About this Blog
About The Author
Email Me

RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

« McCain's Dilemma, Part 2 | HorseRaceBlog Home Page | No More Memos! »

On Gerson and Hitchens

I read with bemusement the back-and-forth between Michael Gerson and Christopher Hitchens in the Washington Post last Friday and Saturday. It is disappointing to me that this is what counts for theological discussion in the popular press. Between the two of them, not a single point of value or interest was made.

On Friday, Gerson offered a rather lame defense of religious belief. He began by asking:

Proving God's existence in 750 words or fewer would daunt even Thomas Aquinas. And I suspect that a certain kind of skeptic would remain skeptical even after a squadron of angels landed on his front lawn. So I merely want to pose a question: If the atheists are right, what would be the effect on human morality?
This question, of course, is a non-sequitur. There is no way to demonstrate that "the atheists are right." The veil can never be lifted. Atheists can never be found to be right. And, if they are objectively right, we shall never know. The question therefore has no answer.

Gerson seems to me to frame his argument in this strange way so that he can vacillate between two points, both of which are weak. On the one hand, he seems to want to argue that morality itself is proof of God's existence. He goes out of his way (oddly, twice) to note that morality is not proof of God's existence - but he essentially argues that it is when he asserts that atheists cannot explain morality without recourse to cruel irony, nor can they offer any reason why morality is binding. Of course, this is a highly problematic proposition - the whole thrust of modern moral theory implies that God's existence is not a necessary condition for moral maxims to have influence and value.

This is why I think he seems also to argue a related point - which is that belief in God's existence has a salutary effect on morals. But this proposition is much more problematic than Gerson seems to realize. Belief in God is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for moral living, as Gerson admits. If Gerson wishes to offer a generalized empirical claim that certain religious beliefs have a salutary effect on morals - I would be interested in the argument. However, consider the massive size and problematic scope required for the task. He would have to (a) operationalize and then catalog the diverse religious beliefs across cultures, (b) operationalize and then catalog the diverse moral behaviors across those cultures, and (c) determine whether the two correlate with one another, i.e. whether certain religious beliefs imply more salutary morals.

At any rate, this argument is also subtly condescending to the Judeo-Christian tradition. The God of the Old and New Testaments has not involved Himself in the world solely so that we might all be nice to one another. Rather, He has done so to redeem humanity and restore it to its intended position in creation. Niceness enters into it, but there is much more going on, as Gerson of course knows. However, defending religion by discussing the salutary effect it has on morals misses - and diminishes - many of both Testament's central points, which are eschatological in nature.

And so, in shifting a discussion of Judeo-Christian theology from its central themes to an ancillary consideration - Gerson gives the indefatigable Christopher Hitchens an opportunity to do what he never fails to do: condemn religious belief by attacking a convenient mischaracterization of it. Hitchens reminds me of the sophists against whom Plato so often railed. It does not matter how mellifluous your adverbs and adjectives sound when they roll off your droll English tongue - attacking a straw man is still attacking a straw man.

This is precisely what Hitchens does in all of his many, repetitive polemics against religious belief. As a believer, I find him so completely unpersuasive because he always mischaracterizes my positions as a prelude to his snide attacks upon them.

I have long inferred that Hitchens holds firm to that tired pretension that naturalists are the only rationalists and "free thinkers." Indeed, he seems convinced that non-believers are the only ones who have thought seriously about issues like the theodicy problem, or the role that God plays in His church on Earth, or exactly what Christ accomplished on the cross, or what posture we should have toward those whose beliefs diverge from our own, and so on. What else to make of his laundry list of religion's sins? The implication is that nobody on the other side has a compelling explanation for them. Well, of course they do. Those of us who hold to considered beliefs are happy to stipulate his facts (as well as the instances - oddly short-shrifted by Hitchens! - where belief has had a benevolent effect) so that we may have a discussion of how we should understand them. We are more than ready for this debate - as the understanding of his laundry list is one of the purposes of theology.

It might come as a surprise to Mr. Hitchens that those of us who believe can do so without rejecting facts or logic. His ignorance notwithstanding, I am glad to report that we can. He'd know this if he'd just exercise a little care when considering the arguments of those who dare to disagree with him. He reads as a man who does not do this, as a man who is so infuriated by the very idea of theism that he cannot sit still until the end of a work by Augustine - who was far more clever than he. If he took a deep breath, ceded the possibility that his own judgments might be in error, and thoughtfully read those who disagree - he would see that, while it might still be the case that he is right and they are wrong, it certainly is not the "slam dunk" that he thinks it is. He would see that, as it turns out, those who dare to disagree actually have some decent points to make.

In that instance, he might say something of value on the question of religion. But, so long as he refuses to show his opponents any respect, his arguments will be what they were last Saturday - adroit non-sequiturs that titillate rather than edify. Attacks against straw men appeal to the party base, but they do nothing to advance the cause.

-Jay Cost