Thursday, March 25, 2010

Why Christianity Fails: Morality

A few months ago I heard Christopher Hitchens' introduction in the debate, Poison or Cure? Religious Belief in the Modern World. I thought it was brilliant and I'd like to share it here with you in transcript form. I promise, it isn't boring.
When I debate with Jews and Muslims and Christians, I very often say, “well, do you really believe there was a virgin birth, do you really believe in a Genesis creation, do you really believe in bodily resurrection?” I get a sort of Monty Python reply. “Well, it's a little bit metaphorical, really.”

The main thing I want to dispute this evening is this: you hear it very often said by people of a vague faith that, while it may not be the case that religion is metaphysically true, its figures and its stories may be legendary or dwell on the edge of myth, prehistoric, and its truth claims may be laughable.

We have better claims -- excuse me, better explanations for the origins and birth of our cosmos and our species now, so much better so, in fact, that had they been available to begin with, religion would never have taken root. No one would now go back to the stage when we didn't have any real philosophy, we only had mythology, when we thought we lived on a flat planet or when we thought that our planet was circulated by the sun instead of the other way around, when we didn't know that there were micro-organisms as part of creation and that they were more powerful than us and had dominion over us rather than we, them, when we were fearful, the infancy of our species.

We wouldn't have taken up theism if we'd known now what we did then, but allow for all that, allow for all that, you still have to credit religion with being the source of ethics and morals: “where would we get these from if it weren't from faith?” I think, in the time I've got, I think that's the position I most want to undermine.

I don't believe that it's true that religion is moral or ethical, I certainly don't believe of course that any of its explanations about the origin of our species or the cosmos or its ultimate destiny are true either. In fact, I think most of those have been conclusively, utterly discredited, but I'll deal with the remaining claim that it is moral. Okay, and I can only do Christianity this evening. Is it moral to believe that your sins, yours and mine, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, can be forgiven by the punishment of another person? Is it ethical to believe that?

I would submit that the doctrine of vicarious redemption by human sacrifice is utterly immoral. I might, if I wished, if I knew any of you, you were my friend or even if I didn't know you but I just loved the idea of you (compulsory love is another sickly element of Christianity, by the way), but suppose I could say, “look, you're in debt, I've just made a lot of money out of a god-bashing book, I'll pay your debts for you, maybe you'll pay me back some day, but for now I can get you out of trouble.”

I could say if (I really loved someone who had been sentenced to prison) if I can find a way of saying I'd serve your sentence, I'd try and do it. I could do what Sydney Carton does in a Tale of Two Cities, if you like. I'm very unlikely to do this unless you've been incredibly sweet to me. I'll take your place on the scaffold, but I can't take away your responsibilities. I can't forgive what you did. I can't say you didn't do it. I can't make you washed clean. The name for that in primitive middle eastern society was scapegoating. You pile the sins of the tribe on a goat, you drive that goat into the desert to die of thirst and hunger. And you think you've taken away the sins of the tribe. This is a positively immoral doctrine that abolishes the concept of personal responsibility on which all ethics and all morality must depend.

It has a further implication. I'm told that I have to have a share in this human sacrifice even though it took place long before I was born. I have no say in it happening, I wasn't consulted about it, had I been present I would have been bound to do my best to stop the public torture and execution of an eccentric preacher. I would do the same even now.

No, no! I'm implicated in it, I, myself, drove in the nails, I was present at Calvary, it confirms the original filthy sin in which I was conceived and born, the sin of Adam in Genesis. Again, this may sound a mad belief, but it is the Christian belief.

Well it's here that we find something very sinister about monotheism and about religious practice in general. It is incipiently at least and I think often explicitly totalitarian, because I have no say in this. I am born under a celestial dictatorship which I could not have had any hand in choosing. I don't put myself under its Government. I am told that it can watch me while I sleep. I'm told that it can convict me of, here's the definition of totalitarianism, thought crime, for what I think I may be convicted and condemned.

And that if I commit a right action, it's only to evade this punishment and if I commit a wrong action, I'm going to be caught up not just with punishment in life for what I've done which often follows action systematically, but, no, even after I'm dead. In the Old Testament, gruesome as it is, recommending as it is of genocide, racism, tribalism, slavery, genital mutilation, in the displacement and destruction of others, terrible as the Old Testament gods are, they don't promise to punish the dead. There's no talk of torturing you after the earth has closed over the Amalekites. Only toward when gentle Jesus, meek and mild, makes his appearance are those who won't accept the message told they must depart into everlasting fire. Is this morality, is this ethics?

I submit not only is it not, not only does it come with the false promise of vicarious redemption, but it is the origin of the totalitarian principle which has been such a burden and shame to our species for so long.

I further think that it undermines us in our most essential integrity. It dissolves our obligation to live and witness in truth. Which of us would say that we would believe something because it might cheer us up or tell our children that something was true because it might dry their eyes? Which of us indulges in wishful thinking, who really cares about the pursuit of truth at all costs and at all hazards?

