Special Report

God Only Knows

Which drives the enlightened Christopher Hitchens bananas.

By 10.22.07

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The recent debate, sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, between Christopher Hitchens and Professor Alister McGrath on the existence of God was rather a disappointment to me. I thought that Mr. Hitchens clearly had the better of it, but only because Professor McGrath chose to fight on his opponent's ground. The Hitchens argument in essence boiled down to this: if God existed, He would have to be as much of a liberal humanitarian as I am. Since the misery in the world and the violence in the Bible show that He obviously isn't any kind of a liberal humanitarian, it must be equally obvious that He doesn't exist. Q.E.D. The tautological nature of this argument appeared not to have been noticed by the professor who was, perhaps understandably, reluctant to concede the point that the Author of the moral law -- along, of course, with everything else -- might not be "ethical" in human terms.

But "ethics" as we know it, along with the rest of the moral law as it has been defined for us by the Enlightenment, only makes sense on the assumption of equality. It is a system of reciprocal obligations derived from models of citizenship that depended on the flattening-out of social inequalities that had been taken for granted in the hierarchical societies that preceded them and that had been universal at the time of the founding of the world's great religions. The Biblical characterization of God as "Lord" was explicitly based on these social hierarchies, since it was obvious to everyone up until relatively recent times that the rules applying to lords, if any, were completely different from those applying to ordinary people. Likewise, the metaphor of God's fatherhood drew on the general assumption that fathers could as a matter of course not be bound by the same rules they naturally laid down for their children.

Now, this idea of a two-tier morality -- one for lords, another for commoners, one for fathers, another for children -- is becoming almost as hard for us to grasp as the more ethical, egalitarian kind would have been for those to whom the Gospel was first preached. In the same way, we have come to take for granted the liberal and utopian myth that "no one is above the law." What nonsense! If the law has any force, someone must be above it. Who decides to invoke it, when he does so, and what he decides to do with it are questions that can only be determined by someone who is above it, at least to that extent. The law does not enforce itself. But the tacit assumption that it might, or that it should, has been a useful ploy of the left, wielding its plainly bogus maxim, in the long political struggle waged in America since Watergate over who it is that we shall trust to be above the law, the elected executive power or unelected judges, bureaucrats, and other experts and "intellectuals."

Against "no one is above the law" the ancients had a proverb: quod licet Jovis non licet bovis -- which is to say, that which is permitted to the gods is not permitted to cattle. What an outrage that seems to us! Christopher Hitchens has scaled the summit of the best-seller lists by exploiting the unwillingness of so many of our contemporary fans of human dignity to be regarded as cattle vis-a-vis their god. But once such people grant that any god which treated them in so radically inegalitarian and disrepectful (not to mention so unethical) a way would be a scandal they are almost inevitably driven to Mr. Hitchens's conclusion that the God of the Bible cannot possibly exist. If He is at all accurately characterized therein -- or, for that matter, in the other holy books of the world's religions -- then he has no more respect for human dignity as such than cancer does.

All religions teach submission to the will of God, which is just a way of formally acknowledging that He cannot be bound by the same rules we are. There would be nothing to submit to if He were. To me, the most interesting argument for God's existence is precisely the one that Mr. Hitchens cited against it, namely that it beggars belief to think that a loving, compassionate Divinity could have stood by for 100,000 (or 250,000) years and allowed mankind to perish like the beasts of the field before deciding, all in His good time, to introduce us to our salvation in Jesus Christ. But the fact that the god who is God starts out as a tribal deity -- like every other god -- and becomes the God of Christianity by a process of historical evolution like our own seems to me at once more miraculous and much more compellingly believable than either the Aristotelian Prime Mover or the cosmic Big Brother that Mr. Hitchens seems to insist logic demands.

He objects strenuously to the doctrine of original sin, but what if original sin means just that: the tribalism which has characterized most of the human race for most of human history? At a certain point it became possible for God to show us how that tribalism could be redeemed just as, later, and in an analogous act, He showed us how our physical flesh could be redeemed by taking it on himself. We think that one of the worst things that a man can do is to "play God" for we have seen the worst that comes of it when men have done so. But it is meaningless to object to God's playing God, which is what, in effect, Mr. Hitchens is doing by berating him for not being a liberal and a humanitarian.

The people who gave us our religion never supposed He was those things. Those things were scarcely imaginable to them. It's one thing to doubt the existence of the God of the Bible, but it seems a bit thick for a Johnny-come-lately like Hitch to object that the God of the Bible ought to have been quite a different sort of God if he expected us to believe in him. It's just because He is so unlike any god we could have imagined for ourselves, so unlike that wish-fulfilling cosmic bellhop (as Professor George Abernathy of Davidson College used to call him) that, rather illogically, the anti-religious polemicists also object to, that unbelief is even harder, for many of us, than belief is.

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.