Answering Christopher Hitchens’ Challenge – Part 1

“Here is my challenge . . . 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[one] think of a wicked statement made, or an evil action performed, precisely because of religious faith? The second question is easy to answer, is it not? The first — I have been asking it for some time — awaits a convincing reply. By what right, then, do the faithful assume this irritating mantle of righteousness? They have as much to apologize for as to explain.” Christopher Hitchens, “An Athiest Responds” found here.

Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens, columnist and staunch atheist who never met a debate he didn’t like, has issued  two challenges to the religious believer.  Asserting that religion produces no more righteous acts than atheism, Hitchens also maintains quite confidently that religious faith often lead to evil acts.  It is interesting that he seems to think the second question is self-evident.  However, both questions need answered.  In this post, I hope to answer the first challenge.

Challenge One: Name one ethical statement or action that a Christian could do that an atheist could not also do.

( I’ve rephrased the statement slightly by using the term “Christian” for “believer” and “atheist” for “nonbeliever.”  This is no way changes the challenge, but helps narrow and clarify it.  Since I don’t believe all religions are true- let alone lead to God- I can only defend the Christian faith, which I hold to be completely true.  I use the term “atheist” since Mr. Hitchens himself is one and this is the worldview he defends.)

It is imperative to first understand that Christian theology does not assert that nonbelievers cannot be ethical or moral in speech and deeds.  In fact, we expect them to.  Otherwise, the world would be a rather miserable place, much worse than it is.  Theologians call this common grace.  Every person has a moral code imbedded in his/her heart, which is why even the most ardent atheist will perform philanthropic deeds, even when there’s no apparent personal gain.

But can unbelievers do every moral deed that a Christian can do?  In order to answer this question Hitchens and the Christian must have an agreed upon moral code.  Otherwise, the whole challenge is a nonstarter.  It seems that he’s asking the question in such a way that it is the Christian system of morals that is in view.  In other words the question could read: “is there any ethical act that you hold dear as a Christian that cannot also be done by a non-Christian?”

The answer to this revised question is “yes.”  I’ll give two ethical actions performed by Christians that an atheist would not do: prayer and evangelism.  In prayer the Christian can beseech God on behalf of others.  In evangelism, the Christian shares information that leads people to eternal life.  Since atheists neither believe in God, nor in humanity’s need for salvation, they cannot perform either deed without being hypocritical.  This in effect answers the question, so long as it is Christian morals in view.

Hitchens would certainly object to such acts being ethical.  But if he objects, he himself must become the definer of the ethics to be performed.   And if he gets to decide, then of course the atheist is going to perform his idea of ethical deeds.  Yet if this is how he intends the question, the first challenge is found to be fixed, and thus completely bogus.

Therefore, Hitchens’ challenge one fails.  For if Christian morals are in view, the answer is affirmative.  But if Hitchens’ ethics are in view, the whole challenge is a sham.

In the next post, the second challenge will be examined.



Filed under Apologetics, Religion

9 responses to “Answering Christopher Hitchens’ Challenge – Part 1

  1. C.McCann

    I don’t think your answer to the question stands. A Christian may well say a prayer for someone, but since there is no proof at all that prayers are answered then how is this a moral act? It would be as moral as expressing a wish that somethings were different, which an atheist could do also simply by wishing it so.

    • I understand your objection and it makes sense. However, it’s answered in the very paragraph you reference. I stated “This in effect answers the question, so long as it is Christian morals in view.” Hitchen’s question only hits the mark if we’re talking Christian morality. Of course if there is no God, or if there is, but it ain’t the Christian one, then, yes, it’s all just wishful thinking. Put another way, if one assumes the non-existence of the Christian God, my argument fails. But if there is an a priori assumption of God’s non-existence embedded in Hitchen’s question, then the question is unfair. As I stated: “if he objects, he himself must become the definer of the ethics to be performed. And if he gets to decide, then of course the atheist is going to perform his idea of ethical deeds.”

      Furthermore, Christian prayer is primarily relational and has more complexities than most realize. Even if there is no tangible proof of its efficacy (and I don’t think there can be as I argued in “Why Prayer ‘Studies’ Are Meaningless”), prayer is always moral, assuming the existence of the Christian God. Since he has commanded prayer, it is always good and right to pray.

      Thanks for the thought-provoking reply.

  2. C.McCann

    Thanks for your explanation. I agree with what you say in principle, although i don’t think that it does answer Hitchen’s question since an atheist might say wishing someone well was an equivilent to praying for them. You raise an interesting point however when you say prayer is always moral. Can you comment on the moral’s involved in prayer when two Christian army’s face each other and prayers are said by both sides to give them victory over the other given that this will involve killing fellow Christians even if they are from a different denomination.

    • “i don’t think that it does answer Hitchen’s question since an atheist might say wishing someone well was an equivilent to praying for them.”

      In atheism there is no moral distinction between prayer and wishing someone well – neither does anything, so the morality exists only in the thoughts of the one praying or wishing. In Christianity there is a moral distinction placed between the two. If God exists and an listens to prayers, then prayer has an advantage over merely wishing. My argument is that Hitchen’s challenge only works if the former morality is in view, not the latter. But if non-theistic morality is in view, and this morality is different in some respects to Christian morality, then there is no agreed upon set of moral standards. Though non-theists and Christians might agree upon 95% of moral standards, it’s the other 5% that makes his questions suspect.

      In other words, if a non-theist says “wishing is the moral equivalent to praying” then he is assuming the non-existence of God in that assertion. But if atheism is assumed, the question is “fixed” so to speak. Therefore, the question comes down to whether or not God exists, and if so, who is he?

    • I should qualify my statement “prayer is always moral.” There are times when it might not be. But this doesn’t do anything to undermine my argument. If at least some prayers are moral, and God answers those prayers, then it’s a moral thing to do, and one that non-theists cannot do.

      Your question regarding opposing armies is a good one and raises a bunch of moral questions. As mentioned above, it doesn’t change my contention, so long as there is such a thing as moral prayer. But I’ll take a brief stab at your question anyway – though is deserves a much longer response!

      Biblically informed Christian prayer, meaning what is taught by Jesus, the Apostles, and the prayer examples found throughout the Bible, leads the Christian to focus on: the kingdom of God [which is not of this world and therefore cannot be fought for], peace in all spheres of life, physical/emotional healing, God’s name to be honored, others to undertand the gospel, and for those who do understand it to grow spiritually. The rub of your question is, “What if two Christians prayer about the same thing, but with differing ideas of the outcome?” or, for a specific example: “What if two Christians pray for the same job?”

      The short answer is this. Whether or not prayer is good and right is not determined by the level of faith and understanding of the Christian. So a Christian might not know it’s God’s will she doesn’t have that job, but she prays for it anyway. Since she is placing it in God’s hands, there is a faith element involved, and therefore moral. However, if she prayed for, say, her friend not to get the same job, and this was for purely selfish reasons, then that prayer has some immoral elements.

      This explanation is nowhere near adequate to answer the complexities raised. Suffice it to say that God desires his people to come to him in prayer. Even with poor understandings, depending upon him through the means of prayer is good.

  3. Charlie

    I understand what your saying Jason, and maybe the problem is in Hitchens wording of the question or maybe it is because what is agreed upon as moral is not agreed upon by all. You choose to argue from a christian view but not everyone would agree that this is moral. If you believed in the sun god then you might believe making a human sacrifice was moral.
    I get the impression from what you say that the only person who really recieves anything from prayer is the person who makes it, prehaps because it makes them feel better simply to talk to God or because they feel they are doing something nice in asking for something for someone else. This would explain why it doesn’t reallly seem to matter to them if the prayer is answered?
    Did you contact Christopher Hitchens with your answer to his question? If so i would be interested as to his reply.

  4. Your first paragraph hits the nail on the head. There is no agreed upon set of moral standards, which is why I’m arguing that his objection fails. I also agree with you in this: just because Christians consider it moral, doesn’t mean that others will view it this way. In fact, many people consider missions work to be somewhat immoral. The question then comes down to, What is true?

    Regarding prayer, I do think it effects change. What I’m arguing is that prayer cannot be measured. Who knows what events, circumstances, accidents, etc. have been effected, or avoided because of prayer? We don’t have the luxury of God telling us “I answered that one in this way.” But we do have the confidence that Scripture tells us that God does act in the world, and that much of his action is a result of prayer. It’s not that our prayers help God; rather, it is God allowing his people to join him in his work.

    As for Christopher Hitchens, I have no way of contacting him, and if I did, it is unlikely I would get a response. He is quite ill and besides that, I’m small game. My argument here is not unique in its structure so it’s likely he’s encountered something like it before, though I’ve not run into it. However, I would love to read how he would respond and would greatly enjoy dialoguing with him about a number of related issues.

  5. C.McCann

    Hi Jason. Since we agree that a universal set of morals does not exist (which is why Hitchens question fails). Would you agree that morals are simply the set of standards by which any group defines good and bad (or evil) at any given time in history? If you agree then obviously Christians can have Christian morality while Muslims can have Muslim morality, the English will have an English morality.
    I have no problem in seeing that we have no set of universal moral values, but many Christians claim morals are given to us by God. You say yourself that “every person has a code embedded in his/her heart”. If this code comes from God (and i know you don’t say it does) why is it different for different peoples through time? If the code comes from God and is embedded in our hearts how does that effect the idea of free will?

    • Thanks for the reply Charlie. If I’ve left the impression that I don’t think there’s a universal set of moral standards, then let me correct that. I absolutely do believe that God has established a moral law that transcends all others. What I was arguing earlier is that there is no *agreed upon* set of moral standards between Christians and non-theists, which means that objections like the one Hitchens makes cannot work well.

      As for why different people have different sets of morals when God has placed a moral code of sorts inside of us all . . . well, the answer can get long, but let me try to be brief. Most of the “major” morals, virtually everyone agrees upon (murder, theft, rape, etc.). But many others become somewhat gray (various kinds of sexual conduct, lying). Scripture teaches that we have rebelled against God, his law, his authority. Like a child getting a certain “kick” out of taking a cookie out of the jar when he isn’t supposed to, so also we are enticed by many types of rebellion against God’s authority. After a while these acts of defiance seem . . . right, somehow. The conscience becomes more and more seared to what is good, moral, and true.

      What I described above is not merely what happens in the development of serial killers and the like. They take it to the extreme. Most everybody else rebels in more subtle ways, ways that are more respectable to others with the same kind of thinking. This helps explains why atheists have a set of morals, Muslims have their codes to live by, and various cultures and subcultures have their own own rules. There are many agreed upon standards across the board, which I would argue is evidence of the moral code finding its way into the conscience. On the other hand, where the deviations occur, specifically with regard to God’s law, there is always some kind of rebellion in thought or action present. This rebellion is present in every individual.

      Regarding free will, having a moral compass within us does nothing to keep us from being free. Freedom is the ability to choose what we want. Just because there is an innate conscience saying “don’t steal” does not mean I won’t ever steal something. I can choose to obey it, or not obey it.

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