The Great Christopher Hitchens

I woke up yesterday to a text message from a friend reading “Christopher Hitchens is dead!!” As the blog-o-sphere is already lighting up with this news, I thought this would be an appropriate time to take a moment and write a very brief reflection in memory of my favorite atheist, Christopher Hitchens.

For those who don’t know him, Christopher Hitchens is, or rather was, one of the leading figures of a growing ‘secular revolution’, or what is often called the New Atheism. He is typically counted as one of the four horsemen of this New Atheism along with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, and, of the four of them, he is the only one I really like. His singular ability to turn a phrase, his rhetorical erudition, brings with it a sort of irresistible charm which even his opponents must appreciate on pain of being apparently obtuse. His colourful character is fascinating to anyone who bothers to stop and take an honest look; he was, for instance impossible to classify along rigid political lines – as good an evidence as any that he truly was thinking freely. He moved for the abolition of religion, while defending the rights of unborn children, adamantly arguing that ‘unborn child’ is a real category of persons who deserve rights. He derided Mother Teressa as a terrible impudent fraudulent masochistic maniacal ‘medieval’ capricious women of the poorest quality of taste, while defending the American President G.W. Bush, under whose presidency the United States launched it’s so called war on terror, as one leaving behind a laudable legacy for just such a project. Though he clearly disdained, and vocally expressed as much, the particularly chauvinistic patriarchal flavor of many religions or religious communities, he also did not comfortably settle in with any naive feminist ideology. Indeed, in defending an article of his where he argues that men are funnier than women for good evolutionary reasons titled “why women aren’t funny” (where he noted in advance that there were successful female comedians of the first rank, and this did not challenge his argument as it was applied broadly over the human species) against a feminist attack noting all the very humorous female comedians he had himself mentioned, he had in mind to write a response titled “why some women apparently can’t even read.” When asked whether he thought women were better equipped to stay home and nurture children while men were better equipped to work and support the family, his unequivocal answer infuriated women supporting the feminist agenda.

His courage in the face of challenges, from being debated by the worthiest of opponents to staring death itself in the face, is beyond impugning. His intellectual honesty not only made up for the lack of intellectual dignity with which the New Atheist movement regularly comports itself, but provided an attraction and charm to this movement without which it would be significantly handicapped.

Christopher Hitchens took as his best friend Francis Collins, a Christian of noteworthy piety, maturity, and one whom Christopher was under the medical care of. His brother, Peter Hitchens, became an adamant Christian, writing a book “the Rage against God,” which apparently made for rather interesting family dinners, and invites us to realize that Hitchens’ entourage was more colourful than some are tempted to imagine. Most recently Peter Hitchens composed a beautiful reflection on his brother post-mortem. As for Hitchens’ children, he has explicitly said that he wishes for them to make up their own minds, and has not imposed all his views, such as atheism, on them. As to the suggestion of whether he had any last moment miraculous conversion to religion, he has said that it would not happen, and safeguarded himself by exclaiming that if he did begin to profess religion in his last moments then we would finally know that the cancer had gotten to his brain.

He made a point to unabashedly aim his attacks with precision towards anyone popularly revered by people of faith as examples of the best religion has had to offer. From attacking Pope Pius XII (my favorite pope) for being a little too friendly with Nazi Germany, to attacking Billy Graham, he was merciless, almost violent, in his criticisms. In fact, he was invited to play the role of the ‘devil’s advocate’ by the Vatican at the canonization process of mother Teresa, and did such a good arguing for how vicious she was and what violence she did to the human race that the pope abolished the office of devil’s advocate! Moreover he invited debate with the most able champions of religion and often offered such rhetorical responses that seldom could an opponent keep up with him, or win an audience away from him. The most memorable debates he participated in were his debate with Alister McGrath, his debates with Dinesh D’Souza, and of course, the greatest of all, his debate with William Lane Craig.

Christopher Hitchens gave me hope for the New Atheism which is being so forcefully pedaled by pushy pesky noisy clanging gongs preaching an enlightenment Soteriology of secular humanism, naive scientism, and the abolition of religion. He, I daresay, was the charismatic equivalent to G.K. Chesterton, and he will be remembered as such, I expect, in the annals of history. I think it was his candor and wit which afforded him such affection among Christians who, it is widely recognized, appreciated him more than they did any other of the leading figures of the New Atheism.

Upon receiving the Richard Dawkins award he gave a moving speech which in effect simply rehearsed his refined rhetorical response to religion. I, however, thought that his receiving the Richard Dawkins award was quite backwards; I felt as though it was Dawkins who should have been proud to receive a Hitchens award. He ought not to be remembered alongside Dawkins, Dennett, or Harris  before being remembered alongside Clifford, Russell, and Hume, if not for his arguments then at least for his charisma.

