Hitchens vs. Hitchens: the brothers debate the viability of a godless civilization

October 15, 2010 • 5:39 pm

CNN has a short excerpted video of Tuesday’s debate in Washington, D.C. between Christopher Hitchens and his brother Peter.  The topic: Can civilization survive without God?  The excerpt deals with the question of whether one can be good without God.  Nothing really new here, but it’s sad to see the toll that the treatments have taken on Hitch.

Michael Gerson, an op-ed columnist at the Washington Post, judges Peter’s argument—that one needs religion to be moral—the stronger:

But Christopher Hitchens is weaker on the personal and ethical challenge presented by atheism: Of course we can be good without God, but why the hell bother? If there are no moral lines except the ones we draw ourselves, why not draw and redraw them in places most favorable to our interests? Hitchens parries these concerns instead of answering them: Since all moral rules have exceptions and complications, he said, all moral choices are relative. Peter Hitchens responded, effectively, that any journey becomes difficult when a compass points differently at different times.

I find it absolutely unbelievable that a thinking person can, in this day and age, think that Abrahamic religion is a source of morality.  Yes, it may buttress morality, but it can’t serve as a source of moral dictums, if for no other reason than scriptures sanction a lot of behaviors we now find immoral. We reject those behaviors, and accept others, based not on faith but on some antecedent views (be they learned or evolutionary) about what is moral.  And if you realize that, then you know that there are non-God-based reasons to be moral.

63 thoughts on “Hitchens vs. Hitchens: the brothers debate the viability of a godless civilization

  1. Not to mention that 2500 years ago Eythyphro’s Dilemma effectively torpedoed the idea that even a God-given morality was absolute.

    1. No it didn’t; Euthyphro was just playing Greek sophistical games.

      God has never been in any doubt whatsoever that what he says goes; ie is absolute and eternal, no matter how many times he changes his mind.

      And if you are in any doubt, just reread the Book of Job.

        1. Well, that principle has stood both god and humanity in very good stead for thousands of years. Have you got a better idea ?

    1. Right. The only relevance of this issue is whether religion helps keep the miscreants in line. Maybe. Religion was effective at suppressing dissent to the ruling authority for centuries.

    1. Ooh, ooh, he interviewed me (and co-author) once. It was the first interview I ever did, and it was live; it was totally exciting, and he was lovely. Said “you two must have pissed yourselves laughing, writing this.” Indeed we did.

  2. Not to mention that Peter’s argument at the end of the clip fails twice. Apart from simply defining morality as something that agrees with his view (was he called on that nonsense?), he seems oblivious to the fact that both ‘morality’ and magnetic north can and do change.

  3. I find it absolutely unbelievable that a thinking person can, in this day and age, think that Abrahamic religion is a source of morality.

    Well, in this case, the “thinking person” is, according to his Wikipedia, an evangelical:

    Gerson was named by Time as one of “The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals In America” in the magazine’s February 7, 2005 issue of the magazine, listing Gerson as the ninth most influential.

  4. Since all moral rules have exceptions and complications, he (Christopher Hitchens) said, all moral choices are relative. Peter Hitchens responded, effectively, that any journey becomes difficult when a compass points differently at different times.

    Italics added by me.
    Both Hitchens are off base here.

  5. Michael Gerson, you may or may not know, is the former speechwriter for George W. Bush.

    So this article reads rather like taking cooking advice from Jeffrey Dahmer’s former chef.

  6. What strikes me about people who claim that unless we have explicit moral rules (preferably divinely sanctioned) is how extraordinarily imperceptive they are about how morality functions in their own and others’ lives. Morality is first of all not moral philosophy or theology: ‘Should I torture this child in front of me?’ – anyone who had to run through an intellectual argument or refer to some sort of rule-book in order to whether it was wrong or right to torture the child would not be in any way a moral being. Morality is largely implicit and grows out of our nature as human beings, and certainly on can build, as moral philosophers do, on this ground; but don’t take the superstructure for the whole. This taking of the superstructure for the whole accounts for the wholly unsatisfactory nature of most ‘debates’ about morality.

