13 January 2008

Christopher Hitchens: Self-Satisfied Sophist?

I'm rather fond of On Faith, the Washington Post's forum for discussing religion; at the moment, as well as the usual discussion topic, you can watch a fairly substantial interview with Christopher Hitchens, who explains at some length his deep-seated opposition to religion, his contempt for religion and religious people, why he believes Islam in particular to be deeply dangerous, and why for all that he believes in the importance of religious education, even going so far as to opine that creationism should be taught in schools, albeit not -- rightly -- in science classes.

It's fascinating to watch, not least to marvel at how gifted a speaker Hitchens is: he comes across as urbane, charming, witty, and supremely articulate, all of which serves to marvellously mask his sophistry. Yes, sophistry. It's worth listening to him very carefully, because if you do it'll not take long before you start to realise how flimsy his arguments really are.

In explaining his atheism, he cites Paschal's observation that some people are simply unable to believe in God. Having done that he casually treats this observation as a scientific fact -- he says that perhaps 10 or 11 per cent of people are incapable of religious belief. I would love to know what he's talking about here. Is he claiming that some people simply lack cytosine at a particular spot in VMAT2, the so-called 'God gene', the discovery of which was so proudly trumpeted two or three years back? Even if this was what he had in mind, it wouldn't prove anything: the absolute most that can be said about Dean Hamer's research into this 'God gene' is that it demonstrates that some people are biologically inclined to be more 'spiritual' that others. It's entirely possible to believe in God in some sense, with this belief being wholly rooted in reason, without being remotely spiritual. Certainly the Catholic Church -- of which half of all the world's Christians are members -- has always maintained that the act of faith has its seat in the intellect, rather than the emotions.

Still, Hitchens claims that he didn't so much become an atheist as realise that he was one. He apparently discovered this when very young; he tells a story of a teacher trying to persuade him of how the existence of God could be demonstrated from how our world surrounds us in greenery, the perfect colour for putting us at our ease. In essence, she was using a version of the argument from design. Hitchens intuitively knew that this was codswallop, that surely the causal relationship was the other way around!

It's a fair point, the argument from design is a very easy target, the ropeyness of which has enabled Richard Dawkins to rake in heaps of cash over the years. As Ronald Knox so well demonstrates both in The Belief of Catholics, and in his sermon 'The Cross-Word of Creation' -- published in 1927 and 1942 respectively -- the argument from design is really no more than a foolish and dangerous corruption of the argument from order. As he explains in the latter piece, which reads better as an essay than I'm sure it ever sounded as a sermon, the argument from order, as distorted into the argument from design is:
'on the whole, the stupid man's argument [...] also it is the argument which is most discussed nowadays, partly for the same reason, and partly because the scientific materialists are always discovering, every fifty years or so, that they have now found a way of giving it its death-blow. [...] I don't believe that St Thomas meant to use the argument from design when he gave his fifth proof. I don't think what impressed St Thomas was the fact that everything conspires together for a beneficient purpose; what impressed him was the fact that things conspire together at all.'

Words mean what I SAY they mean...
Hitchens's story of his childhood epiphany is an interesting one, and certainly explains where he's coming from in the main, but I cannot see any explanation for his nonsensical endeavours to prove that agnostics are really atheists:
'If you say you don't believe, which is what an agnostic has to say, because an agnostic says "I can't decide," well, it means you don't believe in God, otherwise you would have decided. Well, if you don't believe, you're an atheist. Q.E.D.'
Rot, of course, and there's no justification for his smug smirk after coming out with such tosh. It's not that all those who don't believe in God are atheists -- if that were the case then babies, unconscious people, dogs, and trees would probably all qualify as atheists. Atheists are not those who don't believe there is a God; atheists are those who do believe there isn't a God! Atheism is a positive belief in a negative, not a negative belief in a positive! Strictly speaking, what we colloquially call 'atheism' is what philosophers more accurately refer to as naturalism or materialism.

Actually, Hitchens goes even further than claiming that all agnostics are actually atheists, saying that he doesn't believe that anyone is really religious, that he's sure that nobody believes in a personal God, led alone an interventionist one, they just pretend to, or wish they could. He can believe what he wants on that, of course, since none of us really knows what goes on in anyone else's head; it's when he twists logic to argue that agnostics are really atheists by definition that I get annoyed.

