Sunday, January 25, 2009

Is Christianity Good for the World?

Is Christianity Good for the World? is a written debate between Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson. My friend Derek bought it for me for Christmas. Needless to say, Hitchens was con and Wilson pro.

I looked forward to reading it because it's a different question from the traditional theist vs atheist debate of whether or not we have sufficient evidence for the existence of a god. It's quite possible for the Christian god not to exist, yet for Christian belief to be healthy for individuals or society. I don't happen to believe that's the case, but it is an interesting (and in some ways measurable) question.

Alas, I found the debate sorely lacking. To my surprise, I was most disappointed in Hitchens.

First off, the debate was not framed impartially. I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised as it was originally published in Christianity Today. The introduction was written by a Jewish theologian who obviously favored the pro perspective. Take this section:
The yearning for a religious order is innate to mankind-even if some individual spiritual albinos find themselves missing the gene. Should Christopher succeed in burning Christianity to the ground, he will not be able to stop humanity from building a new temple in its place.
Accepting these assertions renders the argument moot, which surely qualifies it as a poor preface to the debate. If religion is innate to mankind and its institutions inevitable either (a) the pro argument wins or (b) the con argument wins but, who cares, since we can't end theism as long as there are humans?

And Hitchens is a "spiritual albino" who wants to burn Christianity to the ground? So, the only reason to argue the con side is to be flawed or militant? Nice.

On to the debate itself ...

Wilson begins with the classic creationist misperception that confuses cause with effect.
God knew that we were going to need to pick up dimes, and so He gave us fingernails. He knew that twilights displayed in blue, apricot, and battle gray would be entirely astonishing and beyond us, and so He gave us eyes that can see in color.
He continues with another half dozen or so examples where human evolution has adapted to our environment, and credits god for adapting the environment to us.

Wilson goes on to explain that atheists believe as they do because they "can not handle the Godness of God" and "do not want to thank Him". Um ... if there isn't a God, there's no Godness to handle, and nobody to thank.

Most of the debate centered on 2 topics: Christianity is responsible for bad stuff, and where do we get morality without religion? They do an awful job of sticking to the topic. They're mostly arguing pro and con on theism, not Christianity.

Christianity has been responsible for many moral atrocities.

Hitchens asserts that Christianity can not take credit for its followers' moral behavior without also accepting blame for their atrocities (e.g., the crusades, slavery, anti-semitism).

Wilson's first response is that this is like saying a professor can't accept credit for succesful students without also accepting blame for "the dope-smoking slacker that he kicked out of class in the second week". This argument is so flawed I almost don't know where to begin, and I'm disappointed that Hitchens didn't take it on.

Is the professor also in charge of the university's entrance requirements? If 90% of the class is smoking pot can we still not blame the professor? What if the professor himself is smoking pot? Do professorless classes behave worse?

This thread goes almost nowhere, as Hitchens says "look at the bad stuff Christians did" and Wilson says "those were just the bad Christians".

What is the basis of morality?

This is initially posed by Wilson as "what is truth", but the remainder of the debate focuses almost entirely on moral truth.

asserts that the moral precepts on which Christianity prides itself, such as "love thy neighbor" and the Golden Rule, did not originate with Christianity. And further that many Christian teachings are immoral, such as vicarious redemption (i.e., our sins are absolved by Jesus' actions, not ours).

Wilson does not deny either of these assertions, but simply questions what is the basis for morality without a god. This is a bit disingenuous since the debate is specifically about Christianity - he's just arguing for theism at this point - but we'll let that go. He concedes that non-religious people behave morally (a classic circular argument of theism, giving god credit for the moral behavior of non-believers). If there is no god, he asks, why should we consider theft, murder, genocides, etc. reprehensible things, instead of simply "stuff happens".

barely responds to this at all, which I think is the fatal flaw in his debate, for this surely is the crucial concept: do we need to believe in the supernatural to be moral? I think the answer is clearly "no", but it is the point that most needs arguing to the Christian world, and Hitchens barely makes it.

