The Beauty of Art

A really interesting and thought provoking conversation between the Four Horsemen. You can see Christopher candidly talking about a bit of it (1:09:00, 1:15:10, 1:30:58 ) here. Larry Taunton’s biography on Christopher Hitchens also sheds light on some of his comments in this discussion, and why he seems to sit apart at times from the others in his opinions. Anyway, here is a bit of a transcript starting sometime before 1:28:00 I think:

Sam Harris: There is this domain of the sacred that is not easily captured by science, and scientific discourse has really seeded it to religious discourse.

Dennet suggests art, but Harris counters: I would argue that it’s not fully captured by art. You can’t go into a museum and see compassion in its purest form. And I think there is something about the way we, as atheists, merely dismiss the bogus claims of religious people that convinces religious people that there is something we are missing. And I think we have to be sensitive to this.

Talking about the beauty of religious art Sam Harris says that it’s just the way things were; that all artists and their patrons were religious, so it was therefore all religious.

Hitchens: I can’t hear myself say “If only he [Michaelangelo] had a secular patron he would have done just as good work”.

Dawkins “that Michealangelo, if he was commissioned to do the ceiling of a museum of science, would not have come up with something quite as wonderful?”

Hitchens “In some way, I am reluctant to affirm that, yes.”

Dawkins “I find it very, very easy to believe that”.

Hitchens “that could be a difference between us”.

Hitchens “with devotional poetry I find it very hard to believe that it is fake. Or done for a patron…My favourite devotional poem is Philip Larkin’s the church goer… I wouldn’t trust anyone who felt any more or any less than Larkin does when he goes through a wayside Gothic church in the English countryside. He felt, I dare not say believed …,he is an atheist, …. there is something serious about this, and something written into the human personality as well as the landscape… ([about Dunn’s poetry] There is an X factor involved that I am quite happy to assume will persist and will need to be confronted (me-I think that is what he said)?

I think we are about here now 1:30:00.

Here is the poem btw


Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.

Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new –
Cleaned, or restored? Someone would know: I don’t.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
‘Here endeth’ much more loudly than I’d meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches will fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these – for which was built
This special shell? For, though I’ve no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

That poem seems to me to be someone standing at a place he somehow knows means something, yet he can’t put his finger on it. He knows its deep significance, but the memory of what it is is lost to him. It’s just cold stone and empty pews. But still he keeps returning. Standing there, hoping for the penny to drop. Is it just a place for marriages and deaths? Surely there is nothing of worth here, yet he is drawn back there. I think this poem describes Hitchen to a T. He as much says so.

“I wouldn’t trust anyone who felt any more or any less than Larkin”

Harris: “I think there is place for the sacred in our lives, but under some construal that does not presuppose any (expletive deleted). There is a usefulness for seeking profundity as a matter of our attention. And our neglect of this area as atheists at times makes even our craziest opponents seem wiser than we are”.

Dawkins “I would like to see churches empty but I would not like to see ignorance of the Bible because you cannot understand literature without knowing the Bible, you can’t understand art, you can’t understand music, there are all sorts of things you can’t understand for historical reasons. But those historical reasons you can’t wipe out. So even if you can’t go to church to pray, you need to understand what it meant to people to pray. And why they did it. And what these verses in the Bible mean.”

Sam “Is that all that is in it, a historical perspective?”

Dawkins “you could lose yourself in it, just as you could lose yourself in a work of fiction without actually believing that the characters are real”.

Dennet : “Can’t you imagine a church where you have rituals and loyalty and songs but no irrationality?”

Dawkins “Oh, yes, where you have the music and poetry and go to those places for funerals and weddings and beautiful poetry and music group solidarity.”

Hitchens is arguing that a secular world view should welcome the persistence of faith which he defines, upon being pressed, as “Something like the belief that there must be more than we can know”. Which they all heartily agree with. But Hitchens is saying or at least thinking and exploring more than they imagine I think. “if we could find a way of forcing the distinction between the numinous and the superstitious we would be doing something culturally quite important”.

He means, I think, that there is a lot about religion that he finds repellent. Stupid. But that there is something there that is substantive and true. Again, he is like the man standing in the church seeing nothing, yet knowing there is something there.

Dawkins “You can read fiction and be totally moved to tears, but you don’t have to believe that it actually happened”.

Me – but you must, at some level, believe that it is touching and expressing something real. Anyway, I found the whole conversation very interesting in all sorts of ways.

Here are some of my thoughts on beauty.


A very human perspective on an intellectual debate

Just read a great article by Peter Hitchens. I guess its publicizing his new book “Rage Against God”, but it felt very honest and insightful none the less.

In it he tells how he came back to God after a long time of rebellion.

Peter Hitchens

The full details would be tedious for most people, and unwelcome to my family. Let us just say they include some political brawling with the police, some unhinged dabbling with illegal drugs, an arrest…

There were also numberless acts of minor or major betrayal, ingratitude, disloyalty, dishonour, failure to keep promises and meet obligations, oath-breaking, cowardice, spite or pure selfishness. Nothing I could now do or say could possibly atone for them.

A picture played a key role in his conversion:

No doubt I should be ashamed to confess that fear played a part in my return to religion, specifically a painting: Rogier van der Weyden’s 15th Century Last Judgement, which I saw in Burgundy while on holiday.

Rogier van der Weyden's Last Judgement

I had scoffed at its mention in the guidebook, but now I gaped, my mouth actually hanging open, at the naked figures fleeing towards the pit of Hell.

These people did not appear remote or from the ancient past; they were my own generation. Because they were naked, they were not imprisoned in their own age by time-bound fashions.

On the contrary, their hair and the set of their faces were entirely in the style of my own time. They were me, and people I knew.

He snuck into a carol concert, got married in a church, then his wife and first daughter got baptised. At first he was loathed to talk about his faith in most circles but:

It is a strange and welcome side effect of the growing attack on Christianity in British society that I have now overcome this.


He asks “Why the fury against religion now?”

Because religion is the one reliable force that stands in the way of the power of the strong over the weak. The one reliable force that forms the foundation of the concept of the rule of law.

The one reliable force that restrains the hand of the man of power. In an age of power worship, the Christian religion has become the principal obstacle to the desire of earthly utopians for absolute power.

Science is not the sole discoverer of truth:

While I was making my gradual, hesitant way back to the altar-rail, my brother Christopher’s passion against God grew more virulent and confident.

As he has become more certain about the non-existence of God, I have become more convinced we cannot know such a thing in the way we know anything else, and so must choose whether to believe or not. I think it better by far to believe.

The argument from morals:

One of the problems atheists have is the unbelievers’ assertion that it is possible to determine what is right and what is wrong without God. They have a fundamental inability to concede that to be effectively absolute a moral code needs to be beyond human power to alter.

On this misunderstanding is based my brother Christopher’s supposed conundrum about whether there is any good deed that could be done only by a religious person, and not done by a Godless one. Like all such questions, this contains another question: what is good, and who is to decide what is good?

This is a key, key question! Where is the standard for right and wrong? I know Christopher does believe in the transcendent, so would not go with Dawkins and Hawking on this. Some people would say that there is a transcendent moral truth that is knowable in part through reason, or is universally recognised in different cultures. They seem to doff their cap to it, and recognise it must be there but plead ignorance on the detail or feel the liberty to shape it with their own preferences. But I think we can argue a bit further without getting into too much speculation. First, with morality there must come justice. Morality without consequences of some kind is arbitrary and since we do not see total justice in this world it must come after the grave. Second, morality is a personal category. It’s not in impersonal force but a personal ought. If I do something wrong I have done more than moved something with a physical force, I have misused responsibly and responsibility is given by a person or persons. Hawking would have us believe that free will and presumably morality and justice are just concepts we use because we can’t do all the maths in real time to determine precisely how the matter and energy around us behaves.
Of Christopher’s insentience that Atheism is not to blame for the Stalin, Pol Pot etc:

I am also baffled and frustrated by the strange insistence of my anti-theist brother that the cruelty of Communist anti-theist regimes does not reflect badly on his case and on his cause. It unquestionably does.

Soviet Communism is organically linked to atheism, materialist rationalism and most of the other causes the new atheists support. It used the same language, treasured the same hopes and appealed to the same constituency as atheism does today.

When its crimes were still unknown, or concealed, it attracted the support of the liberal intelligentsia who were then, and are even more now, opposed to religion.

I would really like to understand better Christopher’s reasoning for separating comuist regimes behaviour form their atheism.
Of his debate with his brother in April 2008 (see here for my blogs on it):

Somehow on that Thursday night in Grand Rapids, our old quarrels were, as far as I am concerned, finished for good. Just at the point where many might have expected –and some might have hoped – that we would rend and tear at each other, we did not.

Both of us, I suspect, recoiled from such an exhibition, which might have been amusing for others, because we were brothers –but would have been wrong, because we are brothers.

At the end I concluded that, while the audience perhaps had not noticed, we had ended the evening on better terms than either of us might have expected. This was, and remains, more important to me than the debate itself.

His hope for his brother:

I am not hoping for a late conversion because he has won the battle against cigarettes. He has bricked himself up high in his atheist tower, with slits instead of windows from which to shoot arrows at the faithful, and would find it rather hard to climb down out of it.

I have, however, the more modest hope that he might one day arrive at some sort of acceptance that belief in God is not necessarily a character fault, and that religion does not poison everything.

An interesting point about the mediums on which truth is communicated:

Those who choose to argue in prose, even if it is very good prose, are unlikely to be receptive to a case which is most effectively couched in poetry.

He ends like this:

Let us not be sentimental here, nor rashly over-optimistic. But I was astonished, on that spring evening by the Grand River, to find that the longest quarrel of my life seemed unexpectedly to be over, so many years and so many thousands of miles after it had started, in our quiet homes and our first beginnings in an England now impossibly remote from us.

It may actually be true, as I have long hoped that it would be, in the words of T. S. Eliot, that ‘the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time’.

I found it a very moving and insightful article throwing a very human perspective on the debate about the existence and nature of God. There is something very apt about it taking place between brothers as the existence of God, is at heart, not an intellectual question but  a relational question. As we consider God’s existence we are not involved in scientific discovery, but relational reconciliation. We long to arrive back at the beginning again and have the relationship that mankind once enjoyed with God. The good news is that through Jesus’ death and resurrection we can get it back in spades.

You can read the whole article here:

Pray for Hitchens day

Author and vociferous atheist Christopher Hitchens, who was diagnosed with cancer this summer, has appealed to his religious fans and friends not to “trouble deaf heaven” with their “bootless cries” for his recovery.”

So wrote The Guardian on 6th Sept about Christopher Hitchens’ fight with Cancer.

They were quoting from his latest Vanity Fair article (October). Christianity today had also read it and quote his repose to peoples prayers and the “pray for hitches day” on Sept 20th 2010 (today).

“[W]hat if I pulled through and the pious faction contentedly claimed that their prayers had been answered? That would somehow be irritating”

I can see that, and I agree that objectively, it would not be a very convincing “miracle”. Granted his condition does not have a good prognosis but he is undergoing a lot of treatment and sometimes people do recover. A Christian in that situation would, of course, credit any recovery to the sovereign (if not miraculous) work of God while an atheist might assign no meaning to their recovery; Getting better over time, while taking strong medication, would probably not be seen as sufficiently convincing evidence to topple their worldview.

The bible, however,  seems to be full of a very different kind of miracle. Ones that are complete, instant, and occurring concurrently with a clear association to the person of Jesus. As well as praying for a long term recovery I am also praying for that kind of miracle. A miracle that not only speaks of God’s kindness and compassion but points to Jesus as the only saviour.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ll be happy with any kind of healing, but I’d love to move closer and closer towards those in the bible. Interestingly enough, the miracle being testified to by Delia Knox is taking place over time. First she got feeling back in her legs, then she could walk with some help, then a week later she could walk unaided for a short distance. It’s kind of half way between long term healing and instant miraculous healing. It was a miracle that she could feel and move her legs at all, and that happened at the time she was being prayed for in the name of Jesus. She was not however jumping about completely healed on that first occasion but is being healed in stages over time, hopeful towards the goal of complete recovery. Still, pretty amazing stuff.

Back to Hitchen’s though, who was at pains to say that if he makes a death bed conversion it should be rejected as being made by someone who is no longer him.

As a terrified, half-aware imbecile, I might even scream for a priest at the close of business, though I hereby state while I am still lucid that the entity thus humiliating itself would not in fact be ‘me’. (Bear this in mind, in case of any later rumours or fabrications.)

A few weeks back when Larry Taunton from FixedPoint foundation suggested people pray for Christopher he got a very strong negative reaction from some people. He responded to that in a video which I will summarize here. Larry says:

Larry Taunton

1)  Christopher has never indicated that people praying for him is offensive to him. Larry himself isn’t offended by people saying “good luck” or lighting a candle for him. While these things aren’t necessarily effective they are expressions of care and love

2) The view that says the cancer is God’s judgment and that we should not pray for Christopher is “not a particularly Christian attitude”.

3) Larry did not wish to imply that Christopher was on the verge of conversion. Just that it would be good if when he recovered he would be in a debate representing the Christian position.

4) That he hopes the level of vitriol against Christopher would be lessened

5) and that we would all reflect deeply on what happens when we die.

Christopher has been well enough and bored enough (actually I think he really wanted to honour some previous commitments) to do a couple of debates recently. The first was for the Christian Fixed Point Foundation, Birmingham, Alabama titled “does atheism poison everything” against a guy called David Berlinsky. Previous debates have seen Hitchens on the attack against Christianity blaming it for many of the worlds ills. The counter argument has always come “well what about Atheism, hasn’t that also lead to even more atrocities?“. I have never been persuaded by Christopher’s response to this which is something about those atheistic regimes leveraging religion to perpetrate their crimes against humanity. However,  as I have never felt the force of this answer I wonder if I have really understood it.

Interestingly, David is a agnostic and secular Jew which meant that the debate might have given Christopher space to make his defence more thoroughly. In the event, according to Larry Taunton, the debate never really got off the ground with David simply absorbing blows and conceding ground. Maybe I won’t get the DVD after all.

Larry also pointed out that some in the audience seemed, unwittingly, to provide their own answer to the question of whether atheism poisons everything as a number of those opposing David’s view where rather unpleasant throughout the debate. One must keep in mind though that people who call themselves Christians can be pretty horrid too. (Richard Dawkins gives a number of examples of  rather unchristian ‘Christian hate mail’ in his book ‘The God Delusion’).

So, it seems the question remains open: is the conviction that God does not exist, in and of itself, detrimental to the world in which we live? I hope this is debated again some time.

Here is Larry’s blog if you want to know more: and here is a link to the event: (The second debate that Hitchen’s took part in was on the Middle East at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, VA. on 27th Sept)

So how does Christopher feel about the “Pray for Hitches day” on 20th September?

“I don’t mean to be churlish about any kind intentions, but when September 20 comes, please do not trouble deaf heaven with your bootless cries. Unless, of course, it makes you feel better.”

It will make me feel better and I trust it will lead to Christopher getting better too.

what the resurrection proves

Just watched this video:

Here is my paraphrase of what Christopher says

Imagine a tomb was found in the hills of ancient Palestine in which was found the body of a scourged and crucified man. Something like a crown of thorns has been pressed in to his head and his side has been speared. Imagine that there was discovered in the tomb a plaque with the name “Jesus of Nazareth” written on it and that carbon dating put the man’s death at around 30AD. News of this spreads around the world and it is universally accepted that Jesus did not rise from the dead. Now, would people stop being nice to each other? Would they start to steel, lie, cheat and murder? No.”

