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.