Dawkins and Hitchens ask Rhetorical Questions:
Does Religion Makes Us Better People?…
Does Atheism Make Us Worse?
As should be obvious by now, both Dawkins and Hitchens start from the premise that religion is comprehensively malignant, and set out to “prove” it. Though it’s a rather unscientific methodology, it would be less objectionable if they simply owned up to the fact that they are writers of anti-religious propaganda, instead of affecting to be heroically independent minds following wherever reason and the evidence lead (by contrast to the slaves and dupes of “faith”).
It is easy, once you get the hang of it, to impute evil to religion and good to anything else. War is bad (unless you are a conservative funny-man like P.J. O’Rourke), and so religion must be its principal cause. In an age of Islamist jihad, Dawkins and Hitchens can rely on those who know little about history to nod in assent. (In spite of their liberal sensibilities, they are not above exploiting a little post-9/11 anti-Muslim hysteria in the religion-equals-war sections of their books.) And once again, it serves them all too well to blur the shades of religious militancy into a single monochromatic specter. The Islam of Al Qaeda and the Taliban represents a regression to the Age of the Prophet, whose own bellicose sectarianism was a regression to the tribalism of the Neolithic. Christianity, on the other hand, ceased to be a Church Militant nearly a millennium ago (though against the Church, Dawkins and Hitchens bear a particular animus).
In fact, the most murderous wars in history (the American Civil War, the World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam) have had nothing whatsoever to do with religion. (Neither have the bloodiest conflicts of antiquity: the Persian Wars, the Punic Wars, the Roman Civil Wars). These, like most military conflicts, have been fought over social and political status, land, and empire. They have been incited, that is, by man’s congenital appetite for power and wealth, against which such otherworldly religious movements as Platonism, Stoicism, and Christianity have provided the only persuasive moral and intellectual arguments. In any case, the highest mountain of corpses in the history of man’s inhumanity to man was heaped up during International Communism’s seventy-year long war against its own citizens, a crusade prosecuted by the Party in order to defend the doctrinal purity of official State Irreligion.
The sort of contradiction that ensnares Dawkins when he denies religion’s Darwinian advantage–while having little choice but to admit its universal “survival”–, besets both authors throughout their discussions of the relationship between faith and morality. In parallel chapters, they ask rhetorically if religion makes us better human beings (Dawkins, “The Roots of Morality: Why Are We Good?”; Hitchens, “Does Religion Make People Behave Better?”). Their answers come as foregone conclusions. We are good not because of, but in spite of religion; in fact, religion makes us worse. (An aside: When did it become obligatory to put chapter titles in the interrogative? And if there really is a question, why pretend that the matter is settled beyond doubt?)
It ought to be a problem for Dawkins and Hitchens that study after study has demonstrated that the religious are healthier, longer-lived, more prosperous and content, more likely to donate to charities, while less prone to drug addiction, alcoholism, divorce, adultery, out-of-wedlock pregnancies and absentee fatherhood, incarceration, and any number of related social pathologies. Religious genes tend, moreover, to out-replicate those hosted by atheists. One would think that a Darwinian would concede the superiority of the religious life on that ground alone.
Both Dawkins and Hitchens are oblivious of this body of research on the moral and psychological benefits of faith, nor do they put forward any to support their contrary claims. Dawkins reproduces a slim paragraph from Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation which purports to show that rates of violent crime are higher in Republican states (whose inhabitants are more devoutly Christian) than in states that vote Democrat. Even a non-statistician will object that there are other variables involved here, which vitiate or at least qualify any simple correlation; but now compare Dawkins’ nuanced response to the monstrous crimes committed by Stalin and his atheist comrades: “We are not in the business of counting evil heads and compiling two rival roll calls of iniquity.” Indeed we are not. We’re in the business of counting evil heads and compiling a single roll call of iniquity.