I think he is trying to show that the existence of moral behaviour is not contingent on Jesus rising from the dead but who thinks it is? Jews and Muslims certainly don’t. Other arguments, it seems to me, make a persuasive case for the source of moral absolutes. The existential force of the moral absolutes leads one to ask what their basis is. Saying it’s from evolution totally strips morality of its heart and castrates it as a potent reality. There is, as CS Lewis points out, an “ought” in the universe that cannot come from matter or energy. It is from a realm of meaning not matter and I know of no other source of meaning than a person or persons. Absolute morality must therefore come from a unique person or unified people. If morality is like gravity then why not invent the moral equivalent of an airplane and harness it for our own ends. Some people do just that and use other peoples sense of right and wrong to manipulate and control them.

The resurrection is not proof of morality, it’s powerful validating evidence that Jesus is who he said he was and did what he said he did i.e. that he was the son of God come to earth to be a sacrifice for our sin. He is not so much the proof of morality or a reason to behave, but a lifebuoy for those of us who know they are being pulled under by the weight of their own moral failure. Jesus is shown to be not only the judge we were rather afraid would show up, but the saviour we are mightily relived came down.

PS. A question in the study guide for the Fixedpoint debate between Lenox and Dawkins asks:

“Neither Dawkins nor Lennox arrived at their current view of God’s existence as a result of years of scientific study in their adult life. Does this mean that their respective positions are weaker? Why or why not?”

Now that is a very interesting question. Much intellectual weight is being exerted to defend a position that was arrived at by much less vigorous thinking. How can we avoid getting entrenched in our views?

Some Sad News

I have just heard the sad news that Christopher Hitchens, author, journalist and champion of the new atheism has been diagnosed with oesophageal cancer. It’s usually quite an aggressive cancer and Christopher was quoted by Larry Taunton as saying “I had plans for the next decade of my life. Perhaps I should cancel them”. Larry Taunton is the founder and executive director of fixed point foundations which has organised many of the debates I have enjoyed watching with Christopher on the subject of religion. He spoke with warmth and concern about hearing the news in a short video clip.

There is no doubt about it, like him or loath him, Hitchens is a formidable opponent. A writer for the new York Times recently wrote “Hitchens has a mind like a Swiss Army knife, ready to carve up or unbolt an opponent’s arguments with a flick of the wrist.” The UK’s Guardian newspaper says “he has carved out a reputation for barbed repartee, scathing critiques of public figures and a fierce intelligence.

It is true, Hitchens is so brilliantly intelligent he can win most arguments, but that must be very frustrating at times. I recall him expressing in one debate that atheists are not necessarily pleased that there is no God, and that it might be comforting to know that there was a God, but there isn’t. He has also said some things that seem to contradict that but it stuck in my mind and I wonder if he would like to be persuaded if only someone could take him on. I remember playing a game with my brother where he would argue for something he didn’t really believe. His mind was agile and knowledgeable enough and he had enough confidence and charisma to defend and convince others of a position he didn’t himself believe. We were quite young but I never forgot the lesson. While rational debate and enquiry are of course extremely valuable in discovering and testing truth, there are many other factors in play. In the case of the gospel the main one being the action of the Holy Spirit upon the heart opening it to believe. That can happen through rational debate or discussion or in a moment when someone least expects it.

Atheists often look to people like Hitchens as a sort of champion for their cause. Christians do the same with people like Ravi Zacharias and William Lain Craig. I couldn’t hope to beat Hitchens in a knock down argument but I relish the thought of Ravi going up against him. I wonder to what extent though these debates change people’s minds or whether they are in fact like football matches. You may cheer if your side wins or get depressed if your side loses but you’re not going to switch sides.

Here is a snippet from a video I have just watched where Christopher summarises some of his thoughts  on religion:

“Religion is a poison because it attacks the very heart of our integrity. It says that we would not be able to tell right from wrong, or distinguish good from evil, if we were not afraid of a celestial dictatorship. God did not make man. Precisely the contrary. Man made God. That’s why there are so many Gods and always have been and always will be. I wouldn’t say it was wrong to believe in God but I would say those who believe in God are very seriously mistaken. You can believe in a God if you must, or if you will, without having to be religious. A religious person is someone who goes further than believe that the God hypothesis is true. A religious person is someone who says they know what God wants. They claim to know him in person and to have him revealed. That’s more than anyone can possibly claim. It’s therefore an unsound claim and because it is a large claim on a very major subject it’s likely to lead to fanaticism. It would be idle for me to say that a Quaker was as bad as a member of the Mahdi army, but I do think that religions all make the same mistake in that they surrender reason, which is our most precious faculty, to faith which is a very vague and abstract force…I have been told I am going to hell a few times. I get that all the time.”

I am a Christian and accept that we can know right from wrong and do good rather than wrong, aside from a belief in God. I think that’s the standard Christian position. We are made in God’s image and no matter how fallen we are we still have some sense of morality. The actual argument is that religion gives morality a basis. Without it morality begins to fray and unravel like a loose thread on a woollen jumper.

To think that Christians do good to avoid punishment from a cruel dictator is to totally misunderstand Christianity. Jesus did all that was necessary for me to be accepted by God and avoid his wrath and anger. I act out of love and thankfulness, not fear and coercion. The fact that evil will be punished though, I feel, is a necessary condition for morality to have any absolute meaning. Without it, someone can do evil, laugh at others quaint sense of morality, even profit from it, and be proved right in doing so by coming to the same end as those who do good. In the end, good and bad are interchangeable and right and wrong were just invented abstract concepts. There is a role of fear though. We should fear something if it is fearful and threatens to harm us as this motivates us to do something about it. When I realised I was guilty of sin, fear of God drove me to the cross.  It was there that I found a God who so loved me he had put into operation a very costly rescue plan.

