Recently I got around to listening to a debate that’s been in my playlist awhile, between Christopher Hitchens and Al Sharpton, to debate Hitchens’s book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. I was very curious what this would sound like, because on one side you have an erudite, scholarly man with a deep knowledge of cultures and history, and on the other side you have…Al Sharpton. One reason I haven’t listened to it is because it’s hard to find time to listen to 90 minute long debates in one or even two sittings, and I don’t like to break up a long speech or debate because I lose focus and lose the points. But another is because I figured listening to Al Sharpton for an hour and a half would be so painful, I might need several Xanax to make it through, and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Kind of like making yourself watch a bad movie that you know your girlfriend likes. It’s a work of procrastination rather than passion.
BUT, having done it, I found myself surprised by a couple of things. First of all, this debate wasn’t nearly as humiliating for Sharpton as I thought it would be. This isn’t because he turns out to be more intelligent or more informed than I thought he was, if anything he seems even less informed and coherent than I imagined him to be. But he does do something well, something that does speak to his intelligence and political experience…he can talk for a looong time without saying anything substantive, and he knows to, and knows how to, evade points or arguments that weaken his position, or strengthen his opponent’s. It’s the skills and techniques of a politician in a primary debate…address nothing your opponent says, stay on message, and repeat, repeat, repeat. That he is actually funny makes him appealing to an audience, and like a politician, he makes obvious but oblique insinuations to the morals and motives of his opponent in order to derail him from his message (if his opponent is susceptible or oblivious to such tricks, which Hitchens is not). If his opponent is easily offended or distracted, he can steer the whole conversation away from what is supposed to be the substance of the discussion into an irrelevant argument. And of course, he wraps it in an “Aw shucks,” “C’mon Man!” patois that will endear him to viewers susceptible to such tricks.
Something else that surprised me is that I actually found myself agreeing with one of the points Sharpton makes, although not for the reasons he gives. This has to do with the relation of morality to God, which is a common enough argument to be cliched at this point, but which I have found a new appreciation for by thinking past the point of which most believers state it, and which most atheists argue against it. But more on that later.
The main thing that saves Sharpton from a night of embarrassment and humiliation, aside from his general ability to deflect and joke away serious points, is that he does in fact come up with a novel argument against Hitchens’s thesis that “religion poisons everything,” by focusing rather on the title of the book than the argument itself.
For those who are unfamiliar or only vaguely familiar with Christopher Hitchens, he is the classic British “Man of Letters,” attending boys’ prep schools as a young man, and studying at Oxford for college. If you read him or listen to him speak, you quickly arrive at the impression that he is one of those gentlemen who has read Everything. At least everything important, of substance, or of canon. For example, he is one of the few who can claim to have read every word George Orwell ever wrote. That type of man.
As such, when he writes of religion, when he criticizes religion, he is writing with a deep knowledge and extensive study of the matter, of the codes and histories of religion, of the cultures from which they came and in which they exist. Hence his book, and his arguments in this debate, are filled with specific examples of fundamental wrongs, inconsistencies, hypocrisies, and evils of religions, in particular moments and across time. His are not the critiques of a dabbler or of someone with a bias who has cherry-picked the weakest points of a philosophy he disagrees with to make snide, shallow criticisms. He can, literally, cite chapter and verse from the Torah or the Hadith to demonstrate why he believes religion, in toto, to be a pernicious force in the world.
Sharpton evades all that by simply ignoring all specific religious, dogmatic, scriptural criticism of religion, Christianity or otherwise. It’s really a startling technique, and again, it certainly demonstrates a high level of craftiness and rhetoric, rather than insight and intelligence. You may find it strange that a man who is introduced in this debate as an “ordained minister” and a “man of god” does not, a single time, defend a word of biblical scripture or Christian dogma in a 90 minute debate about the value of religion. I was certainly startled when I came to realize this as the debate was coming to an end, and the audience as well as Hitchens himself were also taken aback. Hitchens even said at the end of the debate that “this is a first” for him, that a man of the cloth would not defend a word or tenet of the Bible.