    1. A very important distinction, and one that seldom seems to be brought up as explicitly as one would hope in these debates. By beginning with the premise that morality is something we always “decide” rather than something at least partially implicit, the rationalists are immediately ceding half the debatable ground. Not to mention solid scientific underpinnings…

    2. And I’ve just seen another howling mistake: ‘that unless we have explicit moral rules….we can’t behave morally…’; ‘we can’t behave morally’ is missing…
      And thank you, Diane: yes, the idea that not only DO we decide where moral matters are concerned but in order to be properly rational we SHOULD decide is a dangerous intellectual prejudice (and, in the main, I think, a peculiarly Western one); there are plenty of examples of what the great Hungarian political thinker, Karl Polanyi, called ‘steeling oneself with science’ (those may not be the exact words), by which he meant allowing intellectual arguments and intellectually held beliefs to over-ride moral scruples – as with those fervent young Communists putting into practice Stalin’s collectivisation policies in the Ukraine: many felt very sorry for the kulaks whose houses they searched for food, which they took if they found, because they knew they would starve, but those people were after all the representatives of a necessarily guilty class whom history was sweeping aside for the end of a glorious future.

      1. Interesting. In that particular example, “science” would not seem to be what they were steeling themselves for. 🙂 Not that that needs to be said–I get the “hanging your justification on important-sounding terms” intent, there.

        Not that one needs to look far to find examples that do involve science. Ethologists and psychologists (to cross the hard/soft science line), who consider(ed) it unscientific to impute any emotion to “higher” animals, would serve as a closer illustration. (Happily, we only seemed to need one exposure to monkeys deprived in infancy of maternal contact (any contact!) before our implicit morality was aroused to stop further experimetation along those lines.) And the fact that, within my lifetime, it was still considered questionable as to whether infants (human) felt pain and therefore should be anesthetized for surgery…(Ignore that screaming, it’s just an instinctive response.)*

        (I fear my mind is wandering more than usual tonight.)

        *Absolutely no similarity with any recently introduced legislation in Nebraska intended!

        1. Yes, Harry Harlow… And I suspect that similar experiments are still being done – rather more clandestinely.

  7. If there are no moral lines except the ones we draw ourselves, why not draw and redraw them in places most favorable to our interests?

    How convenient it is to forget the fact that any but the most wild-eyed fanatical literalists invent all sorts of rationalizations for why this biblical injunction is OK to ignore and that biblical injunction is, if you’ll pardon the expression, the gospel truth.

    1. Never mind that it is perfectly OK to have different rules for different people. “Though shalt not kill” never did seem to fully apply to heretics or people from “false” religions.

  8. When people say they see no reason to be good without the threat of punishment, they’re really telling the rest of us more about themselves than about morality.

    1. Precisely; where Jerry stated, “I find it absolutely unbelievable that a thinking person can, in this day and age, think that Abrahamic religion is a source of morality,” I was finding it absolutely unbelievable that a thinking person will essentially admit that they’re only good out of threat of eternal sanction, i.e., Gerson’s “we can be good without God, but why the hell bother?” (Not that that in any way detracts from Jerry’s different point.)

      Of course, we can surmise that if Gerson is indeed a “thinking person,” perhaps he is actually speaking about a class of people who really can’t tell good from bad without authoritative instruction. Sometimes, looking at the vast numbers of religious adherents, I fear he is right…This is the sort of fear that causes me to lean towards Dennett’s cautiousness (what will replace religion?), much as I’d prefer to think that Dawkins’s “get rid of it all & we’ll all be better off” is the way to go.

    2. Yes, people who think that god belief is essential to morality are frightening to me. They are so puffed up in their righteousness that god belief is crucial, that they are unable to see that they scared the pants off of some people. They may be wary of the devil, while I am wary of them as they come off as dense, rigid, uncreative, certain, and intellectually dishonest.

  9. “I find it absolutely unbelievable that a thinking person can, in this day and age, think that Abrahamic religion is a source of morality.”

    The things you hear in church are not representative of the bible as a whole. I would bet that most people who get their morality from religion (or at least think they do) have never read their holy book, and only go by the general messages promoted by their churches: the idea of being kind to one another + political issues that their churches prescribe. And even then, they only align themselves with the church’s prescribed political views as long as they don’t become too inconvenient: i.e. Catholics using condoms, evangelicals who think the only morally acceptable abortion is the one they had, homosexuality is bad until they have a close relative who is gay, etc.

    1. I’m not sure the rejection of church-sanctioned belief is just for convenience. I’m pretty sure that lots of Catholics reject their Church’s views on gays, abortion, or contraception because they just seem inherently WRONG, not because they need an abortion or have a gay relative. It’s the church’s insistence on things that just seem dumb in a world of growing awareness that, I think, explains the waning of Catholicism. Likewise, the success of the civil rights movement didn’t come from people’s realization that segregation inconvenienced them, but rather from an inherent realization (spurred on by moral reproaches from civil rights leaders) that it’s just wrong to discriminate against people based on skin color.

      Further, I think the church leaders and theologians winnow what they present to their congregations from the mass of stuff in scripture based on their own inherent views about what seems truly moral and what doesn’t.

      1. It isn’t always convenience, but I think sometimes it is:
        – I took my Catholic example from my in-laws. They’re generally anti-choice and anti-contraceptive, but they made the exception for their own condom use.
        – I have seen many anecdotal stories (i.e. the phenomenon exists but I can’t speak to its prevalence) of gays being initially rejected by their conservative xian families, but eventually to be accepted as the family chooses their gay member over their church’s interpretation of the bible.

        I’m sure many church goers reject church doctrine or move to a different church when they feel morally that the church is wrong on an issue, but I think many others only balk when the issue becomes personal.

        I agree with you in thinking that most church leaders use their own innate/societally imposed morality to interpret scripture. They cherry-pick the bible and form their sermons to support what they already believe.

  10. YHWH ordered Moses to force tens of thousands of pre-pubescent girls into a lifetime of sexual slavery while their brothers were used for slave labor — and all this came after slaughtering their parents in a prisoner of war camp (Numbers 31). And, of course, YHWH himself killed every living thing on the face of planet (Genesis 7:23). And he used mind control (Exodus 4:21, etc.) as an excuse to play with his shiny new biowarfare toys (Exodus 7:21 plus nine others) just to prove to them that he is the most badass motherfucker ever known (Exodus 7:17)

    Jesus ordered his followers to make a human sacrifice to him of all those who refused to submit to his rule (Luke 19:27). He came to make war, not love (Matthew 10:34); and the only way to love Jesus is to hate everybody, including yourself and your family (Luke 14:26). And let’s not forget that, every time a hat drops, Jesus personally condemns to infinite torture some random person for something trivial like daydreaming without the requisite self-mutilation (Matthew 5:28-29).

    The only redeeming feature of the Bible is that it’s pure fiction.

    Anybody who truly derives their morality from the Bible is a sociopathic monster. Prudence demands any such person be forcibly isolated from civil society.

    The only redeeming feature of Biblical morality is that nobody even pretends to pay any attention to it.



    1. Game, set, and match. 😀

      With a possible quibble re your final sentence; alas, there are still too many who selectively pay attention to certain parts.

      Although in the cases of, say, abortion & gays, those parts aren’t actually in the Bible in the first place. On 2nd thought, I’ll retract my quibble.

    2. The apologists will say that we are wrong to pick on the Old Testament for examples. Can anyone give examples of New Testament bollocks? i cannot face reading the whole thing again but I am sure St.Paul – or the person who wrote some of his letters as St.Paul – must have come up with some similar gems?

      1. Check out Ben Gorens original message – the paragraph that starts with “Jesus…”.

        There’s Jesus condoning slavery, telling everyone to dis their families, saying that he didn’t come here to tear down the old ways but to buttress them. The canard that his way was to overturn the Old Testament edicts is a persistent Xtian lie.

  11. scriptures sanction a lot of behaviors we now find immoral

    Here’s a favorite one. Thanks to the Pauline command mulieres in ecclesiis taceant&mash;”let women keep silent in church” (I Corinthians 14:34), women were banned from singing in church.

    This is the Biblical “reason” that choir boys were castrated. Wikipedia on the castrati:

    In 1589, by the bull Cum pro nostri temporali munere, Pope Sixtus V re-organised the choir of St Peter’s, Rome specifically to include castrati. Thus the castrati came to supplant both boys (whose voices broke after only a few years) and falsettists (whose voices were weaker and less reliable) from the top line in such choirs.

    I cannot bring myself to quote the preferred method of castration; you’ll have to read Wikipedia itself.

    Thank you, Saint Paul!

    1. Sorry, but why was Paul’s injunction about women keeping silent in church the reason for the introduction of castrati?
      Have looked at Wikipedia. Oh, dear.

      1. Oh, got it: they wanted voices in the upper registers and women weren’t allowed to sing. Sorry to be so thick.

    2. Ah! I had not read far enough down before commenting! Bollocks indeed…

      Have you read the Kingsley Amis novel, The Alteration? An alternative present where Martin Luther had become Pope so the Reformation never happened, & it centres around a boy with a lovely voice who they want to make a castrati.