Can it not be said, do you not, in fact, hear it said repeatedly about religion and by the religions themselves that, well it may not be really true, the stories may be fairy tales. The history may be dubious, but it provides consolation. Can anyone hear themselves saying this or have it said of them without some kind of embarrassment? Without the concession that thinking here is directly wishful? That, yes, it would be nice if you could throw your sins and your responsibilities on someone else and have them dissolved? But it's not true and it's not morally sound and that's the second ground of my indictment.

On our integrity, basic integrity, knowing right from wrong and being able to choose a right action over a wrong one, I think one must repudiate the claim that one doesn't have this moral discrimination innately, that, no, rather it must come only from the agency of a celestial dictatorship which one must love and simultaneously fear.

What is it like (I've never tried it, I've never been a cleric), what is it like to lie to children for a living and tell them that they have an authority, that they must love compulsory love? What a grotesque idea and be terrified of it at the same time. What's that like? I want to know.

And that we don't have an innate sense of right and wrong, children don't have an innate sense of fairness and decency, which of course they do. What is it like? I can personalize it to this extent, my mother's Jewish ancestors are told that until they got to Sinai, they'd been dragging themselves around the desert under the impression that adultery, murder, theft and perjury were all fine, and they get to Mount Sinai only to be told that's not kosher after all.

I'm sorry, excuse me, we must have more self-respect than that for ourselves and for others. Of course the stories are fiction. It's a fabrication exposed conclusively by Israeli archaeology. Nothing of the sort ever took place, but suppose we take as metaphor? It's an insult, it's an insult to us, it's an insult to our deepest integrity.

No, if we believed that perjury, murder and theft were all right, we wouldn't have got as far as the foot of Mount Sinai or anywhere else.

Now we're told what we have to believe and this is, I'm coming now to the question of whether or not science, reason and religion are compatible or I would rather say reconcilable. The late, great Stephen J. Gould said that he believed they were non-overlapping magisteria, you can be both a believer and a person of faith.

Here's why I, a non-scientist, will say that I think it's more radically irreconcilable than it is incompatible. I've taken the best advice I can on how long Homo sapiens have been on the planet. Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins and many others, and many discrepant views from theirs reckon it's not more than 250,000 years, a quarter of a million years. It's not less, either. I think it's roughly accepted, I think. 100,000 is the lowest I've heard and actually I was about to say, again not to sound too Jewish, I'll take 100,000. I only need 100,000.

For 100,000 years Homo sapiens were born, usually, well not usually, but very often dying in the process or killing its mother in the process at life expectancy probably not much more than 20, 25 years. Dying probably of hunger or of micro-organisms that they didn't know existed or of events such as volcanic or tsunami or earthquake types that would have been wholly terrifying and mysterious as well as some turf wars over women, land, property, food, other matters. You can fill them in, imagine it for yourself what the first few tens of thousands of years were like.

And we like to think learning a little bit in the process and certainly having Gods all the way, worshiping bears fairly early on, I can sort of see why, sometimes worshiping other human beings, (big mistake, I'm coming back to that if I have time), this and that and the other thing, but exponentially perhaps improving, though in some areas of the world very nearly completely dying out. And a bitter struggle all along.

According to the Christian faith, heaven watches this with folded arms for 98,000 years and then decides, "It's time to intervene. And the best way of doing that would be a human sacrifice in primitive Palestine where the news would take so long to spread that it still hasn't penetrated very large parts of the world and that would be our redemption of human species."

Now I submit to you, ladies and gentlemen, that that is, what I've just said which you must believe to believe the Christian revelation is not possible to believe, as well as not decent to believe. Why is it not possible? Because a virgin birth is more likely than that. A resurrection is more likely than that and because if it was true, it would have two further implications. It would have to mean that the designer of this plan was unbelievably lazy and inept or unbelievably callous and cruel and indifferent and capricious. That is the case with every argument for design and every argument for revelation and intervention that has ever been made. But it's not conclusively so because of the superior knowledge that we've won for ourselves by an endless struggle to assert our reason, our science, our humanity, our extension of knowledge against the priests, against the Rabbis, against the Mullahs who have always wanted us to consider ourselves as made from dust or from a clot of blood, according to the Koran, or as the Jews are supposed to pray every morning, at least not female or gentile.

And here's my final point, the final insult that religion delivers to us, the final poison it injects into our system. It appeals both to our meanness, our self-centeredness and our solipsism and to masochism. In other words, it's sadomasochistic.

I'll put it like this: you're a clot of blood, you're a piece of mud, you're lucky to be alive, God fashioned you for his convenience, even though you're born in filth and sin and even though every religion that's ever been is distinguished principally by the idea that we should be disgusted by our own sexuality. Name me a religion that does not play upon that fact. So you're lucky to be here, originally sinful and covered in shame and filth as you are, you're a wretched creature, but take heart, the Universe is designed with you in mind and heaven has a plan for you.

