Atheist Christopher Hitchens made a famous moral challenge to Christians. Let’s consider a second Christian response.

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Atheist Christopher Hitchens had a moral challenge for Christians: identify a moral action taken or a moral sentiment uttered by a believer that couldn’t be taken or uttered by a nonbeliever—something that only a believer could do and an atheist couldn’t. Part 1 is here.

A second apologist, this time a Catholic, also has some pushback for the Hitchens Challenge. Towards that end, he makes some nutty claims about the value of Christian hope.

Hitchens assumed—like many secular thinkers—that the only good is the good of social or material progress. An atheist can ladle soup in a soup kitchen—same as a Christian—so Christianity must not bring anything to the table….

It’s just not true that soup ladles are the sole measure of value. Catholicism, in particular, for all its good works and charity, has always rejected the idea that religion should aim for Utopia in this world or that it exists only to promote material wellbeing. “The Church is not an NGO,” as Pope Francis says frequently.

You got that right—the church is a terrible NGO! Americans give $100 billion annually to religion. The Roman Catholic Church’s annual intake worldwide must be far larger. The Catholic Church gives a lot of money to charity, but that’s only because it is huge. As a percentage of the Church’s expenses, I’m guessing that charity accounts for two percent. That’s an educated guess, but it’s just a guess because churches’ books are (unaccountably) closed (one wonders what they’re trying to hide).

With 98% overhead, they’d be the world’s most inefficient NGO.

This response sounds like, “Hitchens was right, but that’s okay because the church never claimed to produce progress.” I can accept that. (More on Christianity’s disinterest in social progress here.)

An aside on Mother (now Saint) Teresa

Back to the article: 

Perhaps this is why Hitchens hated Mother Theresa [sic] so much. (He wrote viciously about her.) He understood her mission better than many. He knew that her main goal was not social work, but mysticism. “We are misunderstood, we are misrepresented, we are misreported,” Mother Theresa said. “We are not nurses, we are not doctors, we are not teachers, we are not social workers. We are religious, we are religious, we are religious.”

That’s an embarrassing admission, that “her main goal was not social work, but mysticism,” but I appreciate the honesty. Now show me the check box that donors to Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity had to mark to acknowledge that they understand that “We are not nurses, we are not doctors, we are not teachers, we are not social workers. We are religious.”

Hundreds of millions of dollars went into this charity, and an enormous fraction—I’m guessing most of it—was because the donors assumed that they were funding healthcare.

Hitchens might have hated Mother Teresa, but that would’ve been because of the disconnect between her public image as a healer and the reality of her homes for the sick being little more than comfortable places to die. Her charity received vast donations, but Forbes reported that “only seven percent of the donation received at Missionaries of Charity was used for charity.”

The greatest thing faith brings is hope

Nope, Teresa wasn’t focused on improving life here on earth.

Mother Theresa knew (and struggled with the fact) that the greatest value of religious faith in this life is not material wellbeing, but the gift of transcendent hope. That’s something a believer can give that Hitchens can never give.

Just to be argumentative, I could see an atheist claiming transcendent hope. Imagine a story about aliens coming to free us from our mortal coils as with the Heaven’s Gate cult. An extraterrestrial technology claim is as groundless a claim as a supernatural one (though less farfetched), but that could be a transcendent hope.

The key point isn’t that it’s transcendent hope but that it’s evidence-less hope, hope that can be in anything because it needn’t have evidence to support it.

But you’re right that atheists avoid giving groundless transcendent hope. Is that a problem? Science gives reality and grounded hope. Science is what’s working on cures for disease or ways to improve food yields. Science is where improvement comes from, and that’s where atheists usually get their hope.

Note the contrast. Christianity has put all its eggs in the “gift of transcendental hope” basket. It’s not like it’s simultaneously using its own methods to solve society’s problems. Christianity is static. A thousand years of Christianity’s “transcendent hope” in a desperate society gives you a thousand years of the same desperate society, while a thousand years of science can transform that society to one that is happy and healthy, one where groundless hope is much less needed.

Christianity can still flog its claims of a beautiful afterlife, but so what? Yes, it’s a remarkable, possibly desirable claim, but so what when there’s no evidence for it? Science has nothing to offer except a continually improving reality (and mountains of evidence that it delivers).

