BreakPoint Blog

Hitchens Brothers Argue 'Merits' of Religion in Times of Suffering
Rating: 5.00

Early in the following debate, which has a few interesting points made, Christopher Hitchens responds to the perception that he might be warming to the idea of religion. This was an idea that all good-willing Christians hope and pray for, but I found from the beginning to be unrealistic.

I battled cancer twice and I have looked worse than Christopher Hitchens does in this debate, but I have also mentored cancer patients and spoken with even more. I can tell you that there are two reactions to a diagnosis with cancer, with regard to religious devotion: 1) You draw closer to God and are comforted by the grace He offers in difficult times; or 2) You detest a God who would allow such suffering to happen.

The difference between the first and second reaction is usually one's devotion to God prior to the suffering. Strong faith in God is what helped me come through my first battle with cancer, and a weak faith in God is what allowed my life to crumble in my second diagnosis.

Christopher Hitchens has no religious faith and even goes so far as to consider himself an "anti-theist." He hates religion. Cases in which people with little, no, or weak faith going into a battle with cancer who come out with a fervent belief in God are extremely rare and to expect that in each instance is unrealistic. Miracles happen and should be adamantly prayed for, but there is a reason we call them miracles.

Peter Hitchens, the lesser known brother of Christopher Hitchens, makes an equally interesting point that we should consider. He says, "I find it to be quite grotesque to imagine that someone would have to get cancer to see the merits of religion. It's an absurd idea and I don't know why anyone imagines that it should be so."

I disagree with him. The merits of religion are definitely more greatly experienced in a time of suffering, assuming that we are welcome to God's grace in those times. The merit of religion over non-belief, aside from eternal condemnation, is the fact that the Christian faith, specifically, is what best explains the human condition.  (I'm using the word "merit" as a claim worthy of specific praise or benefit.)

It is contrary to our nature to reject God's freely given grace in the times we need it most. Our grasp of the consequences of our decisions and religious faith become very real when we go to meet our maker, assuming that we are right in saying that He exists, which is another reason religion has higher merit during tough times.

The reality of religion intensifies during times of suffering, which might be what Peter Hitchens was really trying to address. The intellectual arguments for religion stand apart from human experience, since they are fundamentally true and not contingent on us. The effects of those realities on us are what take new meaning and perhaps becomes more real to us. To say that the truth of God is heightened during times of suffering, would be a detestable notion since His reality would be contingent on our experience and acknowledgement of Him.

Whether he likes them or not, miracles could still happen with Christopher Hitchens and his anti-theist beliefs. As such, our prayers should continue as his health deteriorates.

Here is the video - (CNN)


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No objection to Oriental language except that my scholarly prowess does not extend that far and I would like it translated.
I disagree, Lee. I think it a sign of absolute reprobation.
dixsrpeggard's totally depraved comment is deserving of the Web manager's predestined response. Election to commenter-hood is unconditional as befits a free society, but spammers have limited opportunity for atonement. Those of us who seek to contribute, rather than taking, find the grace demonstrated at this blog to be irresistible, though, so we persevere in making our remarks.

(As "LeeQuod" gets put in the blacklist by, um, "accident"...)
And yes, I did miss you, Lee.
Actually, my point Lee, was simply that the act of calling something progress implies a measurement. That measure of moral progress or regress would be what "absolute morality" is. The interpretation of a given time and place is a matter of our ability to sense it.

Suppose a chopper dropped several sensors in the ocean and each of them went "ping" but showed the bearing of their "ping" in a different direction. The proper conclusion is not that there is no submarine. The proper conclusion is that each sensor has a glimpse of where the submarine is. It is up to the task force commander to figure out from the differing sensors where the submarine is so that he can win the bet and force the captain to buy him a drink when the fleet returns from this year's maneuvers.
Did you miss me?
(Sigh - *yes* , LQ we *missed* you. But we've been practicing our marksmanship, and by golly **one** of these days,...!)

So returning (at least briefly) to the subject that started it all: Imagine if we agreed with Christopher Hitchens that all religion poisons everything. If that were the case, would we really be concerned about the death of one six-billionth of the world's population? I'm not talking about some irrational emotional response, but a legitimate concern for this man's welfare. Most of us Point commenters have likely never met him, and it's unlikely that any of us have regular social contact with him. So I'm speaking about a rational basis for expending any emotion on his condition. Suppose we say that we're extending the concern that we have for *every* human being, on the basis that we can't predict what contributions someone could have made had they lived longer. That brings up the question of why we should be concerned about those contributions; why should we worry about humanity thriving – or surviving, for that matter? There are those who argue that humans are a virus, and that Earth would be far better off without us. Assuming that this is false, and that Earth benefits from our collective existence, this has simply moved the problem; why should we be concerned about Earth? And clearly this line of questioning can continue (similar to what Jason has been doing) until we ask why we should have any concern for our entire universe. So if there is nothing supernatural, as atheists claim, then it appears that any concern for Christopher Hitchens is essentially a waste of time. (And, that all of human progress is really a waste of time also – as Richard Dawkins has already told us.) So I'd disagree with you, Bradley, that “we all empathize with our brother, Christopher, now that he has been brought low by disease.” If Christopher is correct, then there's no real brotherhood, and no real empathy – except those which are vestiges of that poisonous religious belief he'd prefer we eradicate.

Rolley, I can't go further without thanking you tremendously for drawing out SBK. And Steve, dear old friend, I've really missed you. I know you've been occupied with SBK the Younger, so I don't intend any guilt or prodding – just the kind of concern that religious brotherhood makes possible. You summarized my position quite well.

Jason, you're correct to point out that the kind of utopian society promoted by Rousseau and Marx, among others, does not work because people want everyone *else* to cooperate, but want to be under different restrictions themselves. (Both Rousseau and Marx didn't exactly cooperate with the women in their lives.)

Ben, dear old friend, it was just such a flexible definition of evil that led to tolerating slavery, racism, women's inequality, and most of the other evils of which liberals justifiably complain. And as Rolley and SBK have shown, it was an inflexible definition that led to moral “progress”. (It does appear that what we call “progress” is in fact an attempt to return to what was lost.) My biggest concern, though, is that by indicating God may be less than good, you set yourself in His place, judging Him. That's how a snake lost his legs, y'know, and thereby affected the rest of us rather significantly.

Bradley, dear *new* friend, what's the difference between progress and mere change? Evolutionary theorists are always denying that evolution is synonymous with progress. (Humans aren't better than other species, they say, just more adapted to our environment in some ways.) If that's the case, then progress implies movement toward some kind of standard that my friend Ben doesn't want to name. Or rather, he and a lot of other people want the freedom to set their own moral standard(s). If everyone has their own standard, then no one can tell anyone that they're wrong. So stuff like genocide is a matter of preference, and if some group decides by mutual consent that it's OK, well, who are *we* to tell them they're wrong?

So if the plight of Christopher Hitchens tells us anything, it tells us that without religion – without God, specifically – there is no plight. It's rather like the flip side of what Billy originally said; your devotion to God is all that gives your suffering any context and any meaning. Otherwise, you're just an animal undergoing a process that every other animal undergoes, and your pain is simply a neural reaction. And that realization, if Christopher Hitchens has made it, has to be the most painful situation of all. Having been *there* myself – realizing that without God, my pain was irrelevant – I can honestly pray for a miracle in the life of Mr. Hitchens.
"Toward more thorough co-operation, as previously stated."

And why is cooperation a good thing?
Truth is Seen Darkly – Until We Look at Christ
Bradley and Ben -- Here’s why “the view that good and evil are absolute and illuminated by a divine being” does NOT stymie progress or necessitate a reliance on unbiblical human judgment.

Christians confess that revelation (i.e. truth revealed in the Bible) is “progressive”; that is, the more and the later the revelation, the more our understanding of the things spoken to is divinely illuminated. Thus, in the Old Testament certain forms of slavery and genocide appear to be morally acceptable (namely if/when God commands it for reasons we have to conclude are good), whereas in the New Testament Christ gives fuller illumination as to what is and always has been good and evil by explicitly commanding love for our enemies and declaring that all people are valued equally by God (Matt 5:44, Gal 3:28).

The point is, love for one another has always been absolute (Matt 22:37-40). It’s just that we have not discerned the full implications of that absolute because it has been revealed to us progressively. What you call “pragmatic moral flexibility” the Christian would call “discernment” of what the bible really has been saying all along. “Innovation” that conflicts with clear biblical principles is retrogressive, not progressive.

Good bible scholars would also make a distinction between what is “descriptive” (the story of Abraham and Isaac, for instance) and “prescriptive” (the Ten Commandments).

So I would differ with you that what is being attempted here in these blogs is the evolution of views leading FROM biblical teaching TO something else. What we are attempting here through dialogue is to better understand and apply what the bible has taught all along and that now has been made clear in Christ.

Ben, you say “Rolley, slavery was not condoned on a "special occasion", but as a matter-of-course part of culture, until it was finally expunged only a few centuries ago.” I heartily agree with you that slavery was given a pass – until Christians – Christians! – like William Wilberforce led the charge to discerningly expound and apply the eternal principles of Christ who, on the cross, showed that He loves every person more than His own life. If you love all people like Christ did/does, you cannot subject them to demeaning slavery.

Again, the “evolution” of morality is a matter of discernment; i.e. of better understanding what the bible has been saying all along (albeit in parables and dark sayings until Christ came and gave us the full set of principles).

Ben, I already gave you my take on the Abraham incident (on March 16, 2010 in a piece titled “Abba! Monster!”) -- ( ) and explained what I would do with respect to killing my child (or doing something else immoral) if *God* asked me to”.

SBK, good thoughts and comments as always.
Toward more thorough co-operation, as previously stated.
"Without pragmatic moral flexibility we would never have seen the end of slavery, universal suffrage, women's rights, or the election of a (nominally) brown president. I think most people would agree that the list above contains examples of moral progress."

What is morality progressing towards, pray tell?
I'll just put down some of my thoughts (that won't apply to this whole thread, just the last few comments... and even then, I don't hope to say much. Maybe we're slowly meandering off topic).

Anyway, interesting Ben that you say "take it on faith", twice, especially in relation to stories of Abraham (and his children). I think those stories are strange to us. One, we rely more and more on ourselves, in many ways, so it would be weird to "listen to" or "trust" or "believe in" ... a God? But two, do we know what those stories are even about? We know that Abraham *didn't* sacrifice his son -- simplistically: because God rescued him. What's the story about? The foundation of morality? Sometimes, I wonder how the stories of neighbouring peoples to Abram ended. I think this topic, Abraham's faith, is the most important part of the discussion to think about.

Along with that then, if God is in the picture when it comes to morality, would that change anything? Mmmmmmmmmeh? Or not meh? Isn't this the question we should be asking?

Aside from that, isn't LQ saying that if there is no absolute right or wrong, there is no ultimate difference in our actions? Doesn't this mean something?

More questions... Yikes sorry, I'm full of... them.
Are we 'arguing' to come to a consensus or to progress morality? In other words, what's wrong with pictures of aborted babies?

And as far as moral progress goes, why is that important? What difference does it make if it progresses toward good or evil? But beyond that, who said anything about absolutes not requiring good progress? Isn't the Christian message saying we need to progress toward... the Good? A 'good work' isn't strictly following a rule layed down by some god. What is it? Where does grace fit in?

Here's the line from a song I learnt growing up and strangely, it applies. It's source is the Hebrew Bible:

"He has shown thee O man what is good,
And what doth the Lord require of thee,
But to do justly, and to love mercy,
And to walk humbly with thy God."

Grace and Shalom my friends.
If we take the view that good and evil are absolute and illuminated by a divine being wouldn't that stymie moral progress in much the same way that taking the view that the bible is the absolute story of science and creation would prevent further advancement in natural science and technology. The framework needs to be flexible in order for innovation and improvement to occur.

Without pragmatic moral flexibility we would never have seen the end of slavery, universal suffrage, women's rights, or the election of a (nominally) brown president. I think most people would agree that the list above contains examples of moral progress.

Even this site is an attempt at moral progress, and the conversational style of many of the blogs here doesn't suggest an absolute standard by which all things must be judged, but rather a much more pragmatic standard of comparing moral questions to the western evangelical Christian worldview, and evolving those views where appropriate.

I think it's self evident that a flexible moral framework is completely rational and is used even by people who claim an absolute moral standard.
LQ: Actually, I think my definition of "evil" is pretty flexible and useful. Evil is doing immoral things. (Of course, you'll ask me what is "morality", and what the basis is for morality. So, keep reading).

I find it interesting that you say "If there is no absolute for good or for evil, and they're all just social conventions that evolved over time, then we're just saying that any particular genocide was simply more, or less, inconvenient to us all than any other action humans take."

But isn't this the theology that you and Rolley are defending? Genocide is wrong, except when God has a good reason to command it? So there may be an absolute standard for right and wrong, but we have to take it on faith.

Rolley, slavery was not condoned on a "special occasion", but as a matter-of-course part of culture, until it was finally expunged only a few centuries ago.

I totally agree on the "judicious use of natural and special revelation to make the determination of what is right and wrong and to enforce its keeping".. but this means that, for now, we humans decide/determine/judge what is moral and what is not, as best as we can. As we are relying on human judgment, we *surely* change our definition of "evil" over time. (I'm emphasizing, for LQ's sake, that even if there is an absolute standard for good/evil, there is also an everyday definition that we use. That everyday definition changes, and not just according to what we find "convenient".)

And as with the story of Abraham and the sacrifice of his son, we can only take it on faith that God will never command things such as genocide again. If the word "evil" has anything like an eternal definition, surely it would be evil to sacrifice one's son thousands of years ago, just as now - no matter who told you to do it. Or, if it was okay back then (with God's command), it would likewise be okay now. What changed?

Speaking of evangelistic stridency, I just passed a few campus preachers on my way back to my lab, complete with gory pictures of aborted babies blown up to poster-size.
Thanks Rolley
Good words.
>This dewdrop world
>Is just a dewdrop world.
>And yet, and yet . . .

Obviously Not Japanese, But…
…on further thought, perhaps oblique enough to require translation, and to note that those lines were meant to be an answer to your question, SBK.

Tears Find Their Kin in Joy: “I who am sad seek and yearn for others who are sad, eager to bring them into the joy that, knowing I shall have, I have.”
Tears Find Their Kin in Joy
Now the sad tale ends;
But the ending is happy
And it never ends
You not only write but... curate excellent poems. Such heartbreak in a few lines. (How did you run into that poem anyway?)

Amazing how small words can be so pregnant with meaning.

Ok, sorry.
Easy, Jason.
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