Posts Tagged ‘A C Grayling’

Hitchens and Grayling debate ‘Among The Dead Cities’

29/12/2013

FORA TV link

I recently placed this debate in “The Good” section of my three-part post of all of Hitchens’ formal television and radio debates, but now after a recent third viewing, I am wondering whether it should have gone in “The Great” section.  The late Christopher Hitchens, journalist, author, public intellectual and polemist, debates British philosopher and author A C Grayling on the latter’s book on the morality of deliberately aiming bombs at civilians during wartime within the context of World War II, Among The Dead Cities: Is The Targeting Of Civilians In War Ever Justified? [London: Bloomsbury Publishing plc, 2007] at the Goethe Institute, Washington on 20 April 2006.

Grayling’s argument

Tellingly, the title of Grayling’s book is derived from an Allied report at the war’s end regarding a suitable venue to hold the trials of Nazi war criminals.  While acknowledging that the Second World War was a “just war” against a truly evil enemy and the greatest mistake the Allies could possibly have made would have been to lose it, Grayling brushes aside the atrocities of the Axis that have attracted the most attention since the War’s conclusion and focuses on whether the Allies’ area bombing campaign against German and Japanese cities constituted a war crime under the guidelines set out at the post-war Nuremburg Trials.

Grayling even dismisses the argument that the Allies were justified in taking such action as a means of retaliation as it was the Germans who bombed the Allies’ civilians first.  Although he does not use the school yard retort in so many words, it is a rather apt summary of his position: two wrongs don’t make a right.  Just because the Nazis carried out a campaign of sterilisation, eugenics and genocide against peoples who were unfortunate enough not to be in their favour, the Allies would scarcely have been vindicated in taking such action against the Germans at the end of the war.

Grayling concludes that the Allies’ deliberate targeting of civilians on the enemy side by area bombing of Germany and Japan and the dropping of the atomic bombs by America on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not only a crime against humanity in moral terms, but that it did not even have the desired strategic effect of hindering the enemy war effort by destroying their workforce, supplies, munitions and lines of communication and shattering the moral of their civilian population so as to make their governments sue for peace or surrender  unconditionally.

Hitchens’ response

While Hitchens’ speech is not the kind of soaring and swirling grandstanding that we were used to from his debates on religion; repeated viewings reveal it to be among his very best.  His exposition of the Jewish-born/Protestant-convert Victor Klemperer’s diary of the Third Reich, I Shall Bear Witness, among other obscure tracts, reminds me of revealing the real joys of being a public intellectual, when commenting on the death of Susan Sontag, showing how committed, well-read and intelligent he was with his in-depth knowledge of texts that 99.9% of the population have never even heard of, much less have the time, energy or motivation to read:

Between the word “public” and the word “intellectual” there falls, or ought to fall, a shadow.  The life of the cultivated mind should be private, reticent, discreet: Most of its celebrations will occur with no audience, because there can be no applause for that moment when the solitary reader gets up and paces round the room, having just noticed the hidden image in the sonnet, or the profane joke in the devotional text, or the secret message in the prison diaries.  Individual pleasure of this kind is only rivalled when the same reader turns into a writer, and after a long wrestle until daybreak hits on his or her own version of the mot juste, or the unmasking of pretension, or the apt, latent literary connection, or the satire upon tyranny.

Although Hitchens broadly agrees with Grayling that the actions of the Allies were awful, as were some of their motives – they bombed the German cities firstly, because they could and secondly, to impress Josef Stalin whose Red Army was fast advancing on the Third Reich from the East and who could well have been the Allies’ enemy in a third world war once the second was out of the way – he stops short of calling the bombing campaign an atrocity or a war crime.  The Second World War was a truly exceptional example and Germany’s defeat had to be final, total, utter and annihilating.  There could be no repeat of what happened after 1918 with speculation about what might have happened if Germany had hung on a little longer and the Jews had not conspired against them.

Drawing on Klemperer’s diaries, Hitchens paints an astonishing image of the morning after the night of the bombing of Dresden (which, thanks to unusually favourable climate conditions “worked too well”), when Klemperer and his wife who were about to be shipped off to the death camps that very day, emerged from their shelters, saw that not one brick was piled on top of another, and so tore off the yellow stars from their clothing.

Hitler’s Willing Executioners?

Hitchens begins his speech by applauding Germany’s courage for facing up to its record during World War II and refers to Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s controversial Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which argued that the Germans were genetically predisposed to carry out the Holocaust, as a “defamation” to the character of the German people.   He reviewed the book in conjunction with reporting on what sounded like an intellectual public raping of Goldhagen by a pair of older and wiser historians of the period shortly after the book’s publication:

Having immersed myself in this volume for a weekend, I am eager to ask one big question that cries to heaven for an answer.  It is this: Who on earth does Goldhagen think he is arguing with?  He comes to tell us there was a good deal of state- and church-sponsored anti-Semitism in German culture.  He adds that the Nazis made great use of Jew hatred in their propaganda.  He goes on to say that many Germans took part in beatings, killings, and roundups not because they were coerced but because they liked the idea.  He announces that not many Germans resisted the persecution of their Jewish countrymen.

Excuse me, but I knew this and so did you.  Moreover, the sarcastic phrase about “obeying orders” is not even a well-known explanation, only a well-known excuse.  All the way through Goldhagen’s presentation, which is one tautology piled on another, I wait to make my point.  And then the two big scholars present come to the podium with their comments, and I realize I have been wasting my time.

Sophomoric, meretricious, unoriginal, unhistorical, a product of media hype by Knopf (the book’s publisher), contradictory, repetitive, callow…  I’m just giving you the gist of what they said about Hitler’s Willing Executioners. It must have been quite an ordeal for Goldhagen, who looks about 12, to sit through this kind of thing from revered seniors.

