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
Notes From My Knapsack 10-21-07
Jeff Gill

Ah, Wilderness!

Henry David Thoreau and John Muir and Terry Tempest Williams, nature writers and essayists, all tell us about the necessity of a little wilderness to temper our civilized lives.

Orion Magazine and the Audobon Society and the National Parks and Conservation Association each try to get us involved in the story of preserving natural preserves and wilderness zones. The Lovely Wife and I support the work of groups like The Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Education Council of Ohio to that end.

With global climate change on the radar screen for political parties across the spectrum and in nations around the globe (and hey, congrats, Al, on that Nobel Prize), there’s a key role for each of us to play in supporting and safeguarding special places from the Licking Park District properties to UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

This all shouldn’t make us forget that we live in an ecosystem, right now. Your lawn is growing and respiring and decaying, the ditch down the road or over the fence may be an unintentional xeriscape or pocket tallgrass wetland, and that overgrown bush on the corner is harboring a flock of migrating songbirds.

The idea that all of the outdoors can be neatly divided into man-made and natural is the source of a great deal of confusion. Licking County can be limned into myriad zones of naturalness, from the pristine – well, maybe not – to the paved. In between is a spectrum, with gradations subject to the eye of the beholder.

One such zone that needs more awareness and understanding is “Edge.” An edge is a transition from one natural type to another, so a woods edge is one, and a pond edge is another. We don’t think of “Edge” as a natural location the way we do “Swamp” or “Prairie,” so we discount it.

One way we do hear about edge-ness is in the old-growth forest debate, because animals like the infamous spotted owl live in vast, unbroken tracts, and a Hundred Acre Wood with a road driven through the middle of it is now not only two fifty acre woods, but neither is as welcoming a habitat for Owl, Eeyore, and Pooh, or I should say their natural analogues.
More to the point, there are animals that prefer “Edge” as their habitat, just as owls need deep woods with aged trees. Can you guess some?

Of course you can! Yep, deer go for forest edge, and Canada geese go for pond edge. Increase little pockets o’ trees with lots of edge, and you get plenty o’ deer. Put in drainage ponds hither and yon across the landscape, and put an aerator in to keep the ice from freezing right across, and the Canada geese don’t migrate south for the winter.

Aby Johnson, one of the stalwarts of Camp Falling Rock for the Boy Scouts, reminds us that deer were non-existent in Ohio from before 1900 to about 1950, and through the 50’s, the Newark Advocate always ran reported sightings of white-tails on the front page of the sports section, until 1960 when they became a bit too common.

Now, they regularly put on the front-page stories of how villages and cities are working on plans to shoot deer.

We have a glut of deer because we’ve created an ideal habitat for them, in reproductive terms, anyhow, and we helpfully plant seasonal foodstuffs for them like tulips and petunias and day lilies. They thank you by having more children, and doubtless naming them after you in gratitude.

Plus, we forbid hunting. Out in the townships where they plant corn, they also carry carbines in the combine and rifles in the pickup gun rack. They have many deer, but not quite so many even with more and better food.

So the deer will be shot, and then . . .

What will happen next? The only thing I’m sure of is . . . something will happen. Nature abhors a vacuum, said Spinoza, and we live in nature, whether suburban, rural, or urban alley.

What defines your local ecosystem? Ditches that funnel run-off, nearby streams, lines of trees surrounded by knee-high growth of, stuff, a slope here, a clump of bushes over there. Where do rabbits come out of, and how many bird-feeders get pillaged by masked bandits (another edge fan, by the way)?

Mountaintops have their allure, but just as Thoreau said “I have traveled widely in Concord,” why not get more familiar with your own piece of nature? It may help us figure out how to manage it more wisely.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher who has traveled widely in Licking County; tell of your travels at