Written in response to an SMH article previewing Hitchens talk at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas (Syndey Opera House, 3 Oct 2009).

Hitchens should reveal his own dangerous idea

On ABC's 'Q&A' program this week, Christopher Hitchens, author of 'God is Not Great', put forward once more his fierce challenge to our moral sensibilities. According to Hitchens, moral right from wrong can be found apart from God. No doubt more of the same will be on show tonight at the 'Festival of Dangerous Ideas' when Hitchens speaks at the Opera House.

Indeed, Hitchens rejects the whole notion of religion, claiming that it attacks us humans in our 'deepest integrity' ('Heathens above: God's harshest critic smokes in the shower' SMH, 2 October, 2009).

For Hitchens, and the new crop of so-called `new-atheists', humanity has matured to the point of being able to eat its own solid food when it comes to morality.

Whilst he concedes some value in religion's support of early philosophical and scientific inquiry, our needs have moved on. The weaning must begin.

But I must say, Hitchens leaves me wondering, does this man believe his own words?

In his book, and sundry appearances, he is very quick to point out (in his well-regarded powerful style) that some of the worst kinds of human violence or intent are religiously based.

He cites Iran's theocracy, the ongoing disputes in Palestine, and of course, the abuses of the western church as unambiguous evidence.

Whilst I find myself moved by his accounting of such terrible acts, the question I have is why does Hitchens find them so ghastly?

You see, for Hitchens, and his new-atheist colleagues, they want to have it both ways.

To see this, consider Hitchens 'two arguments' (against God-derived moral authority), which provide a perfect example of this confusion: Hitchens first asks, 'Name me a moral kindness or action that [believers] can do because of their belief but that I can't', and then, `can you think of one evil action done by a religion person? You can, and you can think of another, and another.'

In quick succession, Hitchens has just assumed that you and I know what 'moral kindness' is when we see it (not to mention an 'evil action'). But unfortunately for Hitchens' 'arguments', this assumption is just not available to him outside of a God-given, authoritative and objective statement on right and wrong: what is an obvious 'evil action' to me could be an equally obvious 'good action' to you. Which of our views is right?

With God out of the picture, Hitchens' 'arguments' lack any meaning.

And herein lies the crucial, unspoken inconsistency of this line of new-atheist thinking.

On the one hand, God doesn't exist and is to be ignored, whilst on the other, God's authority on morality reigns supreme.

Either Hitchens is happy with such inconsistency (which I doubt, he's too respectful of intellectual rigor for that), or wisely chooses to avoid an attempt at a credible answer to the problem of defining morality without God. I say wisely, since I believe he knows that such an answer is inherently problematic.

Without God, when humans decide on what is right and wrong or good and evil (whatever these mean in a naturalistic world-view), their decisions are nothing but conventions amongst men. What will tomorrow's decision bring? Perhaps Hitchens should dwell more on the catastrophes of Stalinist Russia or China's Great Leap Forward for his next book.

If Hitchens' arguments have any impact today, it is because his audience's morality is still largely steeped in a Christian worldview. The audience can agree with him wholeheartedly on the sins of mankind because -- whether they acknowledge it or not -- they see it with eyes informed by Jesus of Nazareth.

If Hitchens were truly honest with us, he would publicise in full his own 'dangerous idea' to try and clear-fell the Judeo-Christian morality he continues to uphold.

Others have tried this. Peter Singer's more honest (though disagreeable) reflections on the value of animals and mankind are well known.

The choice for Hitchens tonight is clear: either there is no God, and so no objective morality here on Earth, or, God is alive and well and His morality alone will be the true measure of us all.

Over to you, Christopher.

Leviathan: sangus/HitchensDangerousIdeas (last edited 2010-02-05 10:06:17 by sangus)