Richard Dawkins Helps Answer Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens, in his Introduction to the Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever, has a witty counter to those who claim that religious people are especially good:

My own response has been to issue a challenge: name me an ethical statement made or an action performed by a believer that could not have been made or performed by a non-believer. As yet, I have had no takers (xiv).

I’d like to take up Hitchens’ challenge. To do so, first, I will describe how Richard Dawkins assesses “super niceness.” Then, I will contrast Dawkins’ explanation for super niceness with a religious explanation for super niceness. Finally, I will close with a clear reply to Christopher Hitchens.

Let’s look at what Richard Dawkins says about morality. In an article called “Atheists for Jesus” in The Portable Atheist he begins by explaining the normal ethical bent of natural selection:

The theory of natural selection itself seems calculated to foster selfishness at the expense of public good, violence, callous indifference to suffering, short term greed at the expense of long term foresight. If scientific theories could vote, evolution would surely vote Republican (308).

This creates what he calls a “paradox”:

the un-Darwinian fact, which any of us can observe in our own circle of acquaintances, that so many individual people are kind, generous, helpful, compassionate, nice, the sort of people of whom we say, “She’s a real saint.” Or, “He’s a true Good Samaritan” (308).

How do we explain such niceness? Well, Darwinian thinkers have models for it:

Darwinians can come up with explanations for human niceness: generalizations of the well-established models of kin selection and reciprocal altruism, the stocks-in-trade of the ‘selfish gene’ theory, which sets out to explain how altruism and cooperation among individual animals can stem from self-interest at the genetic level (308).

In other words, the amount of niceness that Darwinian models can explain is the kind of niceness that really comes from self-interest at the genetic level. However, Dawkins wants us to think about a different kind of niceness. As he writes:

But the sort of super niceness I am talking about in humans goes too far. It is a misfiring, even a perversion of the Darwinian take on niceness. Well, if that’s a perversion, it’s the kind of perversion we need to encourage and spread (308).

He goes even further:

Let’s put it even more bluntly. From a rational choice point of view, or from a Darwinian point of view, human super niceness is just plain dumb. And yes, it is the kind of dumb that should be encouraged—which is the purpose of my article” (308).

Now, on the face of it, this is a serious challenge! To do it, Dawkins thinks that something non-rational, like an epidemic, will need to be induced into the population. So he asks:

Well, do we know of any comparable examples, where stupid ideas have been known to spread like an epidemic? Yes, by God! Religion. Religious beliefs are irrational. Religious beliefs are dumb and dumber: super dumb. Religion drives otherwise sensible people into celibate monasteries, or crashing into New York skyscrapers…if people can be infected with such self-harming stupidity, infecting them with niceness should be child’s play (308).

With Dawkins’ viewpoint on the table, let’s remember Hitchens’ Challenge: name a belief or action done by a believer that cannot be done by a nonbeliever.

At first glance, it seems that Dawkins robustly affirms that atheists can be, in actual fact, as “super nice” as a religious person. In terms of the explicit claims of his article, he is affirming, as Hitchens does, that any belief or action done by a believer can also be done by a nonbeliever.

I will cheerfully concede the point. Certainly we can point to many specific, very nice atheists, and affirm that they are doing many super nice things.

However, according to the standards of Dawkins’ own article, atheists cannot be super nice without also being just plain dumb. It is a choice comparable in dumbness to religious people, who are “super dumb.” Now, what kind of motivation is that? How does one have integrity in starting a movement of “super niceness” when you’re personally convinced that such a lifestyle is a “misfiring” and a “perversion” of our Darwinian biology? When “the theory of natural selection itself seems calculated to foster selfishness at the expense of public good”?

Disclaimers aside, upon reading Dawkins’ rather transparent article, the rational choice is to avoid being super nice and manipulate (or “infect”) other people to be super nice in a way that benefits you.

In other words, the implication of Richard Dawkins’ article is this: if atheism is true, the rational choice is to be selfish.

By contrast, if Christianity is true, the rational choice is to be super nice. Why? Because Christians have an intellectual framework in which it is wise and sensible to be sacrificially loving. Christians believe that Jesus lived the best life possible, and that His life was a life of sacrificial love. They also believe that God rewarded Jesus for obediently dying on the cross. Therefore, they are encouraged to imitate the example of Jesus in their own lives, trusting that God will reward their own self-sacrificial behavior. (For instance, read Philippians 2:1-11).

This leads us to our reply to Hitchens: religious believers, unlike nonbelievers, can rationally prefer super niceness. That is, believers have a uniquely rational set of reasons for preferring super niceness instead of selfishness. By contrast, unbelievers have a uniquely rational reason for preferring selfishness instead of super niceness.

To summarize the main points:

  1. Dawkins’ article makes clear that this kind of rational choice (to be super nice) is uniquely available to religious believers, because they uniquely believe that humans were made for more than the Darwinian struggle for existence.
  2. If atheism is true, then according to Dawkins, super niceness is “just plain dumb.” Instead, the rational choice is to be selfish and, at the same time, selfishly encourage others to be selfless.
  3. However, if Christianity is true, then super niceness is a highly rational choice. If the Christian God exists, then a life of sacrificial love is a wise response to God’s love.