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.


BACK– – – – –NEXT


  1. Jarvis - February 6, 2017 @ 12:00 am

    Your writing here gives certainly a most clever and wry answer to the quoted challenge. Yet in the final paragraph, does the contrast drawn with the man of faith truly follow? Most orthodox (at least of Abrahamic religions) persons I have encountered seem distressingly blithe about the future, believing after all that the Rapture is coming. I wonder if religious skepticism about “progress” is less concerned with the future, than about simply following God’s law in the here and now?

    Withal, I thank ye for a compelling article.

    • John Bruce Leonard - February 7, 2017 @ 7:45 am

      Many thanks for a response much in the spirit of Hitchens. Your critique is sound, and points indeed to a certain haste-born inadequacy in my final thoughts. You have persuaded me that a larger treatment of this question is in order.

      Yet despite the justice of your remarks, I would maintain my position somewhat, as follows: not considering so much the radical exception as the superficial rule, believers on the whole tend to be more prone to take up the conservative position, while progressive thought has historically aligned itself with increasingly bold atheism. If I may put the matter thus, in the believer the love of what is tends to overcome the love of what might be; while in the progressive the opposite is generally the case. This makes the believer somewhat rigid, and somewhat resistant to the idea of progress as progress, thus giving him a certain advantage over the atheist in clearly perceiving the ramifications of the progressive worldview. For the same reason I find that religion is generally implicated in all the greatest attempts of human beings to build for the centuries, to say nothing of the millennia.

      The psychological reasons for this situation are not immediately clear; for the Christians of old tended to hold the world in great despite, and, as you point out, various myths concerning the Final Coming of God do not appear at first glance to inculcate any particular care of the present or the future. Yet it is worth being somewhat discriminating here, particularly as concerns the “Abrahamic religions,” as you put it; Judaism is certainly not Islam, and even Protestantism differs greatly from Catholicism in these matters. The Protestants, I allow, tend to approach the future with the very blitheness you have indicated; but I perceive in Catholicism a definite tendency to take the long view of things.

      Once more, many thanks for a most stimulating reply.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published / Required fields are marked *