Before his death, atheist Christopher Hitchens wrote a best-selling book attacking religious belief. It had the provocative title God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Hitchens promoted the book throughout the world by debating with religious believers of many types: Christians, Jews, Moslems, and Hindus. In these debates, he would often challenge his opponent, “Name one moral action performed by a believer that could not have been done by a nonbeliever.” Hitchens claimed no one ever met this challenge.
My favorite humorous response to Hitchens came from Protestant minister Doug Wilson. When Hitchens asked him to name one moral act only believers can do Wilson replied, “Tithe.” But more seriously, 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. Even worse, for Hitchens, is the fact that people can do a lot of harm in the name of religion that they might not do otherwise. (Hence his book’s subtitle.)
I have to admit that I was never very impressed by Hitchens argument because I never accepted the unstated premise. 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.
Perhaps this is why Hitchens hated Mother Theresa 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.”
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. In a debate with Rabbi David Wolpe, Hitchens once said, “I think despair is quite a good starting point myself . . . Those who offer [hope] to me, I spurn the gift. I don’t want what you want. I don’t want the feeling of an eternal love and peace. Love and peace, very, very overrated in my view.”
Hitchens is just flat wrong here, of course. Faith, hope, and love are precisely the formula for happiness even in the midst of material deprivation. “I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord,” Paul said. (Philippians 3:8) When St. Josephine Bakhita reflected on her life of horrific suffering she could say, ““I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me—I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.”
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. Fr. Richard Neuhaus, a long-time crusader for the important role of religion in public life once argued (I think correctly), “It is empirically probable and logically persuasive that human development is best advanced by transcendent hope.” 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 precisely because Catholics believe in the transcendent dignity of human beings.
What of Hitchens’s charge that people can do evil things in the name of religion that they wouldn’t do otherwise? This is obviously true of religion, just as it is obviously true of secular ideology. All ideology is subject to abuse and manipulation, which one reason why the Catholic Church (unlike Islam and some forms of Protestantism) does not propose a specific juridical order derived from revelation. The Church cannot and does not replace the state, but must “play her part through rational argument.” Pope Benedict also said, “she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper.” (Pope Benedict, Deus Caritas Est)
What good can a believer do that a nonbeliever cannot do? Only a believer can offer transcendent hope. Only a believer can propose or work for a social order grounded in the transcendent dignity of the human person. Only a believer can say, “I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me—I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.”