What Sharpton does instead is attempt to put Hitchens on the defensive, by asking him to defend the premise that God is not great. He says this every time Hitchens rattles off a litany of crimes against logic or morality (sometimes both) that religion and religions commit: “I am not here to debate the idea that Christianity is not great, or that Islam is not great, or that organized religion is not great…I am here to debate the idea that God is not great, since that is the title of the book that Brother Hitchens has written.” Sharpton wisely concedes that a number of terrible things have been done and are being done by man in the name of religion or in the name of God…but says that does not prove that God is not great, so he asks Hitchens to offer proof of that statement. And of course, the entire point of the book is to make an argument for the pernicious influence of organized religion in the course of human affairs, to point out the evil and harm caused by believing you have God on your side, to point out the terrible things you would only do if you have that belief. Of course, the whole point of the book is about how religion manifests in and affects human society, not actually about the qualities a potentially existent or non-existent sky wizard himself may have. Sharpton knows as well as the rest of us that no one can prove the existence or non-existence of God, let alone what qualities such a being may have, great or not.
Sharpton’s approach was a terrible example of sincere, good faith, rational argumentation and engagement in debate, but it was an absolute master class on obfuscation and deflection, and I have to say I learned something from it, at least. I learned how well a politician can take a straightforward, obvious topic of debate, in which he is almost certain to lose, look bad, or have to make huge concessions, and completely avoid any of those negative outcomes by simply directing everyone’s attention to a fake question, to a false issue, and insisting that that is the crux of the debate. By talking slowly (seemingly thoughtfully), making jokes, and using blatant deflection just a few times, you can eat up time and run down the clock so that you can actually sit there for 90 minutes without ever having addressed the substance of the debate, shake hands, walk away, and look like you at least came out even. So while this conversation was less than enlightening from an intellectual perspective from Sharpton’s end, it was actually a pretty illuminating insight into how politicians think and how they work.
But here’s where it gets interesting. There is an issue on which Sharpton and I agree.
It’s not one of scripture. It’s not one of dogma or faith. But it is one of morality.
Where does morality come from? This is one of the oldest questions in human history, right up there with where did we come from, what is the meaning of life, and of course, is there a god? Like many people, I’ve always been interested in this topic, have had many thoughts and discussions about it, and have heard many an argument on the subject from a Sam Harris or a Christopher Hitchens.
For a believer, for a person in Sharpton’s shoes, there is a really just one core question that they use as the basis of their view on morality, and which they think is the “Gotcha!” question that pins down atheists such as Christopher Hitchens: where does morality come from if there is no god? Sharpton says says over and over in this debate, “If there is no god, how do we decide what is moral? Who decides it? Whoever is stronger at any given moment?”
This is really the grade school version of a moral argument from a believer’s point of view, one which is easily refuted and shown to be silly and illogical, without much effort. You really only need to take one step of logical thought to refute this line of reasoning, by asking the most immediate, obvious question: whose god? Which god’s morality? Yaweh? Allah? Spaghetti Monster? If you say morality comes from God, and you want to claim you can cite specific moral rules from “a” god, first you have to choose a god. So this premise immediately goes out the window when you are faced with the thousands of religions and gods that have existed throughout human history. Saying that morality comes from God doesn’t tell you specifically what actually is moral any more than saying morality is made up from whatever we want or that it really does come from whoever is strongest. It doesn’t narrow it down to particular moral precepts in the slightest, or tell you what moral rules are logically necessary in any sense. ISIS believes their morality comes from God, too. Hitchens or any atheist can easily brush aside this critique with minimal effort or thought, and the believer proffering this argument can’t offer much in response. In fact, this may be an ideal example of Hitchens’s Razor: “That which can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”
There are many other fatal holes in this argument, for example:
- If you say that morality comes from God, why doesn’t everyone whose morality comes from God have the same rules?
- How does God transmit his morality to particular people?
- Who does he transmit it to?
- Can everyone access God’s morality or only certain people (and who are they and how are they chosen?)?
- How do I know who to believe when they say they know God’s morality?
- Why do so many beliefs and actions of those who say their morality comes from God offend the most basic moral senses of all civilized people?
So this is a rudimentary, easily refutable line of reasoning, and one that does not offer a challenge to Hitchens when offered by Sharpton. It is also fairly obvious and pedestrian to note that we do not need God to know or understand morality. You can and do know that it is wrong to rape, murder, steal, and enslave people without any religious teaching, and in fact everyone in every culture and throughout all of history has known this, even people who do those things. You can be of any religion or of no religion, and know these things intuitively, we all know that it is wrong to kill innocents or children no matter what religion we are, or if we are atheists or nihilists.
