washingtonpost.com
An Atheist Responds

By Christopher Hitchens
Saturday, July 14, 2007

It's uncommonly generous of Michael Gerson[" What Atheists Can't Answer," op-ed, July 13] to refer to me as "intellectually courageous and unfailingly kind," since (a) this might be taken as proof that he hardly knows me and (b) it was he who was so kind when I once rang him to check a scurrilous peacenik rumor that he was a secret convert from Judaism to Christian fundamentalism.

However, it is his own supposedly kindly religion that prevents him from seeing how insulting is the latent suggestion of his position: the appalling insinuation that I would not know right from wrong if I was not supernaturally guided by a celestial dictatorship, which could read and condemn my thoughts and which could also consign me to eternal worshipful bliss (a somewhat hellish idea) or to an actual hell.

Implicit in this ancient chestnut of an argument is the further -- and equally disagreeable -- self-satisfaction that simply assumes, whether or not religion is metaphysically "true," that at least it stands for morality. Those of us who disbelieve in the heavenly dictatorship also reject many of its immoral teachings, which have at different times included the slaughter of other "tribes," the enslavement of the survivors, the mutilation of the genitalia of children, the burning of witches, the condemnation of sexual "deviants" and the eating of certain foods, the opposition to innovations in science and medicine, the mad doctrine of predestination, the deranged accusation against all Jews of the crime of "deicide," the absurdity of "Limbo," the horror of suicide-bombing and jihad, and the ethically dubious notion of vicarious redemption by human sacrifice.

Of course Gerson will -- and must -- cherry-pick this list (which is by no means exhaustive) and patter on about how one mustn't be too literal. But in doing this, he makes a huge concession to the ethical humanism to which he so loftily condescends. The game is given away by his own use of G.K. Chesterton's invocation of Thor. We laugh at this dead god, but were not Norse children told that without Valhalla there would be no courage and no moral example? Isn't it true that Louis Farrakhan's crackpot racist group gets young people off drugs? Doesn't Hamas claim to provide social services to the downtrodden? If you credit any one religion with motivating good deeds, how (without declaring yourself to be sectarian) can you avoid crediting them all? And is not endless warfare between the faiths to be added to the list of horrors I just mentioned? Just look at how the "faith-based" are behaving in today's Iraq.

Here is my challenge. Let Gerson name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by a believer that could not have been uttered or done by a nonbeliever. And here is my second challenge. Can any reader of this column think of a wicked statement made, or an evil action performed, precisely because of religious faith? The second question is easy to answer, is it not? The first -- I have been asking it for some time -- awaits a convincing reply. By what right, then, do the faithful assume this irritating mantle of righteousness? They have as much to apologize for as to explain.

Essentially conceding that philosophy and secularism do not condemn their adherents to lives of unbridled selfishness, and that (say) the Jewish people did not get all the way to Mount Sinai under the impression that murder and theft and perjury were okay, and also that we could not have evolved unless human solidarity was in some way innate, Gerson ends weakly by posing what is a rather moving problem.

"In a world without God," he writes, "this desire for love and purpose is a cruel joke of nature -- imprinted by evolution but designed for disappointment." Again, he substitutes the wish for the thought. We very probably are, as he admits, not the designed objects of the Big Bang or of the process of natural selection. But this sober conclusion, objective as it is, is surely preferable to the delusion that we have been created diseased, by a capricious despot, and then abruptly commanded to be whole and well, on pain of terror and torture. That sick joke is one that we can cease to find impressive, that belongs in the infancy of our species, and gives a false picture of reality that we would do well to outgrow.

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author of "God Is Not Great."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company