Ouch.

Interestingly, Grayling too commented on the “questionable character of scholarship” that was Hitler’s Willing Executioners in Among The Dead Cities [p. 166].  He mentions he reviewed the book for the Financial Times when it was first published, although I have been unable to find it online.  However, I have found that of Richard John Neuhaus, which Grayling cites in the endnotes:

After Hitler and because of Hitler, six million fewer Jews remained. In the fifty years since, many Christians and some Jews have come to understand much more deeply the sources of what Rosenzweig terms the enmity and the bond between us.  The Jewish question remains because, thank God, Jews remain. In America, too, there are anti-Semites who propose solutions, if not a “final solution,” to the Jewish question.  They are and, please God, will continue to be a fringe phenomenon.  Much more important, we in America, Jews and Christians, have the singular responsibility and opportunity to work out a way of remaining together in mutual respect and unquestioned security.  For that common task we receive no help whatever from the incoherent, hateful, and dishonest tract that is Hitler’s Willing Executioners.

Terrorism by another means?

What really makes Hitchens’ blood boil – to the extent that it “disfigures” the book – is Grayling’s comparison of the Allied bombing and the 9/11 attacks by al-Qaeda; having spent the preceding four and a half years quarrelling with former friends on the Left that Osama Bin Laden lead a group of people who had a legitimate grievance against the United States for their misadventures abroad.  This is the “offending passage” from Among The Dead Cities in full (Hitchens quoted the first paragraph at the end of his opening speech):

A surprise attack on a civilian population aimed at causing maximum hurt, shock, disruption, and terror: there comes to seem very little difference in principle between the RAF’s Operation Gomorrah, or the USAAF’s atom bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York by terrorists on 11 September 2001.  And this latter, prescinding from differences in scale and drama of the target, is no different in turn from terrorist bombings carried out in Madrid by Basque separatists or in London by the IRA.  All these terrorist attacks are atrocities, consisting of deliberate mass murder of civilians to hurt and coerce the society in which they belong to.  To say that the principle underlying ‘9/11’, Hamburg and Hiroshima is the same is to say that the same moral judgement applies to all three.

No doubt these will be unduly provocative comparisons.  It can be pointed out that the Allied bombings were carried out in time of declared war, in which offensive comparisons are in effect a form of defensive operation, given that the enemy will seek to do the same if given an opportunity; whereas Pearl Harbor and 9/11 were perfidious attacks on unprepared targets, the first military, the second civilian.

This point is a good one, for there is indeed a difference here, though some will attempt to make it a debating point whether those who carry out terrorist attacks believe that they are at war and that their offence is in the same way a form of pre-emptive defence.  Very well: grant the difference; yet focus on the net effect.  In all these cases the centre-piece is an attack on a civilian population aimed at causing maximum hurt, shock, disruption and terror.  This is what these events have in common, whether in the midst of declared war or not, and so far as this core point is concerned, adjustments of fine moral calibration are at best irrelevant.  All such attacks are moral atrocities [pp. 278 – 279].

Grayling gave a lengthy account of his elaborative reply to Hitchens in the postscript to my paperback edition:

The 9/11 point is a different matter.  Those who have most belligerently opposed the comparison, such as Christopher Hitchens, are right to point out that whereas World War II area bombing occurred in the middle of a declared war between states whose military forces were engaged in combat to the death, the 9/11 attacks were acts of terrorism carried out not by one state against another but an egregiously nasty private organisation with no interest in anything other than the unrestrained furtherance of its agenda.  I grant this, and indeed all other differences, and acknowledge that there is no moral equivalence between Allied military endeavours against the Nazi and Japanese regimes, and the 9/11 attacks, both taken on their own inclusive terms.  Instead I argued that in one crucial respect – one respect only – there is a dismaying similarity between area bombing and terrorist bombings: namely, that they both seek to coerce a people by blowing up as many of them as possible and thereby terrorising and demoralising the rest.  In this single respect, all acts of mass murder are indeed morally equivalent: and their equivalence lies in their being great wrongs.  That was my point; and I adhere to it, because it is surely a profoundly educative one, since it allows one to make a simple but profound emotional connection between one’s horror at the 9/11 attacks in which 3000 people died in a single atrocity, to one’s horror at the deaths of ten and perhaps sometimes twenty times as many in each of the bombings of such places as Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  This way of grasping the purport of what area bombing meant, really meant, is vital to making a difference to how we behave and what we accept today in the conduct of conflicts.  There is nothing abstract or theoretical about the mass murder in which bombing consists: it is real and terrible, and anything that drives the point home has its place in the debate, for in the end the effect on victims, and the atrocity of the act, are indeed one and the same in all cases – in this one crucial, central respect [pp. 292 – 293].

I find it very difficult to take a side in this argument between Hitchens and Grayling; I can well understand both men’s point of view.  Ultimately, I am more sympathetic to Hitchens’ stance by the breadth of a cigarette paper and I am glad that Grayling ruled out the drawing of moral equivalences.  Yes, it was a truly awful thing that the Allies did to the Axis countries in World War II and I would be loathed to defend it for one moment.  However, we were fighting a truly awful enemy who would have visited the same devastation on us a thousand-fold given the opportunity and – as Hitchens pointed out in the debate – the only thing more awful than an Axis defeat would have been an Axis victory.

