My Debate with Atheist Christopher Hitchens

Posted: Oct 16, 2007 12:01 AM
My Debate with Atheist Christopher Hitchens

On Monday, October 22 I’ll be debating Christopher Hitchens on “Is Religion the Problem?” The debate is at 7 pm at the Ethical Culture Society auditorium in New York city. It’s open to the public. (Details can be found at Marvin Olasky, editor of World magazine, is the moderator. If you come you can pick up a signed copy of my new book What’s So Great About Christianity or bring your copy to get it autographed. It’s going to be a lively debate.

I know Hitchens and have always liked him. We have debated twice in the past, once on socialism a very long time ago, when Hitchens used to be a socialist. Fortunately Hitchens has seen the error of his ways, although it would have been nice for the epiphany to have come to him during our debate.

Our second debate, a few years ago, was on political correctness. I found it amusing to see Hitchens defend political correctness, because he is not politically correct. Today that’s obvious, as Hitchens is an outspoken defender of Bush’s war in Iraq. But it was becoming clear even then, as Hitchens was challenging his colleagues on the far left on issues like abortion. In any case, this debate was not so much a gladiatorial contest as a lively discussion on a range of issues from affirmative action to multiculturalism to campus speech codes.

I’m surprised at the vehemence and nastiness of Hitchens’ atheism. I didn’t know he harbored these deep resentments. Yes, I know that atheists present their ideas as the pure result of reason and evolution and so on, but I cannot believe that Hitchens regards the idea that we are descended from the apes with anything other than bemused irony. I suspect that Hitchens likes Darwin mainly because Darwin gives him a cudgel with which to beat Christians.

As he admitted in a recent interview, Hitchens calls himself an “anti-theist” rather than an “atheist.” Most atheists say that based on the evidence, they believe God does not exist. Hitchens’ position is somewhat different: he doesn’t want God to exist. He hates the idea of God’s existence because he thinks of God as a tyrant who supervises his moral life. Even the tyranny of Stalin or Kim Jong Il, Hitchens says, ends when you die. But this God, he wants obedience and praise and worship even in the afterlife! To Hitchens that’s a form of unceasing subservience and slavery.

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.