Just to finish off my write up of Christopher and Peter Hitchens’ debate on God here are the questions from the audience. I have put myself into the debate too and made a few comments! As before I have done my best to represent the words of the combatants fairly given my limited time and typing speed.
Question : Could you say something about self interest and morality.
Christopher : Human solidarity comes to people very naturally. The idea that people didn’t know that rape was wrong until they got a stone tablet that told them is an insult to our decency and integrity. [The Israelites] would not have got there without knowing those things. The story of the good Samarian tells us that we don’t need religion to behave with ordinary morality. The priest didn’t do anything. It’s in my interest that people don’t suffer. I want them to have a bath for my sake!
Peter : In societies that don’t believe in hell, hell comes into existence.
Me : Surly no one argues that you can only do good things if you believe in God. The argument is rather than God gives you a basis for morality. Without God is it really always in my best interest that others don’t suffer? What if I believe the opposite ie that it’s in my best interest to make others suffer? I spend my life hurting others and die at a ripe old age having led a selfishly enjoyable life. How does morality force itself upon me? Morality makes sense if there is a God.
Question : Is truth real and how do you determine it?
Christopher : The task of finding truth may be unattainable but that does not mean we should give it up. The golden rule was stolen by the Christians from Rabbi Hillel (“don’t do to other people what you would not want them to do to you”). Except they mangled it (my recollection of what he said). “Loving others as yourself” is unattainable and it is sinister because of that. It is demanded that you do the impossible. You will always be in the wrong and in the claws of the priests. You are created sick and commanded to be well.
Me : Jesus did fulfil his own the positive version of the golden rule but I guess that misses the point being made that fallen man can’t and should therefore not be held responsible when he doesn’t. The bible recognises a version of this question “why does God still blame us” Rom 9:19 but does not give a full answer. It does however point to God’s right to do whatever he wants with the creatures he created. Maybe looking back a bit at Genesis will be helpful. Man was made in the image of God with moral responsibly. He was original created good and choose to do good. It was only when he chose to do evil that his nature/will became corrupted. The problem is then why his offspring are still held responsible given that they inherit a faulty nature. I don’t know but I would not be so quick to make the analogy between wills and bodies, moral failure and sickness. They are too different to assume that an absurdity in one maps to an absurdity in the other. In terms of the priestly control issue, it’s true that people misuse or misrepresent the truth about God to manipulate others but it doesn’t follow that there is no God.
Question : We should stop letting churches off paying tax.
Christopher : Religion is poisoning our democratic republic and its time we said “enough”! BTW The green movement is taking on the forms of a religion. Original sin = humans existing! Sin = making smoke. Armageddon is coming and the way of Salvation lies in reducing our carbon footprint. Being environmental friendly is the new righteousness.
Question : What do you think about Intelligent Design
Peter : We do not know how things came into being. We should allow a hearing of various ideas including design. It’s telling that intelligent design arguments against evolution are not given space or tolerated. There has been a reversal of roles. Where once in the Stokes trial hard headed bible believing literalists tried to squash the discussion of evolution, now evolutionists are trying to kick out all talk of intelligent design.
Christopher : We need to separate the fact of evolution from the means of evolution. There is debate about the later but no serious intellectual publications dispute the former.
Me : On the one had there is the issue of whether there is a plausible interpretation of Genesis that fits with a valid scientific understanding of the past. I have explored that in my other blog http://marcusbible.blogspot.com/ and I am sure will continue to explore it. On the other hand there is the concept that sometimes get missed which is that God can and does sovereignly work through everything to accomplish his purposes. It is not a choice between creation or evolution as if he can’t work through a processes he set up, sustains and directs. He works through gravity and even human will to accomplish his purposes. If we look for God in the gaps we will look at him through a smaller and smaller window. We need to look for him in everything we know as well as everything we don’t know. We should glorify him for the rational order as well as exceptional miracles.
Question : What about subjective religious experience as giving us a valid window on reality?
Christopher : If you take the good subjective stuff you need to take the bad too. Someone says “God appeared to me and told me to help so and so” but someone else says “God appeared to me and told me to kill so and so”. You need to take both or none.
Me : Why do you have to take all experiences as valid or none of them as valid? Why not form a coherent picture of what you see and use it to discern good from evil, valid from invalid? We can often discern a vision or mirage from reality in the light of the sum total of our sensory experience and our rational thought. We don’t say “everything I see corresponds to reality or none of it”.
Peter : People do bad things. Both religious and atheists do bad things but religious people do more good than atheists and rejecting religion will lead to an increase in bad things being done.
Question : Trotsky preached atheism and hung priests form the back a his train.
Christopher : Atheism is a necessary condition for enlightenment but not a sufficient one. Fascism and right wing Catholics did the same things. Why was Gerbils was expelled form the catholic church? For marrying a divorced protestant that’s why! No other Nazis were expelled and more than 40% of the SS were practicing confessing Catholics. No one was even threatened with excommunication! The Nazi party and Catholic church where united on many things…Northern Korea is the most religions state I have ever seen….You find me a state that threw of theocratic religion and said we adopt the teachings of Lucreacions, Democratus, Darwin and Rustle and fell into tyranny and torture.
