Friday, April 3, 2009

Date and Debate Night or What Kind of a Guy is Christopher Hitchens?

Tomorrow night Josie, myself and another couple are going to dinner and then to a debate between William Lane Craig and Christopher Hitchens at Biola University. Josie has been referring to it as "Date and Debate" for weeks, which brings a little levity to what could be a rough night. I say that because I just finished Hitchens' God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and I'm having a hard time believing that Hitchens is going to be able to behave civilly in a room with 2000 Evangelical Christians. I'll list just three general thoughts that lead me to belive that, if I were to meet Hitchens at a party, I'd reconsider whether or not I wanted to be there.

1. How not to win friends and influence people (The personal problems)
I can't say that I was ever bored while reading the book and I have no criticisms of Hitchens as a wordsmith. But, if I was trying to convert people away from religion and to an atheistic-humanistic secularism, I sure wouldn't call those I was trying to win over "stupid/moronic/backwards/repressive/oppressive/evil" on every page of my book. There are plenty of Christians who have to learn this lesson also but, as Hitchens is one of today's leading atheists, he should be able to reach out a little more and keep the ad hominems to a minimum. I've heard and read many William Lane Craig debates and can say that this will not be a problem for him. Evangelicalism doesn't have too many more winsome than Craig.

2. Is everything on the table? (The factual problems)
Gary Habermas of Liberty University addresses these issues much more thoroughly and effectively in a recent article for the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, so I don't need to do it here. Nevertheless, Hitchens makes some claims that, on their face, are so outrageously false (or misrepresentative) that I couldn't help but wonder about the truthfulness of the claims of which I didn't have any firsthand knowledge.

a. Hitchens says, "The contradictions and illiteracies of the New Testament have filled up many books by eminent scholars, and have never been explained by any Christian authority except in the feeblest terms of 'metaphor' and 'a Christ of faith.'" (p. 115) This claim can only come from someone who didn't actually ask any of Christianity's own "eminent scholars" for such explanations. My personal library alone—small as it is—has enough in it to provide reasonable answers to any of the claims that Hitchens raises in God is Not Great. I hope the general public is more investigative than he when asking serious questions about Christianity.

b. In a debate about the Resurrection of Jesus, the then-atheist Anthony Flew (who has recently renounced atheism for deism) made essentially the same following point as Hitchens. The latter phrased it this way, "exceptional claims demand exceptional evidence." (p. 143) I'm still thinking this through epistemologically, but I think I want to say that, depending on the claim, we don't necessarily need more evidence than is available, we just need the best possible explanation of the facts at hand. Hitchens says that the evidence for the Resurrection doesn't have nearly the evidence needed to justify belief in it. For a 2000-year-old event, the are quite a few known facts surrounding Jesus' supposed death, burial and the subsequent empty tomb. The issue is, given the facts at hand, whether or not the Resurrection is the best possible explanation. Hitchens is not off the hook by saying that there isn't enough evidence; he needs to offer an explanation of the facts that are there. Until he's done that, his dismissal of the case for the Resurrection is unwarranted. (My library also has plenty of material that offer reasonable explanations for the Resurrection of Jesus. Hitchens apparently didn't look at any of them either.)

c. After de-religionizing Martin Luther King, Jr., Hitchens makes the following claim about why it took so long to overcome slavery and racism in the United States, "The chance that someone's religious belief would cause him or her to take a stand against slavery and racism was statistically quite small. But the chance that someone's religious belief would cause him or her to uphold slavery and racism was statistically extremely high." (p. 180) It was, by Hitchens' telling, only once America became secular enough that it was able to eradicate slavery and marginalize racism. But given the Christian heritage of the U.S. and the robust possibility, logical consistency and modern reality of opposition to slavery and racism from a Christian worldview, Hitchens' claim falls flat. Supposed biblical justifications for slavery and racism have proved to be based on misunderstandings of the Bible rather than accurate reflections of Its teachings. Mistaking failures by those of a religious system for faults in the religion itself rarely leads to the proper conclusions.

3. Are we talking about apples or oranges? (The methodological problems)
Hitchens' main point is that all religion is bad. But, as he proceeds to make his case throughout 19 distinct chapters, he seems to jump to whatever point on the religious map he needs to in order to come up with a particular conclusion. One chapter will focus on Judaism and Hinduism while another will highlight Mormonism and Buddhism with the next honing in on Christianity and Islam. And he will talk of atrocities from a 3000-year-old incident in the same breath as a something from today's headlines. It's as though all religions are the same in the end and that any apparent differences in worldview are secondary to the fact that they all harm and hinder. It's a kind of reverse religious pluralism where, instead of all religions leading to God, all religions lead to evil. But if you are going to take religions seriously, you have to factor in the distinctives of each and how those distinctives disallow a melting pot approach to God (either positively or negatively). I'm not going to encourage Hitchens to write another book but, I think this one would have been more effective if he would have treated each religion individually and attempted to disprove each one. By loosely lumping them all together and not specifying his assaults he leaves gaping holes in his argument and his premise far from proven.

I'm on the side of religion so, of course, I'm not going to praise Hitchens for his work. He's made me think about some things but, more than that, he's upheld my confidence in the coherence, veracity and beauty of Christianity. I'm sure this wasn't his goal but I'll thank him anyway. I think the debate will be interesting tomorrow and I'm really looking forward to it. But I hope to see a more personable side to Hitchens than I have in God is Not Great. Not because I want his atheism to be more palatable—we score more points when he acts so unbecomingly—but because I want to see some proof that there is some humanity behind his "humanism."

1 comment:

eric O said...

I'm happy to report that my fears weren't realized last night. Hitchens was able to refrain from calling all of us Christians the kind of things that he does in his book. He turned all of the moments where he wanted to do so into condescending questions like, "You're free to believe that if you wish," with the implication that it's foolish to do so. But implying foolishness isn't as brash as outright insults.

Formally, Craig took Hitchens to town. Craig's an expert at the classical debate format and Hitchens made it seem like he thought it was an informal coffee house chat. Thus, he didn't properly address Craig's arguments and the case for theism came out firmly substantiated and unchallenged. On the other hand, I think Craig should have used the opportunity of Hitchens' failure to follow the classical format to play the game the way Hitchens was playing it. This happened a bit in the debator Q and A and in the student Q and A. Craig's more than able to engage in this kind of exchange and there would have been less talking past one another if Craig would have done this.

I was able to pick up a book containing a debate between Douglas Wilson and Christopher Hitchens that is supposed to be more of a dialogue than a formal debate like last night. I'll give Hitchens a hearing in this third format (the others being his book and last night's formal debate) before I make my final judgment. After 2 out of 3 attempts so far, however, atheism's guru isn't making the kind of case necessary to pose a very strong challenge to Christianity.