He has expanded our vocabulary, not only by his marvelous ability to string together beautiful words and sentences, but also by providing us with new expressions, such as the “Hitch-slap”. He has posed the secular challenge to religion in the modern world in such a charming, engaging and serious way that it is thanks to him, in great part, that Christians both have been, and will continue to be, forced to take such a challenge more seriously, and to realize how important this ‘conversation’ really is. Hitchens represented, to my mind, a possibility for such conversation to be intellectually open, not constricted by predictable ideology reflective of naive intellectual custom. For example, it strikes me as very curious that Hitchens became perhaps more open to the existence of consciousness beyond death as he approached his own death, though he clearly thought that religious suggestions in this department weren’t worth rational consideration. Though in this case he did not make his mind up as strongly as he has on other issues, this still demonstrates that once again he is not afraid to entertain unpopular suggestions based on his unique intellectual convictions – an example I hope other atheists will follow. The litmus test of free thinking should be divergence of opinion on flexible issues given a worldview.

Obviously nothing I can write will do his character the justice it deserves, and I wouldn’t even try. Instead I offer this brief reflection only to express the respect, admiration and affection that I feel for him. He will be missed, perhaps more by Christians than by Atheists. He will be missed by me. He will be well remembered, and my sincerest regret that we have lost him in the ongoing cultural conversation is, I expect, shared in company with innumerable others. Though he so adamantly opposed anyone praying for him, I take it that we have a right to be bold enough as to do so now without any risk of offending him. May he rest in the peace of God ~ amen.

Mr. Christopher Hitchens; thank you, goodbye… and I dare say, God bless.

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About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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14 Responses to The Great Christopher Hitchens

  1. catholicboyrichard says:

    Good words…we can still pray for Mr. Hitchens. He is no longer an athiest, or so I am told:). God rest his soul.

  2. Thanks for commenting on my Hitchens post. I enjoyed yours as well, because it shows that Hitchens can appeal to Christians as well…who by the way, many atheists would characterize as “pushy pesky noisy clanging gongs” but I’m not into generalizing. He certainly doesn’t need praying and blessing, but rather for both sides to continue this cultural conversation you aptly described. I mean no offense, of course, but I think we should respect the beliefs of the dead–whether they be Heaven, nirvana, or decomposition–instead of imposing our own viewpoints.

    Good post though!

    • Thank you for your thoughts.

      I suppose I feel strongly that we ought to respect the dead more than we respect their beliefs, as their beliefs may not have been respectable. I’m sure Hitchens wouldn’t have it any other way himself, and he wasn’t shy about vocalizing his disagreements with the dead. But certainly I mean no offence by disagreeing vocally with his worldview.

      As to my cheeky comment calling many of the new atheists “pushy pesky noisy clanging gongs” I suppose I was generalizing, though more for the sake of inviting atheists to take a closer look at the movement then to insult them personally… I remember I had a memorable argument with an atheist once, a very intelligent guy – a mathematician as it happens. We were comparing the new atheists with fundamentalist Christians, and I was arguing that the new atheists were better off since they were less often rude, etc. He pointed out to me, however, that this just isn’t true, and that many ‘new atheists’ today are extremely rude, often without realizing it (for instance when they imply that people of faith in general are not using logic, or else are simply irrational – both of which are absurd implications). I have very often been the object of ridicule from many atheists, and insulted implicitly and explicitly when trying to have a philosophically reasonable conversation; often enough that I was well able to take my friends point. As the conversation went on, he ended up defending fundamentalist Christians as realizing overall better qualities, in general, than the New Atheists. I pointed out that these new atheists had the singular advantage of holding on to reason, as they constantly claimed, whereas the Fundamentalist religious people seemed to express a fear of philosophy and suchlike – he retorted that the majority of new atheists only paid lip service to ‘reason’, but very few know anything about formal logic, valid arguments, the difference between rationalism and empiricism, or much of anything else for that matter. As a philosopher his points have stuck with me to this day, I don’t know that he’s right to say that the new atheism is a movement which generally reduces people to worse qualities than fundamentalist streams of Christianity, but he certainly helped me open my eyes to the fact that they certainly do comprise a group of young, often arrogant, uncritical, irrational (literally, not meant pejoratively) and naively empirical, scientistic, apologetic, pushy pesky and noisy group. Perhaps the naivety of those atheists I’ve encountered who have been influenced by Dawkins, Harris, Dennett or Hitchens, is what I find most regrettable. I have also found that anytime I meet an atheist whose atheism has muscle, so to speak, they are always the kind who disassociate themselves rapidly from the likes of Dawkins and his ilk.

      As a philosopher, one of my interests is good arguments. I submit that these ‘new atheists’ have offered nothing by way of good arguments to date. Consider, for instance, a standard against which they might have been compared; the conversation as it stood between Bertrand Russell and Coplestone: http://www.philvaz.com/RussellCoplestonDebate.mp3

      What, really, did any of those four add to that conversation? More troubling still – however liberating the experience of throwing off the fetters of religion in the name of reason – how many young atheists do you think are actually engaging the real philosophical conversation? How many have a clue? (See some of the blogroll at the bottom of the page, for example.) The whole problem with the current state of the new atheism is that it has so well promoted ignorance as well as an assurance of intellectual superiority. I will be composing a post later this month consisting of my thoughts on the new atheism, especially given an atheist conference in England, headed by Richard Dawkins. I would love to hear your thoughts on that post as well, when it comes about. Certainly, I will be generalizing there as well, as I will be referring to the movement of the new atheism itself. Perhaps it seems cheeky, and perhaps it is, but I think it is also a fair generalization that many of the new atheists are providing little more than background noise obscuring a real and intellectually engaging conversation – thus my characterization. Certainly Christians are not innocent in this regard, thus I very much agree with your assessment of Christians (myself included) as generally being pushy, pesky, noisy, clanging gongs – the only way to fix either group is to set a more intellectually sobering, open and honest tone to the conversation.

      In any case, Hitchens is certainly still my favorite polemicist, but I cannot say that he has ever had a good argument, nor can I say, as one who has followed his debating career, that he was intellectually honest; he has never once carried a correction from one debate to another. He has stubbornly rejected correction of any kind, and his beliefs, therefore, are not formed in a philosophically respectable way. The one great thing he has done, is provide a candidly unapologetic-apologetic mood to the conversation – one for which we are greatly in his debt.

      • Well put. However, I disagree with your characterization of “New Atheism.” I believe that is more of a media label, rather than a philosophical movement, given that the Four Horsemen (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett) are arguing the same issues that atheists of hundreds of years ago are. The only difference is the scientific progress that has been achieved during that time which adds evidence to the debate. Thus, I don’t recognize “New Atheists” as a group; there are just atheists who vary in how forceful and abolitionist their opinions may be, just like evangelicals. It’s only new to Christians because now they can’t ignore those men who have gained such a large global following.

        As someone who spent a whole year in grad school studying atheist discrimination in media, I find that most atheists I know are not only familiar with the Four Horsemen, but other philosophers from both sides of the debate. In fact, if we’re comparing the knowledge of young atheists and theists, I believe that atheists are more educated in religious matters and understand the Bible far more than theists. I’m sure you’ve seen the Pew research study which has affirmed these findings.

        I admit that atheists can be quite arrogant, since it’s common knowledge that the more educated an individual, the more likely he will be an atheist. However, I find the arrogance of Christians who believe that God has, as Hitchens puts it, “designed the universe with you in mind” and personally chooses who to protect and who to unleash suffering upon–that arrogance is much worse, because it is masked in modesty.

        And to play Devil’s advocate (excuse the cliche), what’s wrong with a little noise? I have never de-converted anyone who was truly devout, but I don’t see anything wrong with asking questions and inserting doubt in people’s lives. Of course, all the name-calling is more entertaining than productive, but I encourage people to be religious–not because their parents brainwashed them or their schools coerced them–but because they have experienced the skepticism and chose faith anyway. The goal of the conversation will never be conversion, but awareness. Christians and atheists can help each other become more knowledgeable about the other’s perspective and can band together to protect our freedom of, and from religion.

        I must say it’s nice to converse with someone who doesn’t shut me out and brushes me off as a “bad influence.” I’m not a philosopher, but I think if we can engage in respectful debates, then we can learn from one another, even if we agree to disagree.

      • Excellently composed response. I only use the label ‘new atheism’ to designate a social movement rather than an ideology. It seems clear to me that atheists today, to whom the label is applied, are mobilizing to influence the culture in a powerful way to uphold some of the principles you mentioned, such as the separation between Church and state.

        I find it impressive that you studied atheist discrimination in the media for a semester in grad school – I suppose that makes you something of an authority on that issue, and for that reason alone I think I am fortunate to have you commenting on my blog. I would like to say that atheists are, per capita, much more educated than the religious, and for good reason. Of course, the way people qualify as ‘religious’ and the way they qualify as ‘atheists’ is a little imbalanced. Those who are called atheists are usually adamant about standing up for their values, and only a portion of those who qualify as religious take religious dogma or theology as seriously.

        You say: “I admit that atheists can be quite arrogant, since it’s common knowledge that the more educated an individual, the more likely he will be an atheist. However, I find the arrogance of Christians who believe that God has, as Hitchens puts it, “designed the universe with you in mind” and personally chooses who to protect and who to unleash suffering upon–that arrogance is much worse, because it is masked in modesty.

        I can’t help but speak to that. 😛

        First, I suppose I would say that its true that if one is educated in the best institutions of learning available today then one is more likely to be secular, but I think that implies very little. Since most of the institutions of learning are western and have a secular approach to academia, it seems only natural that its students would inculcate those same values. I think of the third century response from Origen to Celsus, where Celsus had argued that most Christians are uneducated, superstitious and stupid, and Origen pointed out that most of the general population was uneducated, superstitious and stupid. Moreover, as Origen pointed out, Christian philosophers proposed a system which was far more consistent and intellectually satisfying than its opponents. I maintain that the same is true today, as not only are an impressive number of the best philosophers Christians (and not just theists in general) but Christianity as a philosophical system continues to be an intellectually live and satisfying philosophy which has survived many more formidable philosophical opponents in the history of Christendom then it faces today. I also do want to point out, to do justice to philosophers who are atheists, that you’re quite wrong to think that nothing in the way atheism is popularly presented has changed over time save the science which is cited today. Indeed, the conversation has advanced, and very far. For instance, most philosophers who are atheists recognize today that if one allows the Principle of Sufficient Reason (that there is no fact without some sufficient explanation – no ‘brute’ facts) then necessarily God exists. (See, for example, Pruss’ paper here, which acts to advance the argument I linked to previously). Or again, consider what Plantinga’s modal-ontological argument has done, by forcing people to recognize that “If it is possible that God exists, then God necessarily exists” – such that educated atheists realize that they must argue that a necessary being is either self-referencially incoherent, or else that ‘God’ is a cognitively meaningless word (a word without any corresponding idea). These are, I take it, significant advances which have been almost entirely ignored by many atheists (though of course to be fair, they have been ignored by uneducated religious people as well).

