Christopher Hitchens’ death provides us with a fairly elegiac opportunity to remember and repristinate one of the most enlightening of his arguments. This quodlibet deals with his most beloved subject – religion – which along with philosophy is unarguably the matter most open to arguments, and therefore, arguably, the topic most worth discussing. Unlike science where one ultimately has to give way to facts, philosophy and religion (as an early but persistent attempt at philosophy) leaves the arguers on the verbal battlefield armed with their reasoning faculties as the only allowed weapons. Therefore a discussion in these subjects is in some sense more meaningful than scientific discussions, which can undoubtedly be of tremendous importance, but can also be reduced to finding the relevant facts.
The argument takes the form of a challenge. Hitchens would ask, and indeed he had asked whenever and wherever he could, his adversaries and the public during the countless debates he has taken part in, to name an ethical statement made, or a moral action taken by a religious person that could not be stated or done by a non-religious person. And he would also ask them, in the second part of the challenge, to name an unethical statement made or immoral action undertaken by a religious person that could not be said or done by a non-religious person, that is one undertaken or made precisely because of the faith. The latter should not present any problem at all to any thinking person. No one could have any difficulty coming with a relevant example off the top of his head. The former is infinitely tougher however. So much so that after asking countless religious people for a response, Hitchens had to answer it himself. The acknowledgement he made reads as follows:
‘Here is my attempt to win my own prize. When Lech Walesa was starting his work in the Polish shipyards and the Polish militia, the outer ring of the Polish army were closing in on Gdansk, he was interviewed with his then-fairly small group, and he was asked, aren’t you frightened, aren’t you afraid? You’ve taken on a whole all-powerful state and army – aren’t you scared? And he said, I’m not frightened of anything but God or anyone but God.’
Now whether Hitchens meant it as a moral action or a moral statement need not concern us, as it seems to be a feeble solution either way.
First off, it is not an ethical statement. The reasoning behind this assertion is quite simple and Hitchens did understand it. The lack of fear itself does not guarantee a moral action will follow. The examples of immorality stemming from the lack of fear need not be enumerated as they are common enough for anyone to be able to summon an example at will. In other words: it can be said, as one of the brothers in The Brothers Karamazhov said, that ‘everything is permissible without god,’ but it can just as easily be said that everything is permissible if we think we have god on our side. Gott mit uns used by the Third Reich (also used in different forms and languages by the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire and other countries throughout history) illustrates this point clearly enough. One could also point out, perhaps not adding much to the argument, that the role of religious feelings among Poles and religious institutions (including the Pope John Paul II) in the freeing of Poland is greatly overemphasised, especially in Poland. And so is the role of Lech Walesa personally. There cannot be a good argument made for the assertion that without the Catholic Church or without Lech Walesa there would be no free Poland right now.
As to whether this has lead to a moral action there can be little to no disagreement, and we may safely agree that it has. Breaking the ground for freedom in the whole of Europe and the end of the Cold War must be assessed as a highly moral act. The undertaking itself, without the morality of the statement as explained above, cannot be thought of as one which could not be performed by an unbeliever however. There are plenty of examples of unbelievers who throughout history had great moral courage and in many cases had lost their lives in the struggle to defend moral principles, starting with the Trial of Socrates and ending perhaps with the life of Christopher Hitchens himself, who did not lose his life for a moral principle, but who has nonetheless lead a life based on moral principles to the end.
It can be easily seen that the whole argument is weak and barely tries to answer the challenge. But it is nonetheless the best try that has been presented to date. And indeed the only one worth an assessment. The religious spokesmen have so far only provided arguments as weak-minded as their beliefs, which need not surprise us. The challenge stands and stares in the faces of religious people all over the world. If Christopher Hitchens couldn’t answer it in any more convincing way than the presented above, the gormless religious leaders will have a hard time coming with any coherent answer at all. Let us keep asking them, in the best Hitchian spirit.