“Nine times out of ten, in debate with a cleric, one will be told not of some dogma of religious certitude but of some instance of charitable or humanitarian work undertaken by a religious person. Of course, this says nothing about the belief system involved: it may be true that Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam succeeds in weaning young black men off narcotics, but this would not alter the fact that the NoI is a racist crackpot organization. . . . My own response has been to issue a challenge: name me an ethical statement made or an action performed by a believer that could not have been made or performed by a non-believer. As yet, I have had no takers. (Whereas, oddly enough, if you ask an audience to name a wicked statement or action directly attributable to religious faith, nobody has any difficulty in finding an example.)” — Christopher Hitchens, introduction to The Portable Atheist
What is Hitchens actually proving here? I think he thinks he’s demonstrating that (i) religious people most often rest their faith on the good fruit it produces, but that (ii) religion is neither necessary nor sufficient for ethical behavior, and (iii) besides, religion seems to motivate a great deal of unethical behavior.
His first claim is empirical, drawn from his own experience in conversing with religious people. It doesn’t address the question of whether the reasonableness of religious belief need be dependent on the humanitarian efforts it generates. (I also doubt it’s true, but since it’s Hitchens’s experience we are discussing I can hardly do anything but grant him the benefit of the doubt here.)
The second claim is both less and more controversial than Hitchens intends it to be. I say “less” because, while there are a good number of religious believers who think ethical behavior is impossible absent some kind of grounding in faith, in fact that is far from the only (and perhaps even the majority) opinion on the matter. Jews, for example, believe that their specific laws for full ethical behavior apply only to Jews, and that there is a fairly loose set of requirements that keep Gentiles in good standing with God and neighbor in their own way. The basic Catholic position, as articulated by St Thomas Aquinas and the entire natural law tradition, holds that human beings are capable of engaging in ethical conduct in virtue of being human.
I say “more” controversial, however, because Hitchens engages in a bit of question-begging with this argument. “Name me an ethical behavior that requires religious faith,” he says, “and I’ll show you how in fact it does not.”
OK: how about the virtue of piety, of showing due respect and honor to God?
“Ah,” says Hitchens, “but that is not a virtue at all!”
Perhaps it isn’t, but for the present moment piety is not a virtue purely because Hitchens has defined it away. But then what is the force of the argument supposed to be? We end up with the True Scotsman fallacy: show me an ethical principle that requires religious faith, and I’ll show you an ethical principle that isn’t a true ethical principle.
What Hitchens’s skepticism leaves out is the possibility that ethical behavior has as its first principles human nature, but that those principles are illuminated and informed by religious faith. Thus an atheist might come to know and embrace ethical behavior, but without faith he will be lacking a certain perfection of that knowledge and even make mistakes on account of his being blind to the reality of our spiritual obligations as human beings.
The question, then, is not whether a believer or unbeliever can come across, embrace, and perform ethical actions. The real question would concern the perfection and completeness of such virtues. (Delve into those questions, and I do think there is a strong case to be made that the believer enjoys possibilities unbelievers do not.)
Thus, I find Hitchen’s argument here to be flaccid, which can be demonstrated by reversing the roles (and here we address his third claim):
My own response has been to issue a challenge: name me an ethical statement made or an action performed by a nonbeliever that could not have been performed by a believer. As yet, I have had no takers. (Whereas, oddly enough, if you ask an audience to name a wicked statement or action directly attributable to materialist dogmatism, nobody has any difficulty finding an example.)
What happens? I honestly cannot think of an atheist virtue that precludes believers. Perhaps something like “religion dismantling,” since to enlighten your fellow man might be a virtue. Or perhaps something along the lines of “political humanism,” which is akin to our earlier example of naming “piety.”
So if the argument works both backwards and forwards, are we really saying anything particularly meaningful or incisive? In this case, I do not think so.