        Finally, concerning Hitchens’ rhetorical shpeal, I would point out that if the universe wasn’t designed with us in mind in a philosophical sense then it becomes very difficult to explain why the universe is intelligible (or else it raises serious doubts about whether it really is, after all, intelligible). Moreover, if the universe wasn’t designed with us in mind, then the proposition “God exists” isn’t logically possible, since the subject it relates to the predicate ‘exists’ requires analogous rather than equivocal language to express anything propositionally ‘about’ it. Now, I’m not trying to ‘pull out’ impressive philosophical tricks here, and I understand that that argument needs to be fleshed out with people, philosophers or not, who are not conversant with the philosophy of language as it concerns the philosophy of religion, but I am convinced that this point is a solid one. In other words, if it is logically possible that “God exists” is a proposition expressing truth, then necessarily analogous language about God possibly expresses truth. However, for analogous language to possibly express any truth about God, the world has to have been created, along with us, in such a way that we would be able to rationally infer God from the world (indeed, that’s the supposition which provides the foundation for the whole enterprise of natural theology in principle). Therefore, to claim that theists are being arrogant about this point is kind of… well, literally it is ‘non-sense’ since there is no logically possible account of theism which doesn’t entail something like that. Now, to what extent God organized the universe so as to realize ultimate goods for human beings is perhaps an open question in some non-ultimate dimensions (one could have a naive view , but ultimately Theism presupposes something like what is called Axiarchism, which is Theisms justification for inductive reasoning – something, I will note in passing, that no atheist system of beliefs has ever come up with.

        In any case, I take it that Hitchens has not only not provided a good argument here, but he hasn’t even made a cognitively meaningful point at all. As to your point about noise – nothing is wrong with noise until it drowns out the conversation. I am not upset when I hear fundamentalist Christians making noise, I am upset and disappointed when I hear them yelling over their interlocutors. The same is obviously the case when atheists do the same.

  3. What a lot to unpack there! For sake of brevity, I agree that those who identify as “atheist” and “religious” are imbalanced, since the vast majority of people are only passive believers, what many scholars refer to as “Nones,” those who believe in a personal God and pray privately, but choose not to participate in church services.

    As for your philosophical points, I can only concede to them since I am unfamiliar with them. As a mass communication and journalism scholar, I am more concerned with how these religious debates are portrayed in media. I would love to hear your intelligent theological arguments on Fox News, but the fact remains that most of the arguments between Christians and atheists that makes it on TV or in newspapers are merely rehashed to the point where it becomes this media-sponsored “War on Christmas” nonsense. Humans love to simplify issues, but as you’ve pointed out, the intricacies between theological philosophies are far from simplistic. It’s just a shame that media outlets water down the conversation with meaningless sound-bytes.

    I will definitely research what you’ve mentioned more, so I can broaden my own perspective. I must say I find it interesting that the most lively debate I’ve had on my blog has nothing to do with the books I review. But if you ever have any (fictional) literature to recommend, let me know!

    • Concerning Fox news – I can only adamantly agree that those who represent that network are, as John Stuart so brilliantly pointed out here:

      – nothing but ideologically militant sensationalists. I really do dislike a great deal of them, and I suspect they do more harm to conservatism (at least in the eyes of the well educated) than msnbc could hope to do. To be fair to news organizations, I don’t expect them to dedicate time to even handed and intricate philosophical argumentation, but rather I realistically expect sound-bytes and hope for as ‘balanced’ an overview as possible (perhaps naively). Fox news had O’Reilly debating (perhaps instead ‘yelling at’) people like Richard Dawkins, and as clumsy as I esteem Dr. Dawkins to be when it comes to theology or philosophy, I can’t help but feel that the conversation has been denigrated to such a degree, on Fox, that it isn’t very much worth having anymore – at least not like that. Certainly in the minds of the viewers, I should hope, the impression must be that the conversation hasn’t advanced so as to provide any new avenues or arguments in the last half a century (or indeed, in the whole span of time since the enlightenment itself).

      I’m pleased to see that you will consider my points seriously, and I welcome your comments on my blog as often as you feel inclined to respond. As for book recommendations, the most recent fictional book I’ve read was this past summer, and it was fantastic – though perhaps knowing about the history of philosophy helps one appreciate its literary tropes, but still, fantastic – “The Man Who Was Thursday” by G.K. Chesterton.

