Posts Tagged ‘Daniel Dennett’

Sam Harris responds to Daniel Dennett’s review of ‘Free Will’

14/02/2014

HarrisFreeWillCoverI recently blogged on New Atheist writer and philosopher Daniel Dennett’s lengthy review of fellow “Four Horseman” Sam Harris’ views on “free will” contained in his short book of the same name and additional articles and public speaking, which I reviewed and summarised last year.

Harris has now posted a response to Dennett’s review, which (mercifully) is far shorter than Dennett’s original review.  Rather than correcting Dennett point-by-point, Harris has limited himself to calling Dennett out on his condescending tone and misrepresentations of his work:

I want to begin by reminding our readers—and myself—that exchanges like this aren’t necessarily pointless.  Perhaps you need no encouragement on that front, but I’m afraid I do. In recent years, I have spent so much time debating scientists, philosophers, and other scholars that I’ve begun to doubt whether any smart person retains the ability to change his mind.  This is one of the great scandals of intellectual life: The virtues of rational discourse are everywhere espoused, and yet witnessing someone relinquish a cherished opinion in real time is about as common as seeing a supernova explode overhead.  The perpetual stalemate one encounters in public debates is annoying because it is so clearly the product of motivated reasoning, self-deception, and other failures of rationality—and yet we’ve grown to expect it on every topic, no matter how intelligent and well-intentioned the participants.  I hope you and I don’t give our readers further cause for cynicism on this front.

Unfortunately, your review of my book doesn’t offer many reasons for optimism. It is a strange document—avuncular in places, but more generally sneering.  I think it fair to say that one could watch an entire season of Downton Abbey on Ritalin and not detect a finer note of condescension than you manage for twenty pages running.

(…)

You do this again and again in your review. And when you are not misreading me, you construct bad analogies—to sunsets, color vision, automobiles—none of which accomplish their intended purpose.  Some are simply faulty (that is, they don’t run through); others make my point for me, demonstrating that you have missed my point (or, somehow, your own).

I’m going for another beer now.

FacePalmStarTrek

Daniel Dennett reviews ‘Free Will’ by Sam Harris

03/02/2014

HarrisFreeWillCoverLast year, I reviewed and summarised the writing and public speaking of Sam Harris in relation to “free will”.  Fellow “Four Horseman” and New Atheist writer and philosopher Daniel Dennett has written a lengthy review of Harris’ work.  In his short book, Free Will, as well as this article, Harris replied directly to Dennett’s account of “free will” in the latter’s book, Freedom Evolves.  Harris has also promised to respond in detail to Dennett’s latest review.

I have not read Dennett’s Freedom Evolves, (it is on my rather-large-and-ever-growing “to read” pile) and to be perfectly honest, I find his review of Harris’ Free Will to be rather dense and far less compelling than its subject matter, which I cannot praise highly enough.  My overall opinion (which I am happy to change once I have obtained a better grasp of Dennett’s work on the matter) is that Dennett has an almost presuppositional commitment to the notion of “free will” and will interpret the evidence any which way he can in order for it confirm to his notion of “free will”.  I also side very much with Harris’ charges in this article that Dennett has redefined what most people think is “free will” and declared it by fiat to be “the only one worth having”.

Daniel Miessler provides a useful executive summary of Dennett’s article at the beginning of his article that is just as long:

It serves as the most elaborate, learned, and desperate hand-waving I’ve ever witnessed. It was such a weak argument that it looked more like an example that a brilliant philosophy professor, like Daniel Dennett, might use to highlight poor arguments to his students.  Sadly it wasn’t a strawman used for instruction—it was his real position.

Here’s what he basically said:

1.  It seems like we make choices, so we do.

2.  It’s useful to hold people responsible for their actions, so moral responsibility is real.

I just saved you ~30 minutes of exasperation.

Nevertheless, the closing paragraph of Dennett’s review dispenses with all the philo-neuro-psycho-babble that has gone before and is all the more persuasive for it:

If you think that the fact that incompatibilist free will is an illusion demonstrates that no punishment can ever be truly deserved, think again.  It may help to consider all these issues in the context of a simpler phenomenon: sports.  In basketball there is the distinction between ordinary fouls and flagrant fouls, and in soccer there is the distinction between yellow cards and red cards, to list just two examples.  Are these distinctions fair?  Justified?  Should Harris be encouraged to argue that there is no real difference between the dirty player and the rest (and besides, the dirty player isn’t responsible for being a dirty player; just look at his upbringing!)?  Everybody who plays games must recognize that games without strictly enforced rules are not worth playing, and the rules that work best do not make allowances for differences in heritage, training, or innate skill.  So it is in society generally: we are all considered equal under the law, presumed to be responsible until and unless we prove to have some definite defect or infirmity that robs us of our free will, as ordinarily understood.

While I accept the bulk of Harris’ account/demolition of “free will”, Dennett has encapsulated the one glimmer of an objection that I have to it.  While the range of human thought and action – from sexuality to psychopathy – may be determined by prior causes over which humans have no control, I still cannot abandon the notion that degrees of human behaviour can be freely controlled.

Dennett uses the example of fair play in sports.  I draw on my own experiences of manners and etiquette (or lack thereof) in a professional (allegedly) office environment.  I have had to deal with rudeness and bullying – both face-to-face and via that accursed medium known as “email” – by men and women who are well-educated, otherwise well-mannered and who clearly know the difference between treating someone well and treating them badly.

Leaving aside the findings of Channel 4’s Psychopath Night that bankers and lawyers are among the top professions populated by psychopaths (!),  I cannot escape my impression that they know full well what they are doing, they are acting in a deliberate, calculating and manipulative fashion, that they are aware of the potential consequences of their actions and that they ought to be held fully accountable for what they are doing.

“They” may well have chosen “A” de facto, but “They” sure as hell ought to have chosen “B” de jure and deep down “They” themselves (whoever “They” are) know this full well.

In this sense, the illusion of “free will” is so powerful that it is virtually indistinguishable from reality.

Ukip Shipping Forecast

21/01/2014

SilvesterFloods

Further to my recent post challenging some of the country’s “top” theologians to say a word in public to denounce Ukip’s David Silvester’s decidedly Old Testament take on the recent storms and floods that have been battering the country, you can listen to a very amusing spoof edition by Nicholas Pegg of the Shipping Forecast here.

Ukip councillor David Silvester displays a disgraceful lack of ‘scholarship’ in the face of Britain’s recent floods. But will the ‘scholars’ actually correct him on it?

19/01/2014

SilvesterFloods

Ukip councillor David Silvester has recently drawn a link between meteorology and morality by publishing a letter saying that he warned prime minster David Cameron last year that Britain would face a spot of the old divine judgment for passing gay marriage laws that fly the face of the Bible’s teachings of a kind that The Right Reverend Graham Dow drew in response to the flooding in his North Yorkshire constituency in July 2007.  Silvester’s comments have been widely reported by the World’s media: BBC News, ITV News, Channel 4, The Daily Mail, Toronto Sun, London Evening Standard, The Huffington Post.

This from The Daily Telegraph’s report:

David Silvester, who defected from the Conservatives in protest at David Cameron’s support for same-sex unions, claimed he had warned the Prime Minister that the legislation would result in “disasters”.

The Henley-on-Thames councillor said that the country had been “beset by storms” since the passage of the new law on gay marriage because Mr Cameron had acted “arrogantly against the Gospel”.

