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The Blair v Hitchings Debate:
Religion Good in the World?

As a debate, Hitchings won, hands-down. Christopher Hitchings, the atheist, confidently used humour while Tony Blair, Roman Catholic and once Britain's Prime Minister, was defensive and hesitant. But Blair had the better attitude, more gracious and generous, while Hitchings was contemptuous and derisory. Unfortunately, the audience, as I heard it on BBC Radio 4 on 11 December 2010, liked contemptuous humour to generous seriousness. That, to me, sums up the debate itself.

Now I want to comment on the content in more detail.

On Some Content of the Debate

In terms of content, what Hitchings said was rubbish - but in rubbish tips one finds useful items for reuse and recycling. What Blair said was not much better. Why were both rubbish? Because the entire debate carried out within the area bounded by certain presuppositions that are questionable:

Click to access them.

Presupposition of Roman Catholicism

We are "created sick and commanded to be well" - that is what Hitchings claimed is what religion tells us. He was obviously proud of this statement (he said it twice in his short opening statement) but it is indeed memorable in summarising the illogicality and injustice of what some religious doctrine tends to suggest. Hitchings also mentioned that Christians submit to the 'vicar of Christ', the Pope who stands in place of Christ.

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.

Presupposition that Rationality and Human Freedom are Supreme

Hitchings spoke of surrendering reason in favour of faith. Blair countered by trying to claim that religion is not against science. Hitchings somewhere said, "We don't need permission to know right from wrong", "we don't take 'tablets' [the stone tablets on which Moses wrote the Ten Commandments]" to know right from wrong. Hitchings kept on repeating (often with sneering humour) how religion curbs human freedom. Blair countered by pointing out that people of faith "stand for freedom".

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."

Presupposition that Morals and Religion go Together

Blair's opening statement and a lot of his other argument amounted to "I admit that bad things have been done in the name of religion; but these are not really the fault of religion. Religion is good because it does some good too." The implication is that religion is justified because it does some charitable good in the world. For example, the Northern Ireland conflict was resolved by religious people. To which Hitchings countered adroitly with "But what caused the conflict in the first place!" Hitchings stated "religion forces people to do bad things" and [his opinion] that the charity that comes from religion is far outweighed by the harm that religion does.

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.

Presupposing the Natural Versus Supernatural Divide

Hitchings mentioned the demand that reason should submit to faith, and sneered at the need to "believe in the supernatural".

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.

Presupposition that Ordinary People Do Not Count

Hitchings brought up many examples of the heinous things done in the name of religion, especially Rwanda which he dubbed the most Christian country in the world but in which genocide occurred. All his examples that I can recall were of situations in which some powerful figures did the evil, and stirred up evil among the people, sometimes using religion. Blair countered with examples of leading people doing good because of their religion.

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.)

Presupposition that we can Debate Religion, Rather than God

Almost all of the debate was about religion, not God. Partly this was because of the title: is religion good in the world. But those who recognise that God is different from religion could have brought God in more - God as active in the world (or not).

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.)


On Relationship between Faith and Goodness

My argument is, very briefly, as follows. We have to understand the difference and the link between justice, morals and faith (which happen to be the three components of Giddens' structuration theory and are Dooyeweerd's final three aspects). The root of justice is the drive for 'due', proportionality, the bringing about of "tit for tat"; it is justice that prevents the good in the world from deteriorating. But no extra good is generated. The extra good is generated by those who are willing to sacrifice themselves - their time, their effort, their reputation, their money, or even their lives - so that others can gain extra blessing that goes beyond what is due. At the centre of goodness we find, not a drive but an attitude, an attitude of self-sacrifice, of self-effacing. Goodness therefore has an innate weakness: it does not push itself onto others. (Any do-gooder who pushes their 'good' onto others is not doing real good - though they might be doing justice.) What can give goodness its spur is faith. Faith involves commitment to something we firmly believe in. So the enactment of goodness in this world is, in the main, brought about by firm faith. Without faith, we have no reason to sacrifice ourselves.

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 pages, that open up discussion and exploration from a Christian ('xn') perspective. Written on the Amiga with Protext. Number of visitors to these pages: Counter.

Created: 12 December 2010. Last updated: