Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Is it possible for Christians to behave Morally?

I recently posted an article entitled "Is it possible for Non Christians to behave morally?"  Honestly at the time that I wrote it I thought that I would get explanations for foundations of ethics outside of Christianity and the logic of human dignity-  but I didn't!  I did however get one very interesting response, which included a link to this video-  In it, Christopher Hitchens (who was among the most respected and vocal advocates of atheism until his recent death) argues that it is in fact impossible for Christians to behave morally.  As usual, Hitchens communicates his points articulately and with a gravity and courtesy which demand respect.  He makes some very compelling arguments, some of which I have already discussed in "Why Catholics are right."  (Interestingly, the video contains a link to the original whole debate, but that link has been severed, so we only get one side of the argument).

However, I found that many of Hitchens' arguments-  in fact, almost all of them, are based on false understandings of Christianity.  Now Hitchens is an extremely intelligent man, and very well informed, so to make such a bold and sweeping statement may seem unfair.  But I think that a cursory examination of the ideas he assumes are Christian beliefs will quickly demonstrate my point.

I have found in my discussions with atheists that invariably when they raise an argument against Christianity, it is against fundamentalism, and not against Christianity as I understand it as a Catholic.  Maybe this is because the fundamentalists are the most vocal Christians, certainly here and in the United States and the UK.  The difficulty is that I disagree with fundamentalists often for the same reasons as the atheists, and can usually offer more reasons to boot!  Within Hitchens' errors most of them fall into that category, but not all.  In this article I intend to explain the Catholic viewpoint as best I understand it.  I do not intend to defend what other Christians believe, or what Hitchens thinks they believe.

The first error I came across is in Hitchens' understanding of redemption by Christ.  There is a very simplistic way of explaining why Jesus' sacrifice is atoning for our sins, and that is the courtroom analogy.  This works great for explaining the concept to teens and to new converts,  but actually what Catholics understand about the nature of Christs redeeming act is much more profound.  At least as far back as St Anselm (1033-1109) Catholics have been articulating why this explanation is insufficient.  I won't get into it all here, except to say that the scapegoat analogy is incomplete, and so the arguments Hitchens has with Jesus redemption are incomplete.  There are 2 major points that stand out to me.  One is that we do not cast our sins upon Christ, but rather He takes them on Himself.  We could not have sacrificed just any human, and indeed the sacrifice of Christ would not have worked if we had tried to make it work rather than Him taking it on Himself.  Secondly, sacrificing any other human would not have done it, and this is precisely why the sacrifice of Christ can carry with it the forgiveness of sins.  Hitchens argues that even if he could take on someone else's punishment, he could never forgive them their sins.  Of course not!  Hitchens is not God.  Jesus is.  The fact that Jesus claimed to forgive sins in his life, and passed that authority on to his apostles, is one of the most outlandish claims possible.  No one but God can do that.  And God forgiving us of our sins does not take away our responsibility for them, as Hitchens suggests.  In fact I would propose that the Christian view holds that we are much more responsible for our sins than a secular view would.  I suspect that this is in part why we ought to fear God, and if we had the slightest grasp of the immensity of our sins it would only serve to increase our aprecaition that he forgives them!

"If I do right it is only to evade punishment".  I highly, highly doubt that you would find a mature Christian that would agree to that summary of Christian morality!  In fact, this is largely the mentality that St Paul was arguing against when he spoke of 'freedom from the law'.  It is difficult to take on errors of such magnitude within a short blog entry, as I have to explain every background idea.  The concept in Christianity is that we have been created good and have been corrupted, and are being restored to our original state by submission to Gods will.  It is not legalistic like the Jews or Muslims.  The process is called Sanctification in the west, Deification in the East.  We were made in the likeness of God and are being restored to it.  And the likeness of God, his nature, is love.  So being sanctified is being restored to love!  Once restored to our original state, we will not even desire sin!  When Jesus speaks of freedom from the law, it is because if I do not desire to murder, than I have no need of the law "thou shalt not murder."  If I have no desire to lust, I don't need the laws regulating sex. It is ridiculous to think that the only reason Christians do not murder if for fear of punishment.  It is also ridiculous to think that the only reason Mother Teresa did what she did was for fear of punishment.  The doctors of the Church repeatedly taught that this servile fear stage is one of the first ones Christians go through, sometimes necessary at the start.  But if you remain in that stage, you will always be choosing good for selfish reasons, which is in fact sin and would frustrate your process of sanctification!

Hitchens also fails to understand the nature of the punishment of Hell.  He speaks of worldly punishments, which as he said 'somtimes follow axiomatically', but he does not realize that Hell follows selfishness axiomatically as well.  God does not send us to Hell, we effectively choose it out of selfishness! (Some of these arguments are so often stated elsewhere that it feels redundant to even bring them up.  I am not bringing anything new to the table, so surely Hitchens should have known better!)

 Hitchens complains about God's totalitarianism.  Why should we be forced to restore ourselves to sanctity-  we did not choose this state!  Why should we have to accept help from Christ.... we weren't there when he was crucified!  As if God were just another human setting up arbitrary laws.  I wonder if Hitchens thought it unjust that he was subject to the laws of physics, when these were not his own idea and he had no say in them?  The reality is for Christians that we are in need of redemption, and Christ gives us grace on the cross to receive it.  That's the starting point.  Arguing that it is not fair because you didn't choose it is like the child yelling at his mother "I didn't ask to be born!".    God wrote both the laws of physics and the laws of morality.  Through studying the laws of physics, we have come to the fascinating conclusion that in fact the universe would only produce life if the laws were as they are.  I suspect that if we accepted the laws of morality as they are rather than attempting to manufacture them we would discover the same principal applies! 

Hitchens argued that Christians think that we as humans have no innate sense of right and wrong, as if we did not know murder was wrong until we got to Sinai and received the 10 commandments.  It is hard to imagine where Hitchens even got that impression!  Christians have long held the principal of "Natural Law", which is precisely that we do have an innate sense of right and wrong. 

With humans being on the planet for 100,000 years, and Jesus only bothered to pop in for the last 2000-  that's his best argument, and I may one day dedicate a whole blog entry to it.  But again he fails to understand that Jesus redeeming act goes both ways, and that it is not necessary to know what Jesus did in order to benefit from it.  That latter notion is popular among fundamentalists and Jehovah's Witnesses but is not consistent with Catholic thinking. 

Lastly, he says that God fashioned us in filth and we are encouraged to be disgusted with our sexuality.  The former notion is held by Lutherans, and Calvinists, but not Catholics. As stated before, we believe that we are in the image of God an damaged by sin, but not disgusting. The latter notion is easily refuted by even a superficial examination of John Paul II's theology of the Body, that clearly Catholicism teaches that Sex is good and to be honoured, and that sexual ethics are routed in this notion, and not the one proposed by Hitchens.

In short, while I have no doubt that Hitchens would have handily defeated me in a live debate, most of his arguments against Christian Morality fall short when considered by someone who has an genuine understanding of Christian Morality. 

For people interested in going deeper into these ideas, I recommend the book "The Fulfillment of all Desire" by Ralph Martin.  It is not an apologetics book, but about maturing as a Christian and how the journey is explained by the doctors of the Church. 


  1. Very well done, Peter. Thanks for this.

    What so many fail to understand is that it all stems from love (also known as Charity). The selfless giving of oneself. Jesus was not sacrificed. He gave of himself. Blessed Mother Teresa's work was not done out of fear, but out of a desire to give herself to those who had nothing. When one sees himself as an accidental fluke born out of a cold, chaotic mess of particles, one sees no reason to sacrifice himself and can only see self-preservation as motivation.

  2. Peter, I'm afraid that many of your replies to Hitchens’ arguments either miss his point or else push the problems back a step or two without resolving them. Let me give you a few examples.

    At first glance, redemption does seem to make more sense if you think of it as a cure for an illness, rather than as forgiveness for a debt, or as the way of diverting the retribution we deserve for sin’s infinite insult to God’s majesty (Anselm’s answer). But the cure/illness framing is exposed to another of Hitchens’ criticisms: that God "created us sick, and then commanded us to be well."

    "But God didn't create us sick," you might say. "It's the result of the Fall!" Unfortunately, this move only works on a literal reading of Genesis—one that ignores everything science has taught us about how the world, and our species, came to be. The Church has embraced evolution (as “more than a theory”) and modern cosmology, and has suggested that Genesis creation story is not meant to be taken literally. Modern humans emerged out of related hominids in the neighborhood of 100,000 to 250,000 years—not as a pair of humans, but as a diverging population. There was no “Adam and Eve”, and no paradise from which to fall; humans emerged, more or less as we are, in a world already filled with parasites and pain, disease and death. We were “created sick.”