In a letter to the Henley Standard he wrote: “The scriptures make it abundantly clear that a Christian nation that abandons its faith and acts contrary to the Gospel (and in naked breach of a coronation oath) will be beset by natural disasters such as storms, disease, pestilence and war.

“I wrote to David Cameron in April 2012 to warn him that disasters would accompany the passage of his same-sex marriage bill.

“But he went ahead despite a 600,000-signature petition by concerned Christians and more than half of his own parliamentary party saying that he should not do so.”

Blaming the Prime Minister for the bad weather, he added: “It is his fault that large swathes of the nation have been afflicted by storms and floods.

“He has arrogantly acted against the Gospel that once made Britain ‘great’ and the lesson surely to be learned is that no man or men, however powerful, can mess with Almighty God with impunity and get away with it for everything a nation does is weighed on the scaled of divine approval or disapproval.”

In my recent post deriding theology as a proper academic discipline, I drew on my review of Christian apologist Peter S Williams’ response to the New Atheists, A Sceptic’s Guide To Atheism and criticised the theologians for being all theory and no practice:

Avoiding the real issues

Williams’ contribution is fatally flawed along with the other “flea” books by self-proclaimed “scholars”, because it only addresses barely a quarter of the arguments of the Four Horsemen, namely whether or not God exists, without saying a word in defence of the effects of organised religion on the world.

Unfortunately, religion is not just about the sophisticated ponderings of scholars in ivory towers debating the finer points of the Trinity.  It has an effect on every single one of us, whether we like it or not.

(…)

Like all theology and religious philosophising, Williams’ new book is all theory and precious little practice.  Accordingly, there is nothing about the foul rantings of Falwell and Robertson, the teaching of junk-science in schools classrooms, the destruction of the Twin Towers, the abuse of children by hell-fire preaching clergymen and the discouraging of condom use by the Catholic Church in sub-Saharan African where c. 3 million people die of HIV/AIDS each year.

The simple fact is that Williams’ subtle brand of nuanced religion has very little impact on the way that religion is actually practised.  Alistair McGrath got his feathers all ruffled in response to Dawkins and bleated on (at probably more speaking engagements than he was invited to in his career preceding publication of The God Delusion) about the importance of challenging those who take an overly literalist approach to the scriptures.

Yet when, in July 2007, the Bishop of Carlisle informed us all that the floods in Northern Yorkshire were divine retribution for laws permitting homosexual marriage did McGrath say a word in public to admonish the Right Reverend Graham Dow for his unsophisticated take on matters?  Like hell he did!

I believe that comments of the kind made by the Bishop of Carlisle and David Silvester would be perfect opportunities for “serious scholars” to confront head-on the “extremists” of their own faiths and show that they are prepared to police their religions rather than leaving it up to the godless heretics to do so in their “shrill” and “strident” fashion.

I have therefore sent the link to this post to four of the “fleas” who railed against the New Atheists for their supposed failure to engage with the best of Christian “scholarship” in their books: Alister McGrath (author of The Dawkins Delusion?), David Robertson (author of The Dawkins Letters), John Cornwell (author of Darwin’s Angel) and Peter S Williams (author of A Sceptic’s Guide To Atheism), inviting them to issue a public denunciation of Silvester of the kind they singularly failed to do in the face of the then Bishop of Carlisle’s shockingly unsubtle, Old Testament take on the situation.

I have also forwarded the post to the host Premier Christian Radio’s sceptical debate show, Unbelievable?, Justin Brierley and former opponents, Andy Bannister and Peter Harris.

My covering emails are in the comments section and I will publish any response I receive.

“Scholars”: Please prove me wrong so I can find another pastime.

Hitchens on bloggers

25/09/2013

The above clip is features comments from the late Christopher Hitchens in 2006 on bloggers in general and the anti-Hitchens blog, Hitchens Watch, in particular.  Hitch makes clear his disdain for bloggers and damns them as failed writers who have not found a publisher to disseminate their dross, but have found a method of getting their dross in the public domain through the blog.

I have to say that I agree entirely with Hitchens to the extent that I put myself firmly in this category.  I don’t think I have published anything on this blog that is worthy being put on paper and into a book.  I have restricted myself to discussing and by and large repeating the words of the New Atheists: Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, in addition to a few other popular science and philosophy writers such as Bart Ehrman, Michael Shermer and Victor Stenger.

I have been attacked for my continual reliance on the New Atheists, which has been branded a form of “hero worship”.  My responses variously are that “there is nothing new under the sun”, or to quote Isaac Newton that “I stand on the shoulder of giants”, or Ibn Warraq in Why I Am Not A Muslim that if you see my work as an extended bibliography of the works of others, I will not take offence.

I admit that I am relying on the works of popular writers whose books have sold by the million and whose lectures and debates are freely available on YouTube.  There are plenty of bloggers who trawl the obscure reaches of the Internet and their public libraries and write convincingly about topics that do not feature on ABC’s Nightline Face-Off.  However, their work is still based on the writings of others rather than their own original research.  Am I being any less original in my attacks on religion every time I cite a bestseller like god Is Not Great than when I rely on a lesser known work such as The Bible Unearthed?

Paradoxically, I have a great deal of respect for scientists and philosophers I have never even heard of; perhaps more so than bestselling authors.  As Eric Rothschild, chief counsel for the plaintiffs at the 2005 Kitzmiller –v- Dover PA “Intelligent Design Trial”, observed of Michael Behe’s claim in Darwin’s Black Box, which he repeated on the witness stand, that the immune system is irreducibly complex:

Thankfully, there are scientists who do search for answers to the question of the origin of the immune system… Their efforts help us combat and cure serious medical conditions.  By contrast, Professor Behe and the entire “intelligent design” movement are doing nothing to advance scientific or medical knowledge and are telling future generations of scientists, don’t bother.

Nevertheless, following a sabbatical from blogging of over two years, I am making a conscious effort to move away from the New Atheists and read and write about other topics, such as happiness, relationships, humour and cinema.

I once read of blogs that more people want to write them than want to read them; another statement with which I concur whole-heartedly and include myself.  For me, blogging is an outlet for my thoughts; it has given me meaning and purpose in my godless life.  Currently, this blog gets between 40 and 60 views a day.  It is reward enough when I publish a new post if this tally spikes slightly, I get a “like”, an encouraging comment or a notification from WordPress that someone else is following my blog.

I also accept that I have a penchant for hyperbole and make viciously angry attacks on my opponents such as William Lane Craig – who I have repeated branded a liar – that would surely be the first thing that any decent editor of a reputable publishing house would remove.

Yes, I think if I ever moved into “serious” writing and courted a publisher to disseminate my writings on good, old fashioned paper, the first thing on my “2-Do” list would be to delete this blog.

Sam Harris: Free Will

10/09/2013

HarrisFreeWillCoverI am currently researching an epic pair of posts re-examining Sam Harris’ debate on morality against William Lane Craig from April 2011 at The University of Notre Dame and in particular Craig’s wilful misrepresentation of Harris’ written work.  This has necessitated me engaging in the mammoth – albeit wonderfully rewarding – re-reading Harris’ books, The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, The Moral Landscape and Free Will.

I have always loathed the faithful’s concept of “free will” but have never had the means to tackle it head-on.  I invariably put the term in scare quotes to signify my distain.  It is part of the disgusting branch of theological “thought” called “theodicy”, aka making excuses for your imaginary best friend’s failure to do anything about all the evil and suffering in the World.  Theists argue that God have given us “free will” to act how we please and to believe in him or not and our rejection of him.  However, poor old God’s heart is broken when we abuse our “free will” to reject his boundless love and commit atrocities against our fellow man.