Moving on a bit he makes reference to many gods. At first sight this seems to reduce the case for there being one true God. Actually the fact that there are several man made Gods says nothing about the truth or falsehood of one true God. The existence of counterfeit notes does not reduce the chances of their being real bank notes in existence. It just means we have to use our heads a bit and examine the currency we are being given for signs of authenticity.

Thinking that there is a God (presumably a Deist God) is one thing, he says, but once you say you know what he is saying to you, you cross the line. It is true you can try to justify any horror by saying “God told me to do it” but again that doesn’t say anything about the false hood of every claim to know and hear from God. To rule out hearing from God as impossible a head of time “that’s more than anyone can possibly claim” is surely begging the question. We should examine the claims on their own merits.

It’s good to hear him say that some religions or religious behaviour are more dangerous than another. I think it would be much more helpful and accurate if he separated religions a bit more in his thinking rather than lump them all together, although I sympathise with him doing so. It’s easier, and there are lots of similarities and common themes to most of them.

The justification he gives here for dealing with them all together is that they replace reason with faith. I would rather say that I have a reasonable faith. Reason has lead me to faith. It’s often our experience, thinking, and processing that leads us to put our trust in the person of Jesus. It’s like reason walks us to the aeroplane and faith lifts us into the skies. Faith is different to reason but not a substitute.  It is not an abstract force, in fact it is more solid than anything else, but even if it was, you could argue that love and morality are abstract forces but these things are very real with the potential for much good in the world.

People have obviously been rather blunt with him at times but something tells me he can take it! It really turns up the contrast when you talk about hell. “are you saying I am going to hell, that I deserve eternal punishment for the things I have not done?“. Well, that’s part of the truth but not the whole truth. God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish [go to hell] but have eternal life (John 3:16). The gospel is bitter sweet but we decide which taste lingers in our mouth.

I am sure that he would have some very powerful replies to my puny thoughts but the bottom line is that I am now in the air. The little legs of reason have lead me to an experience, knowledge and living faith in the person of Jesus. As I look down some stuff makes sense and some doesn’t but I’m staying in the plane!

I was so sorry to hear he was not well and so struck by the timing of the news, right in the middle of my write-ups of his debates and thinking. How frail our lives seem at times like this and how important they make these discussions. The arguments are not academic. I am praying that Christopher’s treatment would be successful and that God would heal him and catch him up in his loving arms. I trust he will come through this and look forward to seeing how the experience influences his thinking in the future.

Q&Q with the Hitchens (Hitchen vs Hitchen debate part 2)

Just to finish off my write up of Christopher and Peter Hitchens’ debate on God here are the questions from the audience. I have put myself into the debate too and made a few comments! As before I have done my best to represent the words of the combatants fairly given my limited time and typing speed.

Question :        Could you say something about self interest and morality.

Christopher :   Human solidarity comes to people very naturally. The idea that people didn’t know that rape was wrong until they got a stone tablet that told them is an insult to our decency and integrity. [The Israelites] would not have got there without knowing those things. The story of the good Samarian tells us that we don’t need religion to behave with ordinary morality. The priest didn’t do anything. It’s in my interest that people don’t suffer. I want them to have a bath for my sake!

Peter : In societies that don’t believe in hell, hell comes into existence.

Me : Surly no one argues that you can only do good things if you believe in God. The argument is rather than God gives you a basis for morality. Without God is it really always in my best interest that others don’t suffer? What if I believe the opposite ie that it’s in my best interest to make others suffer? I spend my life hurting others and die at a ripe old age having led a selfishly enjoyable life. How does morality force itself upon me? Morality makes sense if there is a God.

Question : Is truth real and how do you determine it?

Christopher : The task of finding truth may be unattainable but that does not mean we should give it up. The golden rule was stolen by the Christians from Rabbi Hillel (“don’t do to other people what you would not want them to do to you”). Except they mangled it (my recollection of what he said). “Loving others as yourself” is unattainable and it is sinister because of that. It is demanded that you do the impossible. You will always be in the wrong and in the claws of the priests. You are created sick and commanded to be well.

Me : Jesus did fulfil his own the positive version of the golden rule but I guess that misses the point being made that fallen man can’t and should therefore not be held responsible when he doesn’t. The bible recognises a version of this question “why does God still blame us” Rom 9:19 but does not give a full answer. It does however point to God’s right to do whatever he wants with the creatures he created. Maybe looking back a bit at Genesis will be helpful. Man was made in the image of God with moral responsibly. He was original created good and choose to do good. It was only when he chose to do evil that his nature/will became corrupted. The problem is then why his offspring are still held responsible given that they inherit a faulty nature. I don’t know but I would not be so quick to make the analogy between wills and bodies, moral failure and sickness. They are too different to assume that an absurdity in one maps to an absurdity in the other. In terms of the priestly control issue, it’s true that people misuse or misrepresent the truth about God to manipulate others but it doesn’t follow that there is no God.

Question : We should stop letting churches off paying tax.

Christopher : Religion is poisoning our democratic republic and its time we said “enough”!  BTW The green movement is taking on the forms of a religion. Original sin = humans existing! Sin = making smoke. Armageddon is coming and the way of Salvation lies in reducing our carbon footprint. Being environmental friendly is the new righteousness.

