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.