One of the most interesting questions in the debate was posed to Hitchens by a man from Tonga. Before the Christians came to Tonga, he said, the place was a mess. Even cannibalism was widespread. The Christians stopped this practice and brought to Tonga the notion that each person has a soul and God loves everyone equally. The man from Tonga asked Hitchens, "So what do you have to offer us?" Hitchens was taken aback, and responded with a learned disquisition on cannibalism in various cultures. But he clearly missed the intellectual and moral force of the man's question. The man was asking why the Tongans, who had gained so much from Christianity, should reject it in favor of atheism.
In my response, I noted that when the missionaries came to India, they sometimes converted people by force. Even so, many Indians rushed on their own to embrace the faith of the foreigners. And why? Because they were born into the low caste of the Hindus. As long as they remained Hindus, there was no escape; even their descendants were condemned to the lowest rungs of humanity. By fleeing into the arms of the missionaries, the low-caste Hindus found themselves welcomed as Christian brothers. They discovered the ideal of equal dignity in the eyes of God.
If we look at the history of Western civilization, we find that Christianity has illuminated the greatest achievements of the culture. Read the new atheist books and make a list of the institutions and values that Hitchens and Dawkins and the others cherish the most. They value the idea of the individual, and the right to dissent, and science as an autonomous enterprise, and representative democracy, and human rights, and equal rights for women and racial minorities, and the movement to end slavery, and compassion as a social virtue. But when you examine history you find that all of these values came into the world because of Christianity. If Christianity did not exist, these values would not exist in the form they do now. So there is indeed something great about Christianity, and the honest atheist should be willing to admit this.
By contrast, does it make any sense to say, as Hitchens does in his book's subtitle, that "religion poisons everything"? Religion didn't poison Dante or Milton or Donne or Michelangelo or Raphael or Titian or Bach! Religon didn’t poison those unnamed architectural geniuses who built the great Gothic cathedrals. Religion didn’t poison the American founders who were for the most part not Deist but Christian. Religion didn't poison the anti-slavery campaigns of William Lloyd Garrison or William Wilberforce, or the civil rights activism of the Reverend Martin Luther King. The real question to ask is, what does atheism offer humanity? In Tonga, as in America, the answer appears to be: Nothing.
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