Anglican Samizdat

August 19, 2009

Christopher Hitchens’ atheist challenge

Filed under: Atheism — David Jenkins @ 9:58 am
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In debates, Christopher Hitchens issues the following challenge ad nauseam:

Name me an ethical statement made or an action performed by a believer that could not have been made or performed by a non-believer.

There is no entirely satisfactory answer to this since it is the wrong question. The point is not so much whether atheists could do the same ethical acts as believers, but do they?

In practice, they don’t: here is an illustration from someone who does not have an axe to grind since he is an agnostic:

A few weeks ago I was in hospital. The only visitors I received who were not relatives were Christian ones: five in all, including two Catholic priests. None of them tried to convert me – and I didn’t stop the evangelical layman who asked if he could say a prayer over me – but I appreciated their brief visits even though I told them I was no longer a believer. They were performing a charitable act, unselfishly and compassionately.

I didn’t get any hospital visits from atheist visitors. What might they have said to me: “This is as good as it gets, mate?” The fact that I am edging towards their camp – I guess I am at the agnostic stage – does not exactly cheer me. It just makes me sad.

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11 Comments

  1. Actually, his question is valid, but could be worded differently. I word it thusly: Name one GOOD AND TRUE thing faith gives us or justifies that reason does not.

    Comment by Kelly — August 19, 2009 @ 10:05 am

  2. So because we don’t try to convert people at the hospital, we’re unethical?

    The ethical thing is to leave the person alone to heal, or perhaps visit them and see if they’re getting better. But why do it to a stranger?

    The actual ethical thing to do is become a doctor, nurse or surgeon and help people heal. And many atheists do.

    “In practice, they don’t”

    You’re going to need more than an anecdote to back that up.

    Comment by morsec0de — August 19, 2009 @ 10:13 am

  3. Actually the question is pointless because it represents a complete straw man. The answer, of course, is that there is no ethical statement made or an action performed by a believer that could not have been made or performed by a non-believer.

    But the question then to be asked in response to any such ethical statement or action made or performed by a non-=believer is, “Why?”

    And to any and every answer given by an atheist, the next question is, “Why?”… ad nauseum. “Why, for any reason other than it is your opinion?”

    Comment by John K — August 19, 2009 @ 4:52 pm

  4. More than an anecdote? The lousy job that atheists do at helping the poor the sick the outcast is practically proverbial. You’re absolutely right, there isn’t any good that a Christian does that an atheist couldn’t do. It’s just that atheists, by and large, can’t be bothered or motivated to do good. I remember last year there was a big push on atheist blogs to get atheists out to donate blood on “World Day of Prayer.” One atheist wrote in, “Can’t I just fuck around and watch tv if I want?” That, sadly is the norm. Finally, if you’ll notice, the author of this post said that NONE of the Christians that came to visit tried to convert him. They were visiting the sick because it’s the right thing to do. Atheists are pretty good at SAYING “Just be good for goodness sake,” but actually doing good is another story – isn’t it.

    Comment by makarios — August 19, 2009 @ 4:55 pm

  5. Wow. I’m currently an Anglican but I’m seriously considering dumping the thing. (Although I’m going to have to work through the Milbank/Zizek material first.) A not-so-important, but considerable, reason to, in honesty, leave faith behind is exampled by what seems to be the spurious arguments herein exampled.

    The challenge put forth by Hitchens has two parts. The first part is recounted above, but the author has failed to reveal the second part, which, as I read it, possesses the actual force of Hitchens’ argument. To paraphrase, it asks, “Can you name me an evil deed that was justified by the doer’s religious conviction?” To which, no one considering the question, can help but recall immediately, the Crusades, 911, genital mutilation, etc., etc., ad nauseam.

    Comment by Senior Chavez — August 20, 2009 @ 4:58 pm

  6. Remember, Senior Chavez, that a whole host of evil deeds have been, and are, justified by their perpetrator’s atheist/materialist/political/evolutionist convictions. And once someone starts appealing to “liberation”/”liberalism” they can do absolutely anything they like! Only ecologism/environmentalism justifies evil more readily.

    Comment by John Thomas — August 21, 2009 @ 8:50 am

  7. % of population who believe in a god
    Sweden: 23%
    USA: ~90%
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_atheism#cite_note-12

    Intentional homicide rates per 100,000 population
    Sweden: ~1.83
    USA: ~5.71
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_intentional_homicide_rate

    “The point is not so much whether atheists could do the same ethical acts as believers, but do they? In practice, they don’t”
    Get your facts straight before you start condemning atheists for being selfish and immoral. An article based on one person’s experience just doesn’t cut it, however much you want to believe it. And just to be clear: I am not by any means trying to imply that religion causes homicides, I am simply pointing out that whatever makes for a good society, at least it is not religion.

    “evil deeds have been, and are, justified by their perpetrator’s atheist/materialist/political/evolutionist convictions.”
    Why do you put atheism in the same category as politics and “evolutionists”? Name one genocide committed in the name of atheism and keep in mind that atheism does not have anything to do with political fanaticism or “evolutionists” to do.

    Comment by kerry — November 8, 2009 @ 5:20 pm

  8. Name one genocide committed in the name of atheism

    I’ll give you three: Stalin’s, Pol Pot’s and Mao’s. They were political, obviously, but it was a politics inspired by atheism.

    Get your facts straight before you start condemning atheists for being selfish and immoral

    I think everyone is selfish and immoral; Christ redeems those who allow him to, though, and with his help, they become less selfish and immoral. Atheism does nothing of the sort.

    Comment by David — November 8, 2009 @ 6:26 pm

  9. I just want to know why so many atheists are always so angry?
    I asked this question on an atheist blog and people were swearing at me about it.
    Which proved my point.

    Comment by Patrick Kilborn — November 12, 2009 @ 11:44 pm

  10. Atheism isn’t a belief structure.
    This anecdote is flimsy.

    @ Patrick Kilborn – ‘atheist’ covers a wide group. I’m make the assumption these were intelligent people that, was it not for the fact they did not believe in a god, you would just see as ‘people’. People aren’t going to act particularly friendly to those who come in and immediately start being hostile towards them. I think they would be on the defensive, because people like to attack people with a lack of belief, it seems.

    @ David – errrr. Politics inspired by atheism? I don’t know of any political agenda that is inspired by a lack of belief in a supernatural being. You’ll have to do better than that.

    @makarios – “‘One atheist wrote in, “Can’t I just fuck around and watch tv if I want?” That, sadly is the norm’

    ‘That, sadly is the norm’
    ‘One atheist wrote’
    ‘Norm’
    ‘One’

    Do you have anything at all to suggest anything you’re claiming is even in the slightest bit true? (By ‘anything’ I mean ‘evidence’, not ‘this is what I think, therefore it is true”).

    Comment by edwardshallow — December 9, 2009 @ 7:02 am

  11. >I don’t know of any political agenda that is inspired by a lack of belief in a >supernatural being.

    Ever heard of Marxism?

    Comment by Kate — December 9, 2009 @ 8:09 am


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