About all he does provide is "innate human solidarity"; i.e., basic morality is self-evident, and we should rely on our instincts. Lame. "It's self evident" is as weak and baseless as "it's in the bible".

He does demonstrate that Christian morality is every bit as relative as that of an atheist. He again lists many things that were considered moral by all or many Christians in various societies or points in history (e.g., genocide, slavery) that almost nobody, Christian or otherwise, would find moral today.

In the end, Hitchens pretty well demonstrates that Christianity might not be altogether bad for the world, but we get by just fine without it. Non-christians, he argues, aren't necessarily more moral than Christians, but they're just as good with less baggage. But he never provides a secular basis for morality, which is sad since many good arguments exist.

They mostly agree on what right and wrong is, but Wilson gives all credit and blame to god and those that choose not to follow him, while Hitchens gives credit to human mind and societies. Despite my admittedly biased view on the topic, I have to consider the debate a draw.


Derek James said...

First off, are these typos?

It's quite possible for the Christian god to exist, yet for Christian belief to be healthy for individuals or society.

Do we need to believe in the supernatural to be moral? I think the answer is clearly "yes", but it is the point that most needs arguing to the Christian world, and Hitchens barely makes it.

You mean the opposite in both cases, right?

Anyway, sounds disappointing. I have been frustrated with Hitchens in debates for not addressing glaringly and easily-refuted points and wandering off into whatever subject seemed to please him at that time.

As far as the question goes, I think the answer is that on the whole Christianity and religion in general are a net force for good, but that a well-thought-out scientific, secular belief system on the whole would be superior. But you're right, that case needs to be made, especially when it comes to morality.

Philip said...

Argh! Yes, both were typos, both fixed now. Thanks. Good thing nobody else reads this blog.

mark said...

I'll give you the crusades and the inquisition. but slavery. I don't see how you blame slavery on christians. Slavery existed before christians and christians did a lot during the Civil war to end slavery. many of our founding fathers argued against slavery on the grounds of christian theology. In fact, freedom is a fundamental theme in christian literature.

Philip said...

Christianity certainly has a mixed history on slavery, and I don't think Hitchens aver blamed slaver on Christianity. The bible has been used both to support and defend it. But, to me at least, that's damning enough. If Christianity really is the perfect moral compass, how could we ever have period in our history where most Christians supported something what today is so obviously morally reprehensible. Why couldn't Jesus have just come out and said "look guys, there are a lot of grey areas in the world, but slavery is just flat out wrong"?

mark said...

At the height of Slavery in the United states we had an estimated 42,000 slaves in America.

Today UNICEF estimates that there are 200,000 African children sold into slavery every year.

Philip said...

I'm not sure what that has to do with whether Christianity is good for the world, but it's certainly an interesting stat. I don't know how many modern slave traders are Christians, but somewhere between 40 and 50% of Africa is (

mark said...

hmmm.. Lets look at the big rules. Love God and treat other people as you would like to be treated.

So I would say that would eliminate all the slavery that we saw in the US. But today, which one would you want:

1. slowly starve to death in a hovel.
2. be given to some people that would feed you so that you would do work for them.

Slavery is an economic condition that can be an improvement over what you have.

If you are a father and you are watching your 3 children starve and you get a 4th child. You can watch them starve faster. Or you can sell one to feed the others and have hope that the one sold would be fed and get a chance to keep living. Certain death or slavery. I would hope the choice is clear.

Slavery was in certain economic conditions a better choice than other possible choices.

I think telling people to treat others as you would want to be treated is a better rule than no slavery ever.

Philip said...

> Love God and treat other people as you would like to be treated.

The first is vague and I don't see how it bears on slavery. The second is a strong argument against slavery, but it's not specific to Christianity, or even theism.

> Slavery was in certain economic conditions a better choice than other possible choices.

In desperate situations, yes, it can be the lesser of two evils for the slave. But most would argue it is never a moral choice for slave owners or traders. Was Jesus only addressing the poor?