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.
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