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Wrong. A complete misrepresentation, however memorable it might be. Only certain types of Roman Catholic religion give the impression of believing that (and if you try to understand them, you will find even they don't believe that). Roman Catholicism does not represent all religion, by any means.
That is not what the Bible teaches, nor the Hindu Scriptures. The Bible tells us that all God created is good, that we have chose to turn away from God both personally and in society, and that God provides the means to get well, but the Holy Spirit of God is at work to bring full-orbed health in and around those who will let him, which is made possible by Jesus Christ. (See more on this Biblical view.)
A bit of lateral thinking: If we accept Hitchings' statement, does this not show God's dignifying of humanity? Does the command not imply the possibility? To be well when we are already well is easy; to find a way to be well when we are ill is worthy of more praise. In my view, God created humanity with potential and dignity, not just as objects (as Hitchings claimed), but as subjects. A subject-subject relationship is responsive and dignifying. But, philosophically, being-a-subject involves being-subject to law. (See Integrating the Meanings of 'Subject'.)
Only Roman Catholics believe in the 'vicar of Christ'. Most Christians do not; they believe that Christ is directly accessible. What is called the 'priesthood of all believers' is held by many, especially those of Brethren or Quaker traditions. But in some late-twentieth-century Pentecostal churches there is a tendency to see the church leader as some kind of priest or pope, even if not by that name.
The grounds on which this debate was carried out are wrong. Both seemed to accept without question that human freedom and rationality are supreme. And that religion stands or falls by whether it supports or threatens these. But that presupposition fails to recognise that religion and faith are orthogonal to these.
Might not need 'permission', but to know right from wrong, we always presuppose some normative framework (a set of law that defines right and wrong). The Ten Commandments were an expression of a deeper normative framework. Whence comes the deeper normative? My answer is that it is the Creator's love-gift to the cosmos that enables it to Be and Occur separately from the Creator, with dignity. (See more on dignity.)
Take human freedom, as Hitchings' example. Why should human freedom be paramount? Why not curb it? What is wrong with curbing it? Just because Christopher Hitchings and some other people tell us, on their own authority, that it is so? No way! In maintaining that human freedom is good, is not he himself presupposing a deeper normative framework? Any normative framework that is founded in humanity itself can be questioned by any member of humanity: me, you or anyone else, and Hitchings would have no authority to impose on you or me the norm of freedom. He only has that authority because human freedom is what God intended.
Actually, that must be qualified. The freedom God intended is that which is meaningful rather than nonsense, and leads to dignity not degradation. As someone once remarked to me, "Of course we have the freedom to build a car with square wheels, but it wouldn't make sense to do so."
Hitchings' claim is meaningless because good and harm cannot be measured by numbers; for example, what about the long-term good that comes from what seemed bad? Blair's claim is not meaningless but is is weak, and Hitchings was right to counter it.
Before deciding whether Blair is right or not, I want to comment on the grounds on which this argument was fought. It is fought on the grounds that religion and morals are bound together, and that religion is justified by the amount of good it does. But is that correct?
As a philosopher, I question this. Faith and goodness are not the same, nor are they reducible to each other (see below for a brief argument). Genuine goodness is by nature self-effacting and hence does not push itself on others. So, left to itself, goodness will not be enacted; goodness is only enacted because we believe.
So faith is necessary for goodness. For example, it was specifically because of Biblical faith that the world changed its attitude to slavery (and I believe there are similarities with climate change). But faith can also bring evil, because faith and goodness are not reducible to each other.
So, to point to the good that religion does is not enough. Religion (faith) has to stand on its own two feet, as faith rather than as merely the source of moral goodness. The role of faith in the world is to spur human beings and societies to vision, commitment and action. In my view, faith that is rooted in the Bible, brings the best and most appropriate action. Other faith - including some Roman Catholicism - brings some good, but less.
Mediaeval Roman Catholic thought presupposed that the fundamental divide in reality is that between natural and supernatural. (See Nature-Grace Ground-motive.) A ground-motive is our basic presupposition about the nature of reality which determines, not what we believe, but how we arrive at what we believe. The mediaeval period in Europe was dominated by this ground-motive. It persists today, and not just in Roman Catholicism, but also in much American Christianity. The operation of this ground-motive is seen in the other presuppositions here: the supremacy of faith over reason and freedom or the other way round, the reduction of morals to faith or faith to morals, and the ignoring of ordinary people, below.
But this is not what the Bible teaches. The Bible does not stress the supernatural, but rather our relationship with God worked out in daily ordinary life.
Neither of them recognised the effect of religion (Biblical Christianity at least) on the lives of countless ordinary people. But Biblical Christianity works by allowing ordinary, lowly, people to become right with God through the work of Christ, be filled with the Holy Spirit, have dignity and hope and forgiveness and a new life, in which they live not for themselves but for Christ and for others. So myriads of little pieces of good enter the world. This effect is 'under the radar' of the academics, the rulers, the opinion-formers. Where is it noticed, it is often sneered at.
For example, the preaching of Wesley and Whitefield brought thousands of miners and other manual workers to Christ, and radically altered British society. For example, the Welsh Revival of 1904 achieved more against drunkenness in two months than the government had achieved in two years, and for a period crime figures fell to zero.
Such good by and among ordinary people was ignored in the debate. Partly because the ordinary people are 'mundane'. This is the case in Rwanda. The 1920s revival occurred among the ordinary people but did not touch the leaders, and the revival was pietistic in nature and was not applied to the structures of society. Three generations later, the ordinary people had grown tired of it and forgot God, and had reduced God to a religion, and so were easily led by evil leaders into perpetrating genocide. It was not God but the forgetting of God, even while giving lip service to him, which allowed genocide, and it was ungodly leaders, who stirred it up, leaders who, while giving lip service to God or Christianity, knew nothing of its reality. Hitchings does not seem to understand this. (See Revival.)
This too may be a result of the Nature-Grace ground-motive. God is reduced to the supernatural and, if one wants to deny the supernatural, one must deny God.
But I am more interested in God's activity in the world, regardless of the impact of religion on the world. Religion is a often a distortion about God and where it is so, it brings harm. But where religion is pure, it brings good. Not just because of its beliefs, but because it is in line with Ultimate Reality, i.e. God. God sometimes steps in and works directly, especially in the lives of ordinary people who call on him. The work of God in the world is usually 'under the radar', and is easy to explain away if we want to.
To religion, 'faith' means assent to a creed. But what God (as revealed in the Bible) is looking for is not assent to a creed, but an attitude of willingness to work with him for the blessing of his creation. We are part of that creation, but have the privilege of being invited to represent him to the rest of creation. (See Representing God.) This willingness-faith is not a denial of reason nor or freedom, but a very ground for good reason and meaningful freedom. This is what God intended. (See God's Cosmic Plan.)
This page is a comment, offered to God as on-going work. Comments, queries welcome.
Copyright (c) Andrew Basden 2010. But you may use this material subject to certain conditions.
Part of his www.abxn.org pages, that open up discussion and exploration from a Christian ('xn') perspective. Written on the Amiga with Protext. Number of visitors to these pages: .
Created: 12 December 2010. Last updated: