Atheist Christopher Hitchens has been getting a lot of press lately, so I watched a couple of his appearances on YouTube. Amazingly, I actually found myself agreeing with some of his arguments! As I’ll explain below, I think he is right to oppose hate-speech laws, although his thinking is somewhat inconsistent on the subject. Before we get to that, I’ll comment on his main claim to fame: his opposition of religion. Here he gives a typical polemic in a talk with Lou Dobbs:
In this interview Hitchens makes his standard point: religion is bad because it causes hatred, violence and other immorality. As the sub-title of his book states, Hitchens believes that religion “poisons everything” and therefore should be abandoned. He defends his thesis by giving many examples of supposedly religious people who were and are thusly immoral: Haggard, Swaggart, Hitler, the Ayatollahs of Iran, the Spanish Inquisitors, the Muslims who erupted over a Danish cartoon, and some others.
The major problem with Hitchens’ argument is that denigrating religion by using moral terms is pointless because the terms are meaningless outside of an agreed upon objective standard for right and wrong. Hitchens might think blowing up infidels is wrong, but what standard is he using to make that judgment? Certainly not the same one the Muslims doing the killing are using. They don’t think that blowing up infidels is wrong. Indeed, they think it is righteous as it conforms to the will of Allah, which is the objective standard they use for making moral judgments. In the same way, Hitchens might call homosexuality righteous as it does not violate any standard of conduct that he believes exists, but many others say homosexuality is immoral because, of course, it violates a standard that does exist – the nature of God as revealed in His will.
So in discussing religion, the question should not be, “Is it good or evil” as everyone will answer according to whatever standard they believe to exist. The question should be, “Which standard or morality does exist? What is true?” All religions (including Hitchens’) believe certain things to be true about the universe. They offer propositional claims about the nature of reality. Morality is then judged according to this reality. The real dilemma in debating religion is not deciding which one is “bad” or “good” as that already assumes something about objective reality to be true. Rather, the dilemma is deciding what about objective reality is true.
If there is a one true god of the universe who is the standard for morality, and that god thinks that infidels should be blown up, than that action, by definition, is good. If there is a god who thinks homosexuality is immoral, then it is. The question is, does a God exist? What is he like? What does he approve or disapprove of? This is the plane on which this debate must take place. Telling radical Muslims they are wrong is a waste of time if you don’t at the same time explain that they are wrong because the god they follow does not exist and the god who does exist does not approve of blowing up anyone.
Interestingly, even if Hitchens wanted to go this route, he could not. He could go as far as telling the Muslims or Christians that their god does not exist, but he cannot then say that what they are doing is wrong because he has no basis for saying so. If there is no god, as Hitchens attests, than there is no such thing as right and wrong and he should just learn to live with the meaningless, morality free, nihilistic universe that he has been randomly placed in and let the religious folks do the same. (Hitchens seemed to have a hard time grasping this point in the debate he had with Douglas Wilson here.)
In the next video, Hitchens is discussing a Canadian push to establish hate-speech laws that would outlaw speaking against people based on their religion or sexual lifestyle. Hitchens is arguing against the law because, he says, we need to be able to bash religious people, especially Muslims and Christians.
Now, as a proponent of free speech, I happen to agree that we should not implement these laws. The potential for misuse is just too great, particularly because “hate” is a moral term that will be defined according to whatever worldview the power hungry politicians happen to hold (see discussion of moral terms above). The last thing we need is the thought police roving around trying to stamp out whatever they personally believe to be “hate.” Indeed, Hitchens opposes the law because he says that he considers some of the people seeking protection from it to be the biggest haters. He defines what the Muslims say as “hate” and the Muslims define what Hitchens says as “hate.” Who is right? Do we really want lawmakers to weigh in on it? Hitchens doesn’t think so and neither do I. We should simply be able to have it out in an open conversation about whether or not the Muslims (or Christians or Jews, etc.) are right about objective reality or Hitchens is.
Hitchens made another interesting point that I thought worthy of comment. He said that it was terrible that religion was now starting to be considered something akin to skin color as far as civil rights are concerned. For instance, he pointed out that “Islamophobia” is becoming an accepted term within the legal system, on par with “racism.” Religious belief is not the same as race, he argued, and we should not offer the same civil protections to thoughts as we do to skin color. Malleable characteristics like intellectual beliefs and emotional desires should not be on par, legally, with genetically determined and unchangeable traits like the shade of our epidermis. I absolutely agree. In fact, the only problem with Hitchens argument is that he didn’t go far enough. He should have pointed out that “homophobia” falls into that category as well. Being gay is not the same as being black, and it should not be treated as such. Homesexuality is a desire; it is a thought. Sometimes it results in action, but the bottom line is that homosexuality is defined by a desire to have sex with someone of the same gender. As such, it is not a genetic trait on par with skin color.
I’m not saying we should bash gays any more than I am saying we should bash Muslims, but we need to start thinking about these hot-button issues within their proper categories and be able to talk about them openly.