Sunday, October 14, 2007

Faith Works 10-20-07
Jeff Gill

Atheism’s Superiority, Faith’s Humility

Christopher Hitchens is a brilliant writer on many subjects, a self-proclaimed contrarian, a former Trotskyite Marxist, and currently the most quoted anti-theist in the world.

His recent book is selling like ice water in . . . OK, I’ll restrain myself. It has the title “god is not great,” and the lack of a capital letter is not a typo.

His argument begins with Islamic fascism, where “Allahu akhbar,” “God is great,” becomes a background chant for murder and homicidal suicide, then quickly spreads, like sin in Sodom, across the entire religious landscape.

Religion, aka “theism,” is the source of pretty much all evil in the modern world.

How does this explain, oh, the slaughter begun by Leon Trotsky himself in the Lubyanka Prison, and continuing under Soviet communism long after his own party’s officials ordered his assassination in a Mexican exile just as World War II began?

Anyhow, the point is that Hitch, nonconformist in so many interesting ways and pursuer of truth and integrity in all things, believes that faith in a god is the biggest lie of all (his no-caps rule, not mine, but watch out for the new AP stylebook).
Candidly, I’d be perfectly happy to ignore him on this subject and keep reading his insightful coverage of world affairs and regional politics with great interest if a bit of skepticism, a skepticism he would encourage, to be fair. But he always feels the need to go on beyond “I don’t believe in any god or gods” to “and people who do are ruining everything!”

Which you would expect me to take personally.

Which I do.

But in the spirit of clarity and straightforwardness that Hitchens claims to pursue, in the steps of his spiritual mentor, George Orwell . . . wait, I mean journalistic mentor . . . I want to try to look at one of Christopher’s key arguments fairly and honestly.
In the seemingly endless book tour for “god is not great,” where he has debated all manner of comers (look up online the text of his Hugh Hewitt debate with Mark Roberts, where courtesy and coherence marked both sides), there’s one point Hitchens had made over and over.

“Ask yourself this question. Can you name one moral action, or moral utterance, performed or spoken by a believer that could not have been performed or spoken by an atheist?” That, he claims, is the killer argument, which no one has answered.
I would say, no one has answered to his satisfaction.

Which is the heart of the problem for people of faith debating with people like Hitch. My response to that challenge would be, “No, and I see no reason to insult you by trying.”


To claim that atheists can’t be or do moral things is incoherent and silly. Of course they do. Religious folk would say, privately amongst themselves out of courtesy, that one’s intention matters quite a bit. Maybe even eternally. The idea that we would say you can’t be a good person or do moral things until you share our beliefs is your angst, your issue, not ours.

But why would you be moral? Do you have a sustained case to be made for moral living? Even at that, I’ve heard non- and anti-theists make cases for a materialist ethic; they exist, and don’t automatically lead to a “state of nature, red in tooth and claw.”

Where I suppose I would play into Christopher’s “gotcha” game is the fact that what I do believe is that he, and others like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris grotesquely underplay the degree to which religious belief motivates goodness and caring and charity. For every heretic burned are a thousand thousand soup kitchens; for each bigot are visionary leaders building a society that works bottom up, not top down.

And I will go to the Heavenly bank on those ratios – that there are, and I’ve met them and worked alongside of them, atheists who do good works, and there is a force for good in religion that provides results of compassion and care much more reliably. Religion is a net good, even if it isn’t universally effective on adherents, and while atheism provides some delightful human beings, in general, the outcomes aren’t on Hitchens’ side.

In other words, give me 100 believers and 100 unbelievers, and I’m more likely to staff a food pantry out of the former.

Chris, I’m happy to have any help we can get to do God’s work from those who don’t believe, too. Bless you in your quest.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him what motivates you at

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