Revisiting Hitchens’ challenge and the value of hope

Here’s the link to this article.


APR 21, 2023

(image by Rafael Rex Felisilda from Unsplash)


Atheist Christopher Hitchens made a famous moral challenge to Christians. Let’s consider a second Christian response.

Reading Time: 6 MINUTES

Atheist Christopher Hitchens had a moral challenge for Christians: identify a moral action taken or a moral sentiment uttered by a believer that couldn’t be taken or uttered by a nonbeliever—something that only a believer could do and an atheist couldn’t. Part 1 is here.

A second apologist, this time a Catholic, also has some pushback for the Hitchens Challenge. Towards that end, he makes some nutty claims about the value of Christian hope.

Hitchens assumed—like many secular thinkers—that the only good is the good of social or material progress. An atheist can ladle soup in a soup kitchen—same as a Christian—so Christianity must not bring anything to the table….

It’s just not true that soup ladles are the sole measure of value. Catholicism, in particular, for all its good works and charity, has always rejected the idea that religion should aim for Utopia in this world or that it exists only to promote material wellbeing. “The Church is not an NGO,” as Pope Francis says frequently.

You got that right—the church is a terrible NGO! Americans give $100 billion annually to religion. The Roman Catholic Church’s annual intake worldwide must be far larger. The Catholic Church gives a lot of money to charity, but that’s only because it is huge. As a percentage of the Church’s expenses, I’m guessing that charity accounts for two percent. That’s an educated guess, but it’s just a guess because churches’ books are (unaccountably) closed (one wonders what they’re trying to hide).

With 98% overhead, they’d be the world’s most inefficient NGO.

This response sounds like, “Hitchens was right, but that’s okay because the church never claimed to produce progress.” I can accept that. (More on Christianity’s disinterest in social progress here.)

An aside on Mother (now Saint) Teresa

Back to the article: 

Perhaps this is why Hitchens hated Mother Theresa [sic] so much. (He wrote viciously about her.) He understood her mission better than many. He knew that her main goal was not social work, but mysticism. “We are misunderstood, we are misrepresented, we are misreported,” Mother Theresa said. “We are not nurses, we are not doctors, we are not teachers, we are not social workers. We are religious, we are religious, we are religious.”

That’s an embarrassing admission, that “her main goal was not social work, but mysticism,” but I appreciate the honesty. Now show me the check box that donors to Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity had to mark to acknowledge that they understand that “We are not nurses, we are not doctors, we are not teachers, we are not social workers. We are religious.”

Hundreds of millions of dollars went into this charity, and an enormous fraction—I’m guessing most of it—was because the donors assumed that they were funding healthcare.

Hitchens might have hated Mother Teresa, but that would’ve been because of the disconnect between her public image as a healer and the reality of her homes for the sick being little more than comfortable places to die. Her charity received vast donations, but Forbes reported that “only seven percent of the donation received at Missionaries of Charity was used for charity.”

The greatest thing faith brings is hope

Nope, Teresa wasn’t focused on improving life here on earth.

Mother Theresa knew (and struggled with the fact) that the greatest value of religious faith in this life is not material wellbeing, but the gift of transcendent hope. That’s something a believer can give that Hitchens can never give.

Just to be argumentative, I could see an atheist claiming transcendent hope. Imagine a story about aliens coming to free us from our mortal coils as with the Heaven’s Gate cult. An extraterrestrial technology claim is as groundless a claim as a supernatural one (though less farfetched), but that could be a transcendent hope.

The key point isn’t that it’s transcendent hope but that it’s evidence-less hope, hope that can be in anything because it needn’t have evidence to support it.

But you’re right that atheists avoid giving groundless transcendent hope. Is that a problem? Science gives reality and grounded hope. Science is what’s working on cures for disease or ways to improve food yields. Science is where improvement comes from, and that’s where atheists usually get their hope.

Note the contrast. Christianity has put all its eggs in the “gift of transcendental hope” basket. It’s not like it’s simultaneously using its own methods to solve society’s problems. Christianity is static. A thousand years of Christianity’s “transcendent hope” in a desperate society gives you a thousand years of the same desperate society, while a thousand years of science can transform that society to one that is happy and healthy, one where groundless hope is much less needed.

Christianity can still flog its claims of a beautiful afterlife, but so what? Yes, it’s a remarkable, possibly desirable claim, but so what when there’s no evidence for it? Science has nothing to offer except a continually improving reality (and mountains of evidence that it delivers).

Faith, hope, and love are precisely the formula for happiness even in the midst of material deprivation.

Not when that faith, hope, and love paper over the actual problems in society. A life that is drugged to block out a horrible reality is a wasted life. I’m in no position to criticize someone who falls back on hope to endure a desperate life, but see how it directs our attention to feeling better and away from solving problems.

This was where Karl Marx was going with his observation that religion is the opium of the people. He was complimenting religion—it helps when society is in bad shape. But in the same way that opium only addresses the symptoms of a broken leg (you should still get medical treatment), religion only addresses the symptoms of bad society (you still need to fix that society).

The research of Gregory Paul is relevant here. He not only points out that religious belief correlates with worse social metrics, he also hypothesizes that poor social conditions cause more religion (more). In other words, when you see religion embraced by some subset of society, those people have social problems that need fixing.

How to get a better society

But even if nonbelievers do good things, there is still no reason to conclude that unbelief is the best stance for advancing material and social wellbeing. [One source compellingly argued,] “Human development is best advanced by transcendent hope.”

We’re just going to hope our way to an improved society? Not going to do anything about it, just hope? That reminds me of William Lane Craig’s portrayal of life here on earth as “the cramped and narrow foyer leading to the great hall of God’s eternity.” Wow—what an empty view of the one life we can all agree that we actually have.

Instead of making do, instead of wringing our hands in despair, perhaps we should get busy trying to improve the status quo by solving problems.

The fact is that atheists don’t ladle as much soup as Catholics. It was the Catholic Church that invented the modern institutions of benevolence.

You mean modern institutions of benevolence like Social Security, Medicare, medical insurance, and modern hospitals? The Catholic Church’s small contribution to charity is appreciated, but let’s not exaggerate it. U.S. churches together contribute a few billion dollars to the problem annually while the U.S. government and other institutions devote a few trillion dollars to the problem.

You could sneer at that and say that that’s just money returning to the taxpayers or the insured who provided it in the first place. And that’s true. But it’s still citizens caring for other citizens, redistributing wealth to help the orphans and widows that Jesus cared so much about. The Church in America makes a tiny fraction of this impact.

As for atheists vs. Catholics, even if Catholics do more per capita on assuaging pain (and I’m not sure that’s the case), atheists probably focus more on the fix-society side of the problem.

[The Catholic Church invented the modern institutions of benevolence] precisely because Catholics believe in the transcendent dignity of human beings.

This is what the Hitchens Challenge addresses. There is no benevolent act that Catholics do that couldn’t be performed by an atheist.

See also: When Christianity Was in Charge, This Is What We Got.

The Hitchens Challenge, part 2

Hitchens has more. Once you’ve seen that a nonbeliever can perform the same good moral actions that a believer can, think of the reverse: think of something terrible that only a believer would do or say. Now, lots of examples come to mind.

  • Abraham being willing to sacrifice Isaac (and modern apologists defending God’s indecipherable actions)
  • The Canaanite genocide
  • “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” and witch burnings
  • “God hates fags” from Westboro Baptist Church
  • Flying a plane into a building or blowing yourself up to kill people you don’t like

Or any hateful or selfish conclusion justified by “because God (or the Bible) says” such as condemning homosexuality, blocking civil rights, limiting stem cell research, or dropping adoption services or hospital funding in protest of some law.

The article responds that, sure, religion can make people do evil things, but that’s “obviously true of secular ideology. All ideology is subject to abuse and manipulation.”

So we’re to believe that anything bad done in the name of Christianity is just an “abuse and manipulation” of Christianity and that Christianity, read correctly, doesn’t actually justify that? Who will be the judge to sift out the correct interpretations from the many incorrect ones?

The Bible is a sock puppet that can be made to justify just about anything. Let’s not pretend that there’s one objectively correct interpretation when thousands of Christian denominations squabble over the correct path.

The Hitchens Challenge remains a helpful illustration that Christianity has no moral upside (atheists can be just as moral as Christians) but has a big downside (religious belief can justify in the believer’s mind moral evil that an atheist would never imagine).

With or without religion,
you would have good people doing good things
and evil people doing evil things.
But for good people to do evil things,
that takes religion.
— Steven Weinberg

Hitchens’ Challenge: How well has it stood up?

Here’s the link to this article.


APR 04, 2023

hitchens challenge - old man with magnifying glass
(image by mari lezhava from Unsplash)


Atheist Christopher Hitchens made a famous moral challenge to Christians. Let’s consider two Christian responses.

Reading Time: 3 MINUTES

Identify a moral action taken or a moral sentiment uttered by a believer that couldn’t be taken or uttered by a nonbeliever—something that only a believer could do and an atheist couldn’t.

This was Christopher Hitchens’ famous moral challenge. He said that he had never been given a satisfactory answer.

