This essay was previously published on AlterNet.
The death of Christopher Hitchens in December sparked an outpouring of tributes. Most of them praised his best qualities: his ferocious courage, his seemingly effortless erudition, and his crusading defense of free speech and rationalism. Of course, he had his faults as well – most notably his support for the Iraq war – and I was happy to see that relatively few of the eulogies, even those written by his personal friends, overlooked or excused this. Given how averse Hitchens himself was to whitewashing the lives of the deceased, I have no doubt that this is how he would have wanted it.
However, there was one in particular that caught my attention, this column in the New York Times, which had the following line:
Of course, he took on God, a dangerous occupation in the United States, declaring him not great and religion the product of a time when nobody “had the smallest idea what was going on.” Like Einstein, he viewed ethics as “an exclusively human concern with no superhuman authority behind it,” a position that sparked conflict with his journalist brother, Peter, who has argued that, “For a moral code to be effective, it must be attributed to, and vested in, a nonhuman source. It must be beyond the power of humanity to change it to suit itself.”
There’s something so ironic – almost Shakespearean – about two siblings whose viewpoints diverged so dramatically. But Peter Hitchens’ claim deserves a response, and since his brother is no longer around to give it, I guess that means it’s up to me.
So, here’s what I’d say to anyone who asserts the necessity of a non-human authority for ethics: As much as religion’s defenders would like us to believe otherwise, there is no non-human moral authority. Every religious text in the world was written, edited, translated, and printed by humans. All edicts, interpretations, decrees, proclamations and fatwas issued by churches are human opinions. If a huge, glowing set of tablets with commandments engraved on them descended from the sky accompanied by angels blowing trumpets, we’d be having a very different debate, but there is no such thing. All moral opinions come to us from human beings. The only question is whose opinions we should accept as normative, and why.
Religious apologists want to begin the debate with the presumption that their moral rules are divinely inspired, that their supernatural wisdom should be taken for granted, and that no human being could possibly be qualified to dispute them. Clearly, such a staggeringly enormous claim has to be proved, not just assumed. There are thousands of different religions in the world, each with their own, mutually incompatible moral codes, and each one claiming supernatural sanction. They can’t all be right, so even if you believe in a god who communicates with humans, there’s no reason to assume a priori that any one person or group claiming to have divine revelations is telling the truth. No matter what, the apologist who wants to claim supernatural warrant for his personally preferred morality can’t escape the need to give real evidence of a deity’s influence in its production. Mere appeals to faith are a poor and inadequate substitute.
To my surprise, when I first posted a version of this argument, Peter Hitchens himself showed up to contest it, writing the following comment:
As my book (‘The Rage Against God’) attempts to explain, we choose the belief we prefer. The only interesting part of this discussion concerns our reasons for our choices. I have found atheists, for the most part, reluctant to discuss this…
Religious believers are entitled… to speculate on why someone would not wish to be bound by an unalterable moral law. And they are justified in asking why this wish should be so profound that such persons actively desire that the universe should be a pointless and meaningless chaos, without design or purpose.
This statement is erroneous. I don’t believe the universe has intrinsic design or purpose, but that’s not because I desire it to be that way. It’s because I’ve concluded that that’s what the evidence supports; my desires about the matter are irrelevant.
The bizarre claim that we all believe whatever we most want to be true is easily disproved by a few examples. I would prefer for there to be a supernatural being that’s benevolently disposed toward humans and can be persuaded to suspend the laws of physics in our favor. I would prefer for my consciousness to survive the death of my brain. I would prefer for there to be an afterlife where all people are rewarded or punished as their actions deserve. In fact, I would also prefer for there to be a safe and effective cure for cancer, for global warming to be non-existent, and for me personally to be a billionaire. I would prefer all these things to be true, but I don’t believe any of them.
Nevertheless, Hitchens is pretty confident that the only reason people become atheists is to follow their desires. In fact, he’s confident that he knows what desire it is. In a subsequent comment, he explained:
An atheist in a society still governed by the Christian moral law has great personal advantages. The almost universal idea among the college-educated young, a sort of crude J.S. Mill belief that ‘nobody has the right to tell me what to do’ is a very powerful force in modern western societies, excusing as it does a great deal of sexual promiscuity and drug-taking which do immense damage and create huge unhappiness…
I wish I could say that this rhetoric was shocking. In fact, it’s the same kind of ugly prejudice that atheists hear far too often, the same accusation that’s leveled against every social reform movement: that we’re motivated not by honestly held convictions or a desire to right injustices, but a desire to overthrow morality altogether and live lives of mindless hedonism. It’s an old silencing tactic, one that was used against the first advocates of interracial marriage, and as this quote shows, it’s still going on today. (For the record, I’m happily married and monogamous, and the only intoxicant I’ve ever used is the occasional drink on social occasions. I have nothing against people who live their lives differently, but to suggest that this is the sole or even the most important motivation for being an atheist is a palpably ridiculous slander.)
Let me point out just the most obvious problem with this: if all we wanted to do was take drugs and have sex, why would we need to be atheists? We could just as easily convert to or make up a religion whose god blesses those activities. (The New Reformed Church of Dionysus, anyone?) The reason we haven’t done this is because we see the atheist position as the best-supported by evidence, regardless of how we feel about it.
