Good God. Or Not.

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Image by Andrew Rusk via Flickr

Last Friday in Toronto Christopher Hitchens debated Tony Blair on religion. That was bound to be an entertainment. Whether it turned out, in fact, to be so I do not know. You can find out by shelling out your $2.99 (it was $4.99 for the live stream) to the Munk Debates, which I suppose is a fair representation in valuation, relative to a Lakers game or a Kanye West concert, of the worth afforded intellectual capacity today. I haven’t done so, because for me, having missed it, such an event loses a great deal of its immediacy when no longer, well, immediate.

Nonetheless, we stingy of our shekels and our time can have a sense of the arguments offered from these after statements the debaters provided at The Washington Post, Blair here, and Hitchens here. Perhaps the first pointer to entertainment to be made is to the daft intellectual flotsam and jetsam floating in the comments sections, the portside ballast to the starboard no-nothingness of Tea Partyers.

Of the event itself, not much of lasting value was likely to come from a debate for which the stated resolution was: be it resolved, religion is a force for good in the world. Would that be always or sometimes, for some or for all, without qualification or, all things considered, on balance? I can report from his written statement that the converted Catholic Blair, for the pro side, did not attempt to argue “without qualification.” He should go into politics.

I refer to the debate as an entertainment because that is what I think public debates are: gladiatorial combat for the sublimated pleasure of the high minded. I don’t deny, even endorse, the incisive and nimble training they provide for the mind, or the likeness they share with  a damned good and stimulating conversation of substance, but the best arguments for a proposition are not going to be made extempore and under the pressures of time and contest before an audience. It is no sheer coincidence that we have not, as from Socrates via Plato, the dialogues of Locke, Kant, and Hegel.

That said, I was not likely to be favoring Blair’s side in the debate, though I am not fully on Hitchens’s either. Of Hitchens, I have to say that I am a great appreciator. What an odd choice of word, you say. Yes. Perhaps, if I knew him, I would fully love him as so many who know him seem to do, and be pleased to call him Hitch as even so many who do not know him do. And I do admire him, for numerous reasons, but I have my reservations, which leads to my reserved choice of word. I was even, mindful of his current illness – in the face of which he registers still one more reason for admiration – set, with an old friend on a recent visit to New York, to see him, at the Jewish Center, debate the Ten Commandments (guess which side), though he had to withdraw at the last minute. There are excesses in Hitchens that give me pause, and pause again, and I am not inured by charm and proximity to the impositions of outsized personalities. Maybe nothing can point more simply to the complexity of what one faces in him than his fairly singular opposition to the reputation and legacy of Mother Theresa, and that he offers it with his usual gusto. One has not been contemned so fully or with such acid dispatch as when Hitchens has pronounced what is usually for him a complete and damning judgment. Had you not yet reached the judgment yourself, you are apt to wonder with concern about your own failing moral compass. How is it, you might question, that you so long and so ably tolerated what is – Hitchens has said – so utterly vile?

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Blair’s argumentative style (and by the way, I “appreciate” him too) is unsurprisingly straightforward, with none of the sparkling rhetorical style of Hitchens’s own. Of his fundamental argument, that religion, despite its unarguably mixed record, has a positive role to play in the world, I will have something tangential to say on Monday. Hitchens’s being closer to my own position, yet still not of it, I gave greater attention to it.

On the page, the sparkle in Hitchens that might dazzle and distract in public debate is more easily seen through, though it is still not without effort.

I have several times written and said that atheist beliefs are compatible with all sorts of other beliefs as well. Ayn Rand, not all of whose work I admire, was an atheist. Leo Strauss, a philosopher justly admired by conservatives (and by me, when he writes about “Persecution and the Art of Writing“) seems to have been without theistic belief. Some utilitarians like Peter Singer are unbelievers too. I am ready to believe that Mussolini was an atheist, though if that’s true it’s even more disgusting that the Vatican made such a pet of him, along with the Christian fascist dictators like Franco, Salazar, Pavelic and Tiso. The majority of public atheists and secularists in the West have a tendency to associate with a kind of ethical humanism or even leftism, but this is not necessary or entailed. So Blair was quite right to disagree with a position that I do not hold and have in fact never heard argued – that if religion vanished, all our evils and woes would dematerialize along with it.

