D’Souza vs. Hitchens

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Joshua Zelinsky
    October 24, 2007

    Nitpick: Referring to the list of Christian scientists you say: “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.” By the time of Mendel at least there was already massive evidence for the earth being old at least in the range of millions of years.

  2. #2 Michael Clarkson
    October 24, 2007

    Good article. I have a slight problem with your statement that no atheist evil compares to the Spanish Inquisition; it seems to me (and I welcome rebuttal) that the Cultural Revolution was quite similar to the Inquisition in its punishment of heterodoxy and forcible attempts at re-education. Having read Life and Death in Shanghai before learning the details of European history, the Cultural Revolution actually formed a significant part of my context for understanding the Inquisition. As for the witch trials, Stalin’s purges would seem to be a reasonable counterpart.

    You were right earlier in that graf when you admitted that totalitarians are evil whether they’re religious or not. Going back and trying to unsay it was a mistake, in my opinion.

  3. #3 Jim RL
    October 24, 2007

    Is it even possible to imagine a species that can’t understand the world it lives in being very successful? If we somehow survived with brains that couldn’t make sense of the universe that would be evidence of divine intervention. But, that’s how the religious succeed by trying to have it both ways. If something horrible happens, thank god it wasn’t any worse. If something great happens, thank god for that. If something horrible happens to large group of people and some of them are bad in the eyes of the godly, well that was just righteous punishment. An omnipotent god for some reason uses massive hurricanes to punish fornicators.

  4. #4 brtkrbzhnv
    October 24, 2007

    Michael Clarkson: Those are not atheist evils in the sense that the inquisition is a Christian evil; i.e. they were not motivated by atheism (or antitheism for that matter). If we don’t blame Christianity for Hitler’s wrongdoings, we also oughtn’t blame atheism for Stalin’s.

  5. #5 Joseph
    October 24, 2007

    The assertion that Christianity is based on metaphysical assumptions that are explicitly Christian is dramatically, blatantly wrong. For most of the current era, science was considered wicked and sinful.

  6. #6 Michael Clarkson
    October 24, 2007

    brtkrbzhnv – That’s a good point, but at the same time Jason didn’t just say the Inquisition and witch trials were Christian evils, but that “only deeply religious people could have presided over” them. This is not even trivially true–any cynic determined to use the religious beliefs of others for his own gain could have presided over either (I do not mean to imply that this was the case).

    The larger implication is that there is something about religiosity that uniquely enables particular abuses. This is also not true, and I think it’s a bad idea to pretend that it is. Murder, torture, and terror in pursuit of ideological orthodoxy can be pursued by atheist ideologues just as easily as religious ones.

    And while the Cultural Revolution and the purges were not just about the enforcement of atheism, the Inquisition and witch trials were hardly just about enforcing Christianity either. To a large degree, the Inquisition merely used the pursuit of a Christian orthodoxy to achieve political and monetary ends of the monarchs. The Cultural Revolution similarly used the pursuit of an atheist orthodoxy to achieve Mao’s political ends.

    Who knows what really happened in Salem? It’s undeniable that Christian beliefs only made that situation worse, but mass hysteria and paranoia don’t need religious or even superstitious underpinning to result in destructive and even murderous behavior.

    Oh, and the low death toll in the Inquisition wasn’t due to inefficiency or inability–the Mongols were killing untold millions in Asia and Europe centuries before the Spaniards got started with their little scheme. The civilian toll of the Crusades was impressive, too. The death toll of the Inquisition is low because they didn’t want to kill hundreds of thousands. This preference was not the result of Christian virtue, but arose from practicality and the aims of the institution.

  7. #7 Kurt
    October 24, 2007

    Eh. I guess Hitch was kind of off his game but I still think he won the debate. D’Souza argued the entire time as if the existence of Dog was a given. What a Maroon! Plus, his aping of a clergyman giving a sermon doesn’t serve him well but makes him look foolish.

  8. #8 Strider
    October 24, 2007

    At the point where they talked about who’s side is responsible for more deaths D’Souza jumped on how all deaths attributable to Xtianity are part of history whereas those attributable (in his opinion) Atheism were more modern. Hitchens missed an opportunity to use Sam Harris’ example of the Vatican policy of discouraging condom use and its terrible toll on AIDS deaths in Africa.

  9. #9 bmkmd
    October 25, 2007

    Hitler would be insulted if he knew he was used as an example of atheism.