Ladies and gentlemen, I close by saying I can't believe there is a thinking person here who does not realize that our species would begin to grow to something like its full height if it left this childishness behind, if it emancipated itself from this sinister, childlike nonsense.

12 Comments:

Jill Greczek said...

I have a question about this line:
"I further think that it undermines us in our most essential integrity. It dissolves our obligation to live and witness in truth."
That maybe is answered in a part of the book you didn't quote?
Which is: Could you not argue that the existence of a "most essential integrity," is an objective morality? And, if an objective morality exists, doesn't that argue in favor of God? Or is this more of an argument against the Monotheistic God, not the existence of an omniscient force in general?

Drew Reagan said...

For something to be objective, it must be true independent of who declares it to be so. A god (or some omniscient force) declaring something to be objective doesn't make it objective. It could only make a truth claim about that thing's objective value. So in a sense, a god could describe morality in objective terms, but only if it already existed as such. If not, morality would be based relatively on the whims of the being.

That's not to say that there is no objective morality, but I don't personally think there is. That doesn't mean, however, that some moral decisions aren't more clear than others.

Anonymous said...

Your argument against objectivity presupposes the atheism which you conclude. Which makes it not objective.

You also do not argue against forms of theism in which the being is not whimsical, but rather fixed in nature, which would be any sort of christian orthodoxy, jewish orthodoxy, or muslim orthodoxy, or other philosophical versions of god.

For something to be objective, it must be true independent of the one who is making that claim? Is there any such definition of objectivity which exists prior to the person making it? If not, then you have no objective way of discussing objectivity. You undermine your own discussion by your definition.

Drew said...

No, it doesn't presuppose atheism. I'm saying whether a god exists or not is irrelevant to the question of morals. Do you think that committing acts of genocide or child rape would be OK if no gods exist? That kind of logic is frightening and selfish.

All of the religions you mentioned have changing gods, even if their adherents or holy books tell you they're not. Nonetheless, even if there was an unchanging god, what if he told you that slavery was acceptable? Would that make it OK? Moreover, how could you know if one was unchanging? What does it even mean to never change?

Yes, and what is objectively true is called reality. Never did I claim that we can always objectively know what is true, nor did I say that objective morality existed. Now if you work under a certain definition of morality then you can say, objectively, whether something is right or wrong, but only by those standards. As I'm sure you're aware, there are secular means by which to judge rights and wrongs (and that do a far better job than any religion has thus far).

Anonymous said...

I'm interested in your moral objection to Christianity only because you earlier posted that there is no objective morality. What then makes leaving this behind virtuous in any fashion? According to you, nothing. Leave this childishness behind.

Drew said...

Like I said, there are paradigms of secular morality. A large part of determining wrongs is analyzing how other people are affected by choices you make. If you're harming others without legitimate reasons, you're doing wrong. Secular morality is focused on the people, not the deity, which is a step forward. Telling people that they are worthless or nothing isn't moral. Punishing people for crimes they didn't commit isn't moral. And punishing anyone for an infinite amount of time isn't moral - and I don't need to appeal to a god to justify those claims. Even if there isn't one objective morality, the golden rule goes a long way. (Now there are some that would argue that there can be an objective morality who are also non-theists but I'm not too familiar with their works.)

But you never answered my questions. Do you think killing innocent babies would be OK if no god existed? What about if a god commanded it?

Ben said...

I would answer yes to the killing of babies and yes to if a god commanded it. Hitler is considered a terrible man due to the morals of a collective of people (in power) saying he was wrong. If the collective in power were to be of the opinion he is good those morals would stand. So in fact these morals we speak of are only a reflection of what those in power want others to believe.

Drew said...

So are you then saying that the only reason we can logically consider killing innocent babies to be wrong is that a god exists who says it is?

Ben said...

I'm saying those in power make the rules. Morality is completely subjective to authority. Someone in the beginning had to say baby killing is wrong albeit God or a man. Once that authority is rejected by a greater one (by hostile takeover or otherwise) the new authority will make the rules.

Drew said...

You shouldn't derive your morality from authority is what I'm saying. You should derive it from sound reasoning and an understanding of what it means to be moral. I don't care what the majority thinks and I don't care what any gods think (if any exist at all).

While it's true that authority makes rules, they don't make morality. Am I understanding your point?

viridian1 said...

I thank you sincerely for transcribing this or if you didn't yourself, for posting it so I could easily find it. I've listened to it about a dozen times over the last 3 days and I still am captivated and inspired by it. Again, thank you.

Drew said...

@viridian1

Thanks! Yeah, I thought it was interesting enough to transcribe it and it gets a decent amount of views :)

Post a Comment