For me, this concept is philosophically and semantically incoherent to the point that I had no idea how to mount an argument against it.  How can you have a choice not to believe in God?  Taking the coward’s way out with Pascal’s Wager is at best feigning a belief in God.  There are plenty of facts about the World that I do not especially like – such as the existence of famine, genocide and the wonderfully designed AIDS virus – but have to accept because there is plenty of evidence for their existence regardless of whether or not I find them comforting.

If presented with sufficient evidence for God’s existence – such as a big face and a booming voice sticking out of the clouds striking sinners down with fire and brimstone rather like the God of the Bible I was made to learn about in school – I would believe.

Harris –v- “Free Will”

In his gem of a short book Free Will, Harris explodes the concept of “free will” as philosophically incoherent and scientifically unsupportable; our thoughts and actions are entirely deterministic.  Here are some of Harris’ key points:

  • You are no more in control of the next thought you think than the next thought I write.  Thoughts appear in your head at random and you have no control over them.  As you try to concentrate on one of Sam Harris’ lectures to which I link below, you may well suddenly think, “Gosh, he does look a bit like Ben Stiller!”
  • You are not free to choose options of which you are not aware.  For example, if someone asks you to think of a film, you would not be able to choose The Maltese Falcon if you have never heard of it.
  • Modern neuro-imagining shows that our brains have formed our decisions seconds, sometimes minutes, before we are aware of them.
  • All of our thoughts and actions are governed by a string of prior causes over which we have no control: genes, upbringing and environment.
  • Even people who believe in “free will” accept that certain medical conditions will affect a person’s thoughts and actions such as depression, diabetes and brain tumours.  Therefore, you have as much “free will” to be a homosexual as you have to be black or white skinned.
  • Compromise positions on “free will” such as “compatibilism” that concede that our thoughts and actions are influenced by prior causes over which we have no control amount to saying “a puppet has free will as long as it loves its strings”.
  • As counter-intuitive as it seems, it makes no more sense than to hate a psychopath who has tried to cut you up with an axe than to hate a grizzly bear who has tried to eat you.
  • Retribution and personal hatred of people makes no sense as we are punishing people for acts for which ultimately they are not responsible.  Our criminal justice should be geared towards protection of the public at large (which does include incarceration) and rehabilitation but not retribution and revenge.
  • If we developed a pill that could cure psychopathy with no side effects, it would make no sense to withhold it from a violent psychopath as a punishment for what they have done.
  • Swallowing determinism whole by “throwing the oars out of the boat” and doing nothing but drift through life and seeing what happens is a course of action over which we have no control and is therefore impossible.  Just try staying in bed and waiting for something to happen: very soon you will feel the urge to get out bed and do something, like eating or going to the loo!
  • Good and evil, morality and happiness do not depend on the existence of “free will”:

In my view, the reality of good and evil does not depend upon the existence of free will, because with or without free will, we can distinguish between suffering and happiness.  With or without free will, a psychopath who enjoys killing children is different from a paediatric surgeon who enjoys saving them.  Whatever the truth about free will, these distinctions are unmistakable and well worth caring about.

  • Personal effort and choice do still count even on a deterministic view of “free will”:

Might free will somehow be required for goodness to be manifest?  How, for instance, does one become a paediatric surgeon?  Well, you must first be born, with an intact nervous system, and then provided with a proper education. No freedom there, I’m afraid.  You must also have the physical talent for the job and avoid smashing your hands at rugby.  Needless to say, it won’t do to be someone who faints at the sight of blood.  Chalk these achievements up to good luck as well.  At some point you must decide to become a surgeon—a result, presumably, of first wanting to become one.  Will you be the conscious source of this wanting?  Will you be responsible for its prevailing over all the other things you want but that are incompatible with a career in medicine?  No.  If you succeed at becoming a surgeon, you will simply find yourself standing one day, scalpel in hand, at the confluence of all the genetic and environmental causes that led you to develop along this line.  None of these events requires that you, the conscious subject, be the ultimate cause of your aspirations, abilities, and resulting behaviour.  And, needless to say, you can take no credit for the fact that you weren’t born a psychopath.

Of course, I’m not saying that you can become a surgeon by accident—you must do many things, deliberately and well, and in the appropriate sequence, year after year. Becoming a surgeon requires effort.  But can you take credit for your disposition to make that effort?   To turn the matter around, am I responsible for the fact that it has never once occurred to me that I might like to be a surgeon?  Who gets the blame for my lack of inspiration?  And what if the desire to become a surgeon suddenly arises tomorrow and becomes so intense that I jettison my other professional goals and enrol in medical school? Would I—that is, the part of me that is actually experiencing my life—be the true cause of these developments?  Every moment of conscious effort—every thought, intention, and decision—will have been caused by events of which I am not conscious.  Where is the freedom in this?

  • Determinism does not undercut the human concept of “love”, yet assists in a better understanding of “hate”:

What many people seem to be missing is the positive side of these truths.  Seeing through the illusion of free will does not undercut the reality of love, for example—because loving other people is not a matter of fixating on the underlying causes of their behaviour.  Rather, it is a matter of caring about them as people and enjoying their company.  We want those we love to be happy, and we want to feel the way we feel in their presence.  The difference between happiness and suffering does not depend on free will—indeed, it has no logical relationship to it (but then, nothing does, because the very idea of free will makes no sense).  In loving others, and in seeking happiness ourselves, we are primarily concerned with the character of conscious experience.

Hatred, however, is powerfully governed by the illusion that those we hate could (and should) behave differently.  We don’t hate storms, avalanches, mosquitoes, or flu.  We might use the term “hatred” to describe our aversion to the suffering these things cause us—but we are prone to hate other human beings in a very different sense.  True hatred requires that we view our enemy as the ultimate author of his thoughts and actions.  Love demands only that we care about our friends and find happiness in their company.  It may be hard to see this truth at first, but I encourage everyone to keep looking.  It is one of the more beautiful asymmetries to be found anywhere.

Harris differs from Daniel Dennett, who defends “free will” simply by redefining its terms:

Fans of Dan’s account—and there are many—seem to miss my primary purpose in writing about free will.  My goal is to show how the traditional notion is flawed, and to point out the consequences of our being taken in by it.  Whenever Dan discusses free will, he bypasses the traditional idea and offers a revised version that he believes to be the only one “worth wanting.”  Dan insists that this conceptual refinement is a great strength of his approach, analogous to other manoeuvres in science and philosophy that allow us to get past how things seem so that we can discover how they actually are.  I do not agree.  From my point of view, he has simply changed the subject in a way that either confuses people or lets them off the hook too easily.

Sam Harris lectures on the illusion of free will

Caltech, 2012:

Festival of Dangerous Ideas, Sydney Opera House, 2012:

Bon Mot Book Club, Vancouver, 2012:

Reddit.com Q&A, 2011:

Christopher Hitchens Debate Reviews: The Not So Good

22/08/2013

HitchensIn a hommage to my atheist blogosphere opposite number, Lukeprog of the now-archived Common Sense Atheism, who compiled a review of all William Lane Craig’s debates, I publish here a similar collection of my thoughts of the debates of my intellectual hero, the late Christopher Hitchens: journalist, literary critic, author, scourge of the faithful and proud member of the Four Horseman with his international bestseller against the forces of theocratic fascism, god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Hitchens did many debates and I have mainly included formal debates and panel discussions in front of an audience.  I have mentioned some of Hitch’s many TV and radio interviews and discussions, but only where there was a single topic on the agenda, as opposed to the zillions of time he appeared on C-SPAN and Bill Maher to discuss the general politics of the day.

