Another day, another debate between Christopher Hitchens and a defender of the faith. This time it was Dinesh D’Souza. The video of the procedings can be found here.
It was a frustrating debate. Through most of it I felt D’Souza and Hitchens were talking about different things. Hitchens focused primarily on whether the major claims of Christianity are true, and he was his usual funny and trenchant self in doing so. D’Souza addressed very few of Hitchens’ points in this regard, and instead focused on why Christianity is a force for good in society. I think Hitchens won in a rout on the question of whether Christianity is true, but I think D’Souza scored some points by arguing that Hitchens overreaches in subtitling his book “How Religion Poisons Everything.” Personally, I would have said it is mixing church and state that poisons everything, not religion per se. It’s just that since widespread religious faith in a society usually leads to mixing church and state, I often don’t bother making the distinction.
Things got started with ten minute opening statements from both people, followed by five minute rebuttals. In this phase I felt D’Souza really embarrassed himself. His arguments were, I’m afraid, very poor.
His opening salvo was to marvel at the militancy of atheists like Hitchens. “I don’t believe in unicorns,” he mused, “but I haven’t written any books on the subject.” But that’s because no one tries to set public policy based on their understanding of what unicorns want. Unicorn believers don’t declare fatwas, or try to curtail potentially life-saving medical research. As Hitchens himself has noted many times, if religious folks were content to practice their faith in private and leave the rest of us alone, there would be no need for intemperate books.
Next was the argument that all of the really good things that atheists value, freedom of dissent, social equality, respect for the individual, personal dignity, antipathy toward oppression and slavery, compassion as a social virtue, actually came into the world as the result of Christianity. This, of course, is a highly dubious claim, despite D’Souza’s best attempts to defend it for several minutes, focusing especially on the record of Christianity with regard to slavery. It is a cliche to note that many American clergymen were on the front lines in the fight to protect slavery. The Bible nowhere condemns slavery and at least arguably endorses it. So on the subject of slavery Christianity certainly has nothing to be proud of.
Then it was on to reconciling science and religion. D’Souza played the old “Most of the great scientists through history not only believed in God, but were specifically Christian!” card. His list of great scientists: Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, Brahe, Priestly, Lavoisier, Gasendi, Mersenne (!!), and Mendel.
Notice anything they all have in common? All of them came before the succession of scientific discoveries that really challenged the accuracy of Christian teaching. The evidence for the great age of the Earth, the understanding that fossils represented the remains of long extinct creatures, and, of course, evolution. They also came before science had proved itself repeatedly able to clear up mysteries about the natural world in ways that theologians never dreamed of. D’Souza never addresses any of this, preferring instead to take pride in what a handful of medieval scientists thought on this matter.
Amusingly, D’Souza at one point referenced the “Great scientists of the West, stretching from Kepler to Newton.” Considering that Kepler lived from 1571-1630 while Newton lived from 1642-1727, I’d say we’re talking about a pretty short stretch.
Then came D’Souza’a assertion that science is based on three metaphysical assumptions that are explicitly Christian. First: that the universe as a whole is rational. Second: that matter obeys laws that are expressible in the language of mathematics. Third: that our brains are capable of apprehending those laws. D’Souza argued that theists can readily explain these facts. God is a rational who made the world with our needs in mind. But an atheist, “cannot take any of this for granted.”
Now, I’ve heard this argument enough times from enough intelligent people that I figure there must be something to it. But I don’t see it. It looks like rank stupidity to me. First, simply assuming that a rational and loving God exists is hardly an improvement over assuming directly that the world is rational. It is the testimony of our everyday lives that nature is broadly regular and predictable. That fact does not become understandable by hypothesizing an incomprehensible supernatural force at work in the universe.
Things that are not intelligent can not decide what it is they want to do. We could imagine a universe where matter followed laws different from the ones they are actually seen to follow. But I would argue that we can not imagine a universe in which lifeless matter behaves in utterly unpredictable ways.
And imagine that that did happen. Say that every time you dropped a ball it did something different. Sometimes it fell to the ground quickly, other times it fell slowly, still others it floated upwards. Would that be evidence that there is no God? Of course not, just the opposite. You would conclude immediately that supernatural forces were at work. Orderliness and regularity are what you expect from a universe without supernatural entities. It is when the other world intervenes that regularity breaks down.
It’s funny. D’Souza argues that it is the regularity and orderliness of the universe that argues for the existence of God. But the ID folks tell us that God is found by locating gaps in the orderly working of nature. Well, which is it?
D’Souza saved his dumbest point for last. He argued that if you look at the death toll of the Salem Witch trials, the Spanish Inquisition, and the crusades, they are small relative to what Stalin, Hitler and Mao wrought. For example, in the 300 years or so of the Spanish Inquisition, a mere 2000 people were killed.
Leaving aside the issue of whether atheism is implicated in the actions of D’Souza’s list of thugs, the fact is that the Spanish Inquisition did not have access to twentieth century technology. Their low death toll arose from the primitive level of death-inflicting technology at the time, not any benevolence on the part of the authorities. And death is not the only issue. The environment of terror and oppression created by the authorities in Salem, for example, must be taken into consideration.
The fact is we know that powerful people routinely do horrible things for reasons both religious and secular. Totalitarianism can wear both a secular and a religious face. This is simply a consequence of human nature. Power corrupts. It is neither a point against atheism nor a point against religion. But there are certain sorts of evil and despotism that are uniquely religious. It was only deeply religious people who could have presided over the Salem witch trials or the Spanish Inquisition. There is no comparable atheist evil to point to.
That was the end of D’Souza’a opening. I was feeling pretty good at this point, and Hitchens effectively routed him during their prepared remarks.
Alas, D’Souza rallied during the lengthy Q and A. In several places I don’t think Hitchens replied effectively to D’Souza’s arguments, and in others I don’t think he was successful in handling the questions from the audience. Which is a pity, because certainly effective replies were at hand.
I’ll mention just two examples, one minor and one major. At one point Hitchens suggested that there was a large element of wish fulfillment in the continued success of religion. D’Souza replied that it makes sense to say that heaven could be the result of wishful thinking, but not hell, which is surely a rather unpleasant thing indeed and not something people would wish to be true. I wanted Hitchens to point out that while hell in the abstract is awfully unpleasant, the idea that it is only those folks who think differently from me who go to hell, while I and those who think like me will get everlasting life, is rather better.
That was the minor point. The bigger one was D’Souza’s argument, made twice, that the ability of our minds to apprehend nature reflects the existence of a benign deity. Atheists can not explain this strange ability of our minds, while theists have a ready answer in the form of their belief in God. Hitchens never really responded to this argument.
Which is a pity, because the answer is pretty obvious. Our brains are actually easily fooled by a variety of optical illusions, and in many areas of science we encounter ideas that require years of training just to catch a glimpse of. This makes sense if our brains evolved by natural selection, which would have valued accurate perceptions in situations we encounter regularly, but would not have been so particular about our perceptions of, say, the subatomic world or the world of very fast-moving objects.
So atheists have a ready explanation for the suite of abilities and failings we find in the human brain. Theists have to explain why a God who wanted the world to be understandable nonetheless made science so difficult and counterintuitive that it took millennia for it to get off the ground and faced one threat after another from religious authorities who saw their power threatened by what scientists were discovered, all while people suffered and died for the lack of the most rudimentary understanding of how the world worked.
Anyway, if you have ninety minutes to kill I recommend wtaching the video. D’Souza is a talented debater and Hitchens was a bit off his game in the latter stages of the evening, but it’s worth watching nonetheless.