Peter Hitchens on God and Brother

Christopher Hitchens brother, Peter Hitchens, shares his thoughts in the Mail Online.  

Read his full account, but I’m particularly unsatisfied with his argument about morality.

One of the problems atheists have is the unbelievers’ assertion that it is possible to determine what is right and what is wrong without God. They have a fundamental inability to concede that to be effectively absolute a moral code needs to be beyond human power to alter.

First of all, of course if a moral code is absolute then human power (or any other power) can’t alter it. But absolute and objective are two different things. There may or may not be “absolute” morality.  If there is I don’t see how a God gets you there – can He change it? If so, it isn’t so absolute, is it? If it’s beyond Him than He’s superfluous anyway.  Also, even if God is able to command an absolute morality I’m curious how we are supposed to know what it is. It can’t be the bible. Peter Hitchens somehow writes this without noticing his Christian God’s support for these types of acts,

Left to himself, Man can in a matter of minutes justify the incineration of populated cities; the deportation, slaughter, disease and starvation of inconvenient people and the mass murder of the unborn. 

So, since no one knows God’s true will, humans are left to figure out morality on their own anyway. If morality is focused on the question of human (and animal) well-being – which I think clearly it is – there are certainly objective answers to discover about an action’s effect on suffering, happiness, societal stability, freedom, and all other components of well-being.  As I’ve discussed before, generations of thinkers have contributed to moral philosophy without appealing to a supernatural diety. Let me again recommend Michael Sandel’s online Justice course for a great introduction. Also, our entire modern legal system is based on secular reasoning. So even in practical terms humans can do a decent job regulating morality without supernatural invocations (of course this is somewhat a separate question).

I won’t go through Hitchen’s entire piece but this stuck out to me for its obvious inconsistency. (my emphasis throughout)

I am also baffled and frustrated by the strange insistence of my anti-theist brother that the cruelty of Communist anti-theist regimes does not reflect badly on his case and on his cause. It unquestionably does.

Soviet Communism is organically linked to atheism, materialist rationalism and most of the other causes the new atheists support. It used the same language, treasured the same hopes and appealed to the same constituency as atheism does today. 

When its crimes were still unknown, or concealed, it attracted the support of the liberal intelligentsia who were then, and are even more now, opposed to religion.

Another favourite argument of the irreligious is that conflicts fought in the name of religion are necessarily conflicts about religion. By saying this they hope to establish that religion is of itself a cause of conflict. 

This is a crude factual misunderstanding. The only general lesson that can be drawn is that Man is inclined to make war on Man when he thinks it will gain him power, wealth or land.

He really advances these arguments back-to-back. Whether or not religion is true, its effect on human behavior is irrelevant to religion’s veracity. Can we just explode the perception that religion necessarily makes one good and atheism makes one amoral.  Atheists, of course, can be bad but they need a corrupt moral outlook in addition to their non-belief to do bad things. Believers, of course, can be good, but religious beliefs beyond just thinking God exists can cause religiously motivated cruelty. 

The terms are too often confused which leads to misunderstanding. Atheism and Religion are not opposites. One could conceivably believe in God but not be religious. Soviet Communism like other secular belief systems might have atheism as a property but they are not atheism. Atheism is just non-belief in Gods. This continues to show why the word atheism (and similar words) should probably just be abandoned. If someone believes in God that tells you nothing about their morality. Just as a secular xenophobic belief, for example, could lead to immoral actions, a dogmatic religious belief can have negative effects as well. Notice I didn’t write “atheistic belief;” there is no such thing.  There are beliefs by atheists and secular beliefs which are beliefs that are unconnected to religion. Whether secular or religious, beliefs cause actions – good, bad, or neither. 

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