    3. Ah! I should have read a bit further before commenting!

      Try reading the Kingsley Amis alternative present novel, The Alteration, in a world where the Reformation never happened & Martin Luther became Pope, the church authorities want to make a boy with a beautiful voice a castrati. Castrato? This is indeed, er, bollocks!

  12. One can apply the same kind of statistical argument you recently used to demonstrate the incompatibility of science and religion to demolish the nonsensical notion that religion has anything to do with morality. If it did, we’d expect that religious people tend to behave better than atheists, but I certainly no indication they they do.

  13. GERSON
    ‘Of course we can be good without God, but why the hell bother?’

    Because if there is no god to burn alive murderers, the Texas Justice System will fry them instead?

  14. “Why the hell bother?”
    Because morality grounded in reason and the well being of human kind kicks the crap out of morality wedded to dogma. I wish every /american would read Susan Jacoby’s “Freethinkers.” The abolition of slavery, the availability of birth control information, the luxury of receiving pain relievers during child birth, women’s right to vote, all these were at the behest of the godless with believers joining the party a couple of generations late. At various points in history morality meant stoning adulterers, bullying those who chose to forgo baptism, and crying bloody murder for having the government deliver mail on sabbath. The dichotomy was between upholding such twisted morality, or being a shit of a Christian. It continues to this day. Religion inures otherwise decent folk to the broader good or harm to humanity. Being a good christian hinges on shoehorning arguments in support of the religious fad of the moment. religion may not be the root of evil. But it certainly is a peculiar catalyst for wickedness. “Why the hell bother?” Good question indeed.

  15. The UK magazine New Scientist has an opinion piece in this week’s edition (16 October 2010, Vol 208, issue 2782) titled ‘Science wakes up to morality’.

    The sub head reads: “Long thought to be off limits to science, morality has been considered the exclusive preserve of philosophers and theologians. Not any more. In this nine-page special report a new generation of scientists share their wide ranging insights.”

    While the article is summarised pop-science and entertainment it does outline some of the experiments which find that some components of moral thinking are inherently natural.

    1. “Long thought off-limits”? Er, what? Maybe in the minds of the general public, but scientists have tackled morality for decades! Centuries, even.

      I hate New Scientist.

      1. I hate New Scientist.

        ME TOO!!! I can’t even look at their logo anymore w/o a sudden burst of anger. What a sorry rag.

  16. re biblical morality – The one question that I always ask of moderate christians is ‘how do you determine which parts of the bible to believe, and which parts to discard’ No one has ever had a consistent or logical answer.

  17. I do not think most religious people follow their churches moral philosophy. It just so happens that their moral ideas coincide with the broad morals taught by the church. This is why they can claim that their church defines their morals. All normal people believe that murder, theft, lying and cheating is wrong we do not need a skyfairy to tell us this. and I am insulted to think that any religious believer would think that I am any less moral than them just because I don’t fall for their superstitious nonsense.

  18. Seriously, Michael Gerson is the former W speechwriter who can write about “The Decency of George W. Bush” only by failing to bring up Bush’s torture policies.

    Torture, of course, is the entire point of Christianity: Jesus Himself both condones and threatens torture explicitly throughout the New Testament.

    Gerson, based on his Christian faith alone, would be fully justified in defending Bush’s record on torture. I wonder why he doesn’t?

    Other Christians implementing Bush’s torture policy were not so squeamish about invoking their Christian faith to perform their duties:

    They ordered me to thank Jesus that I’m alive. … I said to him, ‘I believe in Allah.’ So he said, ‘But I believe in torture and I will torture you.’ —Abu Ghraib torture victim Ameen Saeed Al-Sheik

  19. Can civilization survive without God?

    So not accommodationism. Are they proposing obligate endosymbiotic amensalism (necessary but crippling) as the relationship between religion and (he!) civilization?

  20. I think there’s something atheists miss in these debates. You have to read between the lines. The one area where secular morality has differed profoundly from religious morality is in sexual morality. Secularists have essentially nothing to say on the issue (except that anything goes among consenting individuals). Commonly any kind of sexual morality is considered religious in nature.

    Secularists ignore relationships more generally, including family, tending toward a more robustly individualistic outlook. Ironically, this is probably the only area in which the average person needs moral guidance at all, since situations of pure interpersonal altruism rarely arise in every day life. Most of our dependencies are to larger social structures (institutions, etc) rather than one another (a fact also absent from secular moral debate).