I may have missed out on some; suggestions in the comments section, please!

Since there are 69 70 71 debates in total, I have divided the piece up into three separate posts as follows:

The Great;

The Good; and

The Not So Good (for the remainder of this post).

The Not So Good

Craig, “Does God Exist?”, Biola University, Los Angeles, 4 April 2009 (Video / MSP review / MSP review one year on in three parts).  This one hurt quite a lot.  While not the massacre that the first blog reports had us believe, Hitchens simply did not prepare to take on “professional debater” (© Richard Dawkins) Craig and wanted to debate whether religion was good for the world, as opposed to the actual topic under discussion.  Craig showboats in front of his home crowd and Hitch lets him get away with smugly asserting that his five “arguments” are irrefutable.

D’Souza Round I, “Is Christianity the Problem?”, King’s College, New York, 22 October 2007 (Video / Audio).  Hitch lands a few punches, but overall he was not on top form on the night.  D’Souza is loud, longwinded and gets the last word on many points through filibustering.  There is also plenty of disingenuous quote-mining of authorities and misrepresenting of Hitch’s arguments.

Hitchens/Jackson –v- Arkes/Markson, “The Death Penalty Debate”, National Review & The Nation Institute, 7 April 1997 (Video).  Hitchens shares a platform with the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who he was later to throw in the same damning category as the “Reverends” Jerry Falwell, Al Sharpton and Pat Robertson as someone who can get away with offences to truth and morality by virtue of calling himself a man of faith.  Hitch speaks against the death penalty persuasively, however, he is up against two equally convincing opponents and the clash is best described as a draw.  The Q&A section descends into farce due to a strict moderator and hapless audience members straying off topic.  For Hitchens completists only.

Galloway, The Iraq War of 2003 was just and necessary”, Baruch College, New York, 14 September 2005 (Video).  I have consigned this one to the lowest category, not because Hitch loses the debate, but because it’s deeply unpleasant watching him share a platform with such an unsavoury, hard-left demagogue who openly supports brutal Islamist regimes.  Things get pretty personal and Galloway resorts to schoolyard name calling.  At least he gets his comeuppance from the NY crowd by suggesting that America brought the 9/11 attacks on themselves.  Sully your eyes and ears by watching it if you must.

Click below to see:

The Great

The Good

Christopher Hitchens Debate Reviews: The Good

22/08/2013

HitchensIn a hommage to my atheist blogosphere opposite number, Lukeprog of the now-archived Common Sense Atheism, who compiled a review of all William Lane Craig’s debates, I publish here a similar collection of my thoughts of the debates of my intellectual hero, the late Christopher Hitchens: journalist, literary critic, author, scourge of the faithful and proud member of the Four Horseman with his international bestseller against the forces of theocratic fascism, god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Hitchens did many debates and I have mainly included formal debates and panel discussions in front of an audience.  I have mentioned some of Hitch’s many TV and radio interviews and discussions, but only where there was a single topic on the agenda, as opposed to the zillions of time he appeared on C-SPAN and Bill Maher to discuss the general politics of the day.

I may have missed out on some; suggestions in the comments section, please!

Since there are 69 70 71 debates in total, I have divided the piece up into three separate posts as follows:

The Great;

The Good (for the remainder of this post); and

The Not So Good.

The Good

Brummett, “Religion has been a positive force in culture”, University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, 4 June 2011 (Video).  In his last public debate prior to his untimely Earthly demise, Hitchens appears by video-link because he was too ill to travel to the venue.  This is a fairly civilised exchanged between two very clever men, but Hitch looks and sounds very unwell.  Nevertheless, this was as good a way to sign off as any; the live audience clearly thought so in their standing ovation at the end.

Blair, “The Munk Debate: Religion is a force for good in the world”, Toronto, Canada, 27 November 2010 (Video).  Hitch takes on the former UK prime minister and key instigator of the Iraq War on whether religion is a good thing.  Although the general verdict post-debate was that Hitchens won, all of his points were overly-familiar to regular viewers and he let Blair off lightly when he should have torn him in half.  A possible explanation was Hitch’s reverence for Blair’s stance on the Iraq War, but that’s hardly a good excuse now is it?

Haldane, “We Don’t Do God?”, Oxford University, 12 May 2010 (Video).  Haldane is an unusually intelligent opponent, who does not let Hitch make him look too silly, but he’s just not as interesting to listen to and his arguments are far too vague and “scholarly” to have much impact.

D’Souza Round III, “God On Trial”, Fixed Point Foundation, Powell Symphony Hall, St Louis, 10 September 2008 (Video).  A reasonably even-handed debate against Dinesh, but Hitch still wins because of superior eloquence and rhetoric.  I eventually found the video on YouTube while proofing this post, but Fixed Point Foundation jealously guard their product and will probably have it taken down sooner or later.  I originally downloaded the audio from Amazon fairly cheaply.  The DVD is available to buy from the Fixed Point Foundation shop.

D’Souza Round V, “God Is Not Great”, Jones County Junior College, Mississippi, 20 April 2009 (Video).  D’Souza does reasonably well in this one, although his comments about Jupiter protecting the Earth from asteroid collisions as being evidence of a divine design show just how arse-about-face the Anthropic Principle is.

D’Souza Round VII, “Is Religion the Problem?”, University of Notre Dame, 7 April 2010 (Video).  This is a far more civilised and respectful encounter than the pair’s previous meetings.  If you agree with Hitch’s position, then I suppose the debate goes to him, but it’s a close call.  The debate is most noteworthy for D’Souza coming out in support of Intelligent Design.

Karabell/Kirsch, “Religion and Culture Panel”, The LA Times Festival of Books, 2007 (Video).  Highly entertaining panel discussion, memorable for Hitchens denouncing a “fascist crackpot” audience member.

Ritter, “Iraq War”, Tarrytown, New York, 20 December 2006 (Audio).  Ritter proves himself to be one of Hitchens’ most formidable opponents in the Iraq War debates.  He was intimately involved in the Gulf War and in the events leading up to the Iraq War and gives a very detailed account of the contradictions and hypocrisies of US policy toward Iraq.  Hitchens largely agrees, but draws a different conclusion.

Gomes/Kushner, “GOD”, The Connecticut Forum, 29 January 2009 (Video).  An unusually civilised discussion on matters of faith between a Christian Reverend and an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi, with the exception of Hitch lambasting Kushner on the issue of “genital mutilation” of baby boys.

Danner, “How Should We Use Our Power?  Iraq and the War on Terror”, Zellerbach Auditorium, UC Berkeley, 28 January 2003 (Video).  Hitch puts his case very eloquently before the outbreak of the war.  There is some good back and forth between him and Danner, although the two men’s constant interruptions and talking over each other quickly annoys.

Arato, “Iraq War”, CalArts REDCAT, c. 2003/2004 (Video).  Hitch makes his case as persuasively as ever.  Unfortunately, the format is more like a TV panel Q & A, and his opponent is not terribly engaging, even though I agree with his point of view.

