Religion vs. Atheism

I first heard about this book through Books & Culture, and having finished it just now, I would suggest everyone read it–no matter what you believe.

Reason #1: The book is 67 pages.  You can read it in a jiffy.

Reason #2:  The two debaters on either end of the spectrum (religion vs. atheism) go at it with a delightful electric wit, but I think they maintain a sort of gentlemanliness that soars over the mean sarcasm that’s rampant in most discussions of this sort.

As you may know, Christopher Hitchens is the author of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, and Douglas Wilson is the author of Letter from a Christian Citizen, which was a rebuttal to atheist Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation.

I have to be honest, though.  I found holes in some of the arguments (on both sides), and I found myself wanting to interject my questions.  Basically, Wilson demands that Hitchens come up with a code or a basis for conduct, if Hitchens doesn’t believe in God, meaning that there could not possibly be a standard for behavior if there weren’t a God.  This would be my question for Wilson: why are there so many atheists who are good people?  If Christians own the market on God, why isn’t their behavior any better than an atheist’s?  People of all beliefs burn DVDs illegally; people of all beliefs drive faster than the speed limit; people of all beliefs sneak into a second movie theater for the price of one; people of all beliefs steal paperclips and tape and notepads from their jobs; people of all beliefs have affairs; people of all beliefs fudge the numbers on their accounts.

You might say that all of the above behaviors could be covered by the basic ten commandments, and that’s when true law began, but I would like to say that ancient people knew right from wrong before God came along.  The Mesopotamians had laws, specific laws, dealing with merchandise transactions, marriage agreements, adultery punishments, and cattle disputes.  Hitchens might say that this was because they were fearful of their gods (religion is the bad guy in Hitchens’s view).  Hitchens maintains that “having” God or “not having” God hasn’t solved anything over time, and he’s right in the sense that evil continues to abound: “You {Wilson] say, incidentally, that this kind of law was bringing coals to Newcastle–Moses came down from the mount and told people that murder, theft, and perjury were wrong, and all the assembled rolled their collective eyes.  ‘We already knew that!’ But the problem is that ancient man didn’t know that, and modern man still doesn’t know it.”  We’re still in the same boat today that we were back then–morally speaking.

Wilson then asks Hitchens to explain how mankind could come up with some agreed-upon standard if everyone were evolving still (morality included), as Hitchens believes.  Wouldn’t “bad” people really be “different” people, people “just not as evolved”?  Hitchens never answers this, and I wanted him to.  He shrugged it off as something that couldn’t be answered.  But when you’re designing a society from the ground up, you need some solid data, some immutable laws.

The overriding question of the book  is: Does knowing what’s “bad” and “good” originate from acknowledgment of the supernatural, or is morality innate and separate from any notion of a higher being?

One thing that Hitchens said rang true, but I would like to say that it applies to Hitchens, too–if he’s blasting away on the another person who believes differently from him.  He says, “Your [Wilson’s] Christianity, in case you have not noticed, has actually made you a less compassionate and thoughtful person than, without its exorbitant presumptions, you would otherwise be.”

And that’s today’s question.  “Can anyone do good works?  Can anyone do worthy things?  No matter what they believe?”  I believe they can.  The only difference between a moral atheist and a good Christian, then, shouldn’t, outwardly be much.  Their perspectives, though, will differ drastically, but that’s each’s personal journey of faith, and that cannot be imposed on anyone else.

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The quote I live by

Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.
--Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet

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