I posted on this subject some time back, but I was listening to Michael Medved a little while ago, and he was interviewing God is Not Great author Christopher Hitchens, one of the new breed of so-called “militant atheists”. Hitchens is an able communicator, if a bit arrogant at points, but overall, I can stand him, which is good and productive for civil discourse. But Mr. Hitchens has raised a question with which he is obviously quite impressed, and equally impressed, if not moreso, than no one can answer his question; I paraphrase:
Name me one act of goodness which the “religious” person can perform, in the name of his religion, which I cannot as an atheist.
Now, leaving aside the entire question of even our “righteous deeds” being as filthy rags in comparison with the righteousness of God, I’m quite prepared to concede the point to Mr. Hitchens: I can think of none. In the next breath, I respond, “so what”, and in the breath after that, I respond that this is not a claim Christian faith makes, though I don’t know what other faiths might say (I carry no water for them anyway; Mr. Hitchens’ annoying and useless habit of lumping all faiths together under the one rubric of “religion” weakens, rather than strengthening, his case). I am not compelled in any way to answer Mr. Hitchens’ question, because I readily concede his point. What amazes me, though, is that a man of his obvious intellectual pedigree and ability finds this question germane to the point of God’s existence, or to the benefit of Christian faith, when in fact it is quite irrelevant, proves nothing, and distracts from the real issues. C.S. Lewis says as much in some of his writing: any man can, at least in theory, perform any noble/heroic/moral deed, for whatever motivation he may see fit. While no such “good deeds” can move any person one inch closer to God, we can acknowledge that atheists are capable of such deeds, while “religious” people are capable of heinous atrocities. Once again, these facts alone prove nothing.
However, there are two questions I’d pose in response to Mr. Hitchens, though, that are quite germane, that he’d have a difficult time answering, I feel certain.
Question 1: While an atheist certainly can perform such good and moral deeds, why should he? In other words, on what basis ought a person feel compelled to choose to perform some selfless act in a world devoid of God, the Ultimate Judge? I can easily answer the “should” question; can Mr. Hitchens do so convincingly? I think not.
Question 2: On what basis does Mr. Hitchens declare one action to be good and moral, and another to be evil?
The problem (well, let’s say, “one of the problems”) with the Christopher Hitchens’s of the world is that they profess to be concerned about moral goodness, make all sorts of pronouncements upon “religion” as being a source of moral badness, but have little (well, no) basis for making distinctions between good and bad in the first place. I’ve posed this question before to atheists, and I get a lot of bluster and hemhawing, but I’ve never once gotten anything approaching an intellectually-satisfying answer–because there is none. So if there are any atheists out there who’d like to take a crack at this one, have at it, but the next rational, reasoned response I get to these questions from an atheist will be the first…