      Usually I read academic, theological and philosophical works, and have little time for fiction, but I’m glad I had the time to read that book recently, and I recommend it. However, a word of advice: don’t assume too much too quick while reading if you want to catch the subtleties of it, remember that it is supposed to be a nightmare. In some respects its rather similar to Alice in wonderland. Reading it, you may find it to be curiously tinged with theology, but there you have it – that’s about as close as I usually get to fiction when I have a choice what I’d like to read.

  4. I’m enjoying following this discussion very much and, thanks to your recommendation, I’ve now read a bit of Dr Robin Collins and spent a couple of hours today watching the William Lane Craig/Hitchens debate.

    I found Hitchens considerably more persuasive, and a clear winner in humour department, which always disposes me well towards anyone.

    Though his smugness sometimes annoyed me (and often infuriated those who debated him), I’ll miss him, and it’s very nice to hear that at least some believers will too.

    Thanks again.

    • Yes, Hitchens certainly has a way about him – even Craig mentioned on his podcast how he warmed up to his style as well. However, as a philosopher, Craig was careful to look for arguments and/or clear refutations of his arguments. I am convinced that if one were to go through the debate and just write down on paper the arguments with the premises, and compare what Craig argued with what Hitchens argued, it would be clear that there was no contest about who presented the best arguments. All at once, this debate has the advantage of presenting the best of Hitchens, and it was one of the most entertaining debates I’ve ever seen. All in all, a great entertaining debate, which if people bothered to take seriously, contains some very good arguments for Theism which went completely unanswered. It also represents an echo which Hitchens has left behind of himself, and for that reason alone it would be worth watching and enjoying.

      • TJ, once again thank you very much for bringing this debate to my attention.

        I do agree with you that Craig had a well rehearsed set of arguments, while Hitchens, as ever, appeared to be ‘winging it’.

        The core difficulty was that they couldn’t agree on who had the burden of proof in the matter.

        Craig challenged Hitchens to ‘prove that atheism is true’. Hitchens response was ‘You’re the one asserting that there is a transcendent being and that you know something about the way He/She/It operates. You’re the one who needs to prove God’s existence.’

        To Craig, as to millions of Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims and tree-worshippers, God’s existence is self-evident (‘How could a tree grow so big and beautiful if it had no spirit?’) and those who challenge their beliefs would need to produce startling evidence to make them change their minds.

        The forceful way in which prominent atheists (Hitchens, Dawkins et al) have been making their case recently suggests that they have a certainty which verges on a religious faith.

        Scientists like Dawkins say no, they can never be completely certain of anything and don’t take things on faith; scientists observe the world, examine evidence and, unlike believers, are prepared to change their hypotheses when new evidence comes to light.

        I like Hitchens’ analogy that he doesn’t have to prove anything to be an ‘a-leprechaun-ist’.

        Those who assert that leprechauns exist (an extraordinary claim, but less extraordinary than the claim that a being somewhat like homo sapiens created us in its image and made the universe specifically for our species) have to produce extraordinary proof for this assertion.

        At the time of the debate, he (and I) simply found the evidence for God’s existence unconvincing.

        Maybe Hitch has all the evidence he needs now. RIP.

  5. I cannot help but want to respond to your most recent comments, so here it goes.

    First, I think you’re quite right that the sticking point in the debate was deciding exactly who had what burden of proof. Hitchens position was not clearly laid out, but as far as I can make out he was operating on the assumption that absence of evidence is evidence of absence (that, in other words, once one finds no good reason to believe in a God, that itself serves as good justification for one’s disbelief). First, I think had Hitchens been pushed more on this point, Craig could have demonstrated (as is trivially easy to do) that Hitchens was either holding an absurd epistemological position, or else at least had absolutely no justification for his position. Morever, his cute unicorn and leprechaun analogies are wide of the mark – the whole point is that if you are willing to enter a debate, then you have to come with at least some arguments for the position you defend. Nobody would enter a debate on whether unicorns exist, and not bring any arguments (they would either not bother, or else some burden of proof would belong to them and be accepted implicitly by them when they enter the debate). They could at least say “The absence of evidence for them is good evidence for their absence”. The absence of evidence only ever counts as evidence of absence when somebody can stipulate that there ought to have been evidence on the supposition of presence. That’s easier to do with Unicorns than with God, and that’s why, I think, Hitchens dodged it so hard.

    However, even at that, I take it that Craig’s arguments were good enough to constitute evidence at least, and since they are deductive arguments Hitchens cannot really undermine them by appealing to a methodology, such as retrospective apologetics (which, I note, is not what Craig was doing, but even if he had been, the points would stand deductively – you HAVE to deny one or more of the premises to avoid the conclusion, or else show the logic to be invalid).

