand why Hitchens would think that the Christian view of creation might be incorrect, but why it is it immoral? 

    It cannot be simply in the fact that he thinks it in error.  This is because many of the things that have been taught under the heading of science have also turned out to be incorrect, and no doubt some of the things currently taught will likewise be shown to be in error as new discoveries are made. So if it were simply a question of teaching things that turned out to be incorrect all human inquiry would need to be considered immoral as all human inquiry is error prone.

    For most, morality is not so much in the acts themselves, but in the choices behind those acts. The act of being correct or incorrect is an issue of fact, not morality.  For morality to enter in, one must choose to be correct (i.e. honest) or incorrect (i.e. dishonest).  But once again there is a problem for Hitchens as those who teach that God created the heavens and the earth do so because they believe it. So again they may be wrong, but why is this immoral?  As with so many of the moral claims made by atheists, in the end, about the best you can say is that it is immoral because they said it was immoral.

    When Hitchens moves on to blood sacrifice, things are not much clearer. The core of this section is spent on Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, and not really on blood sacrifice itself. The last half of the section is on religious violence, which while tragic and evil, does not really say anything about blood sacrifice.

    From there Hitchens moves on to Atonement, and again his initial argument is at best confused and muddle, at least from the Christian view of atonement.  For example, Hitchens will have no trouble finding Christians to stand with him to condemn the Aztec practices of human sacrifice. 

    At least Hitchens does spend the center of this section on Christ’s death as atonement for our sins.  The core of his objection seems to center around questioning how he could in anyway be responsible for the death of Christ, or for Adam’s transgression as he “had no say and no part.”  However, few Christians would agree that his rhetorical questions reflect an accurate depiction Christian teaching. Instead of dealing with the complexities of the issue Hitchens simply gives a distorted stereotype which he then mockingly knocks down.  

    He spends the last quarter of the section on anti-Semitism.  Here at least Hitchens is dealing with real immorality for which the Church is at least to some extent responsible. However, there is a strange irony in his argument.  Hitchens correctly argues that even if the Jews at the time of Jesus’ death where as a group uniquely responsible, (which by the way I believe would be an incorrect understanding of New Testament), it would be wrong to hold future generations liable as well.  And yet he uses the crimes, and they were crimes, of some Christians in earlier generations, as a reason to attack the beliefs of those who had not part, no say and would and do condemn those crimes.

    In any event, the corporate guilt of the kind that fueled anti-Semitism, is something quite different than atonement or even original sin. In the end once again I am left with the question that, while I can see why Hitchens might see the atonement of Christ as a myth, why is it immoral?  

    Hitchens does touch on this, in the his final section of the chapter where he addresses his last two points, and that is will I will pick up next time.

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

    Hitchens – God Is Not Great XXIV

    Friday, December 5th, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

    Listen to the MP3

    I am continuing in my extended review of Christopher Hitchens book “God Is Not Great,” and the question of whether religion makes people behave.   The core of his argument seems to be that religious people do at time behave very badly, while some noted atheists have behave quite nicely.  Therefore religion is not needed to behave.  

    One of the problems here is of sampling.  As the historian Jacques Barzum pointed out, any review of history will show that the acts we like to label as inhuman in their cruelty, are far too common to warrant that label, and in fact are all too human.  Yet, when they are done by the religious, they seem to stand out and thus get more notice, whereas the good that the religious do is often taken for granted, for it is just expected.  But this very expectation argues against Hitchens.

    A key misconception here is that religion does not make bad people good, it can however help and encourage people to be better.  Often the atheist attempt counter this by claiming that such argument mean that atheists must be immoral, and since not all are, such arguments must be false. While there is some  of truth in this argument, it somewhat misses the point. As I wrote in my book, Christianity and Secularism, “a person can be an atheist and still be a very moral person, and a person who does a tremendous amount of good.” (pg 179)

    Ultimately it amounts to a question of foundations.  Where do morals come from. For Christians, morality is grounded in God. Whether one agrees with the Christian view of morality or not, at least for the Christian there is a foundation for their moral views. Atheists are critical of this foundation because they reject the existence of God. But what alternative do they offer?  What is their foundation?  They have none, or at least no consistent foundation.

    Unlike the Christian the atheist is pretty much free to pick and choose whatever view of morality they like.   Again, since atheists often distort this point, let me be very clear, they are free to choose a view of morality that might be considered by most to be good, or one that most would consider bad, or even evil.   Many western atheists have in fact adopted a large part of the ethics of Western Civilization which is deeply infused with Judeo-Christian values. 

    But as Western Civilization moves way from Christianity, and the moral foundation that it provides, as one would expect, the moral standards have weakened.   Atheists and some others would say that this weakening of the Christian view of morality is a good thing, but even if the atheist is correct, it is still a weakening.

    One of the double standards that currently exists is that atheists  feel complete free to question Christian views of morality, and since they are grounded in a belief in God, to reject them as false because they are grounded in error.  But they are never asked to justify their beliefs, or the foundations for them. 

    For example, the current hotly contested moral question is over the definition of marriage. The traditional view of marriage being between one man and one woman, is rejected as an imposition of religion, even thought it has been the virtually the unanimous view of all of human society until the last decade or so. Even cultures like ancient Greece that encouraged homosexuality, still saw marriage as  between an man and a woman.

    In addition traditional marriage is based on a fact, though one that is often denied by the educated elites, that men and women are different.  From this fact flows the idea the best way to raise children is for them to have both a father and a mother in a committed stable relationship.  This was the reason for the government to get involved in marriage in the first place;  i.e., to promote such stable families for the raising of children.

    But deriving from false idea that there is not real difference between men and women, critics argue that the role of father and mother are completely interchangeable. It really makes no difference, as long as there is love.

    While it is acceptable to attack, ridicule and reject the traditional view, it is somehow illegitimate to question the other side, and it is considered especially unfair to point out their logical problems.   If love is all that matters, when why not three people who love each other? Why not a brother and a sister, or a father and a daughter?  Such question reveal the problem with their position.

    But that is the reason for the double standard, for ultimately there is no foundation, and ultimately everything goes. Weaken the foundation and the structure will crumble.   When abortion was first legalized claims that it would lead to euthanasia were rejected as silly, though now we have euthanasia in various forms.  Many things that were unthinkable just a few years ago, are now coming to be accepted.

    Where will it end?  As society slowly dismantles the Judeo-Christian value system, what foundation will be put in its place?  What core moral principles will be left and what sort of morality will be built on them?  It is very difficult to say.  But if history is any indication, the prospects are not good.

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