But Hitchens goes on to compound the insult, telling us not just that we become atheists to indulge our own selfish whims, but that we hypocritically do it while counting on religious people to support our wanton lifestyle:
My conclusion, after dozens of such arguments, is that the atheist can see quite clearly the advantages of his unbelief… But he can also see that if these advantages would pretty rapidly disappear if everyone discovered them and exploited them.
…an atheist in a society in which the postman and the policeman, the doctor, the civil servant, the politician, the banker, and your employer, not to mention your next-door neighbours, are entirely free from universal moral obligations is, ah, more problematic. As we increasingly find out.
Once again, this outrageous insult completely fails to accord with the facts. There are atheist charitable volunteers, atheist firefighters, atheist soldiers and veterans, atheist civil servants – in fact, the deputy prime minister of Peter Hitchens’ own country, Nick Clegg, is an atheist. All these examples debunk the simplistic and insulting falsehood that people only become atheists because they want to live lives of selfish hedonism, all the while relying on sober and dutiful Christians to support them in their dissipation. The truth is that, lacking belief in an afterlife, atheists have a far stronger reason to care about this life, and to want this world to be the fairest and best place it can possibly be.
But the most serious problem with Hitchens’ viewpoint is that it’s contradicted by the evidence. What we see, in countries around the world, is precisely the opposite of what his theory would lead us to expect. Even as more people turn to atheism, rates of crime, divorce, and other societal ills don’t skyrocket: quite the contrary, they stay the same or even decline.
As sociologist Phil Zuckerman has documented, some of the highest rates of organic atheism in the world can be found in Canada, Australia, Japan and Europe, particularly the Scandinavian countries like Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland. And many of these same countries show up near the top in worldwide rankings of societal health indicators like life expectancy, child welfare, educational attainment, gender equality, and per capita income. As Zuckerman has found in his research, despite still having state-sponsored churches that they belong to for cultural reasons, most Danes and Swedes are completely indifferent to religion. It simply doesn’t play an important role in their daily lives. And far from collapsing into depravity or anarchy, these societies have remained free, secular, prosperous and peaceful.
And the correlation runs in the other direction as well. Sociologist Mark Regnerus, among others, points out that in America, the highest rates of teen pregnancy, divorce and sexually transmitted diseases are highest in the religious, socially conservative “red” states (in most of which abstinence is taught to the exclusion of all else), while in the more liberal and more secular “blue” states, young people tend to marry later, start families later, and have lower rates of divorce. The conclusion from Regnerus’ research: “religion is a good indicator of attitudes toward sex, but a poor one of sexual behavior, and… this gap is especially wide among teen-agers who identify themselves as evangelical.”
Despite what this data seems to show, I don’t believe that atheism makes people better or that religion makes them worse. I think there’s a third, common factor that explains both patterns: as societies become more prosperous, more stable and more peaceful, people see increasingly less need for the consolations of religion. On the other hand, in societies that are wracked by instability or suffering from pervasive poverty and severe inequality, people are more likely to turn to religion as a means of solace.
But this fact still undermines Peter Hitchens’ claim that religion is necessary for morality. The truth is that, in most cases, religion isn’t especially important to morality. Material factors like education, per capita income, and job availability are far more potent predictors of a society’s success. As Zuckerman puts it, “high degrees of non-belief in God in a given society clearly do not result in societal ruin, and high levels of belief in God do not ensure societal well-being.”
I do agree that belief in a divine origin, whether true or not, makes moral ideas harder to change. But that’s only a good thing if those ideas are themselves good – and many religious ideas manifestly are not. The “nonhuman source” that religious authorities appeal to is the same one that’s been invoked in support of absolute monarchy, of theocracy, of slavery, of genocide, of patriarchal demands for women’s submission, of racial segregation, of anti-gay prejudice, of the diminution of reason and free inquiry, and of many other evils past and present. Precisely because all these ideas were claimed to come from a non-human source, it was and is much harder to change them than it otherwise would have been.
But despite resistance from religious conservatives, we have changed our moral views in many ways, and humanity is far better off for it. We no longer buy and sell human beings as slaves, as the Bible permits us to do; we no longer stone disobedient children to death, kill friends and family members who convert to a different religion, or require rape victims to marry their rapists, as it commands us to do. Hitchens’ argument fails to come to terms with all this progress. (Also, need I point out the irony of a confirmed member of the Anglican church arguing that we have to depend on unchanging religious laws? You know, the denomination that was founded because one guy wanted to change a religious law forbidding divorce?)
The expansion of rights for women and minorities, the spread of democracy and separation of church and state, the rise of science and the Enlightenment – all these undeniably positive trends occurred in the teeth of fierce resistance from religious defenders of the status quo. Every time, the church authorities warned that changing the way things had always been was in opposition to God’s will and would surely bring disaster. And almost every time, once the change happened anyway and no disaster resulted, those same authorities switched sides and pretended they had been supporters all along.
This proves the point that every moral code, whether theistic or atheistic, changes over time as we gain new knowledge and our perspective widens. Churches and religious apologists don’t like to admit this, since it undermines their claim to be in possession of perfect moral truth from the beginning; which is why they’re usually the staunchest defenders of old and unjust systems and the very last ones to bend to the tide of progress, causing much needless human suffering in the meantime. They’d be much better off if they’d simply admit that there is no non-human moral authority, admit that their holy books and doctrines contain moral errors, and then join the rest of us living in the real world and using conscience to figure out how we can achieve the greatest good.