Category Archives: Apologetics

You aren’t what you eat

“God is Not Great” by Christopher Hitchens, Chapter 3

In this chapter Hitchens rallies against the ridiculous (as he sees them) dietary laws of the Jewish people. What kind of God would make a monster of the pig? It seems so outrageous and unreasonable that Hitchens investigates our relationship with the pig to see if this can provide any clues as to why God (or as he sees it the Jewish and Muslim traditions), came up with such a strange decision.

He begins by wondering whether pigs are intrinsically distasteful. While he admits that pigs can be very messy and quite unpleasant in confined conditions, if they are given space and healthy surroundings they can be quite civil animals. This surely cannot be the reason for the divine injunction. Why would this be when the pig is one of our closest cousins (he argues)? Could there be a rational explanation? He puts forward two: firstly that pig meat in hot climates can go off very quickly and become infested. He discards this one as unsatisfying and considers a second more subtle reason.

For this explanation he considers the similarities between humans and pigs. He covers a range of topics from the classic allegory Animal Farm to the fact that the pig heart is one of the few species that is able to be transplanted into a human. Indeed, it is our similarity to the pig that he believes gives us a clue as to our vilification of it. He notes that “the look of the pig, and the taste of the pig, and the dying yells of the pig, and the evident intelligence of the pig, were to uncomfortably reminiscent of the human.” He suggests that the pig reminds us too much of ourselves and echoes back to the dark times of cannibalism when the human race had a perverted appetite for human flesh. It is against this cannibalistic instinct, hidden deep within us, that we are reacting against when we demonise the pig. Hitchens argues that it is our “repressed desire to participate” in this vile practise, that is at the heart of our hatred. And he concludes by making the sweeping statement that “in microcosom, this apparently trivial fetish shows how religion and faith and superstition distort our whole picture of the world.”

But could there be an alternative explanation for this prohibition? Does it really date back to some sort of primitive Freudian desire, or is there a more straightforward, if less human-centred, explanation? If we look back to the origins of the prohibition against pigs in the Jewish tradition, it can be traced right back to the first rules laid down by God for his rescued people in Leviticus 11.7: “And the pig, though it has a split hoof completely divided, does not chew the cud, it is unclean for you”. Note that the pig is described as unclean – not evil! Other mammals described as unclean include the rabbit and camel.

This chapter in Leviticus sets out the dietary laws for the Israelites, other chapters cover directives on the way they dressed (not two types of cord), treated illness (e.g. skin disease, chapter 13-14), treated buildings (e.g. damp on walls), cleansed cooking tools (e.g. pots). Many other laws also covered morally charged issues, such as not charging interest on loans, sexual purity, freedom for slaves and manslaughter. Together with the laws on the ceremonial sacrifice of animals covered in chapters 1-7 they formed the means by which God chose to set apart his people as his own. Indeed, the phrase “set apart” is literally what holy means. By following these regulations that covered every part of life, everyone would be able to see what it meant to be God’s people.

As such, all of these laws were intended to reinforce each other to provide a physical illustration of the life of God’s community on earth – to show the world what being God’s chosen people meant. Some of them reflected deeper significance that was repeated by Jesus and the apostles, others were temporary – particularly the food regulations. In Acts chapter 10 Peter is directed by God in a vision to eat every animal as they are all clean (v9-13). God himself is overruling his previous commandment and nullifying the dietary regulations. Why?

Interwoven with Peter’s vision is the story off Cornelius, a man who is told to go and find Peter by an angel (v1-6). Once Peter meets Cornelius and realises that God has sent him to hear the good news of Jesus, the light eventually dawns, that God is using the distinction between clean and unclean food as a tangible metaphor for the distinction that had historically been made between the Jews and Gentiles, the former being clean and the latter unclean. By declaring all food clean, and by sending his angel to Cornelius (a gentile) to direct him to Peter, God was telling his people that he was making all people acceptable to him through the death and resurrection of his son (v28 & 34-48).

Thus, we come back to our question – why did God make the pig unclean? And why did he do this, if one day he was going to make all animals clean? In other words, why bother to establish dietary laws that lasted for hundreds of year, if he always intended to make them all clean? Was there really any difference between the various groups of animals or not? In answering this question we need to keep this chapter in Acts in our mind. What if God chose to use an issue which was inherently morally neutral and arbitrarily designated animals on either side in order to, hundreds of years later, bring down the dividing line? What if he did all this in order to generate the kind of cultural shock that was necessary to awake his people to the coming spiritual shock of the acceptance of the gentiles? This would mean that there is nothing inherently unclean about the pig – it was a physical illustration for God to use to make a more significant point.

But, I can hear you ask; why not just accept gentiles right back there in Leviticus? Why keep them out only to later bring them in? This is a big question, but in summary it all has to do with this demonstration of God’s holiness. While the Israelites were God’s people, they were never intended to be the only nation that God would accept – they were to model the type of kingdom behaviour that God would require of his people. Later this model would be broadened to the whole world, as now individuals, not nations are called to model this kingdom living. The changing role of the pig in God’s plan may seem a strange one, but it forms an important shift from the national to the personal; from the outward to the inward; from a focus on what we eat to who we are. The story of the pig teaches us that life is not about what we eat, as if that could make us clean or unclean. The important thing is not what you take into your mouth, but what comes out of it – for this reveals the true nature of your heart.

“Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.) He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” Mark 7.18-23

Religion – virtue or vice?

“God Is Not Great” – Chapter 2

Is religion a force for good in the world, or a hindrance to mankind’s attempts to create a civil society and embrace one another? Or to put it another way, do we wish for the type of world that John Lennon longs for, where there is: “nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too, imagine all the people, living life in peace”. Well if you needed convincing that religion is the bane of the world, then this chapter is for you. The way Hitchens seeks to do this is by giving examples of religious groups repressing and imposing their views on the non-religious.

He would not mind if religious people would be content to have their own faith and keep to themselves, but, to his intense annoyance, he admits that “the true believer cannot rest until the whole world bows the knee.” In framing his argument he discusses a range of examples where various religions have imposed their views, either legally or criminally on their neighbours.

He begins with the example of Ireland, and the debate over the legalisation of divorce. A proposal to legalise divorce was brought to the government and the conservative Catholic Church fought this attempt to change the law. Hitchen’s objects to this attempt to legislate morality and enforce one particular group’s moral views on the rest of society. He wants each to have the right to follow their own conscience rather than impose their views on those who don’t share their faith.

This is a good point and I agree that most of the time this is a worthy objective. However, his argument raises the interesting question of who should decide the moral laws in society. We presume that in a democratic society it should be a majority decision. But we know that a vocal and militant minority are able to change significant ethical laws to their own outcome. Given this is often how politics works, is it only the secular humanists who are allowed to lobby for a change in the law? Don’t also the conservative groups have this same right to lobby to maintain the law? Let the debate be taken to the public square and each side make their claims to the right to impose their views on all of society. But let’s not restrict the rights of any group, just because they do not share our ethical code, to fight for what they believe. Both groups’ positions are underpinned by a worldview – one theistic, one humanistic. Each has the right to present their case and argue their points.

He then moves on to a series of examples where one religious group has exercised repression, violence or even massacred another religious group. His general point through all of this is religion is the root and cause of these events. From Belfast to Beirut, from Bombay to Belgrade, he argues that religion is a sociological virus, corrupting mankind and causing various groups to hate and kill each other. I am going to pass over the obvious argument of the less than unblemished record of atheism as a potential cause of war and social unrest (e.g. Stalinist Russia). Instead I want to focus on the cause and effect relationship between religion and war. Is religious violence an abuse of, or a natural outcome of, religion? For this I can only speak for Christianity, as this is my own faith. So, the question becomes: where the Crusades, Irish terrorism etc, a natural out working of the teachings of the bible, or are they an anomaly, an unfortunate stain on an otherwise peaceful and peacemaking religion?

Well, if we go to the source material the answer from the bible is clear – Paul states in 1 Timothy 2.1-2 that we should pray for our government and monarchy, as God wants a peaceful and ordered society. Also in Romans 13.1- 7 he again states that authorities are placed their by the order of God, and to rebel against them is to rebel against God. Peter says the same thing in his letters, and Jesus also teaches his disciples to pray for their enemies and seek their good, not seek to hurt them. Strikingly, the context for the famous “turn the other cheek” saying is a man on his way to an unjust and violent “religious” death, not an academic in his dusty study at a quaint university.

So, if there is no justification for such action in the original teachings, why do these things happen? Because of the corruption in the human heart! Even some of the first people to hear the message of Jesus sought to make financial gain from the message (Acts 8.18&19), which is only one step away from seeking political power through the cause. But as well as realising there is no justification for these actions in the bible, it is also important to understand that the abuse of a substance does not invalidate the worth of this substance. Take alcohol for example, in Scotland the negative social impact of alcoholism is enormous, but does this make alcohol an evil and degrading substance? No, in itself it is neither good nor bad, but how we use it determines the worthiness. Similarly, the violence sometimes seen with animal rights groups does not automatically invalidate the worthiness of the cause. Nevertheless, I agree that in the words of Jesus himself “you will know the tree by its fruit”.

My challenge to Hitchens is this – if you find mouldy fruit you need to check if it’s the tree or a maggot inside the fruit. Thus, the effects of a religion need to be assessed to see if this is an abuse of the faith or a genuine out working of it, and then taken alongside the positive effects of this same religion. In conclusion, all worldviews whether they include God or exclude him can, when used to serve our own purposes, produce devastating results. At these times we must then seek to understand whether this is an appropriate application of this worldview or an abuse of it. Only then can we determine the moral worthiness of the worldview and decide whether this invalidates its claims to our allegiance.

