Atheism and Morality

I’ve been watching Christopher Hitchens debate Dinesh D’Souza (the first part is here). There are a number of points on which Hitchens misunderstands the nature of Christian belief. But there is one that really misses the point, which is that Christians supposedly say that atheists have no basis for making moral judgments, and that without a form of religion there will be only chaos. That is not the Christian claim about morality. The question is not whether atheists can live a “moral life” (whatever that might mean to an atheist), but whether there is anything beyond the self or the human on which moral actions can be based. That is a subtle, but highly significant, difference. In other words: atheists can and do act morally in many ways and very often. However, there is no ultimate reason why they should.

They act morally because they haven’t yet been honest enough with themselves to rid themselves of the vestiges of the Creator’s morality, as Nietzsche saw. Hitchens makes his mistake by limiting morality to the past two thousand years, i.e., anno Domini. The problem is, if the Christian conception of reality is true, morality comes not when Christ arrives on earth, but at the beginning of creation itself. If God is behind morality, it would hardly be surprising that people prior to Christ, and even prior to Sinai, acted morally; that is, in accord with the Law of God in creation. It’s built in, as Paul in Romans explicitly says. No Christian ever said that morality began with Christ, but with God at the beginning of creation.

Another problem: Hitchens loves examples of supposed Christians acting contrary to what he considers moral. But where does Hitchens’s morality come from? From the human collective? Talk about arbitrary. And even if morality was decided by human consensus, there is no basis or foundation within atheism to object if an individual within that collective decided to act contrary to the general human consensus. What other basis could there be than a trumped-up emotivism? “Well, I don’t much like it when you do that.” Good for you.

The second problem with arguing on the basis of Christians behaving badly is that Christianity has within it the ability to critique the actions of its members and correct them. There are explicit and particular standards, within the New Testament especially (seeing Christ as the fulfillment of the whole Old Testament), for deciding whether behavior is wrong or right. Regardless of whether Hitchens or anyone else believes that God is behind those standards, they exist. Thus, Christians have it within their religious conception the ability to say, “Yeah, killing people for the sake of land, money, difference of belief or opinion is wrong. We shouldn’t do that, and if any Christian does do those things, he or she is not acting according to Christian belief.” The abuse of something does not negate its use. By what standard do atheists judge the acts of zealous Christians or Muslims? Surprisingly, they sound very nearly like what Christians would say about the same actions. What does such a coincidence prove? It proves, or at the very least suggests, that the standards are inherent to humanity. That is what Hitchens and others say, but such a statement does not mean what they think it means. They think it means that humans came up with things very much like the Second Table of the Ten Commandments (sort of like how those same humans invented God–which begs the question, if the invention of God was a poisonous idea, why is not the invention of morality equally as poisonous?). However, Christians also claim that a general sense of right and wrong is inherent in humans, precisely because their Creator put it there. Hitchens doesn’t get that we’re not arguing this point. He thinks that Christians think that Christ brought a completely new teaching, as if we believed in a NT God and an OT God (fyi, that’s called Marcionism, and it was rejected by Christians a long time ago). No, as St. Paul says, even Gentiles (i.e., unbelievers) have the Law of God “written on their hearts” (cf. Romans 1:18-20; 2:14-16). (By the way, Paul is far more harsh with hypocritical believers than Hitchens could ever be: see Romans 2:1-5.)

Finally, it should seem strange to Hitchens et al. that when they describe Christianity, Christians do not recognize their descriptions. They’ve taken caricatures and parodies and pretended that they are the thing itself. Why should anyone take their critiques seriously when they, from the outside, claim to understand Christianity better than those inside, who disagree not only with their conclusions but with their premises?