Peter: Both religious and non religious people do bad things. The most enlightened government in terms of its own self conceit was that of the French revolutionary terror which ended by executing so many people that the Place de la Concorde was ankle deep in blood and the executioners were too tired to finish their work. As for the soviet union, to portray the ideology and regime of that country as religious is an absurdity almost beyond belief requiring actually the most colossal nerve. It was a state that tried to murder God, it was a state of massacred priests, of desecrated and demolished churches in which people were brought up with enormous energy not to believe in God. There was no established religion there, no tax breaks for priests, nothing of that kind. A total, totalitarian horror of persecution of something which people believed to their own comfort in times of trouble and which they had to keep in their hearts privately if they wished to avoid being thrown out of their homes, jobs, and having their marriages deliberately destroyed though persecution. That was the state of it. This was not a religious phenomenon. It is straightforwardly untrue to conclude that it was. I have conceded the evils done by my side, why can’t you! Just simply except that the soviet union was an atheist regime which hated God.
Christopher : because it would be false, because the Russian orthodox church stood then as it did with Stalin…there was never a moment that the powers at be didn’t find that church convenient [and the means by which to perpetrate evil]. Russia was not an atheist state, it was a pseudo religious state, trading upon its teaching.
Peter : The Bolshevik region from its beginning persecuted religion. That was not a religious phenomenon.
Christopher : regions take time to be expelled once the clerical class has been removed.
Me : Of course bad rulers can misuse Christianity. That does not make Christianity false, or the ruler religious. The key question is whether the actions of a regime are motivated by a belief in God or a belief that there is no God? Were they consistent with a religious ideology or an atheistic one? The answer, surly, in the case of Stalin, was that they were motivated by a belief that God did not exist. As far as the Catholic thing goes, I want to ask whether what they did was in line with biblical Christianity?. If Christopher can specify a branch of atheism represented by people like Democratus, then fairness should allow the specification of a particular religion or holy Book. The complication of course is that in Catholicism the teaching of the church carries authoritative weight too. You can’t just go to a book and see if the actions were consistent with it. (I would hope though that if you consulted authoritative representatives of the Catholic church today they would be grieved by the actions of the church back then.) I say again, the teaching of Jesus and an understanding of the whole biblical narrative, stand in utter opposition to what Stalin did. I share Peter’s frustration (as well as other like Alistair McGrath’s in The twilight of Atheism) that Christopher won’t accept that Atheistic regimes did very bad things.
Question: How can we avoid falling into a fundamentalist frame of thinking. How can we sustain a modern secular response to medieval fundamentalist atrocities?
Christopher : In the Middle East, a partition plan isn’t being accepted even though most people are ok with it because each side appeals to religion, saying “God gave us this land”. This persuades others and the stalemate continues, expect that is the Christian USA can support the Jews long enough (as a rope supports a hanging man) they can bring on the battle of Armageddon which is what all religions yean for anyway. “We want this world to be over” they say. Coexistence with religion is impossible. Now you see why religion poisons everything.
Me : It strikes me that there is a lumping together of all religion rather than looking at what the bible says. Of course worshiping false Gods will include very bad things among good things. I would say some key distinctions need to be made between Christianity and other religions. Following Jesus, as presented in the NT, does not lead to violence, hatred, persecution etc. At the end of the day though, in a democracy any moral stance by the majority will affect other peoples choices. The hard part is to put the OT acts commanded by God in a context such that they do not draw biblical Christianity down into the mire, placing it, with seeming legitimacy, alongside other religious groups who commit atrocities in the name of God or religion. That’s hard, but I believe it must be possible.
For one, the people were evil in ways it’s hard for me to think about. That’s ok up to a point but it leads to the question about the death of innocent children. At this point the temperature of the discussion gets as high as it’s possible for it go. I can point to the consequences of one generations sin on another (if parents are cruel or negligent their children suffer) or the presumed absence of any other way to provide a Messiah. The trouble is, though these are valid points that help intellectually, emotionally they fell like squirting water into a raging furnace.
My “Encyclopaedia of Bible difficulties” also makes the point that destroying the inhabitants of cities like Jericho was the only possible way of protecting Israel and bringing through the messiah. When Israel didn’t clear the land of other nations they were negatively influenced by them and turned away from God. They didn’t have the same spiritual recourses that are available to Christians today. We have the Holy Spirit in us to empower us on mission. Rather than withdraw from the world we are to be in it, where we shine without getting snuffed out, and bring flavour without being diluted. For this to be available Jesus had to come, and for him to come Israel need to exist. At least it’s reassuring to know that the situation has radically changed and there is no way that these things can be legitimate ways of extending God’s purposes and kingdom. Our weapons are not physical but spiritual; Rather than fire bullets we reach out with words; instead of holding guns we serve with actions motivated by love (2 Cor 10:3-4). A double check on this is the truth that the things in the OT were shadows and pictures of the reality to come in Christ. The real challenge, it seems to me, is what would happen if you still accepted the OT but didn’t think the messiah had come. Would physical force, even genocide, to posses the land, still be a possibility?