    His Mein Kampf is filled with religious reference. He and most Nazis saw themselves as righteous Christians, and the German churches overwhelming saw nazism as having Christian values.

    In 1933 Hitler was elected on a platform to return Germany to religious morality, and undo the mischief and imorality of the Weimar republic, democracy, women’s rights, tolerance of atheists and communism.
    Even when he rejected the Old Testament as too jewish he followed on the footsteps of pre-world war I protestants.

    Christians should be challenged on their apologist stances for Christianity and the Nazis?

  10. #10 OrneryPest
    October 25, 2007

    Distort D’Newsa is a talented debater because he’s great at rhetoric, an admirable talent, but no substitute for rational thought.

  11. #11 SLC
    October 25, 2007

    1. Although apparently D’Souza didn’t include Issac Newton among his list of Christian scientists, many other commentators do. In that regard, it should be pointed out that Newton rejected the concept of the Trinity and thus would not be considered a Christian by most members of that faith.

    2. One should also include the Thirty Years War among examples of religious wars (in that case between Catholics and Protestants). Given the population of Europe at that time, I suspect that the carnage from that war was as great among the civilian population as during the Second World War, on a percentage basis.

  12. #12 Thony C.
    October 25, 2007

    His list of great scientists: Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, Brahe, Priestly, Lavoisier, Gasendi, Mersenne (!!), and Mendel.

    Jason, I assume that the double exclamation marks after Mersenne’s name are from you and are intended to query his status as a great scientist. There are several reasons as to why he earns a place in such a list but the simplest is that he is the founder of modern acoustics.

    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.”

    All three of D’Souza’s metaphysical assumptions were already held by the ancient Greeks who were definitely not Christians. In fact their adoption in the Scientific Renaissance by the Christian scholars was largely due to their adoption of Pythagorean and Platonic ideas. The same assumptions can be found to some extant in Babylonian, Indian, Chinese and Islamic science all non-Christian cultures so D’Souza’s claim is fairly vacuous.

  13. #13 Painfully yours
    October 25, 2007

    Such simpletons. I have yet to read any reasonable comments from “scientific minds”. Many of you sound like Hillary Clinton’s and frequent vocalization of “word salads”. Please just be scientific and answer the question without all the whinny hysteria.
    Answer this: Is it possible to have both Creationism and Evolution coexist in the universe?
    Can information( angels, souls, people, Christopher Hitchens, mice or whatever)traveling via worm holes knitting themselves through the fabric of time seemingly faster than the speed of light, interlacing themselves seven times and creating seven windows of proximity in such a way that the billions of years traveled happened in seven days during the Creation or the Big Bang , thus allowing both the long eons of Evolution and the creation of Heaven and Earth in seven days. Is this possible via quantum physics/mechanics? May be.
    My point fellow “scientific minds” is that you tend to blab, blab, blab without having some requisite far reaching hypothesis to answer the apposing questions. Shamefully, your fears and lack of imagination limits you to a level below brilliant, and makes you technically smart and boring. So you see how crude and limited you sound when you emotionally decry “The Cruel God” or the lack of His existence. And one more thing, what makes many of you think that having an atheistic society would solve the world’s problems. Do you forget how many people the cruelest atheist murderer Stalin exterminated- 50,000,000- can you count that high? No! Perhaps in another language…Вы можете считать это высоко? And what about the other godless dictators that oppress their enslaved people, IE; Communist Chinese, Castro, Chavez and the cruel warlords in Africa. Don’t any of you know any anthropology? Our behavior is fundamentally genomic. We have wars, murder and rape because it is in all of us. Predicated by the right conditions you sissy geeks would do just that, murder, steal, rape and plunder. You just have not reached that threshold. Grow up and be real scientists for God’s sake.

  14. #14 Budbear
    October 25, 2007

    Oh dear. It seems someone is off their meds.

  15. #15 painfully yours
    October 26, 2007

    Is that the best you can do? Wow are you tough. Show some guts.

  16. #16 Coin
    October 26, 2007

    D’Souza vs. Hitchens

    Holy crap. It’s like, whoever wins, we lose.

  17. #17 Andy
    October 26, 2007

    Painfully yours | October 25, 2007 7:42 PM writes…

    “what makes many of you think that having an atheistic society would solve the world’s problems.”

    I never understood the reasoning behind this question.

    Should we believe in god because he provides us with a moral structure or because he actually exists?