He gets away with a lot in this interview purely by redefining terms to suit himself, as it happens, perhaps most strikingly when the interviewer doesn't pick him up for the absurd claim -- uttered as an aside to a discussion of the tale of the Good Samaritan -- that none of Jesus' disciples could have been Christians becauses they hadn't read the New Testament!

For Hitchens then, it would seem that being a Christian demands both that you should be able to read and that you should have read the New Testament. This is ludicrous, and denies the title of Christian to the vast majority of Christians throughout history, not least all those who lived before the New Testament was effectively canonised by the Church of the Fourth Century. The term 'Christian' simply means 'follower of Christ' -- or, more literally 'one who belongs to Christ', and it is in that context that the New Testament records the term as having first been used at Antioch, and that St Ignatius of Antioch uses the term of himself a few decades later, the first Christian we have a record of so doing.

Religion is apparently about pestering your neighbours...
Despite his constant warring on religion and the religious, Hitchens purports to believe Thomas Jefferson had it right when he wrote in 1782 that 'it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.' You might wonder then why he feels a need to be so vociferous about his atheism, but I think he adequately explains it when he says:
'In the last instance the religious person cannot keep to a promise to leave me out of it, because he wouldn't be true to himself -- or herself -- if he said "I'm not going to bother you with what I think," because that's watching me go to Hell, and how can a friend do that?'
It explains why he does what he does; it doesn't for a moment mean that the explanation is correct. He's ignoring the fact that religious friends might pray for him, unbeknownst to him; granted, he wouldn't value this, but that wouldn't obviate its righteousness in his friends' eyes.

Further, aside from what he ignores, he's assuming that evangelism must be a vocal and intrusive thing. It certainly can be that, but it need be nothing of the sort, and can simply take the form of evangelizing by example, something which is often rather more effective than just spouting Scripture at people: think of the famous exhortation so often attributed to St Francis of Assisi that we should 'preach always, and when necessary use words.'

One Emperor is much the same as another...
Part of problem with Hitchens is that he's so confident in what he says in that marvellously rich voice that unless you're paying very careful attention you're liable to simply trust him when he starts reeling off stuff about religion arising at a time when people didn't know the earth was round, or when people thought the earth was about 6,000 years old, or when he comes out with this:
'In a way the first efforts at philosophy are made by the schoolmen, if you like, by people who were in holy orders. Apparently no one else was allowed to practise it after the Christian empire closed the schools of philosophy in Greece after Justinian made Christianity the official religion of the empire. After that happened, philosophy was a branch of religion.'
Yes, of course he's right to say that during the medieval period philosophy was pretty much studied solely by monks and friars; but then, it's hard to think of anything in the Middle Ages that wasn't studied more of less exclusively by monks and friars! And yes, it's obvious that when he says 'the first efforts at philosophy' he means 'the first modern efforts at philosophy', so he shouldn't really be picked up on for that, but as for the rest of it?

It was Theodosius -- not Justinian -- who in the late Fourth Century made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire. Justinian's closing of the Athenian schools -- part of a general programme to suppress religions other than orthodox Christianity -- didn't take place until 529 AD, so a good century and a half after Theodosius had decreed Christianity the state religion. It's worth pointing out that this isn't an insignificant bit of accidental conflation: for all that Justinian called his empire a Roman empire, his was really that which history remembers as the Byzantine empire. Despite the conquests of his general Belisarius in Italy and Africa, Justinian's imperium consisted of little more than Asia Minor, the Balkans, the Levant, and the newly reconquered Italy and North Africa. His successors' empire rarely stretched far beyond Asia Minor itself.

As such, Hitchens' is massively overplaying the importance of the closing of the Athenian schools; it had a massive effect on Athens, of course, reducing the city to provincial insignificance, but it's difficult to see how he could maintain that this had a massive effect on philosophical thought in the successor kingdoms of the West. They had other concerns.

