Friday, April 10, 2009

Saying Goodbye to Hitchens

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I picked up, Is Christianity Good for the World? A Debate, at the Hitchens-Craig debate last weekend. Hitchens' sparring partner in this little book is Douglas Wilson, a Christian pastor and prolific author. I can say that Wilson played the Hitchens game magnificently. He didn't let Hitchens get away with much and he didn't stick to a predetermined set of arguments the way Craig did in the debate (this is not a strong criticism of Craig, I just thought Craig could have come down a few notches to engage Hitchens on his terms). Wilson was forceful when he needed to be, humorous at all the appropriate times and he pushed Hitchens to answer questions that he couldn't. Since the two of them continue to appear together in various venues, it seems that Hitchens doesn't mind it when Christians take the gloves off. And not to make it sound like Wilson set his Christian love aside, he did clearly and winsomely invite Hitchens to consider Christianity as the best way to ground the truth and morality that he so clearly values. Here's one of my favorite (more pointed) moments in the book ...

"Christopher Hitchens argues carefully, but given atheism, I want him to justify his use of reason. If there is no God, what is truth? Christopher Hitchens displays great moral indignation, but, given atheism, I want him to justify that indignation. If there is no God, then who cares? And Christopher Hitchens writes as a very careful wordsmith, but given atheism, I want him to justify his vibrant and engaging prose. If there is no God, then yammer, yamber, yaw&^% ..." (p. 19)

But now I've interacted with Hitchens in three different ways (book, public debate and print debate) and I can safely say that I'm familiar with his thoughts and his style. He hates religion vehemently, he is extremely and offensively pejorative in print, kind but condescending in public and he has a wide—but limited—array talking points that he thinks no one can counter. He presents his talking points with an indiscernible order and doesn't seem to listen when those talking points are rebutted. He also rarely answers direct philosophical questions that are asked of him by the other side. He does offer evidence that the thoughtful Christian should consider but I don't think any of it is strong enough to raise any serious doubts about the Christian faith. So, I'm saying goodbye to Hitchens and will turn my attention to other philosophical and theological concerns. I'll close with the review entry for my annotated bibliography of Christian apologetics.

"Christopher Hitchens & Douglas Wilson, Is Christianity Good for the World? A Debate, Foreword by Jonah Goldberg (Moscow, ID: Canonpress, 2008).

As a key, if not the major player in the New Atheism movement, Christopher Hitchens and his influential ideas deserve to be engaged at many levels and in many formats. Fortunately, Hitchens is quite eager to participate in any and every format in order to promote the negative answer to the question posed in this book. Douglas Wilson argues the positive answer to the question, although neither of them stick to the point very consistently throughout the debate. Part of the problem is that Hitchens’ broader agenda is to vilify religion in general, the major point of his bestseller, god is not Great. Most of the claims he makes to Wilson are restatements of what he’s already said there. The other problem is that Wilson—a presuppositionalist—spends most of his time trying to show the absurdity of Hitchens’ positive statements about truth and morality, given atheism. But these problems show only that the book is poorly titled, not that the dialogue isn’t engaging and provocative (as anything involving Hitchens will be). Wilson carries the day, it seems, because Hitchens isn’t able to adequately answer Wilson’s questions, he merely dismisses them as unnecessary for establishing the basis of truth and morality. Wilson matches Hitchens’ sharp and sometimes biting literary style, not considering it inappropriate to be offensive to someone as offensive as Hitchens. This particular volley will not be the turning point in the broader match between theism and atheism, but it is worthy of consideration as a unique, accessible and witty exchange in the course of the game." (p. 12)

By the way, the conversation continues to rage in the comments of Doug Geivett's blog post about the Hitchens-Craig debate. There are over 100 comments now. Lots of atheists are showing up and Geivett is interacting them brilliantly and kindly.


Donna said...

