You’ve got to hand it to Christopher Hitchens. Such is his self-confidence, and perhaps his disdain for the ‘opposition’, that he is prepared to take on all-comers when it comes to debating religion. Oh, and it must help his book to sell as well.
In March of this year Hitchens took on not one, not two, not even three, but FOUR Christian apologists at the same time. Of course, he comes out fighting, and if he was feeling a little bruised by the end he is too wily a campaigner to let it show.
Actually, I found this debate one of the more interesting that I have come across. Hitchens seemed reasonably sober, and at times was almost charming. The Christians were unfailingly courteous towards him, and he seemed genuinely touched by that. (Even evangelicals have manners. Sometimes.) There were some nice touches of humour on both sides (like when someone referred to Hitchens being thrown into a den of lambs. Hitchens had a quip of his own in reply to that).
The Christians offered many of the usual arguments for God’s existence. William Lane Craig and Lee Strobel offered a more evidentialist approach, whereas Doug Wilson and James Denison took a more experiential line.
Hitchen’s polemical approach is enormously frustrating. As far as I can tell, he raised no new arguments against God’s existence. He just raised the old ones and lets additional rhetorical flourish (vehemence, even) stand in the place of logic or evidence. So we recognise familiar problems such as, ‘How can an all-loving, all-powerful God permit suffering?’ ‘Why should anyone believe the biblical account of (say) the resurrection of Jesus Christ?’ ‘Does not religion do more harm than good?’ and so on. When apologists begin to give responses to such questions, he switches his ground, and demands, ‘How do you know that? How can you possibly know what God is like or what he thinks?’
So, from Christopher Hitchen’s perspective, it is not at all a question of considering the arguments for theism, but of jumping from one problem to another, asking, ‘But what about this…and what about that?’ This is not debate; these are are spoiling tactics.
Hitchens poses some pretty straight questions, but rarely gives a straight answer himself. When asked to account for a universal moral sense, he merely says, ‘Well, we’re hard-wired that way.’ When asked what hope, if any, his world-view offers those who are in sorrow, he has even less to offer, and it’s back to ‘But what about this or that distasteful aspect of religion?’
I thought that the Christian apologists acquitted themselves quite well. They did not come across as pretending to know all the answers. Denison, in particular, spoke quite movingly of his father’s loss of faith and of questions that he himself has about the problem of suffering. (Don’t we all?)
Hitchens repeated his usual challenge to religious believers. He says, in effect, ‘Show me a single moral act done by a religious believer that could not equally have been performed by a non-believer. And yet you can easily think of wicked acts carried out by religious persons that would not have been performed by any unbeliever (examples: female circumcision; suicide bombing, and so on).’ Hitchens has been setting this poser to audiences wherever he goes, and claims that he never been given a satisfactory response. Well, I think that something approaching an adequate response was given on this occasion. William Lane Craig points out the fallacy within the problem that Hitchens poses: any number of examples of moral acts carried out by religious believers could be cited, but they would not be regarded as moral on an naturalistic world view. Fairly trivial examples would include tithing; more substantial examples would include forgiveness. (It’s interesting the Hitchens admitted that he didn’t have much time for the notion of forgiveness, and a pity that this example was not pursued. There are, or course, more general theological points that might be made, to the effect that that biblical theology would agree that man’s most heinous sins are often those committed for religious reason; and that the doctrine of common grace teaches that non-religious people are indeed capable of much that is morally praiseworthy).
But I was left with the impression that unless Hitchens at al are prepared to take Christian evidences a bit more seriously, and deal with the arguments and evidences a bit more honestly, then debates like this will sound like shouting at one another across oceans of ignorance and misunderstanding. If you are already convinced that Christians are fundamentally deluded, then of course you will mock them. And if you are already persuaded that Christianity is basically dangerous, then of course you will vilify it. Unless, that it, you are willing suspend those judgement just for a moment in the interests of mutual understanding.