Morality and monkeys...
I was glad to see him addressing the issue of morality in the interview, although that part of the discussion is cluttered with straw men and red herrings, not least in his laughable attempt to equate social solidarity with morality.

He claims that animals have a sense of social solidarity, and that we have it innately, simply by virtue of being primates: the only thing that's special about us, he insists, is that we're the only animals that think so highly of ourselves that we think we must have got our sense of morality from something divine!

That's fighting talk, but it's not as potent as it sounds: shouldn't he have stopped that sentence when he reached the word 'think'? After all, does he think animals are self-conscious, or that if they are that they are self-conscious but humble, recognising their own sense of social solidarity but thinking, well, it's just like blood, isn't it? It's just one of those things that goes with being alive and moving around?

So for Christopher Hitchens, then, morality is innate; the Golden Rule, as classically formulated by -- he says -- Confucius, is something which most people are born knowing. It's simply common sense that you should treat others as you would have them treat you, unless, I suppose, you're in a position of authority in a University.

I think he's right, up to a point. The Golden Rule is indeed common sense. Everyone knows that it's nice to be nice. But is it more than that? Is it good to be nice? What do we mean when we say things are good? Aren't we assuming that there is a standard of goodness by which things are judged? Because if there isn't, if there isn't an objective morality, then the Golden Rule really is reduced to a trite observation that it's nice to be nice.

It is, of course, but that doesn't offer any answers to someone in a position of power, who knows that he can do whatever he likes to people, happy in the conviction that they will never be able to do the same to him. You can imagine the scene, I'm sure:
'But sire, you shouldn't burn down villages because the people haven't paid their taxes!'
'And why not?'
'Well, how would you like it if they came and burned down your castle?'
'Is that likely to happen?'
'Well, no...'
'So, your point is?'
This what happens when we confuse morality in the sense of a 'moral law' with morality as understood as meaning our moral perceptions, or even our our moral habits. There may be no 'moral law', of course, but if there is, then this is a fact with consequences.

The other aspect to this issue is whether or not belief in God inherently renders religious people more moral than atheists and agnostics. I hate when people say things like this, wheeling out nonsense about people being religious as grounds for assuming that they're to be trusted, as though atheists are somehow less trustworthy by virtue of their beliefs. It's offensive, but more importantly it's blatantly wrong and something to which no thoughtful religious people would subscribe. For all that, though, it's a favourite straw man for the likes of Hitchens to tear to pieces, presumably because it's so ridiculous a claim. He surely can't be so stupid as to believe that religious people, as a rule, believe this.

His favourite way of shredding this straw man is to ask a question, a question to which he says he has never received a satisfactory answer:
'Can you name a moral action or a moral statement made by somebody who's a believer that couldn't have been made by a nonbeliever or uttered by one?'
Apparently nobody has ever been able to answer this. He says somebody once ventured 'exorcism' but he said that that wouldn't count; I'm not entirely sure why, but even if that's excluded I can still think of two answers,bpth of which I suspect Christopher H would rule both out of bounds.

One is petitionary prayer. Only a religious person can pray for something to happen -- or at any rate for his or her will to be united with that of God in willing that something should happen. And assuming that what's being prayed for is something good for somebody else, then surely this constitutes a moral action. Granted, Hitchens might consider it an action devoid of efficacy, but surely he'd have to recognise it as a moral action nonetheless. Its inspiration and motive would have been wholly good, and its execution would have been a moral action that no atheist could perform.

And what of prayers of thanks, and prayers of worship? Isn't the expression of gratitude a moral act? And yet who can an atheist thank for Creation itself? Hitchens might rave about the majesty of the Universe, he might talk about how humbled by it he feels and about how awed he is by its beauty, but assuming that there is a Creator, he can never thank Him.

Indeed, you might wonder about societies beyond our own, where they have different concepts of morality than us, including a higher sense of the sacred. There are probably loads of moral things they could do, by their lights, that atheists could never do. Of course, Hitchens would probably rule these out of court as not matching his definition of 'morality', but that merely opens the question of what is morality, because for most people in the world morality goes beyond 'it's nice to be nice'.

That's just me thinking. I'm sure you can do better.

No comments: