Christopher Hitchens on Religious Child Abuse

by Luke Muehlhauser on April 12, 2010 in Video

Well said, sir:

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Robert Slowley April 12, 2010 at 9:49 am

It seems to me that the example Hitchens gives applies at most to Islam (rather than all religions). The title seems to imply that all religions are the same in some sense when dealing with children (perhaps I’m misunderstanding here), but I assume that’s not really intended (in the same way it would be wrong to assume that all forms of atheism are identical to Stalinism for instance). I’m not a Muslim myself, but I’d want to hear some responses from Muslims on the issue before I took this as good evidence of there being a general case of child abuse among Muslims (and that the actions of Muslims in the country is in some way a correct representation of Islamic beliefs).

Does Hitchens not know that Jews think that Abraham was being tested by God to see whether he would obey God foremost above everything else? Or how Christians understand the account? A key passage for the Christian understanding is in the book of Hebrews:

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.

It’s also worth noting (for the benefit of anyone who watches the Hitchens clip but has not read the story of Abraham for themselves), that a key part of the narrative in the account of Abraham and Isaac (which you can read for yourself in Genesis 22:1-19) God never intended for Abraham’s son to die, and instead provides a sacrifice to take his place:

“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” [God] said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided.”

Here of course a parallel is understood by Christians in Christ taking our place as a sacrifice for our sinful actions. Apart from that, I think it’s important to understand the context in the Old Testament of the story Hitchens quotes, and how those people of faith (who want ‘faith like Abraham’) understand it before criticising.

As far as I can tell Hitchens is either uninformed (unlikely) or intentionally being selective so as to criticise Muslims, Jews, and Christians.


chuck April 12, 2010 at 10:01 am


Your defense of your faith is odd.

What is good about human sacrifice?

The Penal Substition is evidence that God lacks imagination or a mature ethic. It is not indicative of a good moral philosophy.



Hermes April 12, 2010 at 10:34 am

That story only shows that the deity is mythic, and the morals are abhorrent.


Mazen Abdallah April 12, 2010 at 10:49 am

Hitch, as always, telling it like it is. I think it’s fair to say he just does not give a f***. I saw him when he came to Beirut, he was an asshole to the audience, got beat up by Syrian nationalists for defacing their swastika and called a Hezbollah supporter a ‘horse’s ass’. Brings tears to my eyes.


Robert Slowley April 12, 2010 at 10:56 am

@chuck: You seem to have grossly misunderstood my post or you’re intentionally misrepresenting me. Where did I say that human sacrifice was a good thing?

While a discussion about penal substitution would be interesting, I’m not sure how we could sensibly have a discussion about whether it shows ‘lack of imagination’, and anyway, discussing that would be a distraction from the main issue – that Hitchens takes the story out of it’s context, does not seem to be aware of how it is understood by those who look on it favourably, and then after tears down that strawman view with his usual (formidably) rhetorical skills.

@Hermes: I don’t see what in the story of Abraham and Isaac ‘shows that the deity is mythic’, what logical contradictions does that account entail that means we must conclude (from the account alone, which is what you stated) that Yahweh does not exist? Or do you mean that you come with the presupposition that God does not exist and supernatural things cannot exist and then draw that conclusion?


Hermes April 12, 2010 at 11:47 am

Robert Slowley: I don’t see what in the story of Abraham and Isaac ’shows that the deity is mythic’, what logical contradictions does that account entail that means we must conclude (from the account alone, which is what you stated) that Yahweh does not exist? Or do you mean that you come with the presupposition that God does not exist and supernatural things cannot exist and then draw that conclusion?

Note that when I say “mythic”, I am not saying “fairytale”. Myths have cultural significance that fairytales rarely do. Also, the word “story” was used regardless of it’s actual accuracy as a historic event.

I also did not address in this post if Yahweh exists or not, and even noted that the morals demonstrated are abhorrent not addressing Yahweh’s existence at all.

Additionally, I did not say anything about supernatural things existing or not.

Does this make sense?

If it does, I can provide details on what I actually wrote this time, but I do not want to go on a long drawn out discussion if we aren’t able to agree on some of the basic parameters.

* * *

FWIW, yes I think that many described instances of Yahweh do not exist as an independent and self-determined entity/being. Maybe there are descriptions that are more credible? If that is the case, that discussion would probably be quite time consuming and was not the intent of what I wrote earlier. Can we not get too off topic?


Robert Slowley April 12, 2010 at 1:01 pm

@Hermes if you’re using myth in the technical sense meaning something like ‘particular genre of writing’ (rather than the way in which people ordinarily mean it which is to say ‘event that didn’t happen’) then although I disagree I don’t think it’s worth debating here.

In terms of whether the account of the event itself is immoral (asking someone to sacrifice their son) then that’d be an interesting discussion to have here, but as I’m about to go on holiday I don’t really have the time to do so.


Hermes April 12, 2010 at 2:01 pm

Robert, I am using ‘myth’ as anthropologists and mythologists do. While I do not completely agree with mythologist Joseph Campbell, his take on it is an acceptable one for me;

“Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.”

“A one sentence definition of mythology? “Mythology” is what we call someone else’s religion.”

For example, the religious stories of many cultures are retold as myths by Christians and others without a single ping of recognition that they are religious stories. It should be no surprise that I have a similar attitude, yet unlike Christians I do not put Christian stories in a special category outside of the other religious ones.

As for the story, I consider it one of many moral aptitude tests contained in the Christian Bible. I’m horrified how many take the wrong path when, if the character names were changed, they would choose the correct path.^^

^^. This comment comes from an actual study on if it was morally acceptable for specific actions to occur. One set of children were given a Bible story and another were given the same story, but the names were changed to Chinese ones. Unfortunately, I can not find a good reference after a cursory search. If I do, and you are interested, I’ll see if I can dig it up.


g April 12, 2010 at 2:11 pm

Robert, I didn’t hear anything in Hitchens’s remarks to suggest that he doesn’t know that Jews (and Christians and Muslims) think that Abraham was being tested by God. In fact, that’s rather his point: all these religions celebrate a father’s (alleged) willingness to kill his son at God’s command.

Nor did I hear anything in his remarks to suggest that he doesn’t know that the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions say that God didn’t actually intend him to kill his son. Again, his point is that these religions (at least in their more traditional versions — I have encountered at least one Jewish rabbi who considers that God actually wanted Abraham to refuse the command) encourage a mode of thought in which things Hitchens considers to be basic fundamental human decencies, like not murdering one’s own children, can be trumped by apparent divine commands. And this mode of thought is not some coincidental perversion that happens occasionally to get attached to theism (which I hope we’d agree is the relationship between Stalinism and atheism — I bring this up only because you did) but something deeply embedded in the origin stories of what are commonly referred to as the “great” monotheistic religions.

What do you think Hitchens actually gets wrong here?


Hermes April 12, 2010 at 2:23 pm

Another definition that fits roughly my understanding of “myth”;

A mythological corpus consists of a network of myths, which are culturally-important imaginal stories conveying, by means of metaphor and symbol, graphic imagery, and emotional conviction and participation, the primal, foundational accounts of the real, experienced world, and humankind’s roles and relative statuses within it. Mythologies may convey the political and moral values of a culture, and provide systems of interpreting individual experience within a universal perspective, which may include the intervention of suprahuman entities, as well as aspects of the natural and cultural orders. Myths may be enacted or reflected in rituals, ceremonies, and dramas, or provide materials for secondary elaborations.



Hermes April 12, 2010 at 2:25 pm

G, well said.


g April 12, 2010 at 3:15 pm

Thanks, Hermes. Allow me to repay the compliment by providing the reference you were looking for :-). The experiment was done by one George Tamarin. He asked lots of Israeli children (ages 8-14) to assess the actions of Joshua at and after the battle of Jericho, as described in the book that bears his name (wholesale massacre and destruction, in case anyone’s wondering); about 2/3 approved without qualification, 1/4 disapproved without qualification, and the remaining 1/12 offered “partial approval”. (I think what this means is that the children gave free-form answers and Tamarin classified them. There is of course scope for bias here; I have no information about whether Tamarin either tried or managed to avoid that.)