Where evidence is lacking Dawkins never fears to tread, relying instead on his own subjective intuition: “I’m inclined to suspect”, he writes, “that there are very few atheists in prison.” I’m inclined to suspect that there are even fewer Mennonites, but I should be embarrassed as a putative man of science to base any such assertion on personal suspicion. Dawkins must be privy here to “evidence of things not seen” (St. Paul, call your office; you have another “faith-head” in your waiting room.)
Hitchens’ chapter similarly eschews the hard facts that he otherwise demands of his religious opponents, and falls back instead on picturesque anecdote and heartfelt emotion. His answer to the question of whether religion makes us “better behaved” focuses on Lincoln and Martin Luther King, two of the best-behaved idols of modern liberalism. A perceptive historian of the religious imagination might be struck by the devotion with which these charismatic figures have been revered and exalted into demi-gods by their uncritical cultists, notwithstanding their feet of clay. Hitchens himself confesses his veneration of King, making a point of his being moved to tears whenever he reads his sermons. He calls King’s speech before the striking garbage workers in Memphis a “transcendent moment”. (Are atheists allowed to have transcendent moments?)
The problem for Hitchens is that King’s speeches and sermons swarm with references to Moses, the Exodus, Sinai, and the Promised Land. (If King were not one of the saints of the Church of Progress, one might expect Hitchens to sneer at his megalomaniacal delusion–or his hypocritical opportunism–in casting himself in the role of a latter-day Moses. He doesn’t, of course. He reserves that contempt exclusively for traditional Catholics and conservative Evangelicals.)
King poses a real moral dilemma for Hitchens, and for his Manichean atheist-good, theist-bad world-view. He is, after all, not merely good, but transcendently good. Hitchens resolves the dilemma by pretending that “in no real as opposed to nominal sense was he a Christian”; that “his legacy has very little to do with his professed theology”; that his biblical allusions were merely “metaphors and allegories”, which had been “forced upon him” by the circumambient biblical culture; that it was not Christianity that inspired King’s dream but his inner circle of “secular Communists and socialists who had been manuring the ground for a civil rights movement for decades”. (Similarly, while Lincoln paid lip-service to God, Hitchens notes that he had read Paine and other freethinkers, and was “privately an unbeliever”.)
Having studied the Christianity of the Fathers for some time, I am certainly prepared to believe that King’s religion was thin gruel by comparison, just as I am convinced that the “social gospel” preached to modern liberal Protestant congregations has more to do with political ideology than religion. Nonetheless, there can be no doubt that King’s message of liberation would have been cast upon barren soil had his auditors in the Black Churches not had a deep connection to the the Exodus narrative. Perhaps for King it consisted in only “metaphors and allegories”. So what? For many of the most fervent and spiritually vigorous Christians, Scripture is gloriously fecund with metaphors and allegories. Notwithstanding the caricature of literal-mindedness that Hitchens projects upon his theist enemies, Christians know metaphors and allegories when they hear them (their Redeemer had a certain talent for them, after all), which is more than one can say for scientific rationalists and atheists. To paraphrase a sentence from a Robertson Davies novel, I have encountered many atheists in my lifetime, and they all fall down on metaphor.
It’s almost poignantly ironic to recall that the casual observation by King’s critics of his Marxist proclivities – as of any of his other intellectual impostures and moral dissipations – has automatically evinced from liberals charges of “racism” or “McCarthyism”. Hitchens, while impeccably liberal, is willing to concede the point, because it magically conjures King into an “atheist”, and makes secular humanism, rather than Christianity, the mother of civil rights. Conversely, Stalin’s atheism is, according to both Hitchens and Dawkins, equally “nominal”, and thus equally irrelevant to his murderous reign of terror. Stalin, as Hitchens notes ominously, attended seminary in his youth as an aspirant to the Orthodox priesthood. That’s where he learned to be an “authoritarian”, I suppose.
Isn’t it rather too conspicuously expedient for our authors to demote to the status of “nominal” Christians those whom they can’t help but admire, and exonerate as merely “nominal” atheists those they can’t help but revile? In the section of his book dealing with slavery and abolition, one would have thought that Hitchens might have mentioned William Wilberforce; but then this Evangelical’s Christianity was evidently too potent a brew for even Hitchens to rhetorically dilute into insipid nominalism.
Are atheists really “better behaved” than believers? Leaving aside the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the question itself is unedifying. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis famously conceded the possibility that believers might be less virtuous than non-believers. The Gospel, as he notes, has always attracted the poor, disaffected, and troubled of heart, populating the Church with sinners in disproportionate numbers. The relevant comparison is thus not between church-goers and atheists, but between the moral condition of the lives of people before and after they have embraced religion. As Lewis observes, patients in a doctor’s waiting room are less healthy on average than the general population; but that is hardly an indictment of medicine.
Dawkins and Hitchens may sneer in stereo at Dostoyevsky’s famous remark in The Brothers Karamazov that “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted”, but they and other atheists clearly recognize that Christians at least accept its truth. Why else would they mock them for being virtuous only because they fear hell-fire and anticipate rewards in heaven? Ancient pagan and Christian philosophers alike insisted that virtue ought to be an end in itself, wholly autonomous of such external, accidental considerations; but it is hardly consistent to mock Christians for behaving themselves under imperfect motivation and then assume that they would continue to do so after their raised consciousness ceased to believe in the myth of a retributive afterlife.
As self-anointed consciousness-raisers, both Dawkins and Hitchens write as though atheism exists only in some pristine theoretical order (against which they compare the inevitably mixed record of religion in practice). Someone should tell them that their battle has been won. The godless state was inaugurated some time ago, and it has brought us Robespierre’s terror, totalitarianism, council houses, drug wars, and abortion clinics. In Europe and North America (formerly known as Christendom), the twentieth-century ushered in the most protracted and extensive experiment in state secularism ever mustered in history, at a cost of upwards of three hundred million lives.
It may be the case that the monumental “misbehaviour” of the twentieth century does not follow directly from its denial of the existence of God. But the historical reality is nonetheless of an evil unprecedented in degree and scope–and in an epoch when, for the first time, the term Christendom ceased to have any meaning. As Marxists are wont to argue, there are no accidents in history. If it is fair to hold theism responsible for the putative crimes of Christendom–the Spanish Inquisition, the trial of Galileo, the Salem witch hunts, and all the other sins with which Christians are regularly belaboured–then it is equally fair to hold secularists and atheists responsible as well.
Dawkins and Hitchens conveniently ignore the wretched moral record of the post-Christian secular state. One wishes they had done the same for the officially atheist regimes of the Communist world. Their attempts to deny the connection between atheism and the murder of one hundred and fifty million of global Communism’s own citizens for ideological heresy are not merely hypocritical but obscene. According to Dawkins, “What matters is not whether…Stalin [was an atheist], but whether atheism systematically influences people to do bad things. There is not the smallest evidence that it does…Stalin was an atheist…Individual atheists may do evil things but they don’t do evil things in the name of atheism.” One wonders why, then, in the opinion of Dawkins and Hitchens, “individual Christians” who do wrong always do so as faithful exponents of Christian teaching. (Does either really believe that the Church’s squalid accommodation with the Nazis was “systematically influenced” by its theism, as they allege?) Indeed, there is not the “smallest evidence” that Christian doctrine influenced the preponderance of the crimes with which Dawkins and Hitchens inculpate it (unless you call its corruption an influence).
It tells you something about the arrogance of liberals that, while they would be horrified at anyone’s denial of the connection between racism and slavery, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, or fossil fuels and global warming, they are agnostic about the connection between atheism and the Gulag. It’s hard to believe that Stalin’s wholesale persecution, torture, and murder of Orthodox priests and nuns, his desecration of churches, or Mao’s elimination of every last vestige of Buddhist belief and culture, had nothing to do with atheism. If we lived in an age of genuinely equitable justice, this sort of denial would lead to prosecution or at least social ostracism. Is there any comparison more odious than Hitchens’ characterization of the extermination of religion under Marxism as one of a series of “anticlerical phases” in which ecclesiastical corruption is periodically purged (as under Henry VIII or Cromwell)?