July 29, 2013

Hitchens versus the Christers

As a diversion, and because political and economic analysis in the MSM is getting tiresome and repetitive, I watched a few Christopher Hitchens religious debates over the weekend on YouTube. These are a lot of fun.  The late Mr. Hitchens was a master polemicist, and like St. George, he slew one religious dragon after another.  I saw him lock horns with a British mathematician, an American biological scientist, a Scottish philosopher, Christers all.  They never laid a glove on ol' Chris, even when, as above, he was in the throes of chemotherapy.

Hitchens had written a book, god Is Not Great (How Religion Poisons Everything) several years before his death, and then took to the hustings to take on all his religious detractors.  I saw Christopher read from this book at a bookstore in Corte Madera a few years back, and I thought I had read it, but turns out I had not.  So I Kindled it and started in.  It's very good - by far the best thing I have read of his, and it managed to avoid a lot of the "Britishisms" that grated on my ears in other books; turns of phrase such as, "It is often the case that..." instead of just writing, "It is."  Maybe because this book was not written for Vanity Fair originally, and so he wasn't being paid by the word. 

Like a lot of the "New Atheists," Hitchens hated Islam.  Sometimes in reading writers such as Sam Harris you get the sense that it isn't so much religion, per se, that bothers them as it is Muslim extremism, and by lumping in all the monotheisms the New Atheists have cover for this more specific judgment.  But, on the other hand, Hitchens has plenty of things to say about Christianity and Judaism as well, although Christopher notes, interestingly (and probably on an informed basis, since his mother was Jewish as well as his second wife), that many Jews became entirely "secular" after the Holocaust on the theory that God, or god, was certainly not great if he allowed that kind of horror to go on.  As if to say: enough already.

Hitchens, in the debates, used the rhetorical rope-a-dope of being "anti-Theist."  This was devilishly (heh heh) clever of him.   Christopher allowed the "Deist" position (possibly that of Thomas Jefferson and other Enlightenment thinkers) a pass.  Hitchens isn't saying he adopts the Deist position as his own (he certainly doesn't), but he concedes that the "First Cause," for all we know, may have been some kind of intelligent agent who put things in motion or "created" reality.  Hitchens allows this because you cannot actually disprove it.  He is no different in this respect from Richard Feynman or Richard Dawkins, a couple of other fair-minded individuals who were similarly indifferent to the Deist position.

What makes this flourish so effective is that, of course, the Christians that Hitchens was debating do not want to win a "Deist" debate.  That gets them nowhere.  They have to win two points, that there is a God who created everything, and that God is also the supreme being who was incarnated, came to Earth, died for our sins and is the basis of Christianity.  That's a tall order, but the religious apologists have to win the second point or the "debate" comes down to a bull session where both sides, in effect, allow: "Yeah, either Reality sprang from Nothing or maybe there was some kind of 'intelligence' that put things into motion, and now here everything is."   Since his interlocutors cannot "win" even the first point, Hitchens just spends his time taking potshots at Christianity more or less for the Hell of it, noting all the inconsistencies in the Gospels, pointing out that Christianity has been around for about 2,000 years but Homo sapiens for at least (he graciously concedes the minimal estimate) 100,000 years; so what was God doing during the first 98,000 years?  Why does he spring into action 98,000 years into the human story and decide that in some remote part of the Middle East he will use a pretty tired myth form (virgin birth, common in many legends), a widespread form of capital punishment employed by the Romans, and other details (chaotically reported by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) to institute his kingdom on Earth?

Beyond all this, Christopher's grasp of cosmology and evolutionary science was quite impressive.  He also was conversant with (and ready to destroy) all the standard logical tricks of the apologetics crowd, such as their claim that if evolution is in any way questionable in any current detail, then the only conclusion left is that the Christian God is real and created everything, most especially life.  This is the "backing in" form of argument that Christians often use.  If evolution had never been worked out, it would make no difference.  The Christian argument still amounts only to conjecture and myth-making, albeit slightly more "plausible."  But since there is absolutely no doubt about the validity of evolution, the "sophisticated" Christians follow along with the argument that God put evolution into motion.  You know, as if they knew it all along.  It's probably in Ephesians somewhere.

I'll probably write something else when I finish the book, which is, as I say, a lot of fun.  I have had as much fun reading it as the late Mr. Hitchens appeared to have in these "debates."

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