“Perfect weapons”

I am reminded of Sam Harris’ discussion of the philosophy of “perfect weapons” and the morality of collateral damage in The End Of Faith.  I have posted an edited version of the relevant passage in my previous post (before this post spirals even more out of control!), but in summary, Harris answers those on the Left like Noam Chomsky who compared the America to its enemies in moral terms with the philosophical device of a “perfect weapon”.  If there existed a “perfect weapon” that killed/impaired/destroyed only its intended military targets and did not cause any “collateral damage” by killing or injuring innocent civilians and destroying their homes, would America make use of such a weapon in waging war in Afghanistan and Iraq in the 21st Century?  Most certainly, it would.  Would America’s enemies in the Middle East use such a weapon?  Most certainly, they would not.  This is as clear and concise a distinction between moral intentions and sheer “body count” as I have ever found.

As Harris himself said in his 2007 debate against left-leaning journalist, commentator and author, Chris Hedges, when pressed by moderator Robert Scheer as to whether there was a “fundamental moral difference” between Islamist suicide bombing and the Allies’ tactics during World War II, that we could not fight war like we did in World War II.  We have learned the terrible lessons of such actions before “going casually onto the battlefield”.

Most certainly the Allied commanders in World War II (not to mention Nixon and Kissinger in the Vietnam War) would not have made use of “perfect weapons” to wage war against the enemy.  Neither would America’s and Israel Islamic foes in the 21st Century.  However, Bush and Obama most certainly would.

And that is a good thing.

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Sam Harris on ‘Perfect Weapons’ and the morality of ‘Collateral Damage’

29/12/2013

EndOfFaithCoverMy next post will be an analysis of Christopher Hitchens and A C Grayling’s 2006 debate on Among The Dead Cities: Is The Targeting Of Civilians In War Ever Justified?.  The closing paragraphs of that post cite Sam Harris’ discussion of the philosophy of “perfect weapons” and collateral damage in The End Of Faith.   So that my post on the Hitchens/Grayling debate does not spiral out of control any more than it already has, I have posted an edited version of the passage below.  (H/T: Otto Spijkers and Nick Li on Invisible College Blog for typing out and publishing most of it, so I didn’t have to!)

The End Of Faith: Religion, Terror And The Future Of Reason [London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2006] pp. 142 – 147:

Perfect Weapons and the Ethics of “Collateral Damage”

What we euphemistically describe as “collateral damage” in times of war is the direct result of limitations in the power and precision of our technology.  To see that this is so, we need only imagine how any of our recent conflicts would have looked if we had possessed perfect weapons – weapons that allowed us either to temporarily impair or to kill a particular person, or group, at any distance, without harming others or their property.  What would we do with such technology?  Pacifists would refuse to use it, despite the variety of monsters currently loose in the world: the killers and torturers of children, the genocidal sadists, the men who, for want of the right genes, the right upbringing, or the right ideas, cannot possibly be expected to live peacefully with the rest of us.  I will say a few things about pacifism in a later chapter – for it seems to me to be a deeply immoral position that comes to us swaddled in the dogma of highest moralism – but most of us are not pacifists.  Most of us would elect to use weapons of this sort.  A moment’s thought reveals that a person’s use of such a weapon would offer a perfect window onto the soul of his ethics.

Consider the all too facile comparisons that have recently been made between George Bush and Saddam Hussein (or Osama bin Laden, or Hitler, etc.) – in the pages of writers like [Arundhati] Roy and [Noam] Chomsky, in the Arab press, and in classrooms throughout the free world.  How would George Bush have prosecuted the recent war in Iraq with perfect weapons?  Would he have targeted the thousands of Iraqi civilians who were maimed or killed by our bombs?  Would he have put out the eyes of little girls or torn the arms from their mothers?  Whether or not you admire the man’s politics – or the man – there is no reason to think that he would have sanctioned the injury or death of even a single innocent person.  What would Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden do with perfect weapons?  What would Hitler have done?  They would have used them rather differently.

It is time for us to admit that not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development. . .

Consider the horrors that Americans perpetrated as recently as 1968 [during the Vietnam War], at My Lai: . . .

(…)

This is about as bad as human beings are capable of behaving.  But what distinguishes us from many of our enemies is that this indiscriminate violence appalls us.  The massacre at My Lai is remembered as a signature moment of shame for the American military.  Even at the time, US soldiers were dumbstruck with horror by the behaviour of their comrades.  One helicopter pilot who arrived on the scene ordered his subordinates to use their machine guns against their own troops if they did not stop killing villagers.  As a culture we have clearly outgrown our tolerance for the deliberate torture and murder of innocents.  We would do well to realize that much of the world has not.

(…)

Any systematic approach to ethics, or to understanding the necessary underpinnings of a civil society, will find many Muslims are standing eye deep in the red barbarity of the fourteenth century.  There are undoubtedly historical and cultural reasons for this, and enough blame to go around, but we should not ignore the fact that we must now confront whole societies whose moral and political development – in their treatment of women and children, in their prosecution of war, in their approach to criminal justice, and in their very intuitions about what constitutes cruelty – lags behind our own.  This may seem like an unscientific and potentially racist thing to say, but it is neither.  It is not in the least racist, since it is not at likely that there are biological reasons for the disparities here, and it is unscientific only because science has not yet addressed the moral sphere in a systematic way.  Come back in a hundred years, and if we haven’t returned to living in caves and killing each other with clubs, we will have some scientifically astute things to say about ethics.  Any honest witness to current events will realize that there is no moral equivalence between the kind of force civilized democracies project in the world, warts and all, and the internecine violence that is perpetrated by Muslim militants, or indeed by Muslim governments.  Chomsky seems to think that the disparity either does not exist or runs the other way.

Consider the recent conflict in Iraq: If the situation had been reversed, what are the chances that the Iraqi Republican Guard, attempting to execute a regime change on the Potomac, would have taken the same degree of care to minimize civilian casualties?  What are the chances that Iraqi forces would have been deterred by our use of human shields?  (What are the chances we would have used human shields?)  What are the chances that a routed American government would have called for its citizens to volunteer to be suicide bombers?  What are the chances that Iraqi soldiers would have wept upon killing a carload of American civilians at a checkpoint unnecessarily?  You should have, in the ledger of your imagination, a mounting column of zeros.

Nothing in Chomsky’s account acknowledges the difference between intending to kill a child, because of the effect you hope to produce on its parents (we call this “terrorism”), and inadvertently killing a child in an attempt to capture or kill an avowed child murderer (we call this “collateral damage”).  In both cases a child has died, and in both cases it is a tragedy.  But the ethical status of the perpetrators, be they individuals or states, could hardly be more distinct.  Chomsky might object that to knowingly place the life of a child in jeopardy is unacceptable in any case, but clearly this is not a principle we can follow.  The makers of roller coasters know, for instance, that despite rigorous safety precautions, sometime, somewhere, a child will be killed by one of their contraptions.  Makers of automobiles know this as well.  So do makers of hockey sticks, baseball bats, plastic bags, swimming pools, chain-link fences, or nearly anything else that could conceivably contribute to the death of a child.  There is a reason we do not refer to the inevitable deaths of children on our ski slopes as “skiing atrocities.”  But you would not know this from reading Chomsky.  For him, intentions do not seem to matter.  Body count is all.

We are now living in a world that can no longer tolerate well-armed, malevolent regimes.  Without perfect weapons, collateral damage – the maiming and killing of innocent people – is unavoidable.  Similar suffering will be imposed on still more innocent people because of our lack of perfect automobiles, airplanes, antibiotics, surgical procedures, and window glass.  If we want to draw conclusions about ethics – as well as make predictions about what a given person or society will do in the future – we cannot ignore human intentions.  Where ethics are concerned, intentions are everything.

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

Unbelievable? reports on the Intelligence Squared debate on Atheist Fundamentalism

13/12/2009

MSP is featured!

Justin Brierley, presenter of Premier Christian Radio’s sceptical debate show, Unbelievable?, has done a report on the above debate which I attended at Wellington College on 29 November 2009.  You can download the podcast here.

My question to the Christian members of the panel is at 23 minutes.  You can read my report on the lecture given by Ken Ham, head of Answers In Genesis, at Liverpool University in March 2008 over at Butterflies & Wheels here.

Good show Justin, but I could not disagree with you more about Charles Moore being the evening’s “revelation”.  And perhaps you would care to read my piece on why Dawkins most certainly should not debate William Lane Craig.

I’m also in the middle of writing and researching my own paper on whether atheism was responsible for Hitler’s Germany, which I wish I could forward to the audience member who thought that Hitler was an atheist in order to educate her!

Dawkins refuses to debate William Lane Craig

13/12/2009

manicstreetpreacher hopes that this old chestnut can finally be put to rest.

Further to my report on the Intelligence Squared debate at Wellington College on 29 November 2009, someone has edited together a YouTube clip of Richard Dawkins being asked why he refuses to debate William Lane Craig with Dawkins replying that it takes more to persuade him to share a platform with someone than that person just being a “professional debater” and he is “busy”:

Well done, Richard!  I have already given my thoughts here and here on Craig being a complete hack whose five “arguments” have been corrected repeatedly, yet he still continues to use them.  The only aim of the apologists is for Craig to use every dirty trick in his arsenal to make Dawkins look silly and thereby discredit the man rather than having to face the burden of actually answering his arguments.  As John W Luftus over at Debunking Christianity puts it:

Debates are like boxing matches.  No intelligent person thinks that the issues are solved depending on who wins a debate.  No one.  But debates are entertaining and educational.  The debaters are sparring, yes.  We like to watch them.  They want to win.  We want our man (or woman) to win for our side.  But they are like boxing matches.  And Dawkins is the leading atheist in our generation.  So Christians are acting just like the supremacists did back in Jack Johnson’s day.  “Knock Dawkins out,” they’re saying.  “Embarrass him.”  “Show the world our Christian man is better than your atheist man.”  “They’re a minority and so let’s keep them in their place.”  In Johnson’s day it was a fight between the races. This is a fight between skepticism and faith.

Craig has a totally arrogant, patronising and belittling style at the lectern whose only desire is to make fools out of his opponents, as this clip from his 1998 debate with Peter Atkins (YouTube Part 1) attests:

The clip demonstrates most of Craig’s underhand tactics: dropping in too many points than his opponent can possibly answer in the time allowed, straw-manning said opponents’ arguments, gross scientific distortions (he’s dead wrong about the Special Theory of Relativity’s assumption of the speed of light; while we cannot observe it directly going at a constant from A to B, we can make many different predictions about what would happen if that were the case, and verify them which is how we know it’s true), placing the burden of proof on his opponent when he is the one making the claim, discrediting the scientific method (but only when it suits him) without providing any positive arguments as to how faith answers these questions any better and generally being a condescending tool to some of the world’s most respected academics.

Late conservative commentator William F Buckley Jnr being an utterly biased moderator doesn’t help, but Craig doesn’t actually humiliate Atkins at all.  Like most of Craig’s opponents, Atkins is clearly dumbfounded by the idiocy of the man in front of him!

But even with such a wealth of dishonest tricks up his sleeve, Craig is very beatable as long as his opponent has done their homework (which, alas only a select few atheists bother to do!) and present positive reasons to reject belief in God.

I recommend watching and listening to Craig’s debate against Victor Stenger at University of Hawaii in 2003 for a clinical annihilation of his arguments for the existence of God (the video cuts out after first rebuttals, but Stenger comes out with some gems during cross-examination, closing statements and the audience Q & A).  Bart Ehrman thoroughly debunked Craig’s arguments on the historical evidence of Jesus’ resurrection, of which you can read the transcript while while watching or listening to the tape.

