“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, 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.