Amy Hall from Greg Koukl’s Stand to Reason ministry thinks she is up to the challenge. Let’s take a look.

1. Hitchens misunderstands the theist’s point

[Hitchens thinks the Christian is saying] that without God, we couldn’t know right from wrong, when the actual objection is that there wouldn’t be any right or wrong.

I believe Hitchens was responding to the assumption that being a Christian provided some moral advantage. (And, according to Christianity, it does: “We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin” (1 John 5:18).)

And if you want to argue that morality exists only because God put it there, that needs some evidence. You’ve provided none (more on Christians’ inability to defend the claim of objective morality here).

2. The Challenge is unanswerable

This is a clever observation: if Hitchens the atheist is the judge of the Hitchens Challenge, the Christian can’t win because he decides what is moral.

There might be certain acts that only theists would recognize as being moral. Atheists, not recognizing those acts as being good, would not attempt to do them as moral acts.

The first problem is that this undercuts another popular Christian apologetic argument. What’s wrong with Hitchens as judge—don’t you say that morality is objective? If morality is objective (defined by apologist William Lane Craig as “moral values that are valid and binding whether anybody believes in them or not”) and we humans can reliably access those values, Hitchens or any honest atheist would be as good a judge as anyone.

Since it is logically impossible to give an answer that will satisfy Hitchens, he may as well ask us to draw him a square circle and then declare himself the winner when we fail. In the end, his challenge is nothing but a rhetorical trick, and it should be exposed and dismissed as such. Hitchens should never get away with even asking it, let alone demanding we give him an “acceptable” answer in order to defend theism.

I’m reminded of the lawyer’s maxim, “When the facts are on your side, pound the facts. When the law is on your side, pound the law. When neither is on your side, pound the table.” There’s a lot of table pounding here along with the demand that the Challenge be dismissed as inadmissible.

The resolution is simple: insist that objective, unbiased third parties must judge this Challenge. If Christians like those from Stand to Reason believe that objective moral facts can be reliably found, they can find judges who are infallible at finding objective morality. Prove to everyone that they are reliable with public tests. Now we have judges that everyone admits are reliable, and Hall’s concern is satisfied.

As it happens, there is an answer to Hitchens’s question—one that seemed obvious to me immediately—and it illustrates perfectly the problem with the challenge. The highest moral good a person can do is to worship the living, true, sovereign God—to love Him with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength. Not only will no atheist ever do this, no atheist can do this.

That’s the pinnacle of morality? It’s an odd definition of morality that has nothing to do with doing good to living beings, but I guess Christians can define their dogma as they choose. And that’s the point: this is dogma that is specific to Christians. Our objective, unbiased third party judges would reject this. (More on how praise applied to God makes no sense here.)

Now it looks like it’s you who’s playing the rhetorical trick.

If we all share Adam’s sin, we must all have the moral wisdom of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. How then can atheists not agree with you that worship is the highest moral good?

Let’s return to the Challenge. Hitchens was simply saying that Christians can claim no moral high ground over atheists and that Christianity brings nothing moral to the table that wasn’t already part of humanity’s social interaction. God pretends to generously gives morality to humans, but, like Dorothy’s ruby slippers, it was theirs all along.

Concluded in part 2 with one more Christian response.

If there is a God,
He will have to beg my forgiveness.
—  written on a wall in
Mauthausen concentration camp

When Christians confuse an explanation with an argument

Here’s the link to this article.


APR 18, 2023

argument - shroud of turin
Credit: public domain / Wikimedia


Explanations and arguments: we come across both, but they’re quite different. An explanation is, “Here’s how I see it,” and an argument is, “Here’s how YOU should see it.” Don’t confuse one for the other.

Reading Time: 5 MINUTES

Years ago, I came upon a fascinating psychological experiment. Like the best of these, it was very simple.

It’s called the Copy Machine study. In 1977, when giant copy machines were shared office equipment, psychologist Ellen Langer had her research assistants try to cut into the line of people waiting to make copies. They tried three ways. The first approach was to say, “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” It was polite but minimal, and it worked 60 percent of the time.

Next, they added a reason: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?” This worked 94 percent of the time.

But the final approach was a surprise. They asked, “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies?” It worked 93 percent of the time. It had the form of the second one, with the “because” clause, but there’s no real reason here.

Langer concluded that the form of the request was the trick, and having a “because” clause is important. It satisfies the subconscious need for a reason, regardless of whether there’s a good reason in there or not.

We find something like this empty “because” clause in many Christian arguments.