Grayling, “Among the Dead Cities”, Goethe Institute, Washington, 20 April 2006 (Video).  A very civilised and intelligent discussion of Grayling’s book examining the moral implications of wartime bombing of civilians, although Hitch gets rather irate at Grayling’s comparison of Hiroshima with the 9/11 attacks as the kind of sloppy moral-equivalence that the Left routinely trots out against the Iraq War.  I’ve read Grayling’s source-text and this debate is well worth viewing in conjunction with the book.  I can well-understand both men’s respective stances.

Fry/Bakewell, “The Blasphemy Debate”, Hay Festival, 28 May 2005 (Audio).  Not really a debate, because Fry and Hitch both sing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to religion, but this is a really entertaining discussion on the victimless crime.

Tharoor/Bakewell, “Freedoms of speech”, Hay Festival, 27 May 2006 (Video / Audio).  A fascinating discussion on the special privileges afforded to religious views.  All very civilised and respectful and Hitch makes some great points.

D’Souza/Prager, “The Christian God, the Jewish God, or no God?”, 1 May 2008 (Video).  D’Souza scores a decent hit against Hitch in reply to his 98,000 Year Absentee God Gambit, but apart from that Hitch rules the roost and pwns Prager on “atheistic” Nazism and D’Souza on the historical Jesus.

Olasky, “On Religion and Politics”, The Future Forum, 14 May 2007 (Video).  Assured stuff from Hitch against the gentle Olasky who has done a lot of good things since finding God, but is no match for his more literate and informed opponent.

Hedges, “The is God…Great Debate”, King Middle School, Berkeley, CA, 24 May 2007 (Edited Audio / Video Clip I / Video Clip II / Review).  Unfortunately, only snippets of this are available online, but from what is on offer, Hitchens chopped the moderate, liberal, jihadist-sympathising Hedges into tiny bits.  What I have seen, heard and read is not pretty.

Wilson, “Apologetics in Action: Aesthetics and the Existence of God – Atheism vs. Christianity”, Westminster Theological Seminary, 10 December 2008 (Video).  Good performance against the mild-mannered Christian pastor.  Although Hitch’s anecdote about the World Series is apparently wrong.

Turek Round II, “What Best Explains Reality: Theism or Atheism?”, The College Of New Jersey, 31 March 2009 (Video / Audio).  Frank actually does a lot better in his second meeting with Hitch, despite using the same appalling “arguments” and “jokes”.  Hitchens was not at his aggressive best, his arguments and sound bites are more than familiar by now and he lets Turek get away with a lot, including his recycled points that he pulverised him for in the first debate.  However, it’s entertaining enough for Hitchens fans.

Lennox Round I, “Europe should prefer the New Atheism”, Edinburgh International Festival, 9 August 2008 (Video).  Despite losing the audience vote at the end, this is a very entertaining debate with an excellent opening salvo from the Hitch.  So good in fact that Lennox concurs with all of what his opponent has just said, before rambling on about the love of JC.  The video occasionally makes it onto YouTube before the organisers, Fixed Point Foundation, demand it be taken down.

Wolpe Round III, “Religion, faith and God”, John Hancock Hall, Boston, MA, 23 March 2010 (Video).  More sterling work from Hitch in the face of an opponent who does not do especially well against him, but comes off less badly than most.

Hitchens/Harris/Dennett –v- D’Souza/Boteach/Taleb & Wright, La Ciudad de las Ideas, Mexico, November 2009 (Video).  A good tag-teaming with two of other Four Horsemen, Harris and Dennett who show D’Souza and Boteach a thing or two.  The format is rather slow and drawn out with the moderator translating for the Spanish-speaking crowd.

Craig/Wilson/Strobel/Denison, Christian Book Expo, Dallas, 21 March 2009 ( Video / Audio).  Hitchens dominates and makes the rest of the God Squad panel look silly, but Craig scores a knockout blow on Hitch in his mocking final remarks that would be a sign of things to come at their upcoming Biola debate (see The Not So Good).

Sharpton, “God Is Not Great”, New York Public Library, 7 May 2007 (Video).  Hitchens makes some good points and is gleefully rude to an audience member who asks a stupid question, but his opponent – “a man who proves every day that you can get away with anything in this country if you can shove the word ‘Reverend’ in front of your name” – refuses to defend the personal, biblical God of classical Christianity and instead bangs on about a loose form of deism.  Hitch, quite understandably, looks baffled.

Richards, “Atheism versus Theism and the Scientific Evidence of Intelligent Design”, Stanford University, 27 January 2008 (Video).  Non-scientist Hitchens has a lot of fun with Discovery Institute stooge Richards (who looks like he’s just walked off the set of Happy Days) and makes him look rather silly.  Don’t expect the most intelligent discussion though.

D’Souza, “Is Socialism Obsolete?”, 1989 (Audio).  An early debate with arch-opponent D’Souza when Hitch was still very much a Marxist.  Being a Tory Boy myself, this is probably the most I have agreed with D’Souza on anything ever, but it is of historical interest to hear what was on Hitchens’ mind a few political ideologies ago.  Alas, the tape is incomplete.

Benjamin, “The Thrilla in Manhattanilla: The War in Iraq”, The Great Hall at Cooper Union, 9 February 2006 (Video).  Hitch makes his case as eloquently as ever in a rowdy debate with a tough opponent and even tougher audience members.  The moderator’s comment that this was “the most unproductive discussion” he has ever chaired says it all.

Landes, “Religion and Freedom of Speech”, Binghamton University, 28 April 2008 (Video).  An intelligent discussion with an intelligent opponent.  The two agree on a great deal, but there are some heated clashes.  Unfortunately, the video was taken on an audience member’s mobile phone or digital camera, so the sound and picture quality is poor.

Dembski, “Does a Good God Exist?”, Prestonwood Baptist Church Plano, Texas, November 2010 (Video).  A so-so exchange between Hitch in his last days and noted Intelligent Design proponent who gets off fairly lightly.

Rutten, “In Conversation”, Los Angeles Public Library, 4 June 2007 (Video).  A gentle discussion with a moderate Christian at the beginning of Hitch’s god Is Not Great book tour is memorable mainly for Hitch’s dismissal of a 9/11 “Troofer” during the audience Q&A without dignifying his question with a response as well as Rutten’s quoting Tertullian on the cannibalistic element of oral sex.

Boteach Round III, “Is There An Afterlife?”, Cooper Union, New York 16 September 2010 (Video).  Hitch and Boteach’s third head-to-head is a far more civilised (and quiet, by Boteach’s standards!) affair.  Hitch refuses to be drawn to faith despite his recent diagnosis of terminal cancer and makes some great, fresh points about the Catholics Church’s complicity with Fascism and Nazism as well as Ratzinger’s involvement in the Hitler Youth and German Army.

Roberts, “The Great God Debate”, Hugh Hewitt Show, 5 June 2007 (Audio / Transcript).  A decent radio exchange with Hitch on the phone and his Christian opponent in the studio with the Christian host.  Although neither side scores any significant hits, Hitch answers all of his opponents’ charges effectively and makes them audibly squirm in a couple of places.

Beinart/Packer, “Is Obama’s foreign policy working?”, Elebash Recital Hall, New York, 22 September 2010 (Video).  Less of a debate and more of a calm discussion between public commentators on a president who clearly does not want to be a “foreign policy president” and has been conducting America’s affairs overseas as inconspicuously as possible.

Doerr, Interfaithradio, July 2007 (Audio).  A civilised 30 minute radio discussion with another nonbeliever who prefers to describe himself as a “humanist” rather than an “atheist”.  Hitchens agrees with him on many points, but is less forgiving to religious moderates and de facto atheists who still go to church for the sake of keeping up appearances: Doerr sees them as a sympathetic ear to advance humanism; Hitch accuses them of taking their religion a la carte.

