I’m no longer surprised when religious believers say that atheists just want to be atheists so we can live a decadent, sybaritic, selfish life with no morality. I’ve heard it way, way too many times now.
I was, however, surprised — and saddened — to hear it said by Christopher Hitchens’ brother, Peter.
In an ongoing exchange at the excellent Daylight Atheism blog, Adam Lee has been debating with Peter Hitchens about religion in general, and about the necessity of religion for morality in particular. The whole exchange is well worth following — but what jumped out at me was this comment by P. Hitchens:
An atheist in a society still governed by the Christian moral law has great personal advantages. The almost universal idea among the college-educated young, a sort of crude J.S.Mill belief that ‘nobody has the right to tell me what to do’ is a very powerful force in modern western societies, excusing as it does a great deal of sexual promiscuity and drug-taking which do immense damage and create huge unhappiness, for which those responsible often do not even realise they are to blame.
Yeah. See, here’s the problem with that.
The problem isn’t just that this is grossly bigoted. The problem is that this is a truth claim. And it therefore requires evidence to support it. Evidence that P. Hitchens conspicuously fails to provide. Evidence that’s somewhat stronger than, “College students are often resistant to authority, and often like to take drugs and have sex.” (Shocked. Shocked, I am. Alert the media.)
Now, technically, atheists don’t have to provide any evidence to contradict this assertion. Peter Hitchens is the one making the claim here; the burden of proof is on him. But I’m going to go the extra mile. Because atheists do, in fact, have the evidence on our side: both when it comes to morality generally, and when it comes to sex specifically.
I know. I haz a sad. :’-(
Except not really. Atheists do, in fact, have sexual ethics. We just have sexual ethics based on… you know, ethics. Without religion, we don’t have to base our sexual ethics on an essentially random set of taboos set out hundreds or thousands of years ago by someone claiming to speak for God. We base our sexual ethics based on core ethical values that human beings seem to have evolved with as a social species: concerns about kindness, justice and fairness, unnecessary harm, loyalty, the smooth running of society, and so on. We don’t have to say that having multiple sex partners is bad just because God says so. We can decide whether having multiple sex partners is fair, whether the pleasure and joy it brings outweighs any possible harm it might do, whether it interferes with social stability, and so on. Of course we have sexual ethics. We have sexual ethics because we have compassion.
And I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Now, this certainly doesn’t prove that high rates of atheism creates happiness, stability, and high social functioning. In fact, it’s probably the other way around: happiness, stability, and high social functioning tend to lead to high rates of atheism.
What it does prove, however, is that Peter Hitchens is full of shit. Atheism does not lead to an amoral society in which people think that nobody has the right to tell them what to do. Societies with high rates of atheism seem to be very moral societies, with low rates of crime and corruption, and a strong sense of social responsibility.
So before he shot his mouth off about how atheists — you know, like his own recently-deceased brother — are just selfish sybarites with no moral foundation who are causing misery and ruining society, maybe he should have bothered to check his freaking facts first.