Had the wonderful opportunity to spend last evening (9-17-09) with my daughter (age 24) enjoying a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Dinish D’Souza on, well, the usual things they debate. God, Christianity, ethics, morality, and so on. Held on the campus of UCF (University of Central Florida) in the arena, the place was nearly full; well over 7,000 people. My guess was that the Christians outnumbered the Atheists (or Hitchens supporters) by at least 4-5 to 1. A bit childish and silly I know, but each “side” seemed eager to cheer for his man – no matter how strong/weak their argument/rebuttal. (So, of course, the side with the loudest “cheers” wins the debate, right?)
It was exhilarating to be sure; lots of energy in the air. I of course brought along my copy of Hitchens “God is Not Great; How Religion Poisons Everything” in hopes he might sign it. (He did; there was quite a line to see him afterwards and we got in it. Soon, there we were; got our pictures, he signed my book, and I shook his hand. I told him I loved his writing; he asked if I also liked the debate. I said it was about as expected; I’d heard their points before and felt they had done better in past debates. Hope I didn’t hurt his feelings!) Somehow I got the feeling that merely carrying his bright yellow book labeled me as “an atheist”. Too bad because it is a stunningly well written book (almost on the level of the late Stephen Jay Gould!! which is high praise indeed) and it seems appropriate to be familiar with the best of ones intellectual opponents.
Comparing notes over a late dinner afterwards, my daughter and I shared many of the same insights into the relative strengths and weaknesses of each debater. Unlike those all around us, we had reserved our applause for the one who had best made their points; instead of simply cheering anything “our guy” (we’re both firmly Christians) said. (My guess is that our applause were about evenly divided between the two men.) Neither of us like “cheap” points. We do however value honesty, sincerity, insight and humility. To our surprise, we felt D’Souza was weaker than we had expected. We were also a bit disappointed in Hitchens seeming inability to allow even the faintest hint of generosity to points D’Souza made well; as if the only object was to “win” – instead of to learn, grow, see things differently. Unfortunately however, D’Souza also displayed more interest in winning the “point” than in displaying a vulnerability and sensitivity that would have been jolting and invigorating in that environment.
D’Souza well articulated his version of the implication of design in cosmology; Hitchens mostly avoided tackling this head on. My sense is that he realizes what is at stake if he does. I think he would disarm D’Souza greatly if he’d just admit that yes, it certainly DOES appear to be designed. But he doesn’t. Yes, it’s wondrous and fascinating and all that, but he’s careful (too careful I think) to avoid the allowance that possibly – just possibly – there is a creative mind behind this magnificent universe.
What particularly struck me was that, given the amount of time Hitchens enthused about how the more we learn about our universe, the more we realized how LITTLE we actually know, he was unable to allow for the possibility of something he clearly doesn’t “know” – namely God. That jarred me. Exhilarate in the vastness and enormity of what we don’t know; then to turn around and insist (and no one else insists better than Hitchens!) with such certainty that God plays NO role? That is jolting. As if an agenda drives, instead of simple truth seeking.
The sections were divided into 3: (1) what about God? (2) Christianity (3) science and reason. In section 2 D’Souza floundered a bit more than I had expected. And, to be sure, Hitchens is a master at conflating all God/talk into one big tangled mass which he then skewers and trashes. On the defensive a bit then, D’Souza is left to proclaim not just God (which has already been rejected by Hitchens) but a particular God; namely the Christian God. Hitchens of course then makes hay (certainly with his cheering section; albeit a smaller section than D’Souza’s) with the inherent divisions among the “God believers” (as if all atheists see things in uniformity!) which to him seems sufficient reason to toss the entire idea of God. Never even a hint of possibility that, perhaps, maybe one of these visions of God might actually BE closer to reality… So yes – an underlying sense of antipathy toward the very idea of God that a truly “scientific” mind would not engage in. To be sure, some of the loudest cheers of the night for D’Souza were in this section; when he offered some of the classic Christian defenses. (ie the God who condescends to come down to us; contra other religions whose efforts are to reaching up to God…)
It struck me as odd that, from the outset, D’Souza sought to deflate some of Hitchens steam and bravado by asserting that not once did he intend to refer to the bible – nor to the notion of revelation. Instead, he was approaching all this from the very same stance as was Hitchens; reason. The awkwardness of this position came into focus in the section where D’Souza tried to defend Christianity; yet had already committed himself to ignoring the very book which contains the explicit and revered story of the Christ!! I was actually a bit embarrassed for D’Souza on this point. To be fair to D’Souza, I think Hitchens really does take the easy and cheap route out of this when he simply mixes all visions of “God” into one hopelessly confused tangle of contradictory images. Why not just recognize that there are competing visions of God. (It gets, I think, to the matter that has occupied Talbott and Peoples in their conversation; how much we allow and/or accept the other persons description of themselves and their beliefs…)
One place where I was really quite disappointed in Hitchens was when they talked about the historic flaws and failings of Christianity versus atheism. I was flabbergasted to hear Hitchens assert that the notorious evils of the Russian Communists Lenin, and Stalin, actually deserved to be blamed on beliefs in God! He actually was so bold as to assert that there ARE no explicit consequences of atheism in this regard; in fact he even tried to assert that the “true” atheist was one who was incredibly well read (like maybe Hitchens himself) and had chosen the more enlightened way via the path of reason and that there was nothing about atheism per se that allowed for evil and violence.