James/Crabb/Rees, “Programmatic specificity we can believe in”, Sydney Writer’s Festival, Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay, May 2010 (Video).  A good-natured and humorous panel discussion on the convoluting of language and spread of political correctness in public discourse.  As always, Hitch is by far the most eloquent and funny.

Amis, “No Laughing Matter: Saul Bellow as part of Jewish Book Week”, 25 February 2007 (Video / Audio).  Another appearance that is less of a debate and more of gentle discussion with a long-time friend.  Readers of Hitch’s memoir, Hitch-22, will recall that Hitchens has some rather dense, personal thoughts regarding his intellectual brother (and indeed lover!), Amis.  This is an interesting and thought provoking discussion on the topic of anti-Semitism and is best viewed in conjunction with Hitchens’ delivery of the 2010 Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture on the same subject matter.

Berlinski, “Does atheism poison everything?”, Fixed Point Foundation, Sheraton Hotel, Birmingham, Alabama, 7 September 2010 (Video).  Post-cancer diagnosis, Hitchens debates New Atheism “flea” critic Berlinski, who Richard Dawkins had previously speculated could well fall into the “wicked” category (as opposed to the “ignorant”, “stupid” or “insane” tiers) in his rejection of evolution.  This is generally a civilised exchange but in keeping with all of Berlinski’s other media appearances that I have seen, he comes across as a very slippery and evasive character and Hitch hauls him up on it, particularly during the Q & A as to whether he would prefer an Islamic Europe or a secular one.  As per Dawkins’ assessment, Berlinski’s support of religious ideas and rejection of secular science, despite being a non-believer himself, seem less to be genuinely held and more to advance a contrary position for its own sake.

Donohue,The hostility of the American cultural elite to religion in general, and Catholicism in particular”, Union League Club, New York, 23 March 2000 (Video).  Hitch takes on the conservative-reactionary (hard-right nut-job) head of the Catholic League, who fights as dirtily as he speaks loudly.  Hitch uses all his eloquence of tongue and incisiveness of fact to come off reasonably well, but this encounter was almost as dirty his clash with Galloway (see The Not So Good).

Parenti, “Iraq and the future of US foreign policy”, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, 18 April 2005 (Video).  Hitchens argues his case far more eloquently and passionately than political scientist Parenti, who makes some good points, but is mainly rambling and incoherent.  Hitch refutes all of his canards with ease.

Taunton, “God or No God?”, Billings, Montana, 19 October 2010 (Video).  Having moderated so many of his debates with others, the head of the (aptly-named) Christian thank-tank goes head-to-head with a post-cancer diagnosis Hitchens.  Taunton does not come off too badly, but that’s not to say that he comes off well either.  Cancer may have been destroying Hitch’s body, but it clearly could not break down his mind, which is as sharp as ever.

Wright, “Foreign Policy & Religion”, 9 December 2009 (Video).  A Skype debate between Hitch and fellow-atheist-but-believer-in-belief Wright following their meeting at La Ciudad de las Ideas a month earlier.  Hitch makes his case on an interventionist US foreign policy and the Iraq War as forcefully as ever and answers all of Wright’s canards on matters of faith.  Wright comes off reasonably well in the first hour on politics, but allows Hitch to get the better of him in the second hour on religion, as evidenced by the ever-increasing volume and speed in his voice.

Peter Hitchens Round I, “Let’s Abolish Britain”, Conway Hall, London, 14 April 1999 (Edited Video).  The Brothers Hitchens debate Peter’s book, The Abolition of Britain, in a far more even-handed encounter than their clash on religion and foreign policy nearly a decade later (see The Great).  Both men make good points; however, this is a rather too intellectual discussion with the speakers failing to attack the issues of the day, such as Blairism, Europe and the Single Currency, although moderator John Humphries’ opening remarks are a hoot.  HEALTH WARNING: The video inexplicably fast-forwards c. the 48 minute mark in the middle of Peter’s rebuttal to Christopher’s for what must be at least 20 minutes of real time.  Strange and wholly unnecessary.

Morris/Armstrong/Kutler/Rubin, “Was Henry Kissinger a war criminal?”, National Press Club, Washington DC, 22 February 2001 (Video).  Hitchens leads a Press Club discussion with a former government aide and two law professors following the publication of his two articles in Harper’s magazine indicting the former US Secretary of State and one of the most famous diplomats in history for murder, kidnapping, war crimes and crimes against humanity.  The debate is well worth seeing in conjunction with the aforementioned articles as well as Hitchens’ subsequent book-length polemic and film documentary.  While Hitchens is predictably damning in his assessment of Kissinger, the other panellists persuasively argue that Kissinger was no “lone wolf”, but acted openly and with the assistance of numerous government aides, not to mention President Nixon, in his the execution of his Realpolitik and aversion of the Cold War turning hot.

Ali, “US Imperialism or A Just Response To Terror?”, Georgetown University, Washington DC, 17 April 2002 (Audio).  With the rubble of the Twin Towers barely cleared away, Hitchens goes head-to-head with a former comrade on the Left who published a book blaming America for visiting the attacks on itself.  I would like to have placed this one in the top category alongside the all time greats as Hitchens’ opening speech is a rip-snorting broadside against the hypocrisy and double-standards that was soon to lead to his departure from Liberalism in favour of Neo-Conservatism.  But alas, he doesn’t use his time for a rebuttal and the audio cuts out before the first audience question is answered.

Click below to see:

The Great

The Not So Good

Christopher Hitchens Debate Reviews: The Great

22/08/2013

HitchensIn a hommage to my atheist blogosphere opposite number, Lukeprog of the now-archived Common Sense Atheism, who compiled a review of all William Lane Craig’s debates, I publish here a similar collection of my thoughts of the debates of my intellectual hero, the late Christopher Hitchens: journalist, literary critic, author, scourge of the faithful and proud member of the Four Horseman with his international bestseller against the forces of theocratic fascism, god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Hitchens did many debates and I have mainly included formal debates and panel discussions in front of an audience.  I have mentioned some of Hitch’s many TV and radio interviews and discussions, but only where there was a single topic on the agenda, as opposed to the zillions of time he appeared on C-SPAN and Bill Maher to discuss the general politics of the day.

I may have missed out on some; suggestions in the comments section, please!

Since there are 69 70 71 debates in total, I have divided the piece up into three separate posts as follows:

The Great (for the remainder of this post);

The Good; and

The Not So Good.

The Great

Dawkins/Dennett/Harris/Hitchens, “The Four Horsemen”, 30 September 2007 (Video).  A superb discussion with the three other Horsemen about religious faith in the aftermath of their recent God-bashing books.  I will say no more: sit back and enjoy.

Hitchens/Dawkins/Grayling –v- Spivey/Neuberger/Scruton, “We would all be better off without religion”, Intelligence Squared, Methodist Central Hall, London, 27 March 2007 (Video).  Hitch teams up with fellow atheists Richard Dawkins and A C Grayling who wipe the floor with three half-hearted apologists, whose main arguments in support of religion is that is has produced a lot of nice art and “you’ll never get rid of it”.  His opening speech slamming “the parties of God” is a classic Hitchens moment.

Hitchens/Fry –v- Widdecombe/Onaiyekan, “The Catholic Church is a force for good in the World”, Intelligence Squared, London, 19 October 2009 (Video / MSP review).  Yours truly was there on the night and it was a pleasure to see Hitch stick a red hot poker up the Holy See’s backside.  Hitch’s teammate Stephen Fry was a true revelation.  Catholic defenders Ann Widdecombe and the barely comprehensible Archbishop John Onaiyekan were lambs to the slaughter.

“Freedom of Speech Includes the Freedom to Hate”, Hart House, University of Toronto, 15 November 2006 (Video / MSP transcript of Hitchens’ speech).  Hitchens debates students from the University (and is given twice as much time at the lectern!) and gives an absolutely barnstorming 20 minutes and 52 seconds in which the Hitch blows hate speech and Holocaust denial laws as well as “the Religion of Peace” to smithereens with his wonderful Richard Burton-esque delivery.

Hitchens/Gourevitch/Wilkinson –v- Khan/Cesarani/Matsuda, “Freedom of expression must include the license to offend”, Intelligence Squared US, 16 October 2006 (Video / IQ2 page includes MP3 audio).  Hitch makes many points that will be familiar to fans of his speech at Hart House, Toronto (see above) but this is still a terrific clash with a pack of wet-lettuce liberals who are afraid of angering the Islamists and the best way of dealing them is to be nice to them.  Hitch is also blessed with two equally literate, persuasive and witty debating partners.  Cartoonist Signe Wilkinson’s opening salvo is a hoot, while fellow-journalist Philip Gourevitch turns the opposition’s arguments on them with much aplomb.

Hitchens/Aaronovitch –v- Hart/Jenkins, “A pre-emptive foreign policy is a recipe for disaster”, Intelligence Squared, London, 13 September 2004 (Video).  Another convincing case made for the Iraq War as Hitchens and his partner swing the audience vote from pre-debate against the motion to post-debate for the motion.  Aaronovitch makes for a formidable debating partner who holds his own rather than just being a handy side-kick; the example in his opening statement of how people in the second tower of the World Trade Centre on 9/11 responded to the impending crisis is astonishing.

D’Souza Round II, “War and Geo-Politics:  Is Religion the Problem or the Solution?”, Freedom Fest, Las Vegas, 11 July 2008 (Video).  I don’t care how the audience voted at the end; Hitch had his revenge following his disappointing showing against D’Souza at King’s College the previous year (see “The Not So Good”), and frankly made him look a total fool.

D’Souza Round III, “What’s So Great About God: Atheism Versus Religion”, University of Colorado, Boulder, 26 January 2009 (Video). Another convincing performance against D’Souza memorable for Hitch’s exposition of a trashy early 20th century novel called When It Was Dark by Guy Thorne about the chaos that ensues in the Western world when people think that the body of Christ has been discovered.

D’Souza Round VI, “Is There A God?  The Great Debate”, University of Central Florida, 17 September 2009 (Video).  Hitchens uses the evasive D’Souza as little more than a human punch bag in this one; I’m surprised Dinesh keeps coming back for more.

McGrath, “Religion: Poison or Cure in the Modern World?”, Georgetown University, 11 October 2007  (Video / Audio).  After McGrath published a disgraceful ad hominem attack against the New Atheism in general and Richard Dawkins in particular with The Dawkins Delusion?, Hitchens ripped the lily-livered, “sophisticated” theologian limb from limb.

Jackson, “How Religion Poisons Everything”, Emory University, 16 May 2007 (Video).  This is really good-natured debate with some excellent exchanges between Hitch and Jackson, not to mention plenty of banter about the finer details of American whiskey!

Turek Round I, “Does God Exist?”, Virginia Commonwealth University, 9 September 2008 (Video / Audio).  After trying to blag his way through the opening speech with his fast-talking, loud-mouth New Jersey accent, Turek quickly has the wind knocked out of him with a few well placed punches from Hitch who could not have made him look more of a fool if he’d dressed him up in Edward Woodward’s costume from The Wicker Man.  Watch out for Hitch’s take on purpose in life without God during the Q&A (!).

Lennox Round II, “Is God Great?”, Fixed Point Foundation, Samford University, Birmingham Alabama, 3 March 2009 (Video).  Lennox was drafted in at a moment’s notice after D’Souza had to travel home to India to see his sick mother.  Hitch mops up after losing the audience vote at his first encounter with Lennox in Edinburgh the previous year (see The Good).

Peter Hitchens Round II, Faith, Politics & War”, Fountain Street Church, Hauenstein Center, Center for Inquiry, 3 April 2008 (Video).  Big Hitchens well and truly pulverises his conservative, reactionary, bible-bashing baby brother with superior arguments and rhetoric on the Iraq War and religion.  I don’t even support the Iraq War and I thought that Christopher presented the better case.  Peter whines on about civilian causalities, why we’re not trying to overthrow the Chinese regime and “the good old days” when children said their prayers before bedtime and opened doors for strangers.  Sad.

Wolpe Round I, “Is Religion Good for the World?”, Temple Emanu-El, New York, November 2008 (Video).  Wolpe doesn’t come off too badly, but Hitch is barnstorming and makes his Jewish opponent squirm at the ethical implications of “genital mutilation” of small boys.

Wolpe Round II, “Why Does God Matter?”, The College at Brockport, 2 December 2009 (Video).  Another great showing against the ever-resilient Wolpe.  Watch out for Hitchens’ treatment (annihilation) of Wolpe’s assertion that the public give priests a disproportionately hard time as soon when they put a foot out of line in comparison with other professionals.

Boteach Round I, “God and Religion in the New Century: Divine Treasure or Poisonous Belief?”, Makor, New York City, 27 September 2004 (Video).  Hitch gives excellent opening and rebuttal speeches with all his wit and panache and swiftly wins over the audience.  “America’s Rabbi” Boteach shouts and screams about lack of transitional fossils, favourable genetic mutations, the Anthropic Principle and the Holocaust.  Hitchens rips him in half.

Boteach Round II, “Debate on God”, 92nd Street Y, New York, 30 January 2008 (Video).  Hitchens is on top form for their pair’s second outing as he brushes aside more asinine ravings from Shmuley, who this time claims that the late, great Harvard palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould “did not really believe in evolution” (!?).  An utter embarrassment for religious people everywhere.

Ramadan, “Is Islam a Religion of Peace?”, 92nd Street Y, New York,  5 October 2010 (Video).  Hitchens, in his first adversarial debate since being diagnosed with cancer, goes to town on the religion that is anything but one of peace and shows the fake-moderate Ramadan as the pseudo-intellectual, mouth-piece for jihad that he is.

Hitchens/Harris –v- Wolpe/Artson, “Is there an afterlife?” American Jewish University, Los Angeles, 15 February 2011 (Video).  With Hitchens less than a year from death, this is a memorable performance from a man who refuses to give in and accept the false promises that religious faith offers him as he leaves this Earthly life.  Harris also makes some excellent points, particularly with his graphic illustration in his opening statement at how the concept of an afterlife provides some comfort to certain people that once they have experienced a natural World suffused with suffering, they will be let in on the punch line when the die.

Click below to see:

The Good

The Not So Good

Craig –v- Hitchens: Fourth Thoughts – Sleepless in Biola

06/04/2010

The third and final part (Part I / Part II) of manicstreetpreacher’s reassessment of Christopher Hitchens’ debate against William Lane Craig will examine the “emotional blackmail factor” that pervades Dr Craig’s case for the Almighty.

When Craig is not appealing to flawed logic, he appeals to common sense and inner feelings to guilt trip his audiences into accepting his arguments as this last post will demonstrate.

Argument from objective morality

After name-dropping atheist philosophers like Michael Ruse who contend that morality is just a by-product of evolution and universal norms such as the wrongness of rape and torturing children have no deeper meaning than assisting our survival, Craig argued that human morality is objective and therefore must come from God with nothing more than “the problem is that objective moral values do exist and deep down we all know it” to back it up.  As he phrases it:

  1. If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values do exist.
  3. Therefore God exists.

Both of Craig’s premises are flawed, so his conclusion is invalid.  Firstly, objective morals could well exist without God.  They could be hardwired into our genes as an evolutionary survival mechanism.  So clearly, Craig’s first premise is incorrect.

However, objective moral values de facto do not exist.  Not everyone has the same moral standards.  Our perception of what is right and wrong have changed over the centuries with Richard Dawkins has termed “the shifting moral Zeitgeist”.  Indeed, practices in other parts of the World today which are considered the height of piety seem barbaric to Westerners.  You only have to look inside the books of our religions and see what these pronouncements mandate to see that this is the case.

I am becoming increasingly convinced that the moral argument for God is just rank wishful thinking, (how this differs from all other arguments from God, I am not entirely certain).  Perhaps it would be wonderful if there was a list of rules set in stone somewhere in the metaphysical universe, but I simply don’t see any evidence for it.  We just have to feel our around, sometimes getting it right, sometimes making mistakes, always striving for a state of moral perfection regardless of whether that will ever be achieved in reality.

I really wish that Hitchens had raised Craig’s appalling views on the morality of the God of the Old Testament.  I had been very suspicious of Craig declaring the atrocities of the Israelites’ slaughter of the Canaanites to be off-limits in debates, since it was a question of biblical inerrancy, not whether God existed.  I found my answer in an appalling radio interview and then with an article on Craig’s website which I commented on a few months after the Biola debate in which Craig argued that since God sets down moral values, he can arbitrarily overrule them with the result being that murder, torture and ethical cleansing are suddenly all fine and dandy.  Therefore, the Israelites were acting entirely in accordance with the will of God in exterminating the Canaanites and the Bible’s inerrancy is unaffected.

I won’t repeat my piece here; I suggest that it is read in full, but it is a stunning indictment of the theological mind which totally undermines Craig’s argument from objective morality, since he knows that murder, torture and genocide are wrong independent of God’s commands.  It is also a graphic illustration of Plato’s “Euthyphro Dilemma”: if God tells you to torture a baby, it becomes morally right and indeed obligatory to torture a baby.

Resurrection of Jesus

A key component in Craig’s argument for the resurrection of Jesus is that his followers would not have believed in a dying and rising Jewish messiah, much less have died for that belief.  For his second rebuttal after cross-examination, a clearly weary Hitchens invoked Tertullian’s maxim credo quia absurdum: “I believe it because it is absurd”.  He recounted his research on Mother Teresa and the circumstances surrounding her thoroughly discredited post-death miracle that will see her canonised by the Vatican and will in fact contribute to the misery and suffering of millions in the Third World by promoting shamanism and devaluing modern medicine.

A fair point, but I have seen Hitchens do much better on the historical Jesus.  Check out these two clips from his debate against D’Souza at Freedom Fest 2008 in Las Vegas.

On the historical Jesus and the criterion of embarrassment:

On the virgin birth and potency of the story:

Craig is basing his argument on discredited sources that are self-contradictory, written decades after the events that they purport to describe, copied and re-copied over centuries by fallible scribes with their own theological axes to grind.  And as we shall see in the next section, this is not even the reason why he believes in the resurrection at all.

Argument from personal experience

In his opening speech, Hitchens quoted from two editions of Craig’s book, Reasonable Faith, where Craig argues that a person knows that Christianity is true because the “Inner Witness of the Holy Spirit” assures him that it is true.  Whereas reason and evidence can be used to support this proposition they cannot be used to overthrow it.  A person has enough assurances from God with regard to his existence and the consequences that will be metered out for rejecting belief in God are entirely on the shoulders of the non-believer.

Although Craig’s response to this in his first rebuttal was somewhat convoluted, I cannot see how he refuted Hitchens’ interpretation, or even amended it significantly.  According to Craig, all belief in God entails is a warm fuzzy feeling inside that there has to be something more than this veil of tears and all arguments and evidence in support are wholly ancillary.  Atheist theologian Robert Price summed up Craig’s stance perfectly in their 1999 debate on the resurrection:

Dr Craig then freely admits that his conviction arises from purely subjective factors.  To me it sounds no different in principle from the teenage Mormon door-knocker: he tells you that the Book of Mormon was written by ancient Americans because he has a warm swelling feeling inside when he asks God if it’s true.

Craig said that Hitchens had to show that he is delusional; otherwise his belief in God through personal experience is still valid.  Again, this is a prime example of Craig placing the burden of proof on his opponent.  Without access to Craig’s medical records (I’ll avoid making the cheap shot that they would make for interesting reading!), this is an impossible task.

Nevertheless, people have all sorts of personal experiences that seem real to them: out of body, alien abduction, near death.  Without any corroborating evidence, the sceptic is perfectly justified in writing them off as deluded, not matter how sincere they are.  Indeed, virtually all of these experiences can be reproduced on subjects in the lab under control conditions.

So what sort of evidence would corroborate personal religious experience?  As Victor Stenger points out in God, The Failed Hypothesis and The New Atheism, perhaps if someone returned from such an experience with some new knowledge in their heads that they could not have otherwise obtained except through the agency of an all-powerful, all-knowing supernatural being.  If Craig really does have a hotline to the Big Guy in the Sky, then I don’t know why he hasn’t found a better way to spend his evenings than arguing with miserable heretics like Hitchens who are all fire-bound anyway.

Perhaps personal experience of God is something I will address in a future post, but for now I’ll direct Craig to Sam Harris’ take on the argument from meaning and purpose with his “Diamond The Size of a Refrigerator Buried in Your Back Yard” Gambit for him to realise what a risible non sequitur his reasoning is.

The last “Hussar!”

The debate moderator, Hugh Hewitt, posed the final question of the evening to Hitchens and asked why there was such a high public demand for debates on the God question at present.  Hitchens’ reply was that he is part of a small group of people who want to take a stand against theocratic bullying from Islamist regimes in the Middle East who are soon to obtain nuclear weaponry, terror attacks against civilian non-combatants by Al-Qaeda, fanatical Jewish settlers stealing land from Palestinians to bring on the Messiah and fundamentalist American Christians who want junk taught in school science classes.   For the first time that evening, Craig had to wait politely as the audience’s applause died down before he could retort.

Hitchens may well have wanted to debate the wrong topic that night.  The New Atheism may well be a form of “village atheism”; hostile to the social effects of religion rather than appreciative of the subtle nuances of theological “scholarship”.  But I’ll conclude these posts with a thought from my original piece after first watching the debate that I definitely stand by:

I could accept every one of Craig’s five arguments; you still have all your work ahead of you convincing me that the Pope, the holder of the keys of St Peter, Christ’s vicar on Earth is objectively moral to go to Africa and say, “AIDS might be bad, but condoms might be worse”.  This is a sinister and immoral aspect to religion that interests me more than the mere existence of God and the truthfulness of the scriptures; one which Hitchens tackles head on, but Craig wilfully evades.

Craig may have won the battle.  But the outcome of the war might not be so rosy for him.


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