One escapes such a forest of reference and meandering evaluation struggling to recall the argumentative path one was on before entering it and to recognize its likeness in the road onto which one exits. Still, with the time public debate will not afford, one will find one’s way. So at one point, we get this argument.

As for religious charity and good works, this is not even a bad argument. Examined for a moment, it doesn’t amount to an argument at all….

People tell me that Louis Farrakhan’s “Nation of Islam” rescues young black men from narcotics. I tend to doubt the claim, but even if it were true it would not alter the fact that Farrakhan runs a crackpot racist cult centered on yet another supreme spiritual leader (all of these, you notice, often homicidally opposed to one another).

Christopher Hitchens
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Well, first, it may be a rhetorically adroit dismissal, but “no argument” is not to make a claim and advance it at all, which Blair certainly does do, and in fact he does make a good – which is not to say, necessarily, persuasive – argument. As in all things in life, we must balance the good against the bad and direct our own eyes at the scale. Farrakhan provides a false analogy, because he is almost a worst case example, and because he is a single individual rather than a tradition and a theology independent of time and specific wrongful acts. Religion, conceptually and in its plurality separate and distinct from the Catholic Church, cannot be universally judged on the basis of that church. And the Catholic Church of today is not necessarily the Catholic Church of the Crusades or the “New World” conquests, or the accommodation to Hitler or the abuse of children or – well, you can see why Blair might not have wanted me on his side. Regardless, balancing the good and bad in any entity – the United States, for instance – is, in truth, an essential act in determining, evaluating, whether it is, overall, “a force for good in the world.”

A second counter argument Hitchens offers is this:

He made a small stab at another hastily-carpentered standby of the faith-based canon, about twentieth-century tyranny being atheistic, but his heart didn’t quite seem to be in it. Everyone knows or should know what Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf about doing the lord’s work. And nobody can find any totalitarian text that says: we can do what we like, and everything is permitted to us, because we have no god on our side. The whole concept of supreme unalterable leadership, as Orwell wrote, is intrinsically theocratic.

One has to enjoy curlicue amusements such as “small stab” and “hastily-carpentered standby,” and the undermining tunnel of “his heart didn’t quite seem to be in it,” especially given the sophistical land grab Hitchens himself makes at the end of that passage. Leaving aside Hitler and just taking communist totalitarianism, the first part of the passage argues that since we cannot prove (through evidentiary text) that totalitarians did believe that in the absence of God everything is permitted, then they did not believe that. But this is like arguing that the inability to prove that God exists tends to prove that He doesn’t, i.e. that the absence of proof of the affirmative supports the negative, when it is simply not dispositive. More to the point – of course, twentieth century communism was atheistic. It was, explicitly, a materialism predicated on the disbelief in an ideal metaphysical substratum from which moral imperatives are entailed; in recorded actuality, these totalitarianisms, working in that belief, did act as if everything is permitted, for everything was indeed done, because everything was materially, not morally directed.

These aren’t even points with which Hitchens would normally argue. Anti-totalitarian that he is, he knows all of this. But he strains at self-defense, against accusations of the crimes of atheism, just as so many theists attempt to diminish the crimes of religion. So desperate is he, in fact, that he closes the passage with a howler. The arrogant and homicidal totalitarian leaderships are characterized as “supreme,” and thus purely verbally conflated with “supreme being,” with “unalterable” serving as some sort of associative synonym for the papal “infallible” and the Godly “perfect,” and we get totalitarianism – atheist, communist totalitarianism – as “intrinsically theocratic.” Through the loosest-limbed waving of distracting verbal hands, Hitchens has just attempted to prove that black is white. And accordingly, none of the mass murders of the twentieth century were at the hands of atheists at all, but, abracadabra, those of theists.

Someone has got to tell me if Hitchens did this at the actual debate and how Blair may have responded, because I gotta tell ya, times are tough, and I’m not shelling out the price of a latte to hear that argument.

AJA

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