Hey Eric. Some irritating comments now from the far side. I have been watching these conversations between 'theists' and 'atheists' and I wonder if our argument is as airtight as we think. The 'theist' feels like the choice is clear and that God's existence gives a clear basis for absolute morals. However, coming from the atheist perspective, I can see how even given God, it would not be clear. Usually in these debates, the theist is a Christian. But the atheist wonders why Christian morality and the Christian God should have priority over other gods or moralities. We say, well, the Bible is his word and gives us clear guidance. They say, well, how do we know that came from your God. And what about the Quran,etc.? Also the unresolved (unresolveable?) difficulty of theodicy makes God's status as a benevolent moral being somewhat of a question mark in the eyes of the atheist. As to another point, I don't think I agree that atheists by definition could not have a meaningful ethical and moral system. It seems like many conservatives talk about natural law. Is the existence of a god an essential part of natural law, or can it be derived and applied from experience in nature itself? Anyway, by claiming that God exists and that the Bible is his word to us, it sounds to the atheist like we are choosing one religion among many possible ones. Christianity may make more sense to us, but there is still no absolute way, without God himself concretely appearing, to say Christianity is the only way and other religions like Islam or Buddhism are wrong. I don't think we are rejecting the truth of our faith by listening and being willing to understand the atheist concerns. I get the feeling that we are presenting an argument that is persuasive to ourselves, and we can't understand how the atheist cannot accept it. Well, if we don't understand I think the onus is on us.

eric O said...

Thanks for the comment. I was beginning to think that I was having a blog conversation with myself.

First off, I'll note that in the debate between Craig and Hitchens, the question was "Does God Exist?" Craig used 5 lines of argument, only one of which was distinctly Christian (and it was NOT the moral argument). So, Craig, in his formal presentation, based little on the Bible and never said, “because the Bible says so,” in making his case. He made a very general case for the existence of God that Hitchens basically refused to engage. He just kept pounding the drum against religion by bringing up his talking points that had little to do with the question of the evening.

Second, when asking which religion has the moral priority, each particular theist is going to have to make that case for his own religion to the atheist. And each atheist, if they actually want to know which religion should have moral priority, needs to check out each religion and see if any really come through. The existential challenge posed by most Christian apologists that I know, which includes the investigation of the moral question, is to simply check out Christianity. If it doesn’t fit the bill then you’re free to look elsewhere. But, because of what we believe about God, if you do check it out, then He’s likely to meet you in your search. And, if you look at the truth claims of religion instead of the actual practice (the latter of which would disqualify any system of belief, theist or atheist), Christianity claims that you’ll find It to be the best on the market. Not everyone will, and that’s to be expected. But at least check it out genuinely, instead of deciding that the crusades render Jesus’ salvific claims meaningless.

Thirdly, every belief system is going to leave us with a question mark. The problem of evil will be a question (but one that I think can be sufficiently answered) for any belief system, including atheism. Atheists ask how a good God can allow the kind of evil we see in the world. Theists ask how the atheist can justify his value judgments without recourse to something outside the natural world. Both of these questions need answers. Craig’s answer was much more developed and to the point than was Hitchens’.

Fourthly, as both Craig and Wilson tried to argue with Hitchens, the atheist needs to present adequate grounds for his moral beliefs. The question is not whether the atheist can have moral beliefs or can live morally. But if part of the goal of life is to have a rationally consistent worldview, the atheist will need to develop better reasons for why this innate morality that we all experience can come from a decidedly amoral evolutionary process. Hitchens claims that it comes from our “human solidarity,” which he never really explained or fleshed out. I’m sure there are other atheist explanations of this but I’m just as sure that thoughtful Christian philosophers and apologists have engaged with them. A recent and stimulating read on this question is Anthony Flew’s, “There is a God.” He was one of those strident atheists that thought that atheism could account for morals without divine recourse. Now he’s a theist (not a Christian) and one of the reasons for his conversion was the inability of atheism to reasonably account for morality. He lived his whole life fairly morally, so the question is not whether one can be moral. But he came to realize that his belief system could not account for the morals that he had, so he got another one.

Finally, I think Christian apologists are moving more toward engaging in the conversation rather than just trashing atheism and atheists. That’s why Craig and others are open to such debates. I think that we are more and more taking the onus upon ourselves to answer the questions presented by the atheists. But if this is a conversation, we all need to be involved, atheists included. I hate the burden of proof question because I think it’s used more to evade questions than it is to advance the discussion. (Also, not having been trained well in philosophy, I can never figure out upon whom the burden rests).