    Even setting aside this conflict, there's a more fundamental problem: how does Jesus’ death even work as a "cure" for sin? Why did an all-powerful God need a sacrifice to cure sin--how does it help? And what exactly does it mean to say that it has “cured us of sin”—shouldn’t it mean that we’d be less inclined to sin? Why aren’t we? Didn’t it work? Answers to these questions tend to involve returning “sin” to a legal category, rather than a condition of our nature—which means abandoning the ‘cure’ paradigm altogether. I’m curious if you can think of an alternative.

    Finally, a quick word on Hell. "God doesn't send you to hell; you choose to go to hell." This is growing more popular as a way making sense of the apparent injustice of having *eternal torture* as a punishment for finite sinfulness; but it doesn’t make much sense either. Anyone who 'chooses' to go to hell would have to be profoundly confused or delusional; what could anyone expect to gain from eternal and unrelenting misery? Any choice made in so total a state of confusion could not be described as ‘free.’ Even if it could, would it really be more important for God to respect such a ‘free choice’ than to protect that person from the eternal consequences of his confusion? Why would God let people get into such a state in the first place? Isn’t this confusion part of what Jesus is supposed to have saved them from in the first place? More importantly, why would He let their *eternal well-being* depend on a decision they have to make while so totally confused? Does that seem just or reasonable?

    Imagine it were up to you: would you allow a one of your children to go to hell forever—even if they were crazy enough to want to? If you would not, then it remains a good question: why would God?

    1. I have 2 points that I feel like should be made here.

      The first is that although Catholicism is very open to the idea of evolution, we are still bound to believe that humans were a 'special creation', meaning that we were given immortal souls and free will, etc, at some point, and that this was done with a first set of parents. The doctrine of original sin and thus of salvation (to some extent) is dependent on this.

      Secondly, when I say "we choose Hell' what I mean is that we choose the actions that axiomatically lead to Hell. Of course no one chooses Hell, just as no one chooses prison, lung cancer, addictions, financial ruin, destroyed relationships, or the many other consequences of sin. We do choose hell by choosing to reject God.

      As for why God would allow people to go to Hell and not intervene- aha, well now we are at it! I go into this subject at length in my post "Why does God allow bad things to happen?" ( I have a suspicion, and may soon develop this thought in another post, that while it is true that we are 'sick' as Hitchens says, that we are actually much more responsible for our actions than we think. I suspect that God is bigger, that sin is harsher, that justice is more frightening, and that mercy is as a result much more to be appreciated, than we recognize. And I suspect that we have created a culture where we are enablers by speaking of these things incorrectly. I feel like I am on the precipice of discovering something profound about the nature of God, and that it is linked in the idea that God is to be both feared and loved.
      Every heresy is emphasizing one aspect of God at the expense of another. I suspect that we have stumbled into another one!

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  3. It is not possible to reconcile the idea of there being "two first parents," with the concept of our species having evolved. Did two people get souls in the midst of a population of thousands of homo sapiens that didn't? Were the ones with souls forced to mate with those who didn't (would that be bestiality?), with the descendants of these unions getting souls, too?

    Even on this suggestion, it remains the case that there was no paradise: that the first humans existed in a world already dominated by violence, sickness, and death--which means there was no "fall" to explain the possibility of suffering (which is the answer you give in the article you link). God 'created' us in a world in which suffering was already prevalent: *why*?

    As for human selfishness and violence, it is perfectly understandable in terms of evolved primate behaviour. So the Church requires you to believe that homo sapiens existed as extra intelligent (and often violent)primates who were then given souls, at which point they were made sinless (what happened to their primate nature at this point?), but then, despite being sinless, they sinned. As a consequence, they were reverted back to a state that is indistinguishable from one in which none of this had happened. What reason could we have to believe this?

    It is like believing your friend stole money from you *and* replaced it while you weren't looking, as an explanation for your wallet having the amount of money in it that you expect to be there. It's inventing a mysterious answer when there's nothing that needs answering.

    And again, if God was able to cure them of their animal nature once, why was the sacrifice of his Son required to do it a second time? And why didn't it work?

    I'm afraid I don't find anything in your answer that alleviates the problem.

    *deleted to edit* ;)