    The choice people face is between a highly impoverished secular account of morality that’s of little practical importance and reactionary (relugious) conservatism. I’m not surprised most people opt for the reactionary conservatism at this point.

    1. I do not agree – in as far as I follow. I think most atheists I know (excluding my nihilistic self!) are very moral & far more concerned about others & their relationships within society than religious people. But what do you mean by ‘sexual morality’ anyway? What is that other than just ‘morality?

    2. Well, and that’s because “secularism” is a lot like “atheism”–both terms essentially refer to NOT having religion. When secularists, who come in many stripes, start trying to form like-minded communities with regard to morals, they usually do so as some form of humanist. There are many groups which do promote shared moral convictions–CFI, AHA, many Unitarian congregations, that Harvard humanist “chaplain,” (Epstein, or something close, isn’t it?), parent groups who concentrate on how to raise moral, freethinking children, etc. Several of these develop long lists of shared values, proclamations, & of course, manifestos.

      (FWIW, I usually get a little uncomfortable when such groups go too far in spelling out the details of their affirmations…but then, I’m deathly allergic to groupthink in general.)

  21. “Of course we can be good without God, but why the hell bother?”

    Perhaps Michael Gerson will politely inform as to the crimes that he would personally commit if his god-idea didn’t have a leash on him? Or does he worry that he is the only christian who wouldn’t? Or that most (some?) christians would?

    What of the crime that occurs because of a commitment to a christian god, in the criminal’s mind, by providing their own interpretation of ‘god law’? The practice of setting ‘god law’ to exactly the opinion of the christian applying it, is common throughout the castes of the christian “kingdom”. (An example would be the whole of the exploitation by those that engineered the bush administration (which was very much driven by appeals to and support from; christianity and Its gods. Bad moral and ethical decisions occur frequently within individuals and groups of the christian species.)

    It looks like Gerson is challenging the legal system and all the laws that were not addressed in the thoughts of people that lived two thousand years ago. He also seems to ignore the advances in known facts that have occurred in the last two thousand years, such as, that stoning people to death is not acceptable behavior but, very cruel. In fact, isn’t that exactly why (most?) christians do not hold to a literal reading of the whole of their holey book? There are deep foundational problems with reliance on the christian book. Even though some of the problems that occurred two thousand years ago are still problems today, that doesn’t mean that we should give two thousand year old thoughts exceptional priority or even any priority, except to note that christianity apparently isn’t the solution. Our current legal system is not perfect but, it would be very difficult maybe impossible, to argue successfully that christian theocracy did better or could do better now.

    However. The problem Gerson faces is a symptom of the christian condition. Perhaps atheists would be happy to play an advisory role to help the christians with their problem but the christians would still need to admit to and be responsible for the problem that is due to the christian condition. Mr. Gerson is framing a clearly christian conditioning problem as a responsibility that atheists are obliged to solve, his framing is morally and ethically wrong as is his god-idea.

  22. “Of course we can be good without God, but why the hell bother? If there are no moral lines except the ones we draw ourselves, why not draw and redraw them in places most favorable to our interests?”

    Yes, why not? But many of us don’t. This is what separates the moral from the amoral. And people who need a set of rules from an imaginary being to tell them that rape and torture are wrong, are inherently amoral. I don’t want them living next to me, lest they lose their faith, and subsequently, all morality.

  23. I’d like to point out that the issue of where morality comes from does not entail a dichotomy between believers and their doctrine and atheists.

    Instead, its between believers and everyone that’s never heard of or read the damn book! If 30% of the population is illiterate, how could they glean the moral lessons directly from the bible? Of course, preachers convey those lessons all the time, but not in a systematic way… there’s no syllabus of morals that they have to go through… Its catch as catch can, as far as I can tell!

    I’ve never read the bible from start to finish and I can’t remember any sermon I’ve ever heard. My parents did not justify their strictures upon me using Scripture; in fact, they were pretty laissez faire about my upbringing.

    Do those that say religion is necessary for morality believe that I CANNOT POSSIBLY have any morals at all?

  24. You find it “absolutely unbelievable” eh? You. In disbelief. Who knew.

    Just what DO you believe in dear boy? UFO’s? Witches? Christine O’Donnell? Perhaps “a grand design without a designer.”

    Your humanity

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