Another Hitchens Critique

I’ve just finished watching the 2009 Samford University debate between atheist Christopher Hitchens and Dr. John Lennox, esteemed British theologian and mathematician. And guess what? I found some more leaks in the former’s renowned worldview.

Mr. Hitchens’ greatest blunders in this debate are directly tied to his fatally flawed understanding of Christianity. In a rejoinder to Dr. Lennox’s point that William Wilberforce sought to abolish slavery in the name of Christ, Hitchens points out that Christianity was, up to that point, being widely used to justify the horrific practice. He also cites Jesus’s own words in Matthew 10:34 (“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace, but a sword”) as the alleged rationale for crimes committed in the name of Christ. Perhaps this is just a debate technique designed to penetrate an audience’s beliefs at a point he perceives to be most vulnerable (their belief in Christ’s own words), or perhaps he really believes it. If the latter is true, Mr. Hitchens makes the novice mistake of proof-texting. Anyone who has studied the Gospels knows Jesus strongly condemned violence (cf. John 18:10-11).

Mr. Hitchens attempts to frame the debate by positing that worldviews should be judged by their social utility based on a distinctly Western notion of ethics – a notion ironically undergirded in very large part by Christianity. And since, he alleges, Christianity is and has been invoked in countless crimes throughout history, we are better off without it. Dr. Lennox adeptly responds by saying that a perversion of a teaching is not the same as the teaching itself. Contextual understanding of the Bible is critical when crafting a historical narrative on this premise, and Hitchens monumentally disappoints. Both Jesus and Paul repeatedly warn of false teachers and those who distort biblical truths for other ends.

But Mr. Hitchens’ greatest error was in his closing statement. In it he claims that morality is “innate,” and that it is nice when religion “catches up” to it. Ironically, the idea of innate morality is actually quite biblical (cf. Romans 2:14-16). You would think he would attempt to provide a naturalistic basis for his claim, but instead he pivots by pointing to the worldviews of well-known historical figures such as Thomas Paine to illustrate that even godless people can be good and advocate justice. He deflected an earlier, similar line of reasoning with this famous inquiry, “Tell me a moral act that a religious person can do that would not be moral if an unbeliever did it.” You can’t lose when you ask that question to a Western audience. As I said in my last post, Mr. Hitchens borrows heavily from commonly respected Western moral themes to win over audiences to naturalism. But nowhere have I seen him lay a naturalistic foundation for moral absolutes. Probably because, he had reasoned, one doesn’t exist. Only by renting real estate from the Christian God can one make true sense of morality within naturalism. After all, one highly developed descendant of pond scum killing another is simply the inevitable result of eons of naturally selected chemical reactions in the brain. Hitchens is too smart to try and make more of it than this, so he relies on anecdotal evidence and straw men rather than sound logic.

The atheist is well-known for his statement that it takes religion to have atrocities. However, this view is simply not supported by history, especially that of the 20th century. Any worldview can, and has been, utilized as justification for violence. Also, anyone can borrow from cultural norms to win over the shallow-minded. But it takes someone who is willing to draw from sources (such as the Bible) in context to win over honest thinkers.

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Monday Update – 1/13/14

Today’s schedule: wake up late, fry up some eggs, and watch some stimulating debates on the existence of God (I know, you all wish you were me). The particular showdown I viewed today was between Christopher Hitchens and Dr. Frank Turek (author of I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist). The late Hitchens is one of my favorite personalities to watch for two reasons: first, I find his wit and intelligence nearly unmatched; and second, I find his arguments for atheism more formidable than those of any other figure I’ve come across. That’s not to say I agree with each of his points, but I find his general worldview difficult to counter. As I’m sure most of you do when critically listening to a debate, I mentally attempt to locate and expose logical flaws as I hear them. Hitchens’ arguments are the most airtight I’ve encountered to date as I could only find two rather minor objections to his view in the 2+ hour debate I watched today.

The first (and more significant) was this: when asked to provide a base for morality in the absence of a moral law giver, Hitchens appeals to the audience by advocating modern, Western moral norms. In other words, he essentially cites the fact that, since the vast majority of people would not go on a killing rampage, it follows that a human moral standard is non-violence. However, to date I’ve never heard him cite a reason other than societal consensus (or conscience, which I will get to in a moment) for his moral imperative of non-violence. In other words, if we are purely products of naturalistic evolution, there is no good reason not to kill another human being.

It’s an elementary objection, but it’s one to which I’ve never seen a good answer. Hitchens may be a smart man, but his intelligent admonition not to kill is no reason not to kill. After all, who made him the boss? I’m composed of the same matter as was Mr. Hitchens. There’s nothing special about him, me, or the person being targeted for murder. What society deems appropriate should hardly be considered a prohibition either, as I’m sure Mr. Hitchens would agree were he still with us. Vast majorities in Muslim countries consider death by hanging an appropriate punishment for homosexuals, and Mr. Hitchens’ indignation towards such practices is well-documented. Sometimes, society gets it wrong. Christopher Hitchens would be the first to tell you that.

The second objection I have is that Hitchens cedes the existence of conscience. He asserts that those who don’t follow that “little voice inside” are sociopaths and psychopaths. The idea of conscience is entirely scriptural. Hitchens doesn’t mind sharing this view with the Bible, but he never provides an origin for conscience. Is it molecular? Is it even physical? Why did the current development of homo sapiens somehow get the benefit of this built-in morality cop while our predecessors did not? Is it simply a function of larger brains capable of advanced intelligence? Incredibly, Hitchens cites Socrates’ reference to an internal “daemon” that sounded an alarm bell when Socrates constructed an improper mental argument. What chemical or physical form did this daemon take? How does it fit into an evolutionary framework? Let’s assume higher intelligence is the root of conscience. What makes us think our higher development gives us the right to impose moral absolutes on others who may not agree with us? What if one has no demonstrable conscience — do we have the right to lock him or her away? What if that is the next stage of our evolution? Hitchens considers a moral God who allows suffering the ultimate tyranny. But if there is no God, wouldn’t the ultimate tyranny be the dominant race (humans) imposing one morality upon everyone? In a godless context, nothing could be more regressive. As the universe increases in entropy, why should the human attempt to remain static by enacting laws to preserve the species? Shouldn’t chaos rule? Why put off the inevitable by requiring all humans to participate in the same moral code?

I welcome feedback as these are unfinished thoughts. Thanks for reading.