Wednesday, January 28, 2009

D'Souza vs. Hitchens: The not-that-great debate

Monday’s Religion vs Atheism debate by Dinesh D’Souza and Christopher Hitchens, summarized at Catholic News Agency, was generally uneventful. Few old arguments were punctured and few new debating points were posed.

While Hitchens brought greater charisma to the stage, neither disputant was a clear winner. By comparison, D’Souza roundly trounced evolutionary philosopher Daniel Dennett’s pathetic performance in their Tufts meeting.

D’Souza’s approach attempted to open minds of students. Rather than propose a full defense of Christianity, impossible in a short presentation, it merely urged “give Christianity a chance.”

While this method gives D’Souza less to defend, it also leaves him less to explain. His show of arguing only “on secular ground” was an unfortunate limit on the range of debate and discussion, but this limit may be the most realistic approach for addressing an unsympathetic audience.

D’Souza based too much of his argument on ethical appeal. He argued that Christianity brought to Western civilization concern about the individual and the equal dignity of women while laying the foundations necessary for scientific inquiry and the abolition of slavery.

But it is a distortion of Christianity to present it only as an ethical system or a worldview generator. D’Souza rarely mentioned the person of Jesus and his references to sin and salvation were oblique. While ethical excellence and sound worldviews are to be praised, D’Souza presented little for sinners.

Against D’Souza, Hitchens argued religion should by no means be given a chance. The prominent atheist made vigorous mention of the woes of human life, asking why God had apparently not intervened in the some hundred thousand years of pre-historic human misery.

Rather than acknowledge the problem of evil, D’Souza ventured the strange claim that Hitchens faces the difficulty of explaining why human civilization mushroomed in recent millennia, as if it were inspired by “some creature.” He mentioned the sudden sprouting of pyramids and cathedrals and iPhones.

While perhaps he was trying to indicate man’s oddness in relation to the rest of the universe, he did not elaborate this point in an enlightening way.

Conceivably, for D’Souza and many other Christians a technologically primitive but Christian society would be preferable to a technologically advanced but irreligious one. The world of early Scripture is pastoral, where cities are dubious locales and technological marvels, like the Tower of Babel, are a severe temptation to arrogance.

Christianity itself begins not with triumph, but with death and crucifixion followed by supernatural Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. D’Souza and Hitchens both focused more on the effects of Christianity rather than its content and its founder, though D’Souza tended to be worst in his priorities.

One of D’Souza’s bright spots came when explaining why Christianity should be preferred to Islam. The chasm between humanity and the divine, according to D’Souza’s one-minute sally, is attempted to be bridged in Islam or Judaism by building a “ladder” based on religious rules.

In Christian belief, this chasm is resolved by God entering the world through Jesus Christ. This Anselmian brief is exactly what many undergraduates need to hear.

Yet at this point Hitchens made an uncomprehending attempt to equate Mohammed and Jesus simply because they are both sent by God in their believers’ creeds.

Several times Hitchens tried to depict his own strawman misunderstandings of Christian theology as the fault of inconsistencies in Christianity itself. His awkward attempt to attribute to Pope Benedict XVI a strict interpretation of the doctrine “outside the Church no one is saved” met with loud objections from the audience, many of whom were less eager to damn than the Christian caricatures of primetime television are.

Other inconsistencies in Hitchens’ remarks are clear in retrospect. He loudly objected about totalitarianism being an inherent danger posed by religion and characterized divine order as the “celestial dictatorship.” Yet he also complained that the state of the universe meant a “very incompetent, very cruel” God was neglecting to intervene.

He also fretted that religion removes man’s responsibility for himself, but then complained that God did not take the place of someone sick or someone headed to jail.

While such objections are worthy of comment on their own, they easily contradict each other when presented in unison. The atheist can argue that God does too much, or that God does too little, but not both. A God more obviously active in the universe would likely draw Hitchens’ censure as an even more “dictatorial” deity.

