A question I pose to atheists and others who argue that religion is irrelevant to moral behavior has been cited by Christopher Hitchens in his national best seller, “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.” And Hitchens’s citation has been widely quoted — from the New Yorker to the website of the Oxford evolutionist and best-selling atheist author Richard Dawkins.
This is how the story appears in Hitchens’s book:
“A week before the events of September 11, 2001, I was on a panel with Dennis Prager, who is one of America’s better-known religious broadcasters. He challenged me in public to answer what he called a ‘straight yes/no question,’ and I happily agreed. ‘Very well,’ he said. I was to imagine myself in a strange city as the evening was coming on. Toward me I was to imagine that I saw a large group of men approaching. Now — would I feel safer, or less safe, if I was to learn that they were just coming from a prayer meeting? As the reader will see, this is not a question to which a yes/no answer can be given. But I was able to answer as if it were not hypothetical. ‘Just to stay within the letter B, I have actually had that experience in Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem, and Baghdad. In each case I can say absolutely, and can give my reasons, why I would feel immediately threatened if I thought that the group of men approaching me in the dusk were coming from a religious observance.'”
As it happens, Hitchens did not relate my question entirely accurately, as hundreds of thousands of my listeners can attest to, and as many written sources can attest to. I have always asked the question about 10 men in a dark alley coming out of a “Bible class.” I wrote a piece for National Review in 1999 in which I posed this question and wrote “Bible class,” not “prayer meeting.” And Father Richard Neuhaus, in his journal, First Things, quoted me asking this question about men leaving a “Bible class” in 1992. (I have always posed this question to Americans and therefore assumed the question related only to America, but I did not specify ‘America’ in my question to Hitchens as I did “Bible class.”)
I have always specified “Bible class” because I assume that in America, anyone with common sense would in fact be very relieved if they knew that the 10 strangers, all men, approaching them in a dark alley were committed to either Judaism or Christianity and studying the Bible. I never stated “prayer class” because, unlike a Bible class, which more or less confines us to normative Judeo-Christian religions, ‘prayer meeting’ can signify anyone in any religion or even in some dangerous cult.
Even atheists would have to admit that in America today, they would be very grateful to learn that those 10 men had just been studying Genesis or Isaiah. One does not hear of many Bible classes with students mugging passersby.
I therefore pose this question to make the rather obvious point that nearly all of us instinctively assume some positive things about normative Judaism and Christianity in America.
This question evidently annoys many of those who argue that there is no relationship between personal decency and Judeo-Christian religiosity. So they offer a number of responses to a question that most of us find rhetorical.
The most common is that any of us would also be relieved if we learned that the 10 men walking toward us in a dark alley had just come from a secular humanism seminar or one on photosynthesis. I fully acknowledge that I would be relieved in such cases as well. The problem with this response, however, is that in the real world, in bad parts of our cities, 10 men are rather more likely to be studying the Bible than photosynthesis or secular humanism or any other subject that would bring us relief in that dark alley.
Every response I have seen to this question is an attempt to evade the only honest response. We would all be relieved because when push comes to shove — when we have to make real-life decisions and not theoretical ones — we know that at least in America, the dominant Judeo-Christian values and the religions that adhere to them have generally made better people. This does not mean that all religious Jews and Christians in America have been, or are today, good people, and it certainly does not mean that all irreligious people are bad. It means simply that if our lives were hanging in the balance, we would be inexpressively happy to know that 10 men we did not know, walking toward us in a bad neighborhood, had just come out of a Bible class.
But that is no small thing. And nothing has ever replaced that book and the American religious expressions based on it to make good people in the same numbers that it has.
So although I admire Christopher Hitchens for his understanding — unlike so many of his allies in the atheism vs. God and religion debate — that America is fighting genuinely evil people in Iraq, I was disappointed that he could not acknowledge the obvious when I concluded my radio dialogue/debate with him:
Prager: “I do want to return for a moment, Christopher, to the question that you cite me asking you in your book. If you were in an American city that you were not familiar with, alone, late at night, and you couldn’t find your car, in a bad neighborhood, and you saw 10 men walking toward you, would you or would you not be relieved to know that they had just attended a Bible class?”
Hitchens: “Not relieved.”