    Also, you say: “Those who assert that leprechauns exist (an extraordinary claim, but less extraordinary than the claim that a being somewhat like homo sapiens created us in its image and made the universe specifically for our species) have to produce extraordinary proof for this assertion.”
    I have to address that 😛
    First, extraordinary claims do not require extraordinary evidence – this is pretty well an axiom in epistemology. For instance, consider the likelihood of winning the lottery. It’s very low. However, when somebody wins, they don’t think to themselves that their ticket is a fake, nor do they ask that extraordinary evidence be given to them. Ordinary evidence does just fine (the evidence of the ticket is ordinary evidence). So, instead, what philosophers say is that what you need for extraordinary claims is for them to be more plausible than not (that is, that it would be even more extraordinary if it were not true, given the relevant background information). Thus, Hitchens would have had to show that Craig’s evidence wasn’t good enough to satisfy that standard. I think they do satisfy that standard, but even if they didn’t, its besides the point as far as the ‘debate’ is concerned because these are deductive arguments – the conclusion logically necessarily follows from the truth of the premises, so you have to deny the premises to avoid the conclusion.

    Second, God is nothing like homo-sapiens – that’s just a rather crude understanding of what a real theist means by God. Note that, as you can see by various posts I’ve already published, mormons don’t qualify as theists – Theism is the commitment to God existing, where ‘God’ is defined something like “That than which nothing greater can be conceived” which is the standard Theistic definition common to theistic authorities from Muslim to Hindu to Deist.

    “scientists observe the world, examine evidence and, unlike believers, are prepared to change their hypotheses when new evidence comes to light.”

    As a convert and a philosopher I (almost) take personal offense to that – it seems to me that I’ve been intellectually honest, and most religious people are as tenacious to hold on to their most basic beliefs as scientists are, or even as secular humanists are. Religious people are also as open to changing with certain kinds of evidence, just as scientists are open to changing provided certain kinds of evidence. I understand that you, in the above quote, aren’t necessarily outlining your position (as it is Dawkins’ position), but I couldn’t help myself from addressing it wherever it comes from.

    “At the time of the debate, he (and I) simply found the evidence for God’s existence unconvincing.”

    Perhaps you could share a problem you see with any one of the arguments Craig proposed? I’m curious to know what was really dissatisfying about those arguments (I take issue with some of his argumentation as well, but I find I by-and-large agree with Craig’s arguments, so I would welcome a challenge to them).

    Oh, and Happy New Years!

  6. Hello again, TJ,

    And thanks for all the trouble you are going to in this discussion. I’m really enjoying it.

    Please don’t take offence at any suggestion that as a believer you are incapable of rational thought and reasoned argument.

    I’m rather annoyed by Dawkins’ attempt to call himself and other atheists ‘brights’, though I do like Dennett’s humorous suggestion that believers in supernatural things could counter by calling themselves ‘supers’.
    I used to be a reasonably intelligent believer myself and wouldn’t be wasting my time discussing anything with you if I didn’t believe that you are also a rational, articulate and entertaining truth-seeker.

    So you know who you’re dealing with, I’ll confess I had to look up ‘epistemology’ . I’d heard the term but never used it myself. I’ve never studied philosophy; my degrees are in law and history.
    Okay, I’ll have a crack at answering the William Lane Craig arguments which Hitchens left untouched. I’m working from memory here and haven’t re-watched the debate. Forgive me if I sometimes get the Craig argument a little twisted, but I think I have the gist of it.

    Here goes…

    1. Cosmological argument. The Universe had a starting point, therefore it must have had a cause and therefore a divine creator must have been that cause. We have the intelligence to consider these matters, therefore the divine creator must have an intelligence like ours, albeit considerably greater than our feeble human brains.

    The Big Bang starting point seems to be well established (by those considerably cleverer than I), so yes, the universe had a beginning.

    I’m not a physicist, but I understand from Lawrence Krauss, Niels Brene and others that it’s not so well established that nothing can come into being without a cause. On the contrary, at a sub-atomic level, it seems to happen with regularity, and there’s a lot we don’t yet understand about how dark matter works.

    It’s possible that we will some time discover that there is a good, natural, physical reason why there must be ‘something rather than nothing’.

    If in the meantime we accept that something did cause the Universe to pop into existence, I’d have little problem in calling that something ‘God’ if it suits. We don’t have another word for it and all of us feel a sense of wonder when we contemplate its mystery and vast power. It still begs the old chestnut, ‘Where did God come from? If he’s created himself or always existed, why not cut out the middle man and just say the universe created itself or always existed?’

    As to what happened on the far side of the Big Bang, when God was preparing to do his creation…well, that’s a singularity. Despite some effort, I can’t quite get my head around this, but I understand that by definition a singularity is an event which cuts us off from what’s on the other side of it. We can’t influence it and we have no evidence to examine about it. I think you’re quite right that absence of evidence is not always evidence of absence, so why can’t we just say, ‘There’s an absence of evidence of what preceded the observable universe so we just don’t know’ ?

    This would include having to say, ‘There’s an absence of evidence so we just don’t know if there was a God there or not.’

    We can’t prove there is or was no God and, being by nature a little guarded, I’m not quite as prepared as Hitchens to positively assert that there is no such thing.

    We can’t prove that the Universe was not created ten minutes ago, and that we have been implanted in it complete with a set of false memories of what we had for breakfast. It seems unlikely, but then it would seem unlikely, wouldn’t it?

