Monday, November 29, 2010

Responding to Hitchens in the Hitchens-Blair debate

The following are my responses to some of the accusations made by Christopher Hitchens. This is kind of "what would I do" in that particular case.

1) Northern Ireland
I think this was one of Tony Blair's biggest blunders. He brought up Northern Ireland to defend religion as a good thing for peace. Basically he said that religious leaders got together to bring peace to North Ireland. In his rebuttal, Hitchens picked up on this to ask rhetorically where the violence came from in the first place. In fact, Blair was responding to an audience member question concerning violence in Africa. Obviously if I were in that situation, I would not have voluntarily brought up Northern Ireland.

However, if the topic came up and I had to address it I would say religion in North Ireland was an incidental part of the conflict. The lines were drawn between Catholic and Protestant but the reason was that the conflict had to do with whether Northern Ireland belonged to the Republic of Ireland or Great Britain. The Catholics happened to be from Ireland and the Protestants were from Great Britain. Therefore, the conflict didn't originate because the Catholics were using rosary beads, but because those of Irish and thus Catholic descent were being treated unfairly by Protestants and perhaps the other way around. But it was not primarily or even partially due to religion.

2) Religious conflict in general
the topic of religious conflict was brought up often. It was said to cause division. It was implied that if people didn't have strong religious beliefs or any, then there would be less conflict because people wouldn't kill each other just because they are the wrong religion.

However, this relies on many glaring fallacies. One implication is that without religion everyone would just "get along" and there would be no conflict. However, this is absurd. Most wars are not caused because of religion. In fact, a recent analysis found that only 10% had religion as an effect on wars. Most of the time it involves land or resources. In fact, the study found that religion actually reduced wars because it formed a type of commonality among people. Take Europe for instance. Europe is separated by country, region, language, way of life, dialect, etc. but the one thing that united it was its Christian religion. Everyone in Europe felt united by this fact. Yes, there were conflicts, but with this commonality, it actually reduced conflict.

3. Non-religious regimes
Blair made a good point here by saying that many atheistic regimes (you know, the most violent and destructive regimes in human history) had at their core the goal of eliminating religion. To believe that non-religion will bring peace is absurd. Just look at history at the factions which attempted to destroy religion.

4. Religion and its effect on human behavior
Hitchens said that religion causes people to feel guilty about natural instincts and urges and that this is a terrible thing. I do not believe that Blair rebutted this point adequately. Yes, the Church does believe in self-control and not acting on all instincts. But then again, who does? I may feel like relieving myself, but no one would consider it "repressed" if I waited until I reached a bathroom to do so. In fact, they may thank me for not urinating on their carpet. Married men are expected not to cheat on their wives. Do we see this as repression also? If a man does this behavior, is it bad that he feels guilty? The point is, there are many behaviors which we control in order to bring more happiness in the long run. To make it seem like religion somehow "represses" us by not letting us act out every urge is absurd.

5. Root of Good and Evil
One point that wasn't addressed by Blair was the root cause of good and evil. I acknowledge that atheists or agnostics can do good works for charity and so on. But the question is what is right and what is wrong? Where do morals come from? I do not think an atheist can answer such a question. They can only say that it is a social convention or a group decision, but there can be no imperative reason to do these things. Biologically, wouldn't it make sense for me to kill all men around my age to increase my chance of passing my genes down through as many women as possible? Why is this wrong? What if I decide it isn't wrong? Who can challenge my decision? I believe there are universal, unchangeable morals that are not just social conventions, and therefore there is a power greater than humanity, the morals are not just in our mind, but they exist in the universe.

6. Hitchens says to keep religion out of public
Although Hitchens attempts to appear as though he agrees with Tony Blair that we ought to respect religious freedom, he in fact does not. He goes on to say that he does not want religion taught to children in schools or for any religious talk to happen in public. So what does he propose replace religion in schools? Obviously atheism, which is itself an ideology. By banning any talk of religion in the public sphere, what will replace it? Obviously non-religious or atheistic talk. See, when it comes to these issues, it is impossible to just "remove" religion. It is instead replaced by another philosophy.

7. Religion has a real impact
I believe the point that Tony Blair really failed to make was that religion really does cause a difference. So many religious people have given up all material possessions to follow God more closely. People like Mother Teresa and St. Francis. They gave everything to the poor and made it their life work. But they were also very personally holy. They bore wrongs against them patiently, they prayed for those who persecuted them. Our greatest example is Jesus Christ. Even as he was being killed, he prayed for his captors. I think the level of self-giving and good that is brought to society through religion is far greater than what comes from non-religion. This is not about a competition, it's about the source of motivation. I think religion has transformative power.

For an example of this, look at the Roman empire. Christianity insisted on ending the gladiator games which saw thousands of people killed, not to mention lots of animals. Christianity forbade the common practice of infanticide. It set up hospitals, not just for the rich who could afford it, but for all people rich and poor. Schools were established by religions. This did not spring forth from the secular non-Christian society of the time. Without religion the world would be a much bleaker place.

8. People of faith only act out of fear of hell or desire for Heaven

This is an old canard which is used by Hitchens. I say it's an old canard because, as Tony Blair points out, Christians generally do not think along these lines. Generally Christians see the examples of Jesus, Mary, and the Saints, and feel those people are most fully living their humanity, and that their actions make a world a much better place. They then seek to emulate these great examples and bring peace and love to the world. Hitchens presents the Christian motivation in very crass and selfish terms. As though the only reason a Christian helps a stranger is because they will get to heaven that way.

However, this is clearly false. Mother Teresa clearly did not believe that the bare minimum she must do to get to Heaven is to devote her entire life to helping the poorest of the poor in India. In fact, Catholic doctrine is very generous in this regard. Although the Church supplies countless examples of heroic virtue, we are simply expected to avoid committing serious sin and to follow Christ's commandments. However, many Christians go well beyond this to do things which are truly extraordinary. This is not the mark of someone doing something just to get a reward.

A good analogy would be that in order to receive a chocolate bar from a charity, a person must pay $1. If everyone only paid the minimum $1, we could perhaps claim they are just paying the $1 to get a reward. However, if some people have paid $100 or $1000 to the charity and only took one chocolate bar, it would be safe to assume they really truly wanted to give to that charity for its great work.

9. Pope and Extra Ecclasiam Nulla Salus
Hitchens called Pope Benedict's comments that the Catholic Church is the one true Church "positively sinister". Perhaps even more puzzling is that Hitchens implied that the Church "used" to teach that, then stopped and now Benedict is "restoring" it. That's absolute nonsense. This has always been a Catholic teaching. Many people may find the statement offensive, but if you think about it, it's not that shocking. The Church is saying that it's teachings are correct because of its holy mandate. Other religions also have truth in them, but only the Catholic Church has the "fullness of the truth". How could it be otherwise?

10. Faith as surrender of reason.
Hitchens uses another old canard by claiming the false dichotomy between faith and reason, or science and religion. But this is a nonsensical distinction. The Church believes in science and many top scientists have been Catholic, even priests. The father of genetics, the originator of the Big Bang theory, many seismologists, sinologists, etc. have been Catholic priests. To pit faith and reason as adversaries really contradicts reality and history.

11. Oxfam, Doctors without Borders, etc.
Hitchens said he supports non-religious organizations which do good work. He used this to prove his point that you don't need religion to help others. Well, Oxfam was actually started by Quakers. Amnesty International was founded by a Catholic.

Religion has been a catalyst since its start for charity throughout the world. I believe Christianity best exemplifies this because of its witness to goodness and truth. It revolutionized the way the world thinks about poverty and helping one another. To ignore this fact is to ignore reality. However, we must not confuse religion with charity only. Charity stems from the beliefs of a religion. In Christianity, our belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God opens our ears to his words. We listen not just to his advice on charity, but on all other topics as well.

We've experimented with eliminating religion and we've seen the results. Human life is devalued and there are tens of millions of deaths. Religion is a force for good because it unifies people and teaches us how to treat our adversaries with love. Not everyone follows the rules of a religion, but that is not a defect on the part of that religion, but of the people perpetrating crimes.

The Christian Church truly shaped our Western civilization. The ideals we live by and which other countries strive for are rooted in our religious beliefs. To know history is to know that religion is a force for good in the world.

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