Tag Archives: Christopher Hitchens

Why Russell was Wrong VI: Sin Disproves God?

sinappleIn the last section, I praised Russell for avoiding the trap I’ve seen other atheists fall into: the idea that dealing with Paley’s “Watchmaker” argument for God is the central or only argument for theism.

If he succeeds there, however, he falls into another trap that is common to the New Atheists (most notably, Christopher Hitchens): The idea that a divine creator would have done a better job of designing the universe. Russell writes:

When you come to look into this argument from design, it is a most astonishing thing that people can believe that this world, with all the things that are in it, with all its defects, should be the best that omnipotence and omniscience have been able to produce in millions of years. I really cannot believe it. Do you think that, if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years in which to perfect your world, you could produce nothing better than the Ku Klux Klan or the Fascists?

First, I’m left wondering why Russell seems to assume that God is concerned with efficiency. Without limitation in time or resources, why should he be concerned to develop life faster than he has?

But, to take his more visceral comment, the quip about hate groups is far from alien to New Atheist writings, and one wonders what they mean. Is the fact that people are often evil evidence against God? The Biblical authors seemed well aware of what they called “the sinfulness of mankind”, and hardly took it as a reason to doubt God’s existence. Rather, theists have always taken it as a reason to believe in free will–and our poor use of it.

I hear these kinds of remarks often, and they undoubtedly cross the line from an awareness of evil to blunt cynicism–seeing only the evils of the world as if that is the totality, or at least the essence, of life.

Surely, Russell does not literally mean to suggest that there is nothing in this world better than the Nazis. But, if not, why does he speak as if they are the standard by which all creation should be judged? How does Russell know that God wouldn’t allow these groups the same freedom of will he allows the rest of us?

And, perhaps more to the point, what standard is he using for the goodness of all creation, if not God? As many have shown, it is difficult to even say that a thing is evil unless there exists a transcendent source of goodness (i.e. God). Evil, then, comes closer to proving God’s existence than disproving it.

A more robust theory of life will acknowledge the good as well as the bad. And it should be noted that Christian theism has done exactly that. It seems completely incredible that so many can criticize “religion” (by which they seem to mean “Christianity as its opponents understand it”) for failing to see the problems in this thing called “life”, while simultaneously complaining about the negativity of the doctrine of the falleness of creation.

And this seems to be exactly what Russell is doing: citing hate groups (sin) as evidence against Christianity while (elsewhere) maintaining that people can be good without God. This is trying to have it both ways; people can’t simultaneously be too good to need God and too evil for the atonement to redeem creation, which is what would have to be true for Russell’s attack on Christianity to have validity.

Debate Slogans

Christopher Hitchens, once again, provides the best example for a difficulty I see in the current debates between the religious and secularists. The fact of sound-byte style debating is spread well beyond any particular subject, and the worthlessness of it is generally acknowledged.

Acknowledged, that is, until one happens to agree with the slogan.

For example, take Hitchens’ famous statement: “Science flies you to the moon; religion flies you into buildings.” Many defend this claim on the simple ground that it is a factual statement. In the most literal sense, it is no less factual than the any number of equally silly statements (Such as “Religion invented the hospital; science invented the atom bomb.”). But there is simply no legitimate truth to be found in such comments.

As much as Hitchens and others (including religious debaters) have been praised for introducing bombastic, though technically true, statements into the discussion, I find this appalling. A literal truth which horribly distorts the reality of a situation, flares up tempers, and is accepted without any serious reflection by many is anything but helpful. How much more, then, is the plethora of statements which fail even the test of literal truth?

The only real value I find in these statements is the speed with which they reveal to me which individuals are crude enough in thinking to believe that science or religion, in the abstract, is somehow responsible for the act of every scientist, theologian, or politician that ever grabbed upon their labels.












There are many religious practitioners who don’t seem to have realized that not all atheists are actively opposed to the practice of religion. Likewise, there are atheists who haven’t realized that religious individuals are not automatically committed to the idea that religion, in the abstract or general sense, is good.

We seek to win more often than we seek truth.

For this is how slogans work. They compress a vast and diverse group down into a caricature understandable by a small child. While there isn’t much hope that this form of debating will end, it is possible for us to oppose the technique when we see it. It will be this attitude, taken by countless people around the world, which may finally curb the idea that people can and should be persuaded without invoking them to think beyond a witty remark.

Skepticism or Fundamentalism?

Christopher Hitchens, when asked, said that he has never doubted his atheism. He claims to have tried, but apparently the thought that God exists was too ridiculous for him to seriously consider.

Anywhere outside of fundamentalism (be it Christian, Hindu, or atheist), the open admission that one has not seriously questioned one’s position since the age of nine comes at a deep cost to one’s credibility. Surely, Richard Dawkins should have immediately pointed out that Hitchens has nothing like a “scientific mind” on this issue – for good scientists do not go a lifetime without questioning their propositions.

But Hitchens knew what he was doing. As much as any thoughtful person would be taken aback by this admission of prejudice. He knew that his fans would revel in it. For this group, calling something too ridiculous to seriously consider is preferable to actually considering it – never mind that real criticism requires real consideration.

Of course, Hitchens has praised doubt – not about his own cherished view, of course – but doubt about the beliefs of others. He has claimed that doubt is deeply important for the advancement of society. Doubt is good, so long as it is doubt of religion: never doubt atheism.

But I agree that doubt of religion is good. Those who do not doubt their faith are no better off than Hitchens, who can hardly have been said to understand religion well enough to have rejected it. Indeed, Hitchens barely seemed to understand that doubt and rejection are different things. But an open mind requires more than trading one form of fundamentalism for another, and a mind too narrow to question its own beliefs is not inherently better for accepting atheism.

That is to say, doubt is a very good thing; unthinking rejection is not.

The New Atheism and Elections

It seems a particular point of contention among the New Atheists that the American public isn’t willing to vote for an atheist president. While there is definitely undue judgment directed at atheists in our culture, I’ve never understood this complaint.

It is not enough to glibly compare atheism to having dark skin. The entire concept of democracy rests on the people selecting a leader who shares their values. To suggest that religious conviction is not relevant to that selection is to presume atheism.

I’ve heard many from this group that they would vote for any candidate that is atheist, then immediately chide the religious for taking the same approach (voting exclusively for theists).

Traditionally, atheists seemed to understand this. They knew they were in an ideological minority, and didn’t demand that others vote against their own belief systems, just as I don’t demand that others vote for candidates who support my minority positions.

There is the irony, of course. Atheists are beginning to call themselves an oppressed minority which has been wrongly accused of being evil at precisely the historical moment in which their numbers are exploding and their civility toward theists is plummeting.

I, for one, am more impressed with the moral courage of those atheists who are willing to assert and defend the notion that God does not exist than those who simply claim to “lack belief” (as most New Atheists do). I am more pleased with the kindness of those who treat me with respect than with those who insult my intelligence simply because I disagree with them. I listen more intently to the arguments of those who have taken the time to understand theology than those who see no difference between an eighteenth century deist God and the God of Christianity (and show no interest in learning).

The New Atheists, in fact, have been named by others because they can’t seem to understand these differences. To read their books, one is left with the impression that they see thoughtfulness as the act of rejecting religious belief and respect as the way one treats other atheists. I’ve seen no attempt, not even a feeble one, to understand what it is theists actually believe.

In short, while I’d definitely prefer a candidate who reflects my views, I would seriously consider voting for an atheist. What I will certainly never vote for, however, is a New Atheist.