The popular New Atheist Christopher Hitchens once made a challenge: “I challenge you to find one good or noble thing which cannot be accomplished without religion.”
It shall be our task here to investigate and answer his challenge. We can say several things in response.
1. This is Rich Coming From Hitchens:
I’ll be honest, Hitchens was one person that I did not view very highly. My view of him is not so much a result of his vitriol or from what worldview he held, but more from his obscene comments. At one time he actually praises what the Soviet despot Lenin did to the church in Russia. Hitchens said that what Lennin did, via his method of turning Russian into a secular state, was “One of Lenin’s great achievements…” and that the Russian Orthodox church “is probably never going to recover from what he did to it” (1).
We see the horrific nature of Hitchens’ comment shine through when we realise that beneath the Soviet government between 12 and 20 million Christians lost their lives (2) (the total loss of life was around 61 million (3)), many priests were tortured, sent to prison and labour camps as well thrown into mental hospitals (4). In 1937 over 85 000 orthodox priests were shot dead (5), and in just 13 years 29 000 churches were demolished and only 500 were left standing (6). The Russian historian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) once wrote that “if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened” (7). Even the atheist writer John Steinrucken says that the secular attempts for utopia “when actually put to the test, have not merely come to naught. Attempts during those two centuries to put into practice utopian visions have caused huge sufferings” (8).
Is this the sort of acts that Hitchens is celebrating as an achievement? Even further, and on another occasion Hitchens would say that he thinks “religion should be treated with ridicule, hatred and contempt, and I claim that right” (9). It is this sort of fundamentalist atheism that the atheist Paul Kurtz says “does more damage than good,” and that is “mean spirited” (10).
So, Hitchens’ challenge is rich coming from him. In fact, one good thing that someone who isn’t religious could do is not to celebrate historical despots who’ve successfully slaughtered millions of people and caused unparalleled suffering.
2. Hitchens’ Misunderstanding:
There is an argument from objective morality that has been used to argue for the existence of God. I won’t defend the argument here but I’ll illustrate how & where Hitchens misunderstands it. Arguably one of the world’s leading apologists is that of the philosopher William Lane Craig who is the forerunner of the arguments for God’s existence. He formulates the moral argument thusly (11):
- If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
- Objective moral values do exist.
- Therefore, God exists.
Note that in no way is the argument claiming that non-religious people cannot be moral. The argument is instead focusing on whether morality is objective or subjective, and whether or not that would provide evidence for God’s existence. No-one here is denying that an atheist can act morally. Instead, what the issue for Hitchens, and other atheists, is how he grounds his moral experience. Upon what basis can he make the claim that we should act morally? Would Hitchens tell others that it would be morally abominable to rape, or torture women? To get a fuller understanding the former atheist Vander Elst explains:
“But if this is the case, what explains the existence within us of this inner moral code or compass? According to atheism, human beings and all their thinking processes are simply the accidental by-products of the mindless movement of atoms within an undesigned, random, and purposeless universe. How then can we attach any ultimate meaning or truth to our thoughts and feelings, including our sense of justice? They have, on this view, no more validity or significance than the sound of the wind in the trees” (4).
So, that is the issue at hand, and I’d conclude that Hitchens has misunderstood the question that the likes of William Craig and others have put forward.
3. Final Thoughts & a Counter Challenge:
This difficulty for the atheistic worldview is not something that only I, or other theists, have noticed. It has been noticed by many atheists as well, and is also represented in some of the conclusions that they have come to on their own terms. For example, according to the atheist David Silverman morality “is a matter of opinion,” and that “There is no objective moral standard. We are responsible for our own actions” (13).
According to atheist Llewelyn Powys when we abandon belief in God we also abandon “all trust in an ordained moral order” (14). Likewise does atheist Steinrucken ask “what are the immutable moral laws of secularism?” Steinrucken gives a further telling observation:
“Although I am a secularist (atheist, if you will), I accept that the great majority of people would be morally and spiritually lost without religion. Can anyone seriously argue that crime and debauchery are not held in check by religion?” (15)
This is a fact of life for the atheist. So, a counter challenge could be made to Hitchens that upon what basis or standard does he say things like religion are evil, or that rape is immoral? For instance, his fellow New Atheist ally Richard Dawkins says that: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference” (16).
If morality is nothing but one’s opinion, or no more real than the sound of wind in the trees, then how can Hitchens make any moral accusations whatsoever?
1. Interview in Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism (2005). Available.
2. Nelson, J. 2009. Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality. p. 427, Johnson, T. Christian Martyrdom: A global demographic assessment. p. 4.
3. Rummel, R. 1994. Death by Government. p. 17 (preface).
4. Bouteneff, V. 1998, Father Arseny, 1893-1873: Priest, Prisoner, Spirtual Father. pg. vi – 1
5. York, G. 2009. Why Father of Glasnost is Despised in Russia. Available.
6. Binns, J. 2002. An Introduction to the Christian Orthodox Churches. p. 193.
7. Pasquini, J. 2014. Atheist Persona: Causes and Consequences. p. 50.
8. Steinrucken, J. 2010. Secularism’s Ongoing Debt to Christianity. Available.
9. Christopher Hitchens — Religion (video). Available.
10. Paul Kurtz quoted by Barbara Hagerty in A Bitter Rift Divides Atheists (2009). Available.
11. Craig, W. 2013. Q&A: The Moral Argument for God. Available.
12. Vander Elst, P. From Atheism to Christianity: a Personal Journey. Available.
13. Debate: David Silverman vs Frank Turek. Which offers a better explanation for reality -Theism or Atheism? Available.
14. Llewelyn Powys, Impassioned Clay. Cited in John Gray, The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths (2013). p. 179-180.
15. John Steinrucken, J. 2010. Ibid.
16. Dawkins, R. 1995. River out of Eden. p 131-32.