Question : What do you think about Intelligent Design

Peter : We do not know how things came into being. We should allow a hearing of various ideas including design. It’s telling that intelligent design arguments against evolution are not given space or tolerated. There has been a reversal of roles. Where once in the Stokes trial hard headed bible believing literalists tried to squash the discussion  of evolution, now evolutionists are trying to kick out all talk of intelligent design.

Christopher : We need to separate the fact of evolution from the means of evolution. There is debate about the later but no serious intellectual publications dispute the former.

Me : On the one had there is the issue of whether there is a plausible interpretation of Genesis that fits with a valid scientific understanding of the past. I have explored that in my other blog and I am sure will continue to explore it.  On the other hand there is the concept that sometimes get missed which is that God can and does sovereignly work through everything to accomplish his purposes. It is not a choice between creation or evolution as if he can’t work through a processes he set up, sustains and directs. He works through gravity and even human will to accomplish his purposes. If we look for God in the gaps we will look at him through a smaller and smaller window. We need to look for him in everything we know as well as everything we don’t know. We should glorify him for the rational order as well as exceptional miracles.

Question : What about subjective religious experience as giving us a valid window on reality?

Christopher : If you take the good subjective stuff you need to take the bad too. Someone says “God appeared to me and told me to help so and so” but someone else says “God appeared to me and told me to kill so and so”.  You need to take both or none.

Me : Why do you have to take all experiences as valid or none of them as valid? Why not form a coherent picture of what you see and use it to discern good from evil, valid from invalid? We can often discern a vision or mirage from reality in the light of the sum total of our sensory experience and our rational thought. We don’t say “everything I see corresponds to reality or none of it”.

Peter : People do bad things. Both religious and atheists do bad things but religious people do more good than atheists and rejecting religion will lead to an increase in bad things being done.

Question : Trotsky preached atheism and hung priests form the back a his train.

Christopher : Atheism is a necessary condition for enlightenment but not a sufficient one. Fascism and right wing Catholics did the same things. Why was Gerbils was expelled form the catholic church? For marrying a divorced protestant that’s why! No other Nazis were expelled and more than 40% of the SS were practicing confessing Catholics. No one was even threatened with excommunication! The Nazi party and Catholic church where united on many things…Northern Korea is the most religions state I have ever seen….You find me a state that threw of theocratic religion and said we adopt the teachings of Lucreacions, Democratus, Darwin and Rustle and fell into tyranny and torture.

Peter: Both religious and non religious people do bad things.  The most enlightened government in terms of its own self conceit was that of the French revolutionary terror which ended by executing so many people that the Place de la Concorde was ankle deep in blood and the executioners were too tired to finish their work. As for the soviet union, to portray the ideology and regime of  that country  as religious is an absurdity almost beyond belief requiring actually the most colossal nerve. It was a state that tried to murder God, it was a state of massacred priests, of desecrated and demolished churches in which people were brought up with enormous energy not to believe in God. There was no established religion there, no tax breaks for priests, nothing of that kind. A total, totalitarian horror of persecution of something which people believed to their own comfort in times of trouble and which they had to keep in their hearts privately if they wished to avoid being thrown out of their homes, jobs, and having their marriages deliberately destroyed though persecution.  That was the state of it. This was not a religious phenomenon. It is straightforwardly untrue to conclude that it was. I have conceded the evils done by my side, why can’t you! Just simply except that the soviet union was an atheist regime which hated God.

Christopher : because it would be false, because the Russian orthodox church stood then as it did with Stalin…there was never a moment that the powers at be didn’t find that church convenient [and the means by which to perpetrate evil]. Russia was not an atheist state, it was a pseudo religious state, trading upon its teaching.

Peter : The Bolshevik region from its beginning persecuted religion. That was not a religious phenomenon.

Christopher : regions take time to be expelled once the clerical class has been removed.

Me : Of course bad rulers can misuse Christianity. That does not make Christianity false, or the ruler religious. The key question is whether the actions of a regime are motivated by a belief in God or a belief that there is no God? Were they consistent with a religious ideology or an atheistic one? The answer, surly, in the case of Stalin, was that they were motivated by a belief that God did not exist. As far as the Catholic thing goes, I want to ask whether what they did was in line with biblical Christianity?. If Christopher can specify a branch of atheism represented by people like Democratus, then fairness should allow the specification of a particular religion or holy Book. The complication of course is that in Catholicism the teaching of the church carries authoritative weight too. You can’t just go to a book and see if the actions were consistent with it. (I would hope though that if you consulted authoritative representatives of the Catholic church today they would be grieved by the actions of the church back then.) I say again, the teaching of Jesus and an understanding of the whole biblical narrative, stand in utter opposition to what Stalin did. I share Peter’s frustration (as well as other like Alistair McGrath’s in The twilight of Atheism) that Christopher won’t accept that Atheistic regimes did very bad things.

Question: How can we avoid falling into a fundamentalist frame of thinking. How can we sustain a modern secular response to medieval fundamentalist atrocities?

Christopher : In the Middle East, a partition plan isn’t being accepted even though most people are ok with it because each side appeals to religion, saying “God gave us this land”. This persuades others and the stalemate continues, expect that is the Christian USA can support the Jews long enough (as a rope supports a hanging man) they can bring on the battle of Armageddon which is what all religions yean for anyway. “We want this world to be over” they say. Coexistence with religion is impossible. Now you see why religion poisons everything.

