February 5, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
The Challenge of the Faithless
THE LION of contemporary atheism, the late Christopher Hitchens, for whom I bear a reservoir of respect, was fond of presenting his readers and listeners with a challenge. Here is one iteration:
Let [any reader of this column] name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by a believer that could not have been uttered or done by a nonbeliever. And here is my second challenge. Can any reader of this column think of a wicked statement made, or an evil action performed, precisely because of religious faith?
He liked to follow this with the affirmation that he had never, to date, received a convincing reply.
As a rhetorical ploy, this is most clever, and it stood him ever in good stead. It elicited laughs from all appropriate corners, granted those already convinced a pleasant sense of having just landed a shivering blow against the enemy, and sent his opponents into fits of irritated consternation.
It is not impossible to respond to it; but I leave such arguments to those interested. I wish instead to point out that the second part of Hitchens’ challenge (which is in fact the real rhetorical crux of it) is perfectly non sequitur.
The first part of Hitchen’s argument is exclusive: we are to find something that is exclusively the believer’s, and not the non-believers; but the second part is causal: we are to find something that was caused by the believer’s faith. It is so easy to answer the second question, for the simple reason that its premises are so much less restrictive. For Hitchen’s challenge to be fair, we would have to alter either the first or the second of its parts. Either thus:
Name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by a believer that could not have been uttered or done by a nonbeliever. Name a wicked statement made, or an evil action performed, that could not have been uttered or done by a nonbeliever.
in which case, as is evident, both parts become equally difficult of response; or else we alter the first part, thus:
Name an ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, because of religious faith.
But here the challenge becomes even banal, for of course, all of us can name a myriad of statements or actions which meet these rather bland requirements.
Hitchen’s lapse here—I call it a lapse rather than a tactic, for he himself did not like to land cheap blows—is very characteristic, not of Hitchens himself so much as of the New Atheism. Indeed, I would have expected such sleight of hand more from a Dawkins, a Dennet, or a Harris, all of whom possess such self-convinced contempt for the content of theistic beliefs, that they cannot take the subtler arguments surrounding these beliefs even minimally seriously.
Hitchens’ challenge simply does not confront the possibility that we in our liberal societies are prone to view certain acts as “moral” for no other reason than that we are the heirs to a Christian tradition. Hitchens does not stop to wonder if the first part of his challenge is so difficult, only because Christianity has triumphed. He sidesteps that issue, he dodges it, without being aware that he is doing so. And thus he fails even to perceive the corollary question of what happens to this vestige of the Christian morality, when the beliefs which formed the soul of it are gutted of their essence, and wane from all power.
I confess it a strange oversight, in a way. The New Atheists are all of them students of the great theory of evolution, and so they ought to be more sensitive than most to the ways in which human societies change and alter; they ought to know better than anyone, that the beliefs of human beings sometimes require more than a few human generations to arrive at their final consequences. These New Atheists are brilliant at arguing that our human societies here and now should become most rational and mild, were these societies here and now divested of their antique faiths and given over to the kind of gentle scientistic atheism which characterizes the New Atheists in particular; but they seem almost utterly oblivious to the question of what the more distant future might look like if they themselves triumph at last, and whether or not these innocuous ideas they patronize might not one day bare more ominous tendencies.
And hence I submit my solution to Hitchen’s challenge, albeit phrased in due modesty. It seems to me that the contemporary nonbeliever is complacent as to human progress. He is wanting in that care in tomorrow and in the day after which to the believer is a matter of course. The contemporary nonbeliever has not the believer’s moral seriousness and the abiding sense of responsibility in the face of the future, because he, unlike the man of faith, lacks all reason to look the modern ideal of progress critically in the eye.