Dawkins and Grayling Defend Atheism: Afterthoughts

03/12/2009

manicstreetpreacher relaxes with a cigar and a glass of brandy following a dashed fine battle of rhetoric between the godly and the infidels.

The rain it raineth on the just
And also on the unjust fella;
But chiefly on the just, because
The unjust steals the just’s umbrella.

– Lord Bowen

When you demand “respect”, you are demanding we lie to you.  I have too much real respect for you as a human being to engage in that charade.

– Johann Hari, “Why should I respect these oppressive religions?”

On Sunday, 30 November 2009, I attended a debate hosted by Intelligence Squared at Wellington College, Berkshire entitled “Atheism is the new fundamentalism”.

Speaking for the motion were former bishop of Oxford Richard Harries and former editor of The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator, Charles Moore.

Speaking against the motion were prominent professor of philosopher from Birkbeck College, University of London, author and public commentator A C Grayling and evolutionary biologist, former Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University and “Britain’s Most Prominent Atheist”, Richard Dawkins.

The moderator of the debate was Dr Antony Seldon, master of Wellington College, who deserves an MSP blog profile to himself!

The event was streamed live over the Internet by the organisers and questions were taken over email and Twitter from viewers at the other end of the fibre optics.  Within 24 hours, the full recording was posted on the Intelligence Squared website.

The YouTube playlist begins here:

You can download an MP3 audio of the debate here.

The pre-debate/ live-streaming page for the debate on RichardDawkins.net is here.

The post-debate page on RichardDawkins.net is here.

The motion was defeated in both audience and online polls before and after the event.  The results were as follows:

Initial audience vote

For: 333
Against: 675
Undecided: 389

Final online vote

For: 37
Against: 889
Undecided: 12

Final audience vote

For: 363
Against: 1,070
Undecided: 85

Since the debate was made available on the Internet so soon after the event, I will not give a blow-by-blow account, but will let the viewers judge for themselves and provide my thoughts from the frontline.

As I predicted before the event, this one was far more evenly matched than Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry’s massacre of the Catholic Church in London at the end of October.  Against my predictions, however, was that the tone of the debate was far more hand-to-throat than the tea-and-cucumber-sandwiches-garden-party that I had envisaged.  There was genuine anger between the parties, which surprised me because Richard Dawkins and Richard Harries have shared a platform on a number of occasions and have been united in the fight against the teaching of creationism in science school classes.

Harries especially appeared to have taken matters awfully personally that his friend and colleague, Dawkins, had been so forceful in his condemnation of religion.  Charles Moore, I have say, even as a lifelong reader of The Daily Telegraph, let his side down badly.  His opening speech was packed with ad hominems Richard Dawkins, accusing him of treating the debate on religion like a game of Cluedo: “It was Reverend Green, with the Bible, in the nursery”, and even called him “Kommandant Dawkins” at one point.  Grayling drew a pretty large cheer later on in the evening for hauling Moore up on his below-the-belt tactics.

A commenter on RichardDawkins.net summed Moore up rather well:

After that loathsome Charles Moore used his entire time on a ranting, batshit crazy personal attack against Richard, calling him “Commandant Dawkins” and comparing him to Josef Mengele, I was at first astonished that Richard didn’t bother to respond to any of that garbage, but proceeded to issue a focused attack on the debate proposition which effectively ended the discussion; his points were unanswerable and Harries and Moore didn’t even bother to try.  But then I realized that this is one of the reasons I admire Richard so much: he is perfectly capable of becoming enraged if someone lies about the theory of evolution, but the fact that an asshole slanders him at length is of no interest to him.  Is there anybody around, atheist or otherwise, more passionate about fighting for the truth?

It was Dawkins and Grayling were the stars of the debate and were on tip-top form.  Dawkins was cool and rational.  Grayling – who I saw speak live for the first time on the night – said the least on the panel in terms of words, but spoke volumes more than any of them.  I was very impressed.  The cartoon to which he referred in his opening speech is below:

Grayling continually hammered home the point that it is simply not possible for an atheist to be fundamentalist about their non-belief.  You either believe or you do not.  The word “atheist” is an invention by believers to label those who do not share their views.  Except we do not have words like “afairyist” or “non-stamp collector”.  Grayling was understated and good humoured and drew a big “aaaaaaaah!” from the crowd when he said that the most religious experience he has had was meeting his wife.  He  also also a bitching impression of an old Irish woman greeting a leprechaun.

One member of the audience asked Dawkins why he refused to debate American Christian apologist William Lane Craig, as surely he was avoiding religion’s “best case” in so doing.  Dawkins pithily dismissed Craig (without repeating his name) by saying that he debated with bishops, scientists and theologians who had a valid contribution to make and not just someone “whose only claim to fame is being a professional debater; I’m busy”.

There has been an Internet campaign to get Dawkins and Craig on the same platform and apologists have accused Dawkins of cowardice in refusing the invitation.  Craig himself said that Peter May, Chair of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in the UK contacted Dawkins shortly after The God Delusion went on sale to invite him to debate as part of Craig’s upcoming “Reasonable Faith” tour in the UK in 2007, but Dawkins replied saying that “he had never heard of him” and “it wouldn’t look very good on my CV”.

I’m glad that Dawkins took the opportunity to put this matter to rest.  I will certainly credit Craig with being an expert debater, but that is all he is.  His five “arguments” have been refuted ad nauseum yet he still keeps on using them.  American physicist and author of God, The Failed Hypothesis, Victor Stenger commented during a recent lecture (YouTube Part One) that he refuted Craig’s cosmological argument during their debate in at the University of Hawaii back in 2003 (video / audio) on the basis that Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time recanted his and Roger Penrose’s earlier thesis and now state that the universe did not begin in a singularity known as the “Big Bang”.  According to Stenger, Craig is clearly “lying” to his scientifically ignorant audiences by continuing to use the Kalam Cosmological Argument.

Craig’s strongest weapon is to drop in several points of misinformation and scientific hokum during his time at the microphone and then ridicule and belittle (even by the standards of Christopher Hitchens!) his opponents and say that they have not answered his points.  Pathetic.   I’m sure Craig would mop the floor with Dawkins in a live debate, but it would be the result of multiple punches below the belt.  Besides, Dawkins soundly refutes all five of Craig’s “arguments” in The God Delusion.

The same arguments keep coming up as well.  Dawkins and Grayling had to refute the old “Hitler and Stalin were atheists…” canard for the umpteenth time.  While Dawkins’ line that their atheism was as incidental to their evil acts as their moustaches goes so far, I am still frustrated that he has never really tackled the issue of Stalin’s brutal oppression of the Russian Orthodox Church.  Grayling made up for this minor deficiency by arguing that the 20th century totalitarians were strikingly similar to the three monotheisms in that they set up a monolithic ideology with a leader that could not be questioned under pain of horrific punishment.  It is unsurprising that despite Stalin being an atheist in respect of Yahweh, Christ and Zeus, was still educated to become a priest in a Georgian seminary.  This would have immeasurably influenced his politics and his methods.

And I have to say that Dr Seldon was one of the best moderators I have ever seen!  He was an absolute hoot and very nearly upstaged the speakers with sparklingly wit and camp demeanour which reminded me of John Hurt’s performance in The Naked Civil Servant!

My question to Moore and Harries about their subtle, scholarly, nuanced brand of religion –v- creationist ignorance of the kind I witnessed Ken Ham, head of Answers In Genesis, preach at Liverpool University in March 2008 is at the beginning of part seven.  I’m the baldy headed toff in the cream shirt:

I was reasonably satisfied with their answers in that they did not attempt to evade the question, although of course I wasn’t convinced by them.  Harries played that theist’s trick of saying that the New Atheists are ignoring the evidence.  WELL WHAT IN THE NAME OF GOD AND ALL THAT’S HOLY IS THIS EVIDENCE?!?!?!?!?!

Earlier on the in the Q & A, Harries drew jeers and whistles (including from myself) when he objected to Dawkins and Grayling comparing the probability of the existence of God to the existence of leprechauns.  If Harries thinks we are being shrill and strident in rejecting the Judeo-Christian God as a fairytale, he really ought to consider for a moment whether there is any more evidence to support his faith than belief in Zeus or Amon-Ra!

And I just love the way that both men consider that young-earth creationist beliefs are mad without giving a moment’s thought to the plausibility of a virgin conceiving, a corpse walking and a man defying all the laws of gravity and natural prohibitions with regard to flight without the aid of technology by descending from the sky trailing clouds of glory, surrounded by angels to commence his two thousand year overdue judgment of humanity (both living and dead) for its wrongdoings, before casting most of them into a pit of fire and taking a select few to live happily ever after in his “kingdom”.

Where is the evidence in support of that?

In conclusion – how dare you call us fundamentalists!

This was a truly electric debate.  It was great to be in the audience.  The video really doesn’t do it justice.  While not quite as much fun as the cheap thrill of witnessing Hitch and Fry steamroller the Vatican, the more balanced spread of audience support and the stronger showing by the theist side of the house made for a tense experience.  I had genuine doubts about whether the motion would be defeated in the audience vote.

And all credit to Dawkins and Grayling.  They were polite yet forceful.  They were passionate without being angry.  There were no theatrical performances or cheap personal attacks.  They focused on their opponents’ arguments and demolished them thoroughly.  Moore and Harries were firmly on the back foot and as one questioner towards the end pointed out, they were getting defensive because their side is losing the argument.

More like this Intelligence Squared, please.  And get Antony Seldon to moderate all your debates!

manicstreetpreacher relaxes with a cigar and a glass of brandy following a dashed fine battle of rhetoric between the godly and the infidels.

Richard Dawkins and A C Grayling Debate Atheist Fundamentalism Against the Sweet Mediocrity of Our Native Church

22/11/2009

manicstreetpreacher wets the appetite for his next live debate on religion.

UPDATE 03/12/2009: My afterthought piece of the debate, with video and audio links is here.

Having just about recovered from the other-worldly experience of witnessing Hitchens and Fry exact retribution on a biblical scale against the Catholic Church in London at the end of last month, I am geared up to attend my next live debate.

This time, two of Britain’s finest atheist writers, zoologist Richard Dawkins of Oxford University and philosopher A C Grayling of Birkbeck College, University of London go head-to-head against former Anglican Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, and former editor of The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator Charles Moore to debate the topic “Is Atheism the New Fundamentalism?” The moderator is Dr Antony Seldon, Master of Wellington College.

The debate is being held at on Sunday, 29 November 2009.   The doors open 6pm and the debate starts at 7pm.

Once again, Intelligence Squared is hosting the debate.

The venue is Wellington College, Berkshire:

Wellington College
Duke’s Ride
Crowthorne
Berkshire
RG45 7PU

Tel: 01344 444 000
Fax: 01344 444 002

Email: info@wellingtoncollege.org.uk
Web: www.wellingtoncollege.org.uk
Event page: http://www.wellingtoncollege.org.uk/page.aspx?id=8686

Previous form

Richard Dawkins needs no introduction!  However, this is a rare public debate for him.  Dawkins writes in The God Delusion that he rarely takes part in formal debates because he is not a confrontational person and feels that the adversary format is ill-suited to discover the truth.  Dawkins also refuses to debate creationists because if one of them shared a platform with a prominent evolutionary biologist, it would give the lay pubic the impression that there was a serious issue worth debating!  For the creationists, winning or losing the debate is irrelevant: the victory is that the debate has gone ahead at all.  Dawkins has no desire to provide them with the oxygen of publicity.

However, there are still plenty of debates Dawkins has participated in that are worth investigating.

Dawkins and Grayling teamed up with the Hitch to debate against – as Dawkins later put it – three “rather half-hearted religious apologists (‘Of course I don’t believe in a God with a long white beard, but…’)” on whether “We would all be better off without religion”, the audio of which can be accessed here, or on YouTube:

You can read a review of the event by a pleasantly-surprised believing journalist, Ruth Gledhill, The Times’ religious affairs correspondent here.

Incidentally, Charles Moore, who is standing up for God on this occasion, wrote of that debate:

Although I voted against the motion both times, I think the shift of votes was justified, on the basis of the speeches.  All six spoke well, but the opponents of religion were more eloquent, more passionate, more – odd though it sounds to say it – believing.

The last big debate Dawkins took part in was on 21 October 2008 at the Oxford University Museum of natural history against Oxford University mathematician and Christian John Lennox.  The audio of the debate can be accessed at RichardDawkins.net here.

Dawkins and Lennox also had a closed-door conversation on religion and science earlier in the year with only a tape recorder present, the audio for which can be accessed here.  As American biologist and blogwit, P Z Myers concluded:

Dawkins just probes with a few pointed questions, and Lennox, a theologian, babbles on and on and on, asserting the most amazing things.  All those miracles in the bible?  They literally happened – he doesn’t hide behind metaphor and poetry.  Water into wine, resurrections, walking on water… it all actually happened, exactly as written, and further, he claims that all of these accounts represent historically valid evidence.  This is the sophisticated theology we godless atheists are always skipping over, I guess.

Dawkins’ debate with then head of the Human Genome Project and evangelical Christian for the pages of Time magazine in 2006 is worth a read:

DAWKINS: I accept that there may be things far grander and more incomprehensible than we can possibly imagine.  What I can’t understand is why you invoke improbability and yet you will not admit that you’re shooting yourself in the foot by postulating something just as improbable, magicking into existence the word God.

COLLINS: My God is not improbable to me.  He has no need of a creation story for himself or to be fine-tuned by something else. God is the answer to all of those “How must it have come to be” questions.

DAWKINS: I think that’s the mother and father of all cop-outs.  It’s an honest scientific quest to discover where this apparent improbability comes from.  Now Dr Collins says, “Well, God did it. And God needs no explanation because God is outside all this.”  Well, what an incredible evasion of the responsibility to explain. Scientists don’t do that.  Scientists say, “We’re working on it. We’re struggling to understand.”

Dawkins and Richard Harries had a very civilised discussion for Dawkins’ 2006 Channel 4 documentary, Root of All Evil? (Part 1 / Part 2).  The full uncut interview can be viewed below:

They also debated Darwin and Christianity at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History on Darwin Day 2009:

And let’s not forget that Dawkins and Harries both signed an open letter to the then Prime Minister Tony Blair to protest against the head of new-fangled city academy Emmanuel College, Gateshead, after the head of the science department (!), Stephen Layfield delivered a lecture proposing that young earth creationism and flood geology be taught in science classes:

Dear Prime Minister

We write as a group of scientists and Bishops to express our concern about the teaching of science in the Emmanuel City Technology College in Gateshead.  Evolution is a scientific theory of great explanatory power, able to account for a wide range of phenomena in a number of disciplines.  It can be refined, confirmed and even radically altered by attention to evidence.  It is not, as spokesmen for the college maintain, a ‘faith position’ in the same category as the biblical account of creation which has a different function and purpose.

The issue goes wider than what is currently being taught in one college.  There is a growing anxiety about what will be taught and how it will be taught in the new generation of proposed faith schools.  We believe that the curricula in such schools, as well as that of Emmanuel City Technical College, need to be strictly monitored in order that the respective disciplines of science and religious studies are properly respected.

Yours sincerely

The Right Reverend Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford
Sir David Attenborough, FRS
The Right Reverend Christopher Herbert, Bishop of St Albans
Lord May of Oxford, President of the Royal Society
Professor John Enderby, FRS, Physical Secretary, Royal Society
The Right Reverend John Oliver, Bishop of Hereford
The Right Reverend Mark Santer, Bishop of Birmingham
Sir Neil Chalmers, Director, Natural History Museum
The Right Reverend Thomas Butler, Bishop of Southwark
Sir Martin Rees, FRS, Astronomer Royal
The Right Reverend Kenneth Stevenson, Bishop of Portsmouth
Professor Patrick Bateson, FRS, Biological Secretary, Royal Society
The Right Reverend Crispian Hollis, Roman Catholic Bishop of Portsmouth
Sir Richard Southwood, FRS, Past Biological Secretary, Royal Society
Sir Francis Graham-Smith, FRS, Past Physical Secretary, Royal Society
Professor Richard Dawkins, FRS

Aside from that, Dawkins had a public discussion at The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival in 2007 with Anglican theologian Alistair McGrath following the publication of The God Delusion and McGrath’s reply (if that’s the right word for it), The Dawkins Delusion? (McGrath’s effort is terrible, even by the low standards of the “fleas”.  Paula Kirby does the book justice in her “Fleabytes” review of four Christian responses to The God Delusion.)

However, the real treat is Dawkins’ full uncut interview with McGrath for Root of All Evil?

None of the footage was used in the final version of the programme.  McGrath claimed it was because he had landed several blows on Dawkins and made him “appear uncomfortable”.  My theory is that the producers were concerned for the well-being of viewers who might be operating heavy machinery while watching it.  McGrath is horrendously boring and babbles incomprehensibly.  One blogger at RD.net summed up his style thus:

A fly on the wall in the McGrath household:

MRS McGRATH: What would you like for dinner, dear?

MR McGRATH: Well, if I can just come back on that actually, I think you’ve raised a very interesting point, pivotal to the way this discussion should continue.  This is certainly something that needs to be engaged with and explored further.  It seems to me that there are areas we can push into here that can challenge us and I welcome that.  When I was an atheist, these on-going philosophical subjects were subject to different interpretations and perspectives so, suffice to say, the Christian faith has fortified me and others to take all of these very very very interesting points into account and offer an explanation such as this: Egg and chips will be fine, love.

MRS McGRATH: I’m leaving you.

Nevertheless, try and stay awake because Dawkins uses his wonderful brand of pithy sarcasm, to which McGrath is seemingly oblivious.  And the knock-out punch comes at 45 minutes when Dawkins nails him whether God intervened to save one child in a tsunami that claimed the lives of thousands.  As one blogger commenting on the interview’s entry on RD.net put it:

For 45 minutes it’s a gentle game of ping pong and then when it comes to the issue god and suffering McGrath’s arms get tired and Dawkins switches to a tennis racket.  At 50 minutes McGrath is undone.

Magic!

A C Grayling is a slightly less-known quantity to me.  I have read a few of his books and seen some of his debates and lectures and can recommend the following to whet your appetites.

Against All Gods is Grayling’s contribution to the New Atheism.  It is brief – more of a pamphlet than a book – but there are some real gems in it.  Of particular interest to the topic at hand is Grayling’s rubbishing the concept of “atheist fundamentalism” by asking what a non-fundamentalist atheist is: someone who sort of doesn’t, but not quite not believes in God?!  Grayling also predicts that far from seeing a resurgence of religion, we are actually witnessing its death-throes; a violent convulsion before it’s gone for good.

Grayling is a champion of the enlightenment and wrote Towards the Light in celebration of rationalism’s conquest over dogma.  Be sure to read his hilarious exchanges with wedge-driving ID hack from the ironically-named Discovery Institute, Steve Fuller over Grayling’s damning review of Fuller’s Dissent Over DescentGrayling’s reply to Fuller’s indignant response to his review contained this all-time classic which I have quoted myself on at least one occasion:

Steve Fuller complains, as do all authors whose books are panned, that I did not read his book properly (or at all).  Alas, I did.

Grayling’s appearance at Beyond Belief 2008 on Human Flourishing and Eudaimonics is also worth watching:

Although it has nothing to do with religion, Grayling’s discussion with Christopher Hitchens on the moral implication of the Allies’ devastating bombing campaign against civilians of the Axis powers during World War II at the Goethe-Institut, Washington in 2006 following the publication of Grayling’s Among The Dead Cities is a real treat.   It’s on YouTube in 11 parts or you can watch it on FORA.tv and C-Span.

Predictions for this one

Unlike the rhetorical slaughter by Hitchens and Fry of the Vatican, which I predicted in advance of the actual event, I feel that this one will be too close to call.  Probably both sides will come away claiming victory.  Dawkins and Grayling are far more cordial and polite in comparison to Hitchens’ bull-in-a-china-shop/ take-no-prisoners approach at the lectern.

However, I hope that the two heretics will push the point that atheists are offended by what they read in the holy books of the world’s religions and how this is put into practice all too literally by millions of believers the world over, whether it be  indoctrinating their children into thinking that their non-Catholic/Protestant/Muslim/Jewish [delete as applicable] friends will suffer an eternity in hellfire, to ploughing millions dollars every year into spreading creationism – money that would be far better spent on potentially life-saving scientific research – or flying aeroplanes into skyscrapers.

I know what these books say because I’ve read them.  Why should we respect the utterly ridiculous claim that they could only have been authored by an omnipotent deity?  Why shouldn’t we get angry when such ideas are granted special privilege in public discourse?

The idea that we must automatically “respect” other people’s ideas is complete nonsense.  It is a special favour granted only to religious faith.  In every other area of conversation we most certainly do not respect people’s views and opinions.  If one member of the panel wanted to promulgate their honest, sincere, faith-based claim that the Holocaust never happened, that National Socialism was the only proper form of government, or even something less sinister such as Elvis was still alive, is that a view that the audience would “respect”?  Of course not!

In every other conversational topic we demand good reasons.  We demand evidence.  Reason and evidence really are contagious.  If you give good reasons, people will accept your claims as they accept the colour of your hair.  Religious faith is a reason not to give reasons.  It is a conversation stopper.  Even if the New Atheists are completely wrong about the existence of God and the negative effects of religion upon society, they have at the very least helped moved religious faith into the same sphere.

Perhaps into ten years time whenever someone opens their mouth or puts pen to paper in criticism of religion, this will be accepted as if they had criticised a political ideology as opposed the hysterical responses of the present day where theists and atheists alike rush to publish books and articles denouncing the “shrillness” and “stridency” of those brave few who dare speak out.

At the very least, I hope I get the chance to thank Dawkins for his very kind comment that I was “most certainly not boring” during my appearance on Premier’s Christian Radio’s religious sceptics’ debate show Unbelievable? with author of The Dawkins Letters (another “flea” response to The God Delusion), Pastor David Robertson and former-atheist-converted-to-Christianity, Richard Morgan.

It’s on YouTube in 11 parts or you can watch it on FORA.tv and C-Span.