Christopher Hitchens is nothing if not a straight-shooter. He calls it like he sees it, and not even a vicious attack could stop him from denouncing evil, racist ideologies that are still with us today. He is also a fearless and formidable debater. In recent years, he has declared himself an anti-theist, a term he defines as follows:
You could be an atheist and wish that the belief was true. You could; I know some people who do. An antitheist, a term I’m trying to get into circulation, is someone who’s very relieved that there’s no evidence for this proposition.
On Bastille Day in 2007, in response to an article entitled What Atheists Can’t Answer by op-ed columnist Michael Gerson in The Washington Post, Christopher Hitchens threw down the gauntlet to theists:
Here is my challenge. Let Gerson name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by a believer that could not have been uttered or done by a nonbeliever. And here is my second challenge. Can any reader of this column 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 – I have been asking it for some time – awaits a convincing reply. By what right, then, do the faithful assume this irritating mantle of righteousness? They have as much to apologize for as to explain.
Hitchens has repeated this challenge on numerous occasions since then. The first time I heard him issue this challenge, I thought: “He has a point.” Going through the Ten Commandments (a natural starting point for someone raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition), it seemed to me that the only ones that a nonbeliever couldn’t keep were the ones relating to the worship of God. But Christopher Hitchens might reasonably object that if religious belief only makes believers more ethical in the way they relate to God, then it has no practical moral value. Surely, if God exists, then the belief that God is real should also infuse a deeper meaning into our interactions with other people. For the belief that God is real is meant to transform the way in which we think about and act towards others. In that case, there should be ethical actions directed at other human beings that a believer can perform, and that a nonbeliever cannot.
Christopher Hitchens has been criticized before for failing to provide a secular justification for his moral beliefs, and for waffling on the subject of free will. I will not rehash those criticisms here. Instead I will throw the floor open, and invite submissions from readers in answer to the following question:
Can you name an ethical action directed at other human beings, that a believer could perform, and that a nonbeliever could not?
To help readers along, I’ll make my question more focused. Let’s call it “Christopher’s Challenge”:
Can you name an ethical action directed at Christopher Hitchens, that a believer could perform, and that a nonbeliever could not?
I’m deeply ashamed to say that it took me two whole weeks to think of the answer to this question, and then I kicked myself hard for not having thought of it sooner. But I confidently predict that someone reading this post will come up with the answer within 24 hours.
Update on Professor Feser’s response to my post
(By the way, I would like to thank Professor Edward Feser for his lengthy and detailed reply to my post, and I would like to add that I deeply respect his passion for truth. Professor Feser and I have a somewhat different understanding of Thomist metaphysics and how it should be interpreted in the 21st century, and I would also disagree with his bold claim that even if scientists one day managed to synthesize a life-form from scratch in a lab, that life-form would not be an artifact. But in the meantime, I would like to draw readers’ attention to a remark Professor Feser made in his post, “Intelligent Design” theory and mechanism, on 10 April 2010:
Perhaps the biological world God creates works according to Darwinian principles; and perhaps not.
Those were incautious words, and I believe they betray a profound misunderstanding of what Aquinas wrote on the Creation. In a forthcoming post, I will demonstrate that Aquinas would never have accepted the Darwinian account of how evolution is supposed to work, even if he had known then what we know now. I will also show that according to Aquinas, certain life-forms cannot be generated from non-living matter by any kind of natural process, even in a universe sustained by God, and rife with final causes. Stay tuned!)