Answering the Christopher Hitchens Challenge

As I reviewed a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Frank Turek, I came across a challenge posed by Christopher Hitchens that I wanted to take the time to discuss.

To those who say that without God there can be no morality  I pose the following challenge:

  1. You are to name a moral action undertaken or a moral or ethical statement made by a believer that could not have been made by an unbeliever
  2. Think of something wicked that only a believer would be likely to do or something wicked that only a believer would be likely to say.

-Loose paraphrase of a challenge issued to the audience by Christopher Hitchens in his debate with Frank Turek

To demonstrate the tremendous error I think that Christopher Hitchens made in this challenge, I want to issue a challenge of my own to Usain bolt with regard to a 100m or 2oom dash .  “You are to name a step taken or a track and field venue that exists where I could not run the same distance as you have.”

Now, of course, the problem with my challenge to Usain Bolt is clear.  I may be able to run the same 100 meter course as Usain Bolt did in winning one of his gold medals, but what does this prove?  The impressive thing about what Usain Bolt has accomplished is not the distance that he ran but the time in which he did it.  This focus on an instantaneous snapshot of reality while disregarding the four dimensional nature of human experience is the same error demonstrated by Hitchens in the first part of his challenge.  (I discuss this issue in my post “Four Dimensional Morality“)

That a person could be moral by performing a single instantaneous action or uttering a single phrase is comical to the point of being ridiculous.  Allow me to rephrase the Hitchen’s challenge to illustrate this point.  “You are to name a moral action performed that could not have been performed by Adolf Hitler.”  Living a life that is acceptable before God (a moral life) has nothing to do with your ability to perform a single action or state some moral platitude.  Living a life that is acceptable before God is running a lifelong marathon where every action performed and every statement made is consistent with a love for God and other human beings.  This is what a Christian means when he says that morality requires God.  Yes an atheist can do a single action or make a single statement, but is it possible to live a moral life without the assistance of God?  And if not, do we not all require the forgiveness of God? (I discussed one aspect of this issue in my previous post, “The Need for a Vision“.)

The second aspect of his challenge was similarly ridiculous.  Hitchens was implying that only religious people could perform suicide bombings or justify evil things by appealing to some theology.  As for suicide bombings, he was ignoring the case of the Tamil Tiger suicide bombers who used the tactic for purely secular purposes.  As for the verbal component, so what?  Only an unbeliever could say certain evil things, but what does this prove?  Hitchens entire challenge to theists, therefore, can be seen to be merely empty rhetoric.

 

About Robert V

Former atheist currently living in Toronto.
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9 Responses to Answering the Christopher Hitchens Challenge

  1. Pingback: Tug of War Titan | A Thoughtful Christian

  2. You miss Mr. Hitchens point completely. His point isn’t that any single moral action taken by a religious person can also be taken by an atheist, thereby making the atheist equally honorable by virtue of the one act; his point is that an atheist is capable of living an ethical, honorable life driven by morals (and many acts) without having to subscribe to the bible or religious dogma or making himself subservient to a domineering supreme being that supposedly decides which children will be tortured, murdered, or die of starvation each day. To the contrary, Mr. Hitchens was merely using the “name an act” paradigm to demonstrate that morality isn’t the eminent domain of religiosity.

    Christians such as yourself arrogantly assume that without your bible and angry dogma humans are incapable of living moral lives, and you’re unequivocally wrong. Millions of atheists live upstanding, moral lives without ever needing to consult a bible or any religious texts. Just because YOU couldn’t live a moral life without repeatedly and constantly consulting a bible to keep you on track with a moral life doesn’t mean others need to do the same.

    • Robert V says:

      George,

      Your reply is full of misunderstanding, but I am only going to focus on four.

      Firstly, Mr. Hitchens was making the case for a single action at a specific point in time. He was a very eloquent speaker and he made this claim on many occasions. I am not misinterpreting or misrepresenting him.