Me : It strikes me that there is a lumping together of all religion rather than looking at what the bible says. Of course worshiping false Gods will include very bad things among good things. I would say some key distinctions need to be made between Christianity and other religions. Following Jesus, as presented in the NT, does not lead to violence, hatred, persecution etc. At the end of the day though, in a democracy any moral stance by the majority will affect other peoples choices. The hard part is to put the OT acts commanded by God in a context such that they do not draw biblical Christianity down into the mire, placing it, with seeming legitimacy, alongside other religious groups who commit atrocities in the name of God or religion. That’s hard, but I believe it must be possible.

For one, the people were evil in ways it’s hard for me to think about. That’s ok up to a point but it leads to the question about the death of innocent children. At this point the temperature of the discussion gets as high as it’s possible for it go. I can point to the consequences of one generations sin on another (if parents are cruel or negligent their children suffer) or the presumed absence of any other way to provide a Messiah. The trouble is, though these are valid points that help intellectually, emotionally they fell like squirting water into a raging furnace.

My “Encyclopaedia of Bible difficulties” also makes the point that destroying the inhabitants of cities like Jericho was the only possible way of protecting Israel and bringing through the messiah. When Israel didn’t clear the land of other nations they were negatively influenced by them and turned away from God. They didn’t have the same spiritual recourses that are available to Christians today. We have the Holy Spirit in us to empower us on mission. Rather than withdraw from the world we are to be in it, where we shine without getting snuffed out, and bring flavour without being diluted. For this to be available Jesus had to come, and for him to come Israel need to exist. At least it’s reassuring to know that the situation has radically changed and there is no way that these things can be legitimate ways of extending God’s purposes and kingdom. Our weapons are not physical but spiritual; Rather than fire bullets we reach out with words;  instead of holding guns we serve with actions motivated by love (2 Cor 10:3-4). A double check on this is the truth that the things in the OT were shadows and pictures of the reality to come in Christ. The real challenge, it seems to me, is what would happen if you still accepted the OT but didn’t think the messiah had come. Would physical force, even genocide, to posses the land, still be a possibility?

Family Feud (Hitchens vs Hitchens debate part 1)

I recently watched a very interesting debate between two brothers, Christopher and Peter Hitchens. I knew and had watched some of Christopher’s debates and arguments against God before but I didn’t know he had a brother. They are so similar in their looks and even some of their mannerisms but far apart on much of their views.

Christopher and Peter Hitchens

They started debating whether we should have invaded Iraq. Christopher was for it and Peter against. However that was just the warm up and as Christopher said in the press conference before “religion is the debate as it underlay’s all things“. Christopher talks most of the time in the press conference and seems more confident and at ease but during the main debate Peter does make some very helpful remarks. Peter referrers to his relationship with his brother as akin to Canada’s relationship with the USA”. Not 100% sure what that means but watching the two of them together I can hazard something of a guess. The USA is defiantly the more prominent on the world stage and while Canadians have many similarities to the states they are very different and, in my experience, rather resent getting mistaken for Americans. There is a certain amount of tension between the two.

I have made notes on the debate which I include bellow sprinkled with some of my comments. I should say that the quotes I have put in are what I wrote down as they spoke. I may have missed the odd word or sentence out but I tried to capture the words and thoughts as meaningfully as I could in the time I had.

In the main debate Christopher kicks off with some arguments or thoughts against the existence of God. He starts off by saying that a very negative aspect of religion is that  religious people must want somehow to be slaves. He portrays God as a totalitarian ruler who watches you round the clock and convicts you of thought crimes. A celestial North Korea if you will. “Who wants this to be true?” he asks before quipping “at least in Korea you can escape by dyeing”. In the bible and Koran you can never escape.

He then attacks the premise that without God we would not know or do the right thing. I don’t think many Christians believes that anyway so it’s a bit of a straw man. It’s more that religions and belief in God provide (or posit or recognise) a basis for right and wrong and ensures that the concepts are meaningful. It seems to me for example that the existential concept of absolute morality require ultimate justice. It also seems reasonable to suppose that morality isn’t a physical thing, it’s a personal thing, ie its rooted in a person not energy of matter.

Christopher recons that religion is a first version of truth (in the realms of morality, philosophy, health care etc). “We didn’t  know much when we invented it. We had not escaped from the childish origins of our ancestors. We now have better versions. We have cleared up all these mysteries. Where once religion was an aid to survival it is now a peril. How much more lovely and elegant are Darwin and Einstein than the burning bush?”

He finishes with his argument against God’s timing. For 100,00 years, he says, humans are born, live around 25 years and endure horrible diseases, tribalism, etc then die. “For 100,000 years heaven watches with indifference. Folded arms. Only 2000 years ago, in a barbaric illiterate part of the middle east, does God do something.”

He sums up as follows : “If you believe in this God you are stupid and immoral. The case for divine intervention falls and we should be glad of it.”

Up gets his brother to bring the case for the existence of God. One of his opening comments about his brother is “How little he knows of what he attaches. How he mocks and belittles. He seems to think that others have not been troubled by the things he mentions and yet despite them all have come to believe in God in wise, beneficial and good God.”. I think that’s a fair point in some ways. Christopher is so very cleaver and knows so much but seems at times to be attacking a straw man. His incite is at times so forceful and clear that it blows some cobwebs away from me and helps me in my understanding and shaping of what I believe and yet at other times there seems to be something he is missing. I feel like I’m in a pantomime and want to shout “he behind you!” Maybe it’s one of perspective. If you come to the bible hostile there is plenty to knock. If you come loving and knowing God there is so much good, yet I still agonise over some bits.