Explanation vs. argument

There’s a difference between (1) explaining how you see things or how your worldview fits together and (2) making an argument with evidence to convince me to adopt your worldview. Said another way, the two options are explaining how you see it (explanation) vs. how I should see it (argument). Apologists sometimes focus on (1) and forget that the words coming out of their mouths are backed by zero evidence.

The Strange Notions blog has an example of a Christian explanation.

[Atheist objection:] God is supposed to be all good. But he both permits evil to exist and even causes it through punishments. So God must not be all good.

[Catholic reply:] God is so good and so perfect that he permits evil to exist, and brings greater good out of it.

This reply is Catholic dogma. It’s how Catholics are supposed to think about the problem, and, as an atheist, it may be helpful for me to understand. But use it as an argument, and questions surge forward. How do we know God is good? Why should we think that all the evil in the world is there for a greater good? Why is this the best a perfect God can do? How do we even know he exists? And so on.

As “Here is how I see things,” it does the job. As an explanation that resolves reasonable questions, it fails.

“God did it” is the premiere example of an explanation rather than an argument. It explains part of someone’s worldview, but it’s no convincing argument.

The best explanations are prefaced with something like, “Okay, here’s how it makes sense to me.” For example, “Here’s how it makes sense to me: there is evil in the world, but God permits it and uses it to create a greater good” or “Here’s how it makes sense to me: God did it.” The Christian is making clear that this isn’t intended as a convincing argument.

An explanation has its place, and it may help you understand how something makes sense in a Christian’s mind. But it can be dismissed without consideration if it’s given instead of an argument.

Example 2: Trinity

Another example is the Trinity. The Athanasian Creed explains the incompatible properties that the Trinity must have. That creed is an explanation, not an argument. Imagine trying to explain to a Muslim, who shares the same god of the Old Testament, that the Trinity is not polytheism.

Example 3: consciousness

Apologist Sean McDowell insists that human consciousness must be explained.

Any honest atheist or naturalist would say at least minimally they don’t know the mechanism of how consciousness or mind can emerge from matter. But this actually isn’t a problem for a Christian or a theistic worldview, because God, who is a mind, exists before matter. We’re made body and soul, mind and matter. So it makes sense, if God is spirit, that we would be beings with spirit (@21:45).

God is a mind. God existed before matter. Humans are body and soul. I need to make copies.

Explanations are not arguments.

Example 4: providing evidence

At the “There’s no hate like Atheist love” Facebook page is a meme that reads, “Science is the study of God’s Creation. Therefore, if it doesn’t acknowledge His handiwork in all things it’s not science—it’s pseudoscience.”

In the comments beneath was this (abbreviated) exchange between Carl, who created the meme, and Alec:

Alec: Nice claim. Where is the evidence?

Carl: This is an axiom of science.

Alec: You claim there is a god and it is the work of said god. So, where is the evidence?

Carl: Everywhere

In an open exchange, in response to Alec’s request for evidence, Carl would’ve said, “Hold on—let me be clear. I’m not claiming to make an argument. I’m just explaining how it fits together in my mind. I’m making no demands on you.” In other words, he’d clarify that he was giving an explanation only, not an argument. And, of course, if Carl didn’t feel this way but was presenting the meme as an argument, then it can be dismissed without consideration.

Example 5: illusionist

This example comes from Barry Goldberg’s Common Sense Atheism blog.

Suppose you see a stage magic show with some friends. Everyone loves it. Afterwards, you mention your favorite trick and say that it seemed completely impossible.

One of your friends says that he is something of an amateur illusionist himself and can explain the trick. Everyone leans in.

He says, “The magician used real magic. He cast a spell.”

Is this satisfactory? Of course not—again, it’s an explanation where an argument is expected. To be an argument, it would need to resolve the questions it provokes. Is all stage magic real magic? How did the illusionist get magical powers? How does spell casting work from the standpoint of physics? And so on.

It’s like “God did it”—a claim that generates more questions than it resolves. How did God do it? What laws of physics (both known and unknown) were used or violated?

Another example is the Shroud of Turin, the claimed burial cloth that holds a faint image of Jesus as he was supernaturally zapped back to life. “God did it,” of course, but the same questions are unanswered.


We see Christianity’s explanation-over-argument problem everywhere. Jesus needed to die for humanity’s sins. Why? How does this make sense to someone outside your worldview?

Only with faith can you please God. Why?

Every human is tainted by Adam’s sin. Why?

Next time you read a Christian apologetic, be careful to separate it into explanation and argument. Discard any explanation pretending to be an argument and see if any substance remains.

“God did it” isn’t an argument. It’s just an explanation. You might as well say, “I need to make copies.”

See also: Stupid Argument #20a: Science can’t explain everything; therefore, God