I still have to ask…where does this moral sense come from? And despite all the differences, nuances, and variations in the many permutations of the less foundational elements of morality, why does just about every human civilization, particularly in the last few centuries, seem to have the same sense of the core moral precepts against things like murder, rape, and thievery, and why is some notion of “fairness,” however defined, common to all? You may think there is no other way to be, but that’s also partly the point. If one society condemns murder, why doesn’t another condone it as an allowable means of dispute resolution? If one society punishes thieves, why doesn’t another allow them to keep the fruits of their “labor” as their just earnings, and let the chips fall where they may?
The standard atheist or secular answer, which seems stronger and is certainly more complete and logically satisfying than the standard religious answer, is still largely inadequate when you think about it deeply and go a few steps into the reasoning. That answer would be, of course: biology. The atheist would say that humans are simply hardwired to cooperate, and that our sense of what we call “morality” is just a result of the natural and necessary evolution of countless millennia of us cooperating as individuals, tribes, civilizations, and as a species. We have a sense that it’s moral to cooperate, to not engage in cruel or unprovoked violence, and to not take the property of another because…evolution, I guess? In this view, “morality” isn’t a thing that exists in the universe, that has a metaphysical existence or meaning, but is simply a feeling that is programmed into us by evolution, so that we can cooperate and survive as individuals and as a species. To restate it more simply, morality isn’t a thing, but rather a feeling. It doesn’t actually exist, we just feel that it exists. Nothing truly “is” or “is not” moral. We simply feel that it is or isn’t.
And yet…doesn’t this ring hollow? Doesn’t this seem logically inadequate? From a logical perspective, following this reasoning to its natural conclusion, how does this not lead us inescapably to an empty pit of relativism or nihilism? If there is no actual morality, how can we even try to build a society of laws and mores which we are supposed to follow and take seriously? How can we say that one set of rules or laws, or one society, is better or worse than another, when there is no better or worse? For atheists, this seems to be a real problem. While a religious person can’t tell you why you should believe that specific moral precepts come from a specific god and why, an atheist can’t tell you why you should believe in any sort of morality whatsoever, they can’t tell you why any particular thing is right or wrong, because from a biological perspective, there is no right and wrong. All they can say is “It doesn’t work.”
And I personally find this not just unimpressive, but spiritually vacant as well. Perhaps an example is in order.
I’ve been having debates about this topic for around two decades by now. Years ago, when I was living in New York on and in the aftermath of 9/11, I naturally starting thinking very seriously about civilizational and cultural morality and norms. I had countless discussions about this with other New Yorkers, just a few miles from where nearly 3,000 people were killed a few months or a few years prior to our conversations.
When I had these discussions, I would try to pin people down about their moral views in order to understand how they (and people generally) think about this topic, which turns out to be a hell of a lot harder than you might think. It seems that on this topic, like so many others, people who consider themselves very smart and educated generally prefer to try to sound smart by regurgitating some lofty-sounding ideas or concepts they’ve heard before, or name-dropping a writer they’ve heard of and quoting them to make you think they’re a Very Deep Person. “Well, as so-and-so would say…” From these people, these erudite, intelligent New Yorkers, I would very often hear some version of the statement that “There is no objective morality.” Actually, more accurately, that was the universal, stock response from everyone I asked about morality. I heard this so often, I had to come up with some go-to responses.
First, I had to clarify and give them a chance to back out of that statement, to retreat a bit from that position if they wish. “Just to be clear…you’re saying there is no such thing as actual right or wrong?” Once I made sure they agreed to my clarification and really wanted to stake that territory, one of the questions I would ask is whether or not it is objectively wrong to stone a woman to death for any of the trivial crimes that cause someone to be executed in such “honor killings.” [For reference, there are an estimated 5,000-20,000 such killings each year, which may very well be an underestimate] Common responses were things like “Well…I can say I don’t like it, but I can’t say that it’s wrong.” Or “I can’t say that it’s wrong for their culture to do it, but I can say that my culture doesn’t approve of it.” “I can say that I feel like I don’t like it, but not that it’s objectively wrong.”
Does that response satisfy you? Should it? Is that your answer? Ponder this response for a moment, if you will, and mull over what you think about the logic and indeed, morality of such a position.
