Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Hitchens vs. Berlinski in Birmingham, AL

Christopher Hitchens versus David Berlinski. Need I say more? The most ostentatiously highbrow debate about theism and atheism of the 21st century, and it transpired, of all places, in Alabama. I know, right?

Both men manage to impart such a degree of authoritative superciliousness to their voices as to make weak-minded undergrads instantly believe everything either one has to say. This would blow out the motherboard of an early-model electric monk, seeing as they were not capable of simultaneously holding incompatible beliefs to be true. Undergrads are, thankfully, far more mentally flexible than electric monks.

Berlinski essentially makes the case that without the fear of God to hold people in check, they would be capable of all of the atrocities we saw from the various mass-murdering Communist regimes. Hitchens retorts that once people believe they have God on their side, they are equally capable of horrific acts of torture and murder. Both men are right, of course, but neither one quite draws out the underlying commonality between Hitler's purges, Stalin's purges, Pol Pot's purges, Torquemada's purges, and centuries of European witch hunts, presumably because they are each interested in making the case that the other side's mass persecutions and murders are somehow more significant.

Just to be clear, I will go ahead and state the obvious: People who faithfully follow a system of faith-based beliefs and believe they are the bearers of the One True Way will be willing commit any crime, however horrific, if it is justified within the faith which they hold. This goes for Fascism, Communism, Medieval Catholicism, Christian Nationalism, ancient Judaism, modern Wahhabism, and just about any other politicized philosophy which separates out a Chosen People and justifies their persecution of the Other in the name of the One True Way. Whether the faithful are blindly following the commands of gods or men doesn't really matter, what matters is that they are following blindly.

Okay, enough of my editorializing. I just wanted to make it quite clear why I found both of these debaters unpersuasive in their respective attempts to declare either theism or atheism to be invariably poisonous. Hitchens makes the case that theism inevitably leads to the worst atrocities of worst theistic regimes, while Berlinski makes the case that atheism inevitably leads to the worst atrocities of worst atheistic regimes. Neither one is nearly persuasive, but they both sound terribly smooth and learned and witty and cultured. If you value style at least as much as substance, this is the one to see. Otherwise, you can give it a miss.

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