      Secondly, I am not “assuming that without my bible and angry dogma humans are incapable of living moral lives”. I specifically talk in my brief post about how I think living an “upstanding moral life” should be defined. It should be defined as the lifelong marathon where every action and every word is consistent with a perfect love for yourself and others. (We will neglect the God part that I mention in the post as you claim to be an atheist.) . Do you claim that you have perfectly loved everyone around you and yourself? Do you give people the finger on the highway? Are you overweight? Given my experience of living life as a human being, anyone who thinks they are perfect would have to be delusional and narcissistic. This is not an assumption, it is a deduction based on experience. If you do not make that claim, then you are admitting that you need God’s help to love others perfectly and to forgive you for your past failures. God may not exist, but this does not change the fact that you need help and forgiveness.

      Thirdly, I do not claim that everyone needs to “consult” Bible texts to know right from wrong. It is true that I believe that an advanced understanding of morality does come from the Bible and that all understanding of morality ultimately comes from God. On the other hand, I also believe that basic moral concepts are available to human beings through what theologians call natural revelation and that these basic concepts are available to atheists without reference to the Bible.

      Fourthly, consulting a book does not help me live an “upstanding and moral life”. The promises that God has made help me to make the sacrifices necessary to live the closest approximation to an “upstanding and moral life” that I can. Also, the forgiveness offered by God for my daily failures help me to persevere when I would otherwise give up. Knowing right and wrong is not the issue, doing it despite the fact that it is extremely difficult is the issue. I have discussed this issue further in my post “The Need for a Vision”.

      “If Christ be not raised from the dead, then let us eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.”

      Thanks for stopping by.

      robert van de water

  3. Really, Mr. Van de Water, you’re still missing the point. I assume you don’t know much about Christopher Hitchens because you’re taking his challenge completely out of context. I will make my point again that you’ve incorrectly assumed Mr. Hitchens is using his “name one moral action” challenge to argue that a single moral act somehow equates to a moral life lived or suggests that the person taking the moral action must therefore be a moral, upstanding human being. That couldn’t be any further from the truth. And truth matters, doesn’t it?

    Your comment, “That a person could be moral by performing a single instantaneous action or uttering a single phrase is comical to the point of being ridiculous” perfectly demonstrates the obvious conclusion that it all went over your head. If you knew even a little bit about Mr. Hitchens you’d know that he was merely making the point that morality doesn’t have to be derived from or tethered to the bible (or any holy text). And, in fact, I assume you’re familiar with your own holy text and must therefore be well aware that the brutal, heinous acts committed by your god or at the behest of your vengeful, angry, violent god are nothing short of depraved and immoral.

    Samuel 15:3: Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.

    Numbers 21:3: The Lord gave the Canaanites over to Israel, who “completely destroyed them and their towns”

    Numbers 31:17-18: God commanded Moses to kill all of the male Midianite children and “kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man. Hmm. I wonder what your moral god had in mind for the virgins? No wonder Christians have so many hangups about their sexuality. God spent a lot of time judging his sycophants sexual behavior.

    BTW, odd that you go off on your “do you think you’re perfect” rant? Huh? Did I say that? You make a lot of claims and assumptions about people you don’t know, but that’s actually typical of religious people. They tend to be so smitten with their god talk it causes them to become myopic, and instead of taking the time to genuinely get to know others or feel their hearts, they leap to conclusions (as you have here) and filter everything in their experience through a holier-than-thou god lens.

    Also, quite presumptuous of you to suggest that I or anyone “needs god” to love others. Maybe YOU need to make yourself a slave to a supreme being in order for YOU to open your heart to others, but that’s you, not everyone else. Why do you religious people think there’s only one path to living life with an open, generous, caring heart and respect and love for humanity?

    And yes, help and forgiveness are meaningful dynamics that make life richer. In effect, what you’re talking about is connectedness with others, and again, you don’t need to be a slave to a master in order to experience the joy of love, friendship, and connection with people, even strangers. I get that YOU need the structure, guidance, and commandments of the bible in order to love others or mend relationships by seeking forgiveness, but that’s not how it is for lots of folks. I can seek forgiveness from friends, family, or even strangers without making myself subservient to an angry god.

    Your post is a stark reminder of how religiosity leads people to hubris and a sense of entitlement to judge others — even those they don’t know or have never met. The focus becomes about defending their god beliefs without regard for facts or truth, and in the process almost always lose sight of just being a human being and striving to recognize that everyone has foibles and idiosyncrasies and god lovers aren’t privileged merely because they follow dogma written by frightened primitive people who didn’t have the experience, wisdom, or awareness to understand natural phenomena or scientific theory.

    I feel sorry for those who are inculcated into religious dogma from the moment they’re old enough to understand language. Considering that most religious people start brainwashing their children from the time they’re born, it’s surprising that so many of them manage to develop rational, critical independent thinking skills and eventually break away from the chains of religious servility. A favorite bumper sticker of mine is, “Next Time You Think About Being Born Again, How About Just Growing Up Instead.”

    • Robert V says:

      George,

      You are the one who has misunderstood Hitchens. He was a master rhetorician. Do you know what that means? Basically, it is like verbal martial arts. In the martial arts a block is one thing, but a block that sets up a strike is vastly superior and keeps your opponent off balance.

      What Hitchens was doing was an illustration of his rhetorical style. He took the Christian argument from morality and turned it on its head. “Not only is there no single action that a religious person could perform that an atheist could not, but there are horrible acts of evil that an atheist could not perform (because they require a belief in the hereafter) that a religious person could perform”.

      In the art of rhetoric, there are strong forms of arguments and weak forms of arguments. The stronger forms have more rhetorical impact, but are harder to defend from criticism. The weaker forms are easy to defend, but much less in terms of impact. If I said, for example, that there is absolutely no evidence for evolution, that is a strong statement but it is impossible to defend. If I said that there are good reasons to doubt that a fully naturalistic mechanism of evolution could create all the information found in the biosphere, that is an easy to defend statement but it is not as powerful in terms of its impact.

      In the course of his debates with theists who were not very good rhetoricians, Hitchens chose strong and untenable forms of the argument because of the impact they would have on his audience.

      Now undoubtedly had he faced an opponent who ridiculed his simplistic challenge as I have done, he would have retreated to the stronger position as you have formulated it. Having watched many hours of Hitchens debating theists, however, I think it is clear that he had no great respect for the caliber of his opponents and he made the strong and hard to defend form of the argument for this reason.

      Thanks again for stopping by,

      robert van de water

  4. Mr. Van de Water,
    You keep digging your hole deeper and deeper, now to the point of outright fabrication and its affiliated embarrassment. I challenge you to find any quote (from a reputable source) in which Mr. Hitchens ever said anything even remotely analogous to suggesting there are acts of evil capable of being committed by a religious person that an atheist could not perform. First, that is absolutely not true. You have appropriated words similar to those he routinely used to issue his challenge and mangled them into a distortion unbefitting of a fair and honest discussion of Mr. Hitchens motivations. He simply never said it and you will be unable to produce a quote indicating he had. Moreover, for you to use quotations in a sentence to contend he made such a statement is intentionally misleading and unethical.

    Mr. Hitchens has NEVER asserted religious people are capable of a degree of evil that atheists are not. You are intentionally obfuscating and if you are a man of honor I think you must issue an immediate retraction and apology.

    Your point about rhetoric is irrelevant. Yes, Mr. Hitchens was a capable debater and manifestly more skilled than many if not most of the Christian apologists he faced, but that doesn’t make him deceptive or unprincipled. It appears you harbor significant resentment at him for riding roughshod over the best your Christian troop had to put up against him, but that’s not sufficient reason to besmirch his legacy by suggesting there was something specious or unscrupulous about his intentions.

    Finally, your contention that you have “ridiculed [Hitchens] simplistic challenge” is, as I stated in a previous comment, emblematic of the extent to which Christians are inclined to embrace both fantasy and hubris and, in many instances, irrational and poorly defended fantasy and hubris. To the contrary, Mr. Van de Water, you have unequivocally not “ridiculed” Mr. Hitchens challenge as you have evidently convinced yourself; you have merely illuminated the extent to which you (and many of your brethren) desperately cling to the hyperbole of your god delusion as a means of engendering comfort in a world that is often chaotic, sometimes cruel, and frequently disheartening.

    Attacking Mr. Hitchens when he is dead and unable to defend himself may provide some temporary relief from the fear of mortality that clearly confronts you, but self-doubt will gradually return (sooner than you’d hoped) and you will once again be faced with the reality of not having pat answers to the most confounding questions that confront we humans.

    Please, Mr. Van der Water, demonstrate some degree of humility and issue the apology Mr. Hitchens deserves.

    PS – We’re all afraid of death — even atheists. But we must each muster the courage to accept our fate and do the best we can to leave a mark on the world that helps make things even slightly better than when we arrived. Spending a lifetime pretending that death will make everything better is ludicrous, counterproductive, and keeps people such as yourself from putting your best efforts and energy into the here and now and maximizing the life you have. There is no heaven or hell and you would do well to put that childish nonsense aside and focus on being fully present for this experience.

    • Robert V says:

      George,

      At minute 46 of the video I linked in the post you will hear Mr. Hitchens make the claim that I said he made. He did make it in a slightly weaker form than I said to make it more defensible, but I was working from memory and I was shooting from the hip to make a point about Hitchens rhetorical style. The fact is that he did make claims that are frankly ridiculous if you subject them to serious scrutiny and I cannot let crappy arguments stand just because the person who made them is dead.

      Have a great day,

      rob

  5. Goodness me, Mr. Van de Water. You appear to be constitutionally incapable of telling the truth! At no point in the video you reference (even at minute 46) does Christopher Hitchens say the religious are capable of greater evil than atheists. I get that you are not going to give up the ship and tell the truth so I will break this down for others who may happen upon our exchange.

    1. Mr. Hitchens challenges the audience in the video to name a moral action a religious person can take that cannot also be taken by a non-believer. (Obviously, there are none, meaning one doesn’t need holy texts to recognize the difference between right and wrong).

    2. Mr. Hitchens then asks the audience to think of immoral acts that have been perpetrated in the name of god(s). (Obviously, there are many from throughout history, which demonstrates that being a theist doesn’t necessarily translate into moral behavior).

    So it’s that simple, Mr. Van de Water. Christopher Hitchens issued that challenge many times over the years because he was making a point, as I’ve stated repeatedly, that not only aren’t morals the exclusive property of religionists, but history is replete with numerous examples in which the bible and various other religious tenets and holy texts have been invoked to justify rape, torture, murder, genocide, and many of the greatest evil acts known to mankind.

    For anyone reading this who questions whether it is I or Mr. Van de Water who speaks the truth, don’t take my word for it, go to minute 46 of the video he references (per his instruction) and decide for yourself whether Mr. Hitchens claims atheists are incapable of perpetrating the kinds of heinous acts that have been attributed to the Abrahamic monotheistic religions throughout history. The truth in this instance is self-evident, no matter how deeply in the sand Mr. Van de Water chooses to plunge his head.

    • Robert V says:

      George,

      At least we can agree on a few things. First, that every one must consider the evidence and decide for themselves. Second, that Mr. Hitchens challenge involved a single instantaneous action.

      Where we disagree is o the original point of my post which you seem to have missed. That is that being able to do a single instantaneous action is a ridiculously inadequate measure of the ability to live a moral life.

      Thanks for your comments,

      rob

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