I find such answers horrifyingly nihilistic, though at least consistent, if that’s a compliment. I do have to say that at least the people who profess to believe this stick to their guns and will not condemn any act, no matter how appalling, as “immoral.” It doesn’t matter what you throw at them, Nazis, genocide, any kind of barbarism or mutilation, any cruel or depraved crime or punishment.
But I do have a couple of questions. What are the consequences of such a belief? What actions and other beliefs naturally flow from it? What does it teach you about humanity and civilization? What can you build from it, and how? What is its foundation for civilization? Does it even have a foundation that you can find or define?
And also, do you think they actually believe that, or are they lying when they say they don’t believe it’s immoral, but simply know that they’re caught in a trap and are forcing themselves to stay consistent in their discussion with me, even if that’s not what they really think? Is this their true belief, or just a result of the cognitive need of their ego to save face? Do they actually, deep down, believe that morality exists, but since they can’t clearly define it or specify it, they prefer to take the position that it doesn’t?
The point of all this is that I don’t find the atheist answers to morality very satisfying either. Because, just like the religious position, there are none. Religious people cannot escape the “religious relativism” of claiming that morality comes from god, and atheists cannot escape the cold, empty moral relativism of morality being a mere biologically-driven feeling. There’s also something missing from their assumptions about the biological evolution of this “feeling” that I want to explore as well.
So let’s dig deeper into this “biological morality” question. I might call this “biological determinism,” since the argument seems to be that evolution necessarily created us this way, with concepts and feelings of cooperation, empathy, morality, and for some reason caring about the welfare and suffering of others beyond our personal sphere who we don’t even know. This idea seems deterministic to me because it posits that humans must have evolved this way in order for us to thrive, that this way we are, hardwired with a sense of right and wrong, is the only way for us to have civilizations and progress. This is an oft unspoken premise of this argument that we could only have civilization if we have this sense of morality and cooperation.
But if morality is only a feeling, and is only derived from materialistic evolution, then we could have evolved infinitely different ways, with infinite permutations that include an existence or lack of morality, compassion, and cooperation, any countless number of which could lead to a thriving human civilization or species. For example, while it may be that cooperation is a necessary component for many successful civilizations or species, and at least for humans to create the kind of societies we have, there is absolutely no reason to think that empathy, compassion, or morality is required. I don’t think that ants care about the pain of individual ants at all, yet ants populate the earth and thrive all over the planet. If you really want to make the “biological” argument that our moral senses, and everything else like our sense of free will is just an evolutionary development designed for biological success, if our every sense of important ideals like morality, choice, and purpose is just a tool for biological prosperity, then you have to think about why we are this way and have these senses, as opposed to countless other ways we could have evolved, and you need to be able to explain why this way is better than ten thousand or a million other ways we could have evolved.
There is really no way around facing this problem with the biological explanation for morality. I suspect the initial defensive reaction to my example above is something like “Well…we’re not ants.” But that doesn’t address the problem at all. We are simply more complex than ants, but complexity is not the problem here, and merely increasing biological complexity does not escape the problems or address the questions mentioned above. In fact, increased complexity might make the problem of why we evolved this particular way even more difficult, because it may mean there are more possible ways we could have evolved than the one we did.
As history has shown us, there are many ways to have a successful, long-lasting civilization with slavery, unshakable predetermined hierarchies, and one’s status, power, and very life and safety determined by nothing more than the accident of your birth. And that’s with our evolutionary sense of morality built in. But at the same time, even with all these horrors, humans have always been obsessed with fairness, justice, and morality, have always fiercely debated what constitutes each, and all along there were many who knew these things were wrong, including those in power and those who benefitted from them.
But why? These questions and inquiries are not necessary for human civilizations to exist and to succeed, as history proves. Our civilizations and species could very well have survived and thrived indefinitely while maintaining castes, slavery, tribal animosities between societies down to the extermination level, and all manner of brutality to one another. And yet the questions of fairness and morality stayed with us the entire time, and all of human history is the history of the struggle against cruelty and unfairness, and constant incremental improvements and victories against them.
I am very sorry to say that the point of this essay is not to inform you that I have the answer. I merely have the questions, and I believe some of the right questions that most atheists never ask or go far enough to discover exist. Unlike most atheists, I am trying to dig deeper beyond the “what” of makes human society work to the “why.” If you’re content with the “what,” your moral inquiry will actually be pretty short and easy, all things considered, for a dense and important topic like this. Of course even the “what” can be up in the air a bit, but there are enough moral “absolutes” that are easy enough to agree on that most people can be satisfied in their inquiry about morality and stop there. Hitler is evil. Stalin is evil. Slavery is evil. Or, as a materialist who doesn’t believe in the soul or in God might say, “They don’t work.” For fun, try making that argument in your next moral discussion with friends, and see how they react. But that really is the best that atheists can do, and honestly it’s not great if you want to look deeper into the concept or the “why” of morality.