  18. #18 pough
    October 26, 2007

    Definitely reads like a de-medicated mind, or a carefully worded “salad” that accurately parodies one. If it’s the latter, nice work!

  19. #19 paul fc
    October 27, 2007

    D’Souza at the beginning points out that where he grew up he learned that the Salem Witch trials that ?thousands were killed. I wish I could rewind it right now, but I can’t. Where I grew up, in New England, it was made pretty clear that a few handful of witches were tried and killed.

    Reading “A Candle in the Dark”, Sagan proposes that countless people were murdered in the name of religion in the dark ages.

    Dinesh goes on to talk about the low number of victims of religion via the Inquisition etc., compared to the high number of “casualties” performed by atheist regimes.

    Seems to me like D’Souza wants to ignore some of the evidence, and is doing an Atheist vs Christian body count.

    weird.

  20. #20 Leni
    October 28, 2007

    Can information( angels, souls, people, Christopher Hitchens, mice or whatever)traveling via worm holes knitting themselves through the fabric of time seemingly faster than the speed of light, interlacing themselves seven times and creating seven windows of proximity in such a way that the billions of years traveled happened in seven days during the Creation or the Big Bang , thus allowing both the long eons of Evolution and the creation of Heaven and Earth in seven days. Is this possible via quantum physics/mechanics? May be.

    Holy. Crap.

    LOL.

    That was painful, so at least s/he was right about one thing.

  21. #21 Alex, FCD
    October 29, 2007

    Answer this: Is it possible to have both Creationism and Evolution coexist in the universe?

    It’s possible. It’s also possible to have unicorns and evolution in the same universe, but there isn’t any evidence for it.

    Can information( angels, souls, people, Christopher Hitchens, mice or whatever)traveling via worm holes knitting themselves through the fabric of time seemingly faster than the speed of light, interlacing themselves seven times and creating seven windows of proximity in such a way that the billions of years traveled happened in seven days during the Creation or the Big Bang , thus allowing both the long eons of Evolution and the creation of Heaven and Earth in seven days. Is this possible via quantum physics/mechanics? May be.Um, no. I’m not nearly enough of a physicist to critique the bit about wormholes, but I’m pretty sure that the rest of it doesn’t mean anything.

  22. #22 Alex, FCD
    October 29, 2007

    The part from “Can information…” to “…May be.” Should be in block quotes. Caffeine is my friend.

  23. #23 Robert Hutchinson
    October 31, 2007

    Just a note on slavery.

    The Bible does NOT condone or approve of slavery — at least, not what WE mean by slavery. The Hebrew word we translate as “slave,” eved, simply means “worker.” It comes from the root avodah, which means work. Jewish translations more accurately translate it as “bondservant.” The institution the Bible regulates is actually what we would call “indentured servitude,” in which impoverished people or children are “sold” into contracted labor for a fixed contract… which the Bible fixes at no more than six years. This is hardly slavery.

    Second, there were slaves in a stronger sense, but these were almost always captured prisoners of war or criminals. In world without prisons or social welfare systems, this was considered an act of mercy since the alternative was slaughter. In general, Christianity, including the Roman popes, tolerated forced labor for captured prisoners of war or criminals but unilaterally condemned what we mean by slavery.

    Third, what WE mean by slavery in the real sense — the kidnapping of innocent persons for forced labor — the bible explicitly condemns. Deut. 24:7 says explicitly that “if a man is caught kidnapping one of his brother Israelites and treats him as a slave or sells him, the kidnapper must die. You must purge the evil from among you.” Hardly a ringing endorsement of slavery, eh?

    People ASSUME they know what the Biblical texts say without bothering to check.

  24. #24 G. Shelley
    November 1, 2007

    Deut. 24:7 says explicitly that “if a man is caught kidnapping one of his brother Israelites and treats him as a slave or sells him, the kidnapper must die. You must purge the evil from among you.” Hardly a ringing endorsement of slavery, eh?

    Which, by its very language means that kidnapping someone who isn’t a brother Israelite and enslaving them is fine

  25. #25 Christianity
    November 12, 2007

    The debate is very interesting and frustrating and got clarified many things for me and finally I feel that Hitchens won it in a route and also D’souza scored some marks while arguing with Hitchens. Thanks for posting such a nice post.

  26. #26 386sx
    November 12, 2007

    People ASSUME they know what the Biblical texts say without bothering to check.

    Okay sorry about that. We’ll try a little harder next time. Thanks.

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