11.11.2009

A Christian and An Atheist on the Subject of Religion and Morals


An atheist co-worker of mine and I have been bantering back and forth on a book he let me borrow this week called, "Is Christianity Good for the World?" It is a summary of a tour of debates between atheist Christopher Hitchens and Pastor Douglas Wilson. I must confess I don't read a whole of atheist writings or Christian apologetics, so I haven't much anchor from which to critique this particular book. But I have four reactions to what I read:

1. First, I was a little disappointed that Hitchens seemed less interested in providing the perspective of a pure a-theist (i.e. one who doesn't believe in God) and rather came across as an anti-religionist (i.e. people with religion end up using religion to believe, say, and do bad things). I don't discount that one's critique of a God should necessarily include the beliefs and lifestyles of various people who claim to believe in Him; indeed, that is central to answering the question posed by the book's title. But Wilson presses Hitchens to justify a source and legitimacy of his morality, and Hitchens spends too much time on offense (pointing out hypocrisies in different religions) and not enough time on defense (laying out how moral standards can logically emerge from a worldview that does not include any deity in it). ***

2. Second, I was a little disappointed that Wilson fell back on what I consider to be trite arguments about why God exists. When he wondered aloud how anyone could doubt God's existence, on account of natural wonders or the intricacies of the human body, I personally don't see those as useful proofs to the non-Christian of the God of Christianity (although, obviously, we who are Christians believe that God made the world and humans, and marvel at Him for it) but rather to some sort of Supreme Being above us, which people may or may not interpret to be the God of the Bible. To me, this line of thinking is very Western in nature: here is evidence about divinity, divinity must equal the God of Christianity, therefore here is evidence about the God of Christianity. The faithful Jews of the Old Testament and the earliest believers in the New Testament would not necessarily have made these casual causalities; rather, they understood that while they believed their God to be THE God (of Creation, of history, and of judgment), they understood that theirs was a particular narrative and themselves a particular and peculiar people.

3. Third, I enjoyed the back and forth on the subject of morality, although I wondered if there wasn't other ground to cover under the umbrella of the overall topic of whether Christianity is good for the world. Hitchens seems to define morality as the sum of human activity, ever evolving over time; and the introduction of a deity only soils that progress, given how much evidence we have of religious people advancing dubious ethics. Wilson presses Hitchens on how a moral code could be without an ultimate source, and how one can possibly use words like "good" and "evil" when ethics can be claimed to advance over time. Again, for me the Christian narrative is that of a God who has written His law onto the hearts of man, and who then holds man accountable for his life response. This seems a far easier approach to understanding human behavior than to build a position based on the non-existence of any sort of deity; and nothing Hitchens argued convinced me otherwise.

4. Fourth, the book was too short (although, at 67 pages, it made me feel good, as I was finally able to finish something in a reasonable time period). I wished for more coverage on the question at hand. Even for someone like me who is a Bible-believing Christian, it is not so easy of a question. Even at our best, when we are doing good deeds and defending the marginalized and seeking justice, we are not always doing "good," at least as defined by the world. The Christian mission calls us to join in God's movement all over the world to draw people to Himself, and in many cultures, proselytization and conversion are illegal and even punishable by death. Saying no to the world's ways and yes to following Jesus can divide families, cause parents to lament their children's ways, and leave even the most anchored believer feeling very much isolated and ostracized. I interpret Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 15, about how we are of all men most to be pitied if there is no resurrection, to mean that on this side of glory, the fact that we live out the consequences of the Christian narrative means that we endure a lifestyle that we would not necessarily choose if we did not believe that it would lead to exultation on the other side of glory. In summary, I finished the book wanting to hear more about what Hitchens and Wilson both might say about whether Christianity, if lived out according to the Book, is actually good for the world.

Anyway, the book, and my conversations with my co-worker, have been stimulating to say the least. I emerge with respect for the position of an atheist; although I am saddened because it is missing life's most important element, if people want to believe in no god and live out those consequences, they are free to. And I emerge with a deeper sense of what it is I believe, and what that should necessarily then mean as it pertains to how I live that out. Ultimately, I do believe that Christianity is good for the world, and, with God's help, I hope to see and be more of that in my lifetime.

*** To be fair, I suppose I was guilty of presuming a certain line of thinking from Hitchens, and, not reading, was thrown off and was too inflexible to adjust to what he was actually trying to say. My preconceived notion of what is the most defensible argument of the atheist is that life is nothing more than evolution: the fact that we have survived and evolved to the present means we have necessarily embedded in us a sense of protection and propagation of the species. This presents a reasonable alternative explanation for an innate moral code, other than a religious person's explanation, which is "my God made us, and infused us with that sense of right and wrong." Hitchens doesn't go that route, but instead critiques religion for enabling behavior that is clearly out of bounds, based on what he considers to be moral; but then he somewhat weakly defines "moral" as "whatever we have agreed on and evolved to over time." I am unconvinced that this is a defensible position, but I probably glossed over it too much since I was expecting something else from Hitchens.


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