This seems to me to be a huge double standard for Hitchens; he eagerly sees, and chronicles, the evils done by those who claim the name of Christ (or God) – yet is utterly blind to the evils done by those who deny the very existence of God. In my opinion, he thus greatly weakens his own claims to objectivity. Evils by Christians count; evils by atheists may safely be ignored. Hardly a level playing field at all. I suggest that Hitchens credibility suffers when he does this.
In the audience Q&A section (questions selected ahead of time) I was rather shocked that D’Souza would present to Hitchens his version of, in essence, Pascal’s wager. Hitchens handled this masterfully when he challenged the audience directly to consider the morality of a God who would accept the “love” of a subject whose only concern was to properly and safely hedge their “bets” by going with God. What kind of God worth His salt could not see through such selfish and contrived motives Hitchens asked. Point – big point – to Hitchens in my view. D’Souza should never have brought this up; or rather, there are far better ways of making the point which D’Souza missed.
Another audience question which evoked quite a stir was on the notion of miracles; why, this person wanted to know, were there no miracles involving the regenerated limbs of amputees? Which is to say of course, one that is easily and unambiguously and satisfactorily verifiable? I was disappointed in how D’Souza handled this question. He was far too defensive I thought. While he made some excellent and sobering points, my own sense was that he should have adopted a very humble attitude and agreed with Hitchens that miracles are indeed very hard to process. Further, he could have vastly improved his case by admitting that sincere Christians for centuries have wrestled honestly with these very questions; why evil, why does God not act more openly, why do the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper, why does an all-powerful God not intervene more often and so on. Those are huge questions which have always been part of the sincere believers journey; no need to shy away from them in a debate with an atheist – no matter his stature – just to appear confident and certain.
But for me, the overriding feature of this debate was that I felt both of them ignored an alternate way; a third path; in my view, a better option. That of Universal Reconciliation. Hitchens, both in his book and at this debate, is masterful at erecting what seem to me an obvious strawman picture of God; I easily, and eagerly – along with Hitchens – reject that God in no uncertain terms. The God Hitchens hates, I too hate. The harsh, severe, demanding, arbitrary, violent God he rejects, I too reject. Picking, as he so thoroughly does, the very worst aspects of “God”, he very rightly rejects that God. No mention however, of those humble and condescending and vulnerable and redeeming qualities of the Christian God. And why would he; they are counter to his thesis, so he ignores them.
And D’Souza; he defends a God who, in my view at least, exists only in the minds of fearful and exclusivist Christians. I could no more accept – let alone defend – a God who countenances ECT hell than I could a God who does not exist. To be sure, D’Souza dutifully defends the God of the majority of Christianity; the majority against which Universal Reconciliation stands. Further, he defends the Christ of penal substitution; a vision of Christ I too reject. Yes, Christ has, and does, and will reign central and supreme in our salvation story, but certainly not through the mechanism of penal substitution.
Rightly I think, Hitchens rejects any notion of a “love” which tortures (ie ECT and hell) or annihilates (interesting that he included this) or requires “sacrifice” of an innocent victim. For language to cohere, and words to have any meaning at all, it would be, for him, absurd to say this is “love”. (Interesting too that T Talbott and G Peoples are, over in their dialog, also trying to come to a common use for the word “love”.) The UR understanding of love in which God’s love moves Him to use His infinite resourcefulness to reach and convince and heal even the most reprobate seems a definition of love to which Hitchens could not object. In the end then, I find that the best way to reconcile a God of love with the evil and suffering we see and experience, is the truth that some day, God WILL be “all in all” via Universal Reconciliation.
Anyway, if you’ve read this far, thanks for listening!! I might see if my daughter would graciously share her perspective of the debate if she’s not too busy.