Friday, September 25, 2009

Hitchens' flawed challenge

Christopher Hitchens has a challenge that he likes to give, which you can see here, and which I have transcribed below:

You have to tell me of a moral statement that can be made by a believer, or a moral action undertaken by a believer, that I couldn't undertake because I am an atheist.

He claims to have never heard an acceptable answer to this question.

I'm afraid I think his challenge is somewhat fallacious, and in fact, the very first time I heard him issue this challenge, one of the theists whom he was debating gave a pithy and perfect response: Tithing.

Now, I believe, and Hitchens certainly believes, and probably most readers of this blog believe, that paying a compulsory or coerced tithe to a religious organization, particular one with "morals" like those that tend to ask for big tithes, is an immoral action. I have asked my wife not to mention anymore the observation that my Mormon parents have spent something like twenty times as much money this year donating to a hate group than they have on gifts for their grandson, because it's too enraging to contemplate.

But that's because we are evaluating the morality of this from a secular perspective. From a theistic perspective, tithing is perfectly moral. And so, duh, that's why a believer would undertake this action and a nontheist wouldn't.

Now, as I have blogged about before, I do not accept relativist justifications for religious buffonery, and in fact I believe in a non-arbitrary basis for morality that may even transcend our species. I think that paying tithing to LD$ Inc., for example, is objectively immoral, so in that sense, it may not technically satisfy Hitchens' challenge.

However, it does undermine the rhetorical power of it, because the entire purpose of his challenge is to "prove" that religion casts no light on morality. But in this sense, his challenge is a tautology. If we already accept that morality must be evaluated in secular terms, then yes his challenge cannot be met, but so what? Yet if we are coming from a perspective where religion does illuminate morality, then it is trivial to meet his challenge.

Really, all Hitchens has done is restate the Evidential Problem of Evil in a weaker form. In my opinion he ought to retire this argument, because it really doesn't do anything for the nontheist/anti-theist case.


  1. No. I do not think that tithing is a valid response. 'Tithing' is just religio-speak for donating. Atheists also donate money and/or resources to various charity groups. What does make it moral or immoral is what actions these charity groups, whether churches or not, take with these donations (tithes). If they support bigotry like the LDS or dip into these resources to pay the defense funds or legal damages for institutionalized pedophilia like the Catholics do, then it is most definitely immoral to hand your money over.

    Hitchens' challenge still stands.

  2. I agree - paying somebody to (in effect) do something just adds one unnecessary step.

  3. Right, *we* all agree on that, but *we* all already agree that religion does not contribute anything towards morality. An argument is not particularly useful if it is only convincing to people who already agree with your premise.

    As someone who was raised in a religion with a compulsory tithe, I can tell you with certainty that the tithing is not merely "religio-speak for donating" -- the act of tithing itself is considered necessary to morality by those who subscribe to it, completely separate from any sort of judgment on where the money is going, etc.

    From the perspective of a "good" tithepayer, this is a moral act that an atheist could not possibly perform. It is conceivable that an atheist might donate money to a religious group that he/she felt was doing good work, but that would not be tithing, which is more about self-debasement and blind trust than it is about charity. Thus from the perspective of those we are trying to convince, the argument is not effective.

    Another example would be "accepting Jesus as your Lord and personal savior". Many atheists would find that act meaningless, i.e. neither moral nor immoral; I personally find it distinctly immoral, since, to me, the idea of pawning off the responsibility for all of your bad deeds onto the victim of a 2000-year-old blood sacrifice is fucking sick. But to those we are trying to convince, they "know" it is moral to do so because their religion tells them so. As I mentioned in the post, I believe they are objectively wrong, but flatly telling them that is not likely to change any minds :)

    I guess I'm not so much saying that Hitchens' challenge has been met per se, as I am saying that it has no rhetorical power. Anyone who doesn't already agree with his conclusion will likely think they have found an example that meets his challenge. They might be wrong -- but until we can convince them that their religion does not define morality (which is the entire point of the argument to begin with) they are not likely to see why they have not met the challenge.

    The argument is essentially a tautology. At best, it is, as I said, a restatement of the Evidential Problem of Evil -- it forces theists to take a closer look at those actions that they consider moral only as a result of their religion. But if a person is inclined to use reason to evaluate their religious beliefs, I think there are much more direct ways to challenge them.

  4. Exactly. I watched a Hitchens video with a Christian friend where this argument was presented. My friend had no hesitation in replying to the challenge: an atheist could not help someone to accept christ.


  5. Partly the point is missed. The next part - now name and evil act committed because of or in the name of religion is where the power lies.

    Even if one does have an answer for the first question, tithing say, the morality of that pales in comparison to any number of wicked acts that instantly come to mind answering the second. The contrast is the kicker, and can be easily perceived by believers and non-believers alike.

    CJ Klok is right too. Because a tithe payer believes the tithe is moral because it is a charitable act, they would have to accept his argument.

    Ed, I would argue that an atheist could. Google Atheists for Jesus for example. An atheist could preach the teachings of Jesus that he agrees with, without caveat. An atheist could encourage someone to accept Christ if they believed it would help the person in question. The atheist could be mistaken in my opinion, but not to a believing observer.

  6. Anonymous, the whole "an atheist could encourage someone to accept Christ" stuff destroys the entire thought experiment. An atheist could also crash a plane into a building, in theory. There is no physical law preventing us from doing so. I think certain assumptions must be made for the argument to mean anything at all. (Also, I question whether all Christians would agree that a non-believer encouraging someone to come to Christ would be moral to begin with... Intention matters, especially when Jesus is reading your mind!)

    Again, I dispute the idea that the "tithe payer believes the tithe is moral because it is a charitable act." Those making this argument have clearly never been harangued into paying tithing before. The tithe payer believes the tithe is moral because godsaidso, and because "everything I have was given to me by God anyway... He's just asking that I only keep 90% of it. How generous of Him!"

    I do, however, buy what you are saying, that the second part of the argument is much more powerful. It is sadly easy to think of horribly immoral actions committed according to (someone else's) religion. But again this relates back to the Evidential Problem of Evil.

    I noticed you said "in the name of religion". I actually thought a much better point Hitchens made, and one that I don't think I've heard from him before, was that these things are not done "in the name of" religion, but as part of religion itself. "In the name of" implies a separation between the religious impetus and the immoral deed that simply does not exist.

  7. I have heard Hitchens use this line twice. Both times, he was responding to someone who had suggested that without religion, morality was impossible (or at least without foundation).

    Of course there will be moral questions upon which theists and atheists will differ. But this does not undermine the point of the challenge, which is to illustrate the fault with the idea that religious faith is necessary for *morality* (as opposed to particular moral beliefs). Or as Hitchens put it, "Think about that and you'll realize just how silly your question [where morals come from without religion] really was."

    So James, I agree with pretty much everything you wrote in this post - just not your characterization of the argument. Of course, if you thought that Hitchens was talking about the evidential problem of evil, then perhaps this device is rhetorically ineffective after all. ;)

  8. This is basically Hitch's take on Steven Weinberg's line: ""With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil - that takes religion."