And so to Peters first point. It’s a familiar one but has some merit. “Why is there something rather than nothing? Since we know so little it would be unwise to form absolute certainties. Again the book is entirely jeering and mocking on this point”. Others have made this point much stronger and he doesn’t  really press it that much. It seems no more than a plea for caution before writing off God. In any case it doesn’t really hit Christopher where it hurts as he, at times, seems open to the possibility of a deist God. A God who started things off. But as he says “Even if you can prove [a deist God], you have all your work ahead of you to get to a God who hears prayers, meddles in history, and cares about who you sleep with…”

The next argument Peter gives has more force. If there is no God you may behave as you wish. Peter makes an observation that I think is very important. He talks about “Luxury atheism”. “I’ve seen where they live” he says. “These atheists live in nice places. They can advance the theory of atheism as a nice theory” while enjoying privileges, protection and a morality largely shaped by Christianity. Meanwhile youths, who don’t share their morality, or see any basis for it, kick people to death on our streets. “They are the practical atheists“. Christianity didn’t just appear in a vacuum, it pushed out other things and as it’s taken away these things will come back. The worship of Ba’al Hammon (I think he said mok I don’t know which God that is) with the slaughter of children. “180,000 babies a year are now killed in the womb”.  We worship Mammon in our preoccupation with money, (he mentioned others but I didn’t get them – ahsterth?).

Peter said that he also had been to North Korea. “It is a country run by people who despise the idea of God. – eat of this tree and ye shall be like God“.

Christopher answers with the story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son. “I find a father holding a knife to his sons throat to show his loves to a  totalitarian dictator wicked.”

He then goes for the jugular, not with an argument but a massive accusation, attacking the truth at the heart of Christianity:

“You either believe in vicarious redemption or you do not. I can throw my sins on another and he can die and suffer for me and throw my responsibly away. It’s the most immoral idea in circulation. I could offer to pay your debt, maybe even serve your time in prison, but not take your sins away. Wash you white as snow.”

I agree you either go with the possibility of your sins being placed on another or you don’t. There is no good analogy for it. That’s why God did the whole sheep and goat sacrifice thing for hundreds of years to get the idea across. If it’s true it is a unique concept and possibility. Your sin, the guilt for the things you have done wrong, can be transferred to Jesus Christ, the unique and perfect son of God and son of Man, fully man and fully God. There is no other way of offloading them because doing good things doesn’t rub out your culpability for bad things.

If you don’t go for vicarious redemption, you have to live and die with your sins. If you believe this then it is also reassuring to believe that you will not be judged after death for the things you have done wrong (and neither will those who sinned against you). As I touched on earlier, you then have to consider in what sense something is really wrong. If you do go with substitutionary atonement then there is a wonderful possibility that you can be declared not guilty. I didn’t go with it until I got a good view of my sin and then I clung to it and put it on like a life jacket in a stormy sea. It was a life or death situation.

Christopher moves on to refute Peter’s next argument:

“As for why there something rather than nothing – Well results of the Hubble telescope tell us that we are in an expanding universe heading for nothingness. Who designed that? We must either convict the designer of extreme incompetence and or extreme cruelty and callousness and  indifference towards those he summoned into existence.”

I would respond to that by saying that the current creation is broken but not by God and it’s going to be remade. It also does not address the problem of first causes but I don’t think that is Christopher’s main beef with God.

Peter starts his answer by returning to Abraham and Isaac. He says something very helpful: “The Knife at the throat was not used. That is the point of the story.” How true, people did used to do things like that but God does not! He provides a substitute. I have never seen the story in that way. It’s a massive revelation and turning point in the unfolding revelation of who God is. Peter makes the point very strongly:

“The point about vicarious sacrifice is what it replaced. It replaced child sacrifice. To speak of the story of Abraham as if this is a recommended action is not merely a misunderstanding it is repulsive and really should not be acceptable in civilised debate. To speak as if something is being advocated when it is actually being spoken against.

The debate breaks into a more free flowing exchange at this point and Christopher replies:

“Is not the point that God wanted to see if he would do it? If his submission reaches such heights? Is this not worse than job where the dictator toys with the emotions of one of his effortlessly made creatures?”

He goes on:

“On the point of morality my brother has highlighted the awful nihilism that has poisons much of social life. But this is not to be equated with atheism. How do those who say ‘god is on my side’ act? You don’t get rid of [moral] relativity by claiming you have God on your side, rather you make anything right.”

He then gives the challenge that he often gives out but of which I can’t quite see the relevance:

“Name me a moral action by a believer that could not have been made by an unbeliever?

Name me a wicked statement uttered by someone claiming God’s permission to do so.”

Peter’s answer is short and sweet but not that relevant:

“I left the daily express when it was taken over by a pornographer but you’re articles still appear in it.”

It’s not an answer to Christopher’s question as many non-believers find pornography immoral and don’t want to be associated with it. It also raises other ethical questions about how much you remove yourself from association with evil. What bank do you use, what companies you buy products from, what TV programs do you appear in, what are the no compromise moral issues for you, etc etc. It’s too subjective a point to  be of much use in this debate.

This blog is already far too long so I will write up my notes from the Q&A another time.