In the end, atheists have a morality problem, and they don’t know it. Sharpton can’t say where morality comes from, but Hitchens can’t either. They both can only say that “it exists.” Sharpton can’t go further than the kindergarten-level first question, but he’s got the right sense of the question, and at least he knows that it is a question. As much as I love Christopher Hitchens, saying that “we innately know what morality is” is not an answer to the question of “where does morality come from?” Yes, Hitchens is correct that we don’t need the Bible or Koran to be moral or to understand morality. But that still doesn’t answer why we do. “We just do” is insufficient and honestly lazy.
Even if biology did make us this way and impart a moral sense to us, that still can come from a creator or higher power. As Ben Shapiro likes to say, “Two things can be true at once,” which on a matter like this, a materialist can’t admit. Everything in us has to have a biological mechanism, just like everything in the universe has to have a physical mechanism. So even if God created us and the universe, the way he created us would operate within the bounds of our physical reality. Even if God gave us love, it’s going to be expressed biologically, so when it comes to love or morality or anything else we feel, a higher power could create us to evolve this way or instill this sense in us. So the fact that all these senses and intuitions have some biological basis is not much of an argument or rebuttal for the atheist’s side, though most seem to think it is. “We just did” evolve this way doesn’t do it for me, it rings hollow and circular, it assumes what it claims to prove, it’s a “what” not a “why,” and I personally suspect that our moral sense comes from something with a spiritual origin. I suspect the origin of morality is similar to or related to the “First Mover” problem of who created the universe, and like the First Mover problem, it is most likely not graspable by our limited, finite human mind, and also likely not describable by reason or logic. It seems likely that the “why” of morality is just as unanswerable as the “why” of creation, and of course there is the related suspicion that the two are closely connected. We don’t know, and probably can’t know, how the universe was created, but the universe does exist. Likewise, we don’t and probably can’t know where morality comes from, but in the end morality does exist, contrary to the claims of the abject materialists, and knowing that allows us to work within it and understand it as best we can, however incompletely or imperfectly, just like the physical universe.
I have always been interested in questions like this about humanity, society, and morality. In recent years, I’ve read and listened to a fair amount of Sam Harris, who wrote a book about the topic as well as a number of articles such as Thinking About Human Values in Universal Terms, which breaks down a rational analysis of morality into twelve pretty digestible points. Sam was a friend of Christopher Hitchens, and is one of today’s leading thinkers on deep and complex topics such as this. But Sam is also an abject materialist, so dedicated to being an anti-theist to combat the very serious historical and present evils of organized religion, that he makes no place for spirituality or the metaphysical, and is wed to the “biological” explanation of all that drives us. As I mentioned, biology does explain the “what” and the “how” of most of these things, but not the “why,” and I feel like digging deeper into this question as I have in this essay, I am approaching “Escape Sam Harris Velocity,” and I believe you must in order to push past rote atheist answers to the origins of morality. Hitchens likes to say that religious people “still have all their work ahead of them” to prove where their morality comes from, but it appears that atheists do as well.
As I said earlier, I had this debate at the bottom of my list in my “Hitchens” collection, but I’m glad I watched it, and also glad that I had an open mind. I despise pretty much everything about Al Sharpton, but you always need to be honest and keep an open mind, because you never know who is going to make a good point or make you think about something. I honestly didn’t want to watch this debate because I considered it an insult to even have Al Sharpton on the same stage as Christopher Hitchens, but it turns out I learned something from Sharpton as well. I didn’t learn interesting or informative facts the way I did and always do from Hitchens, but Sharpton’s approach to posing a simple question to one of my idols made me think about that question in a much deeper way that I ever have before, because I was able to notice that my idol was not able to answer this question in a satisfying way, or even address it at all. So that just proved to me more than ever how important open-mindedness and good faith are in all inquiries and endeavors. I hope this essay has given you some food for thought as well, and as always, if you would like to discuss this topic further, please comment or reach out to me personally.
All the best, and Happy New Year!
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