Faith, hope, and love are precisely the formula for happiness even in the midst of material deprivation.

Not when that faith, hope, and love paper over the actual problems in society. A life that is drugged to block out a horrible reality is a wasted life. I’m in no position to criticize someone who falls back on hope to endure a desperate life, but see how it directs our attention to feeling better and away from solving problems.

This was where Karl Marx was going with his observation that religion is the opium of the people. He was complimenting religion—it helps when society is in bad shape. But in the same way that opium only addresses the symptoms of a broken leg (you should still get medical treatment), religion only addresses the symptoms of bad society (you still need to fix that society).

The research of Gregory Paul is relevant here. He not only points out that religious belief correlates with worse social metrics, he also hypothesizes that poor social conditions cause more religion (more). In other words, when you see religion embraced by some subset of society, those people have social problems that need fixing.

How to get a better society

But even if nonbelievers do good things, there is still no reason to conclude that unbelief is the best stance for advancing material and social wellbeing. [One source compellingly argued,] “Human development is best advanced by transcendent hope.”

We’re just going to hope our way to an improved society? Not going to do anything about it, just hope? That reminds me of William Lane Craig’s portrayal of life here on earth as “the cramped and narrow foyer leading to the great hall of God’s eternity.” Wow—what an empty view of the one life we can all agree that we actually have.

Instead of making do, instead of wringing our hands in despair, perhaps we should get busy trying to improve the status quo by solving problems.

The fact is that atheists don’t ladle as much soup as Catholics. It was the Catholic Church that invented the modern institutions of benevolence.

You mean modern institutions of benevolence like Social Security, Medicare, medical insurance, and modern hospitals? The Catholic Church’s small contribution to charity is appreciated, but let’s not exaggerate it. U.S. churches together contribute a few billion dollars to the problem annually while the U.S. government and other institutions devote a few trillion dollars to the problem.

You could sneer at that and say that that’s just money returning to the taxpayers or the insured who provided it in the first place. And that’s true. But it’s still citizens caring for other citizens, redistributing wealth to help the orphans and widows that Jesus cared so much about. The Church in America makes a tiny fraction of this impact.

As for atheists vs. Catholics, even if Catholics do more per capita on assuaging pain (and I’m not sure that’s the case), atheists probably focus more on the fix-society side of the problem.

[The Catholic Church invented the modern institutions of benevolence] precisely because Catholics believe in the transcendent dignity of human beings.

This is what the Hitchens Challenge addresses. There is no benevolent act that Catholics do that couldn’t be performed by an atheist.

See also: When Christianity Was in Charge, This Is What We Got.

The Hitchens Challenge, part 2

Hitchens has more. Once you’ve seen that a nonbeliever can perform the same good moral actions that a believer can, think of the reverse: think of something terrible that only a believer would do or say. Now, lots of examples come to mind.

  • Abraham being willing to sacrifice Isaac (and modern apologists defending God’s indecipherable actions)
  • The Canaanite genocide
  • “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” and witch burnings
  • “God hates fags” from Westboro Baptist Church
  • Flying a plane into a building or blowing yourself up to kill people you don’t like

Or any hateful or selfish conclusion justified by “because God (or the Bible) says” such as condemning homosexuality, blocking civil rights, limiting stem cell research, or dropping adoption services or hospital funding in protest of some law.

The article responds that, sure, religion can make people do evil things, but that’s “obviously true of secular ideology. All ideology is subject to abuse and manipulation.”

So we’re to believe that anything bad done in the name of Christianity is just an “abuse and manipulation” of Christianity and that Christianity, read correctly, doesn’t actually justify that? Who will be the judge to sift out the correct interpretations from the many incorrect ones?

The Bible is a sock puppet that can be made to justify just about anything. Let’s not pretend that there’s one objectively correct interpretation when thousands of Christian denominations squabble over the correct path.

The Hitchens Challenge remains a helpful illustration that Christianity has no moral upside (atheists can be just as moral as Christians) but has a big downside (religious belief can justify in the believer’s mind moral evil that an atheist would never imagine).

With or without religion,
you would have good people doing good things
and evil people doing evil things.
But for good people to do evil things,
that takes religion.
— Steven Weinberg

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CROSS EXAMINED In his first career, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware and was a contributor to 14 software patents. Since then, he has explored the debate between Christianity and atheism for...