So far Hitchens and his fellow atheists have had it relatively easy. Hitchens has been going around the country debating pastors. Pastors are supposed to be models of Christian charity. This means that Hitchens can call them names but they cannot call him names. Pastors are required to turn the other cheek, while Hitchens gets ready to kick them in the rear end. Moreover, pastors are not used to fending off attacks from people who deny the validity of the gospels and, in Hitchens’ case, even cast doubt on the historical existence of Jesus Christ. How can you quote Scripture to a man who denies the authority of Scripture to adjudicate anything?
So Hitchens has a good game going, because he gets to make outrageous claims and they are going mostly unchallenged. Consider Hitchens’ discussion of one of the classic Christian proofs for the existence of God. Hitchens takes up Anselm’s so-called ontological argument, and he makes short work of it. Basically Anselm argues that God is, by definition, a being than which no greater can be conceived. But if God is such a being, he must exist. Why? Because if it didn’t, then he would be a being than which a greater could be conceived.
Anselm’s argument seems like a theological rabbit pulled from a rhetorical top hat. Yet when you ponder the logic. it is surprisingly strong. Philosophers of the caliber of Descartes and Leibniz have accepted the validity of Anselm’s ontological argument and given their own versions of it. Others, such as Aquinas and Kant, have considered the argument defective. But not one of them takes Hitchens’ line, which is to accuse Anselm of arguing that everything that can be conceived must exist.
This is emphatically not what Anselm is saying. He is not so foolish as to claim that if you can imagine a unicorn, therefore a unicorn must exist. Anselm’s argument only applies to one special case. God is defined, even by atheists, as a being of the highest conceivable perfection. Now such a being can exist only in the mind, or in the mind and in reality as well. Anselm argues that it is greater or more perfect to exist both in the mind and in reality, than to exist in the mind alone. Therefore God must exist, because otherwise he would not be a being of the highest conceivable perfection.
As centuries of commentary on Anselm confirms, this is an argument that seems hard to accept, and yet it is not very easy to refute. Hitchens certainly doesn’t do it. I have a mixed view of Hitchens’ arguments, but his real strength is in launching witty and pungent barbs at Christianity. Having shared the podium with him in the past, I know he’s an agile debater. But so am I, and I’m ready for this one. Perhaps one good thing that can come out of all these atheist books is that they bring God back into the mainstream of American cultural debate. It’s long overdue.