Further, if human responsibility is so important, then God’s respect for human autonomy may be active even if it results in death and injustice across generations. The Christian doctrine of original sin, however controverted it is today, insists that our misery results from an ancestral act of sinful autonomy whose consequences are still visited upon us. Adam preferred disobedience to Paradise, and thus shattered our world.

Hitchens in various comments proposed a romantic individualism in which a person must strive to figure out morals and religion for himself. This position provides several practical problems, such as the lack of individual time, the lack of individual wisdom, and the necessity for a moral foundation on which to build. If each person must deduce morals on his own, then the overworked and the dull-witted are doomed to possess only a minimal ethic.

Some forms of individualism praise mountain-climbing while demanding each climber must invent his own tools, cobble his own boots, and discover his own mountain range. (The individualist often was born at high altitude, but acts like he is a native of the lowlands.)

Moral and intellectual dependence upon others cannot be a vice when they are such commonsense necessities.

At one point Hitchens betrayed a clear misunderstanding of narrative voice in Shakespeare. When D’Souza claimed Shakespeare’s moral universe was formed by Christianity, Hitchens recited one of the Bard’s despondent sonnets and asserted it as representative of the man himself.

During the debate D’Souza appealed to the reliability of the early Christian witnesses, arguing they would not have died for a falsehood. Hitchens mentioned Joseph Smith and Mohammed as obvious counterexamples where people died on behalf of liars or delusions.

However, pressed in the question and answer period, he clearly dodged the specifics of early Christianity, preferring to dismiss Christian reports that most of the apostles died in martyrdom. There is a notable difference between those willing to die because they trust a man who claims to be a prophet and those willing to die because they have witnessed in person the resurrected life of a man so obviously dead.

D’Souza closed by noting that he had first met Hitchens after the latter’s essay against abortion appeared in the left-wing magazine The Nation. Hitchens then explained it was “extraordinarily objectionable” to ignore our duties towards the unborn.
This small act of pro-life solidarity was a gift to observers who would otherwise never imagine anti-abortion sentiment among the non-religious.

The best part of the not-so-great debate was visible in the energy of the audience. Over 2,000 people watched the debate from the sold-out seats of CU-Boulder’s massive Macky Auditorium and they were often liberal with their laughter and applause.

Father Kevin Augustyn, pastor of the university parish St. Thomas Aquinas, provided a capable welcome to the audience and gave an overview of the Catholic synthesis of faith and reason. At the event’s close, he also noted that the campus ministry would hold three follow-up Q&A sessions on campus to continue discussion of the debate. (While the first was held Tuesday, the second will be held in Hellems 255 on Wednesday from 7-9 pm, while the third will be held in Hellems 253 on Thursday from 5-7 pm.)

Whoever proposed this follow-up program deserves much praise. So many people need an outlet for their concerns and questions after such an event.

Further speakers in the St. Thomas Aquinas Center’s Spring Lecture Series include Robert Louis Wilken who will lecture on St. Augustine on Feb. 20. Prof. Christopher Tollefsen, co-author of Embyro: a Defense of Human Life, will speak on embryo-destructive research and abortion on April 23.

The most telling phenomenon of the evening was its aftermath. Perhaps two hundred people were gathered in the auditorium’s lobby engaged in lively conversation about the event. After twenty minutes, security had to shoo the crowd into the cold winter night. While there may be a decline of intellectualism, it was not evident that night.

(As every non-profit leader must, Fr. Augustyn has appealed for financial partners and others to assist St. Thomas Aquinas Parish’s ministry to the campus. I repeat his appeal here, giving the program my full endorsement.)

(See also: Eugene McCarraher's review of Hitchens' God is Not Great: This book is not good)

1 comment:

c matt said...

Hitchens in various comments proposed a romantic individualism in which a person must strive to figure out morals and religion for himself.

I would have liked to ask Hitch who taught him to speak, or was he self taught? It is as ridiculous to expect every person to figure out a complete moral/religious system on their own as it is to expect them to learn to speak on their own, without any prior language structure being laid out for them.