(In which I blatantly steal content from OzAtheist’s Weblog, in lieu of having anything original to write about.)
If you’ve ever listened to Christopher Hitchens in debate or discussion on matters religious in the time since he published God Is Not Great, you’ll be familiar with the challenge he invariably poses to his theist antagonists:
Name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by a believer that could not have been uttered or done by a nonbeliever.
The second challenge. Can anyone think of a wicked statement made, or an evil action performed, precisely because of religious faith?
The second question is easy to answer, is it not? The first awaits a convincing reply.
It strikes me that there are two problems with Hitchens’ challenge, and they are kind of interrelated. One is the ambiguity in the usage of the word “ethical”, which arises because of the distinction between descriptive ethics (the study of what people believe to be right and wrong conduct) and normative ethics (claims about what people ought to believe about right and wrong conduct). The scope for what might count as an ethical statement is therefore much wider within a descriptive ethics framework than it would be within most normative ethical frameworks. I don’t think it would be drawing too long a bow to assume that Hitchens is talking from a normative standpoint; after all, as the challenge is stated above, there does appear to be a contrast drawn between “ethical” and “wicked.” If so, this leads to a second problem: that Hitchens is presupposing that he and his antagonists agree on what people ought to believe about right and wrong.
Do you remember “The Great God Debate” on the Hugh Hewitt show between Hitchens and evangelical theologian Mark Roberts? Hitchens posed that very challenge to Roberts, who responded that he prays every night with his daughter before she goes to bed, and that’s something a non-believer couldn’t do. Hitchens’ response was to dismiss prayer as an ethical action: in his words, “it does as much good as aerobic dancing would do.” But what is it exactly that makes it non-ethical? Certainly I can’t see how it is useful: prayer can’t control the weather, or change the outcome of a sporting event, or regrow an amputated limb, or lower the cost of fuel. But does the uselessness of prayer—you know, in the realitysphere—make prayer non-ethical?
By way of a P.S., what do you make of John Morales’ response to Hitchens’ challenge?
How about a religious believer who defies his religious beliefs to conform with his job description?
It’s ethical, and it couldn’t have been done by a non-believer.