Tag Archives: Christopher Hitchens

the Light of the World?

Christians since the Patristics have claimed that the moral superiority of Christians demonstrates the truth of Christianity. This idea partly stems from the teachings of Jesus that his followers were the salt of the earth and the light of the world. He says “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5.16).

I do not aim to correct Jesus or refute this teaching. It is possible that the behavior of some people who claim to be Christians convinces some non-Christians to worship the Christian God. Instead, I aim to examine how Christians’ beliefs and practices often undermine their morality. I argue that Christians do not demonstrate the ethics of Jesus better than other people overall, and thus Christians cannot claim their supposed moral superiority proves the truth of Christianity.

This post will be the first of perhaps a few on the subject. In this post, I consider how belief in original sin and the practice of prayer can allow Christians to shirk moral responsibility.

In god is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens relates a story in which a Catholic priest in a religious debate asks his atheist opponent “If you don’t believe in God, why do you not practice illicit sex? If there is no objective moral code, you have no reason to behave morally!” (paraphrase). Hitchens notes at least two problems with this: One is, in spite of denying an objective moral law, many atheists in fact do behave morally, and more so than many Christians. The second is that this priest is suggesting that he himself would become a lecher if he stopped being a Christian. He in effect says “(Because of original sin) The only thing keeping me from living licentiously is my moral code”. Many Christians share this belief: I did, anyway.

Belief in original sin seems to hurt the moral overtures of many Christians. In my experience as a Christian I would frequently find myself doing something naughty or outright wrong and then repeat to myself the words of John Newton: “What a sinner I am! But what a Savior my God is!” (paraphrase). Humility concerning moral capacity is a strength. But accompanying that humility was an excuse, this more hidden thought: “O, well. I can’t expect too much from myself — I’m only a sinner tainted by original sin”. And this subconsciously becomes “If I have done this once, I can’t blame myself for letting it happen again”. What happens is that I, and probably other Christians, start using original sin as a not-so-original excuse for being morally lax. If I am fundamentally prone to evil, I should expect evil.

The end result of this logic is that many people who deny original sin probably behave better than those who affirm it; original sin becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because deniers of original sin do not provide themselves that metaphysical excuse, they often strive to be better than Christians who make allowance for evil rooted in their lives.

Prayer also can show Christians shirking moral responsibility. James warns that if you see a fellow Christian in need and wish her well without providing what she needs then your faith is dead, but Christians still offer prayer first and service later, if at all (James 2.15-17). Instead of doing something of material benefit for a person or friend in need, we promise to request some material (or immaterial) benefit for that person (a promise probably more often forgotten than acted on). Prayer may actually be effective. Sometimes, probably rarely, it may be all we can offer. But Christians tend to use prayer as a psychological crutch — “I can pray that God would help this person”. As with the thoughts under-girding original sin this mutates into “I can help this person more by praying for them than materially assisting them” and eventually “I will pray for people instead of materially help them”. If faith does not have works, James asserts, it is dead (James 2. 17): Millennia later, dead faith lives on.

People who do not believe in prayer have no one to rely on when they or others need help but themselves. Some might casually wish others well. But many take ownership of their duty in the situation. I think this morally distinguishes many non-Christians over Christians.

Suggestions: I would recommend we choose to believe people both inherit some tendency towards evil but also — and mainly — are socialized into evil habits. I think believing you are morally flawed is helpful but you should believe that the wrong you do regularly or rarely is because of habits you have been taught or adopted. Observing our world, there is a strong case for this argument for nurture over-and-against nature as the reason for widespread wrongdoing. I would say people should believe like Augustine (emphasizing original sin and the need for grace) but live like Pelagius (emphasizing the power we do have/have been given to live morally).

I would encourage something similar when it comes to helping others. Hudson Taylor, missionary to China, was said to urge Christians to pray as if everything depended on God and work as if everything depended on them. I think this would be better than avoiding physically helping others by merely leaving matters to God.

Questions: A) Am I right that Christians are no more moral than other groups? B) Do Christian compassion efforts — e.g. following Katrina and other catastrophes, for the unborn, for the poor — complicate my claim and distinguish Christians over-and-against other groups; how? C) Are there any groups which distinguish themselves morally? How? Does this say something about the truth of that group’s metaphysical claims; if so, what?

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Intellectual Arrogance

Another problem I have been musing about is people’s intellectual arrogance.

Both Christians and atheists, and even I as an agnostic, feel they hold some special knowledge over other groups. For example, Christopher Hitchens writes in ch. 5 of god is Not Great “Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody had the smallest idea what was going on”. While many would sympathize with him and this notion, the arrogance seems painfully obvious to me. He is claiming that, as opposed to before, we actually understand our world now: the age of reason with its empiricism and naturalism has ushered in that long awaited special gnosis (knowledge) to reveal truth and falsehood. I don’t think empiricism is fundamentally flawed, but have not advances in physics revolutionized our understanding of things even in the past 100 years? And more than once, if I am right — relativity, than quark and string theories? I know so little of physics, but I know enough to appreciate that there will always be new evidence, new ways of interpreting and understanding what we observe. To think we “get it” now, or at any age in any culture, is hubris.

One need not look far for the same sentiments, about having that special knowledge, among Christians. That Christians “get it”, have the truth about reality, is a basic presupposition on which all the my faith communities of my life have operated. Were it not so, where would the compulsion to evangelize come from?

Why is this intellectual arrogance problematic? It keeps us from listening to one another. This happens to me frequently, in many topics. I think I really know what I’m talking about and thus don’t care to really listen to what the other person has to say. This belief ends up hurting me and my conversation partner because instead of speaking to them I end up speaking past them. I imagine we all have experienced or done this, certainly with strangers (emphasis on strange, right?) but even with friends and family members. Instead of being open to and receiving new insights, we preclude even their existence.

There are other problems with intellectual arrogance. I would love to hear what you think they are. In closing I would add an exhortation given by my undergrad philosophy teacher: that we strive for intellectual humility. He thought that Jesus himself possessed and demonstrated this virtue. I think whether I am religious or not I would benefit from it.

Questions: A) Do our basic beliefs (truth comes from revelation/truth comes from empirical measurements/truth might come from both) necessarily make dialogue futile? B) If not, how do people making truth claims (there is a/no god) also truly hear and engage observations, interpretations and arguments from another group, without prejudice? C) Discussing faith, how far can one concede arguments to an opponent and still maintain her basic positions?