Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Hitchens vs. Haldane at Oxford University

Christopher Hitchens debated John Haldane on the topic of "Secularism and Faith in the Public Square" at Oxford (link). The debate was originally supposed to address whether it would be better to choose a secularist or faith-based approach to public policy.

Staying closely on topic, Hitchens describes and acclaims the exceptional American experiment of strictly separating church and state, and goes on to make the case that the most secular nations are (not coincidentally) the most free and prosperous. Naturally, he also takes a bit of time to recite a few of the abuses to which the priestly classes are prone when they are provided political power.

Haldane, for his part, lays out a 'structural map' in the vaguest possible terms, and manages somehow to say very little of consequence a rather learned way. He separates procedural values from substantive values, and notes that we as a society must have a conception of the good, but we cannot get there because many disagree on significant ethical issues. He also claims that fundamental moral notions cannot be grounded in secular moral philosophy but may easily be grounded in the idea that humans are created in the image of a god, but fails to make any argument to show why one approach is superior to another.

On cross, Haldane goes from vague to incoherent, while Hitchens gets sharper and more cutting. At this point, one is tempted to look away from the spectacle of a clearly learned philosopher failing to stake out a position which might substantively separate him from his interlocutor. They both agree that theocracy is a terrible idea, and Haldane does not point out any specific ways in which he would like to see faith become more useful and pervasive in the public square. Nativity displays? Faith schools? Church tithes from tax dollars? For the love of your Papist God, Haldane, please make a stand somewhere and defend your side of the argument! Had he chosen to do so, they might have had an interesting back and forth.
  • Unbeliever rating: 4.5
  • Believer rating: 3.0
  • Overall rating: 3.5

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