A Passionate Plea

“God Is Not Great” Chapter 1

Right from the first page Hitchens reveals that his book is not a cold calculated critique of religion but an effervescent boiling pot of passion. This is something Hitchens feels extremely passionate about and in his passion his prose quickly crosses disparate themes. He briefly describes his religious upbringing before delivering a mesmerising array of accusations and charges against his nemesis – the ignorant & deceived religious.

Two encounters in particular are highlighted as being the pivotal points in his young life – one being a less than logical explanation of why the grass is green by his primary teacher “God made all the trees and grass to be green, which is exactly the colour that is most restful to our eyes” and the other a masterclass in nominalism by his headmaster: “You may not see the point in all this faith now, but you will one day, when you start to lose loved ones.” Not surprisingly these misguided attempts to answer the big questions in life of creation and suffering and death drove the rational Hitchens away from his religious heritage.

His atheism is a passionate rejection of all the alternatives, seeing religion as at best wishful thinking and at worst a source of manipulation and corruption. He offers realism not hope, science and reason not faith and beliefs. And he speculates that “it is at least possible that, once people accepted the fact of their short and struggling lives, they might behave better towards each other and not worse.”  His argument is that it is better to admit you only have a few thousand days to live and get on with it as best you can than pretend there is more to it and ruin everyone else’s experience.

Throughout this first chapter Hitchens repeatedly presents his polar extremes – the rational, fair, honest atheist and the irrational, ignorant, unstable religious zealot. This is not a book of balance and well thought out reasoned arguments, it is a force ten gale in the wind-tunnel of atheistic teaching. No sooner are objections to religion brought up, they are summarily dismissed and ridiculed. He even states that anyone who is certain of his belief “and who claims divine warrant for his certainty belongs now to the infancy of our species”, as if the atheist has evolved beyond the need for emotional props. As if it is ok to be absolutely certain of your belief if it comes from your own neurons, but not if you believe it has been made known to you by God.

Although I struggle to like the way he says it, there is much in this chapter that I have to agree with. When he says things like “religion is man-made” and “we believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion” I can say a hearty Amen! Religion (without revelation) is man-made and it is an indisputable fact that religion has caused many of the worlds personal & national conflicts, even to this day. And I have many kind and generous friends who do not have any religious beliefs. However, as someone who considers themselves fair, rational and honest I must object to his straw man that he presents in this chapter. If there is one error that is systemic throughout this chapter, it is that he lumps all faith into the same skip and then takes the worst examples and presents them as the norm.

For all the abuses and excesses of religious people it is a bold claim that Hitchens makes in this chapter – to pronounce on his own authority that there has never been and will never be, anywhere in the world, to any person, any interaction with the a higher power. Its one thing if you don’t believe in such a power or being, but how can you know, given our limited knowledge, that every single person who has ever claimed different is either deluded, deceptive or down-right dishonest.

Moreover, all of Hitchens’ arguments would come crashing down if there had ever been one single encounter of a human with the divine. This is the one indestructible virus that threatens to erase his entire case. My question to Hitchens is: say this encounter happened to him, then how would a fair, honest, logical person respond to such an encounter? He would no doubt argue that this is impossible because he, she or it doesn’t exist, but even Hitchens admits in this chapter that “some problems will never be resolved…and some things are indefinitely unknowable”.  So while clinging to his certainty of a materialistic worldview, he still wants to leave the door open for mystery, as long as that mystery is defined on his terms.

In response to Hitchens I am forced to make a passionate plea – that it is possible to have an encounter with a higher power whilst retaining your reason. That it is possible to have a consistent, reasoned worldview that is not purely materialistic. How we know the certainty of whether these encounters really happened, or whether we like what is revealed about this power by these encounters is a different objection. The choice is not between rational atheism and irrational religion, but between a materialistic atheism and a reasonable faith. It is a faith where reason is its servant not its master, for we recognise that reason is limited in its understanding and often misdirected in its bearings. A faith that is reasonable not because it leaves no room for doubt, but because there is sufficient evidence in the truth of that belief to warrant a trust in the one who asks for your hand.

Christianity: Unscientific, Corrupt and Intolerant?

I also spoke in the evening of the 1st August at CBC. My evening message was an apologetic argument that unlike how many view Christianity today in the UK, it is actually a reasonable faith. The themes within this message have been brewing within me for many years and are a response to the increasing hostility that Christians experience in UK society and the corresponding crises in confidence that afflicts our churches.

The slides are available here and the sermon here.

I should point out that the sermons at CBC are simultaneously signed for the deaf – you will need to know this to explain the laughter when I question how the interpreter will handle the word “homology”.