Thursday, October 25, 2007

Christopher Hitchens vs. Dinesh D'Souza:
"Is Christianity the Problem?"

Many thanks to Malcolm for sharing a link to a video of a debate between "anti-theist" Christopher Hitchens and writer Dinesh D'Souza, who represented the Christian side. The topic was "Is Christianity the Problem?" I watched the debate and came away, as I usually do when watching such debates, both fascinated by the content and frustrated by the many points left unmade. D'Souza had more audience sympathy, seeing as the debate was held at The King's College, a Christian university (housed in the Empire State Building, no less!), but both debaters made their cases well. They also behaved sloppily at times: both engaged in a bit of sucker punching, which I suspect is what much of the audience came for. But the exchange remained civil; the humorous highlight was when one audience member asked a question about preexistence, existence, and post-existence-- a question that Hitchens dismissed with a brusque "Next! NEXT!"

One point that D'Souza made, and to which Hitchens should have responded more strongly, was about the nature of natural "laws" and whether they admit of exceptions. Although D'Souza never used the term "inductive reasoning," his argument at that point in the debate was hammering on the fact that the "laws" of nature we have discovered are known to be true only insofar as we have tested them, i.e., we don't know them to be universally applicable. D'Souza gives the example of the speed of light, and even employs the decidedly atheistic David Hume to argue that, even if we were to test a phenomenon 50 million times, we could not be said to have established that a natural "law" is truly universal. In other words, there might be times when the speed of light in a vacuum might vary, or there might be regions of the universe where light behaves differently from what we know.

Had I been the one debating D'Souza, my reply to this would have begun as Hitchens's had: I would have conceded that inductive reasoning cannot lead from specific cases to the establishment of universals. But I would have gone on to ask D'Souza why it is that people feel justified in basing their feats of design and engineering on those natural/mathematical principles.

D'Souza's larger point is that, if we cannot verify whether natural laws admit of exceptions, then miracles are at least possible. But I would reply that if the laws we have discovered seem to apply with rigorous consistency to the behavior of matter all across the known universe,* then the burden of proof lies on the theist to tell us just how open those laws of nature are, and what empirically verifiable miracles have occurred. This is, after all, something the miracle-believing theist wants to do: to make an empirical claim about miracles-- or, more precisely, about the miraculous power of the divine. This is what leads to such beliefs/claims as "prayer cures cancer," etc.

D'Souza based most of his arguments on behalf of Christianity on moral grounds. As far as I remember, he explicitly did not try to base arguments on scripture and theology, for he knew they would be unimpressive to his opponent. He and Hitchens spent some time on the question of religion and totalitarianism, with D'Souza perhaps scoring more points in this area (at least with the audience) because Hitchens simply didn't have time to formulate a cogent answer. Hitchens did, however, ask his now-famous question: Can you name one moral act performed by a believer that CANNOT ALSO be performed by a non-believer? Hitchens said that, in all the debates in which he has participated, no one has answered his question. I'll save you the suspense: D'Souza failed to address it as well.

Personally, I don't see religion as inherently evil, nor do I consider it a thing to be eradicated. I'm a scientific skeptic in most respects, but I think that the flaws we see in religion are ultimately sourced not so much in the phenomenon of religion itself as in human nature-- the ways we behave when we hold certain beliefs. D'Souza argued rather effectively (if tendentiously) that godless totalitarian regimes have done far more damage in recent history than religion has. But Hitchens's response, which was that totalitarian regimes bear the hallmarks of religion, is also well taken. The two sides, when taken together, come close to where I stand on the matter of religion. It is a deeply flawed phenomenon, but to dismiss it as a kind of cancer seems extreme. The good done in the name of religion has, historically, been underreported.

One point of great dissatisfaction to me was that Hitchens failed to address non-theistic religions, which are never mentioned by either debater.** Worse, Hitchens sometimes appeared to be guilty of the black-and-white dogmatism that D'Souza accused him of. I understand Hitchens's reasons for being so "exercised" (as he puts it) about living in a world dominated by religion, but I do not believe he will be able to fight fire with fire. His stance toward Mother Theresa is baffling to me; while I agree that she probably did harm along with doing good, I would hesitate in calling that tiny little woman a criminal, as Hitchens does in some of his writing.

If you have 95 minutes to spare, I recommend the video to you. The direct link to it is here.

*See, for example, the observations we have made about galaxies millions of light years distant; the behavior of those galaxies seems remarkably consistent with what we know about physics.

**This may be because time was limited and the debate's focus was Christianity. However, Hitchens did mention both Judaism and Islam on several occasions; he could have talked about Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, etc. D'Souza could have, too. The question of competing religious truth claims was barely touched upon.


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