Once Again, Believers Have it Wrong: Atheists Don't Just Want Sex, Drugs, and Lack of Morality
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The death of Christopher Hitchens last month sparked an outpouring of tributes. Most of them praised his best qualities: his ferocious courage, his seemingly effortless erudition, and his crusading defense of free speech and rationalism. Of course, he had his faults as well -- most notably his support for the Iraq war -- and I was happy to see that relatively few of the eulogies, even those written by his personal friends, overlooked or excused this. Given how averse Hitchens himself was to whitewashing the lives of the deceased, I have no doubt that this is how he would have wanted it.
There was one item, however, that caught my attention -- this column in the New York Times, which had the following line:
Of course, he took on God, a dangerous occupation in the United States, declaring him not great and religion the product of a time when nobody "had the smallest idea what was going on." Like Einstein, he viewed ethics as "an exclusively human concern with no superhuman authority behind it," a position that sparked conflict with his journalist brother, Peter, who has argued that, "For a moral code to be effective, it must be attributed to, and vested in, a nonhuman source. It must be beyond the power of humanity to change it to suit itself."
There's something so ironic -- almost Shakespearean -- about two siblings whose viewpoints diverged so dramatically. But Peter Hitchens' claim deserves a response, and since his brother is no longer around to give it, here's my take.
As much as religion's defenders would like us to believe otherwise, there is no non-human moral authority. Every religious text in the world was written, edited, translated, and printed by humans. All edicts, interpretations, decrees, proclamations and fatwas issued by churches are human opinions. If a huge, glowing set of tablets with commandments engraved on them descended from the sky accompanied by angels blowing trumpets, we'd be having a very different debate, but there is no such thing. All moral opinions come to us from human beings. The only question is whose opinions we should accept as normative, and why.
Religious apologists want to begin the debate with the presumption that their moral rules are divinely inspired, that their supernatural wisdom should be taken for granted, and that no human being could possibly be qualified to dispute them. Clearly, such a staggeringly enormous claim has to be proved, not just assumed. There are thousands of different religions in the world, each with their own, mutually incompatible moral codes, and each one claiming supernatural sanction. They can't all be right, so even if you believe in a god who communicates with humans, there's no reason to assume a priori that any one person or group claiming to have divine revelations is telling the truth. No matter what, the apologist who wants to claim supernatural warrant for his personally preferred morality can't escape the need to give real evidence of a deity's influence in its production. Mere appeals to faith are a poor and inadequate substitute.
To my surprise, when I first posted a version of this argument, Peter Hitchens himself showed up to contest it, writing the following comment:
As my book ('The Rage Against God') attempts to explain, we choose the belief we prefer. The only interesting part of this discussion concerns our reasons for our choices. I have found atheists, for the most part, reluctant to discuss this...
Religious believers are entitled... to speculate on why someone would not wish to be bound by an unalterable moral law. And they are justified in asking why this wish should be so profound that such persons actively desire that the universe should be a pointless and meaningless chaos, without design or purpose.