He also asked the same question, but replaced “Joshua” and “Israel” in the passage from the Bible with “General Lin” and “a Chinese kingdom 3000 years ago”.

More information is in this article by John Hartung, originally published in Skeptic magazine. Tamarin’s publications are listed there as (1) Tamarin, G.R. 1966. “The Influence of Ethnic and Religious Prejudice on Moral Judgment.” New Outlook, 9:1:49-58, and (2) Tamarin, G.R. 1973. The Israeli Dilemma: Essays on a Warfare State. Rotterdam: Rotterdam University Press. I don’t know whether they’re reporting the same work or whether he did two similar studies; I’ll guess the former.

Allegedly Tamarin got fired from Tel-Aviv University for this. There’s a bit more information in Michael Prior’s book “The Bible and colonialism”, but so far as I can glean from Amazon’s search-inside feature (thank you, Amazon!) the book doesn’t actually give any details of what reasons were actually given for his firing, how he responded, etc. It does, however, have more details of what questions he asked, whom he asked them of, what the results were, etc. I recommend that interested parties take a look. (Search for “Tamarin” inside the book and look at pages 37-38. Maybe page 36 too; I wasn’t able to see that one because I looked at 37,38,39 first, hoping to find out more about the firing.)

One semi-reassuring statistic: when Israeli children were presented with the Joshua passage and asked (1) what they thought of Joshua’s actions and (2) what they’d think of a present-day Israeli army acting in the same way, “only” 30% offered unqualified approval of the latter. On reflection, that’s worse than semi-reassuring; let’s say “slightly less horrifying than one might have feared from the other statistics”.


Hermes April 12, 2010 at 5:36 pm

Outstanding! Thank you!


Jeff H April 12, 2010 at 5:36 pm

Sorry to be completely off-topic, but does anyone know of some philosophers who have dealt with the idea of moral obligations of a society? I’m thinking of the concept that a country or society might have an obligation to, say, end world hunger (to give an example), but that no individual within the society could ever have that obligation, since it’s not possible for them to do it by themselves. I don’t know exactly what to call that, so I’m having trouble finding info/articles on it. Any help?


Hermes April 12, 2010 at 6:07 pm

(2) what they’d think of a present-day Israeli army acting in the same way, “only” 30% offered unqualified approval of the latter. On reflection, that’s worse than semi-reassuring; let’s say “slightly less horrifying than one might have feared from the other statistics”.

Interesting. I’d be less concerned *if* the trend was for the younger kids (at or near 8) to be less aware/empathetic than the older ones (at or near 14), but if it’s the reverse that would be quite disturbing. It would be good to see a repeat of the study across a larger and more varied demographic group. Multi-nation would be ideal.

As for Tamarin getting fired, I can’t think of an ethical concern with his study. Sounds like people either didn’t like him asking such questions, or something else happened that we are unaware of. Who can say?


Hermes April 12, 2010 at 6:09 pm


8) ==> 8 *space* )


g April 13, 2010 at 12:31 am

Bletch, automatic luminous yellow smileys. (Luke, can you turn that “feature” off?)

I can’t think of any particular ethical concern with his study either, and I agree that the most likely explanation for his firing is that someone didn’t like the fact that he asked the questions (or didn’t like the answers he got). But it’s not unheard of for people who get fired to distort the truth about what happened and why — see, e.g., the abominably dishonest film “Expelled” (or, better, don’t see it but read about it; I should admit that that’s all I’ve done, so my knowledge of its dishonesty is second-hand) — and since I know nothing about Tamarin other than what I’ve already said here, I can’t know for sure that there isn’t more going on with his firing than meets the eye.


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