    It’s a big jump from accepting that the universe had a beginning and a physical cause to ascribing a human-like personality to that God creator, and to believing that it takes a human-like interest in our existence, let alone in our dress-codes, sexual behaviour and how we spend Sundays.

    It seems far more probable to me that any gods who are concerned with human behaviour have been invented by human cultures, for the useful purposes of explaining the natural world, giving hope to those who are having a bad time, binding the tribe together and keeping deviant and youthful members in line. (With the invention of the surveillance camera this last purpose became less essential.)

    2. Teleological argument. The Universe is fine tuned in a way that allows us humans to exist, therefore our existence must be the purpose of this fine tuning.

    I accept that without extraordinary fine tuning I wouldn’t be typing this, but it doesn’t follow that the whole purpose of the Universe is to put me here to take part in blog discussions. This despite the fact that my chances of my hitting this particular blog at this particular moment are vanishingly small.
    As you say, it’s like winning the lottery. If I improbably hold the winning ticket, I don’t doubt that the lottery exists. But if I didn’t win the lottery, someone else would. If things were slightly different our planet wouldn’t exist, but maybe something else equally interesting would be there in its place.

    Hitchens pointed out the wastefulness of the exercise; the common destruction of galaxies and the extinction of species, not to mention the understanding that the entire Universe is en route to eventual annihilation.

    Craig countered that God could afford to be as wasteful as he liked because he had infinite power, resources and time.

    But we now know that our planet is just a tiny part of the universe, which almost certainly contains countless billions of other planets equally complex, beautiful and worthy of a creator’s attention.

    How can we possibly be sure that we are not merely the by-products of some other heavenly purpose, if indeed there is any purpose at all? Why can every other galaxy, solar system and species be wantonly wasted for no discernable reason, while we alone merit special consideration? We’re going to be destroyed ourselves eventually, so perhaps the true favoured planet is somewhere else, or yet to be born.

    If the real truth were that the Universe had actually been created and fine-tuned by God for the benefit of the super-intelligent helium-breathing Zoggians on planet Qxytt in Galaxy R566U, we incidentally developed homo sapiens on Planet Earth could still feel it was all about us.

    It is natural for each of us to feel that we are at the centre of things, because we view the world from our personal and species-favouring perspective.
    An ant knows that the sole purpose of the universe is to look after ants, and gets on with its ant life. It can understand cause and effect in the matter of food gathering and nest building, but has come to regard the occasional random tragic trampling of human boots as God working in mysterious ways.

    3. The fact of the resurrection proves there is a God.

    I know the arguments for the historical truth of the resurrection, and I’m sure you do too. I long believed it was at the heart of Christianity and remember my shock when my school chaplain told us that even if it were not true (and he had serious doubts) he would still be a Christian.

    The evidence for the physical, literal resurrection is sketchy and contradictory (I like Bishop John Shelby Spong’s writing on this) but that was not the point of this debate, so I’ll leave it aside, as Hitchens did.
    Hitchens argued briefly that even if someone did rise from the dead, that alone wouldn’t prove their divinity to his satisfaction. I think he’s right on that.

    If you and I heard on tonight’s TV news that a bloke had been seen walking around Jerusalem three days after being executed for crimes against the state, what would we think?
    First, we would suspect deliberate fraud or honest mistake. We’d be even more sceptical if the gentleman in question had a band of devoted followers. If fraud, delusion and honest misapprehension were ruled out, would we necessarily conclude that a new god must be in town? I think we would all first want to know more about the chap’s internal workings. We would be Doubting Thomases.

    Even if x-rays showed the world that the guy was healthy and well even though he no longer had a functioning heart, we would still think him a freak of nature, not a god. Medical scientists would rewrite the physiology textbooks, and it would take an awful lot more than merely rising from the dead to convince us all of his divinity.

    4. The need for a moral compass. If there were no divine law-giver and no Day of Judgement there can be no moral behaviour. Anything goes. How would we know right from wrong without God?

    This is where we a-Godists should be taking offence. Without a heavenly CCTV camera watching we apparently can’t be trusted not to commit any crimes we think we can get away with.
    Hitchens the unbeliever undeniably had a well-developed moral sense, and fought all his life against what he saw as injustice and oppression in the world.

    Incidentally his efforts also brought him the wealth and attention he clearly also relished, but few would doubt his strong sense of right and wrong, or suggest he was not a man (though flawed like all of us) trying to spend his life purposefully.

    I and many other non-believers try to do the same, and work to inculcate values of kindness, tolerance and consideration into our children. We can’t offer them heavenly rewards or threaten them with eternal punishment, but we can teach them empathy for others. ”How would you feel if she spat on your icecream?’
    Feeling concern for the welfare of others is not unique to human beings. All social animals care for their families and their tribes.

    Chimpanzees will risk their own well-being to defend family members, but also make war on other chimps that invade their territory or attempt to steal their womenfolk. Nobody suggests that they will face divine judgement for behaving like this, even if they’re the aggressors in the conflict.

    Most (though unfortunately by no means all) humans understand that we live in much larger tribes than we once did and this requires that for our own comfort and survival we should behave decently towards people who are not directly related to us. We may need their help some day, and even if we know we’ll never call in the debt, we feel their pain and empathise. Being nice to people makes most of us feel good.

    We now also understand the need to care for the welfare of other species and the planet as a whole. We would need to do this for practical, selfish reasons, even in the absence of divine law-giving.

    It may be distasteful to some to imagine that loving, altruistic feelings have their roots in biological survival mechanisms, but the evidence is great that the most basic instincts are innate, shared by all human cultures, and many animal ones too, and were not dictated from above or suddenly invented by any particular religion.

    Matters become much murkier when religion gets involved in details of morality. Craig was quite right in arguing that most anti-abortionists and anti-euthanasia campaigners do it out of sincere concern for humanity and human rights. Those on the other side of the fence also sincerely and passionately argue the morality of their viewpoint.

    Some humans claim divine sanction for genital mutilation, suicide bombing, human sacrifice, polygamy, genocide, subjugation of women and persecution of homosexuals. In the name of God others fervently condemn such practices and will literally die to defend their point of view.

    The side people take of these issues reflects their culture, upbringing, social influences, taste and mental state. We invent our own moral codes; Hitchens’ one was simply ‘Don’t do unto others as you wouldn’t want them to do unto you.’ He admitted he might have trouble sticking to this if he met Charles Manson.

    Nor does belief in God provide an immutable or even useful moral code.

    ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sounds simple and proscriptive enough, but God apparently makes exceptions to the rule in the case of Egyptian first-born and worshippers of golden calves.

    ‘Loving thy neighbour’ is easy in my situation, but provides problems for those who find themselves living next door to wife-beaters and child abusers. (‘I love you but want you castrated’ doesn’t sound like love to me.)

    ‘Take no thought for the morrow’ may work well for monks and itinerant preachers, but it is not such good advice for farmers, or for those whose dependent families may benefit from some life insurance.

    We all, believers and atheists, adjust the rules as we go along.

    5. I know God exists because I can definitely, absolutely, certainly feel him as a Holy Spirit within me.

    If it works for Mr Craig, I’m glad if it makes him happy and gives his life purpose, but please let him concede that this is subjective. At one point in my life I sincerely begged God to make himself known to me and he never showed up. Either I’m unworthy, or Mr Craig and I are just different. Or God is making me wait, to teach me patience.

    I do suspect that, although it’s totally unconvincing to non-believers, this Holy Spirit within is the most fundamental reason behind Craig’s personal world view. Although he can try to make all sorts of rational, logical arguments to support the existence of God, the real reason he believes is that he ‘feels in his heart that it’s true’.

    Mr Craig thinks Muslims have got it all wrong (I’m with him on this point) but I’m sure many of them also feel the Holy Spirit within and can thus definitely, absolutely, certainly know that Allah is Great and Mohammed is his prophet.

    The attachment to the belief is emotional, rather than rational. I believe, TJ, that you are a convert to Christianity and I would be interested to know whether your conversion was a result of hearing reasoned arguments or of feeling something inside and enjoying the experience and the fellowship of other Christians.

    To Mr Hitchens, and to me, and to others who have somehow missed out on the emotional connection to the belief, this Holy Spirit business is just so much ‘white noise’.

    That’s not to say there can be no merit in following one’s heart. I do it all the time.

    I love my wife, and my children and grandchildren are the most brilliant and beautiful in the world.
    My Australian rules football team (the mighty Essendon Bombers) always plays hard but fair and deserves more success than any team on Earth. If God were really good and all-powerful he’d make them champions year after year.

    I love Essendon because I lived in a die-hard Essendon-supporting street when I was an impressionable 10 year old.

    Occasionally those who did not grow up in Essendon-loving neighbourhoods can be converted to the cause. Usually they are people who have no team to support until they befriend an Essendon supporter. My younger brothers and some of my nephews have followed me to become even more rabid Essendon fans than I am.

    Once hooked, converts find they love the club colours (red and black is beautiful!) and are inspired by the rousing club song (‘See the Bombers fly up!’) They discover that watching an Essendon win makes them feel happy. Sadly, Essendon haven’t won much for over a decade, but we still cling to our hopes for future seasons. Essendon moves in mysterious ways and regularly tests our faith.

    I don’t intend to trivialise belief in God by this comparison. I introduce it only to illustrate the point that even should people place compelling evidence before me, proving that Essendon players are a bunch of talentless louts, I would first desperately look for reasons to discount the evidence and failing that would say, ‘I don’t care. I’ll support them anyway.’

    The feeling I have for the team is only too real, but illusory at the same time.

    Okay, thanks again TJ, I’ve given it my best shot on this one. Happy New Year.

    • I’m sorry that I’m only getting back to you this late – somehow I didn’t notice your comment until late last night. However, since your comments reflect criticisms which are so common, as well as so often answered, I have decided to answer them in an all new upcoming post which I will call “Craig’s 5 ways”. I will deal with your, and other common criticisms which have been dealt with by Craig time and time and time and time again – and in the hopes that I won’t have to answer to the same objections from others again, I’ll have a post where I actually address the issues.

      The Post will be forthcoming this week, possibly today.

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