Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Problem With You, Sir

The final installment of the Christopher Hitchens/Douglas Wilson debate over at Christianity Today contains the following hilariously spot-on comment by Wilson:
This relates to the second point, which concerns evolved morality and the past. When dealing with people whose moral judgments have differed from yours, do you regard them as "immoral" or as "less evolved?" The rhetoric of your book, your tone in these exchanges, and your recent dancing on the grave of the late Jerry Falwell would all seem to indicate the former. In your choice of words, the people you denounce are to be blamed. The word fulminations comes to mind. You write like a witty but acerbic tenth-century archbishop with a bad case of the gout. But this is truly an odd thing to do if "morality" is a simple derivative of evolution. Are you filled with fierce indignation that the koala bear hasn't evolved ears that stick flat to the side of his head like they are supposed to? Are you wroth over the fact that clams don't have legs yet? When you notice that the bears at the zoo continue to suck on their paws, do you stop to remonstrate with them?

Your notion of morality, and the evolution it rode in on, can only concern itself with what is. But morality as Christians understand it, and the kind you surreptitiously draw upon, is concerned with ought. David Hume showed us that we cannot successfully derive ought from is. Have you discovered the error in his reasoning? It is clear from how you defend your ideas of "morality" that you have not done so. You are a gifted writer, and you have a flair for polemical voltage. But strip it all away, and what do you have underneath? You believe yourself to live in a universe where there is no such thing as any fixed ought or ought not. But God has gifted you with a remarkable ability to denounce what ought not to be. And so, because you reject him, you have great sermons but no way of ever coming up with a text. When people start to notice the absence of texts, the absence of warrant, the absence of reasons, you adjust and compensate with rhetorical embellishment and empurpled prose. You are like the minister in the story who wrote in the margin of his notes, "Argument weak. Shout here."
I can think of few better summaries of Hitchens simultaneously attractive and annoying qualities than "Argument weak. Shout here." Indeed, one of the things I particularly noticed during the exchange was that when Hitchens wanted to discard something without having to provide a good reason, or gloss over the fact he was ignoring a point made against him, he would simply amp up the rhetoric.

And indeed, there's surprisingly bad thinking going on under Hitchens' thunder at many junctures. Take this section:
It is, rather, religion that has made many morally normal people assent to appalling cruelties, including the mutilation of children's genitalia, the institution of slavery, the revulsion from female sexuality, and many other crimes from which an average infidel would, without any heavenly prompting, turn away. Ask yourself this question. Can you name one moral action, or moral utterance, performed or spoken by a believer that could not have been performed or spoken by an atheist? My email is available to any reader who is willing to accept this challenge.
Why he has such an issue with circumcision I cannot imagine, unless perhaps he is the "victim" of such and chooses to blame it for certain deficiencies which are in fact simply his own lack of skill or accoutrement. But let us leave that aside.

Can any serious person with the most basic knowledge of the history of civilization imagine that slavery and oppressive patriarchy are by nature revolting to human nature unless we are forced into it by religious beliefs? Perhaps Hitchens has (like many other career atheists) made so much of the passages of the Hebrew scriptures which regulate slavery and the place of women in society that he has managed to forget that these if anything represented an improvement of the conditions under which most slaves and women found themselves in other cultures around the first millenium B.C.

Far from being the result of religious brainwashing, slavery and the treating of women as property have been found in the vast majority of cultures throughout the world and throughout history. And the abolition of these evils is specifically a result of the increasing influence of Christianity in Western Culture, and then the eventual imposition of Western values on much of the rest of the world.


rose said...

Wow, I have got to look up Douglas Wilson. That is an awesome smackdown.

In fairness to Hitchens, he might be thinking of female circumcision, which definitely is mutilation. Though as I recall that's generally done as a coming-of-age ritual, and I think it's more cultural than religious, so... nobody could really claim he's good at facts, I think.

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

Let's see if I understand Hitchens. (a) Human cruelty only happens as a result of religious prompting. (b) The evidence of this is that you can't think of a moral action that no atheist, anywhere, might also have performed.

Surely I'm missing a logical step or two.

Darwin said...

Certainly, those are the only steps that he seems to include...

I didn't get around to including that, but my mind immediately jumped to the idea that one could in the same manner prove that love between spouses was in no way necessary for a happy marriage. The proof: 1) Think of anything that you might take as evidence that your spouse loves you and then see if it's possible to imagine someone who does not love his spouse doing the same thing. Since there is no single demonstration which might be taken as evidence of love which might not be performed by someone who didn't love his spouse, clearly love is unnecessary for a happy marriage.

Which perhaps makes the silliness of the method of argument a little more obvious...