Thursday, May 12, 2011

Hitchens vs. Lennox in Edinburgh

Christopher Hitchens debated John Lennox at the Edinburgh International Festival, on whether atheism will provide a viable future for Europeans. The file is available for purchase online, but I don't recommend that anyone buy anything from the Fixed Point Foundation. There are far too many free files available of comparable or superior quality to their events.

Christopher Hitchens leads by arguing that terrible things have happened in Europe as a result of religion, and then he makes the giant leap that only secularism can save the day. He might well be right, but he did not deductively or inductively connect his conclusion to his premises. It may well be true that Abrahamic religion poisons everything European, but this does not logically imply that either secularism or atheism will have a good shot at salvaging Europe from a rising tide of fundamentalism both Christian and Muslim.

John Lennox makes the case that the so-called "New Atheists" have confused the essential message of Christianity with the abuses perpetrated by the political powers of Christendom, which is at least partly true, and is undoubtedly true in the case of Hitchens himself. It is surely irrational to tar one’s opponents with too broad a brush, however, in the next breath Lennox writes off all secular moral reasoning as mere post-modern chatter, thus committing precisely the same breach of reasoning and etiquette, confounding his opponent’s actual positions with those of his least admirable comrades. It gets worse, however; as he goes on to confound humanism with communism. At this point, it becomes clear that this man may safely be dismissed as a wellspring of serious criticism. He eventually gets around to making an argument that we have to assume that the universe was created in order to discover that it is intelligible. He goes on to talk about ethics for just a bit, claiming that our innate revulsion at certain actions must come from the God of Abraham rather than mere natural selection, an argument which might work on audiences ignorant of both cultural anthropology and the fallacy of the false dilemma. He closes by saying that if we cannot have eternal Heavenly justice, there is no point at all in seeking temporal Earthly justice. In summary, Lennox sounds almost as rhetorically smooth as Hitchens, but his arguments are somehow even less coherent.

The rebuttals are muddled and scattershot, but what else might one expect, given the lack of argument heretofore?

Overall, this debate elevates style over substance and rhetoric over logic. This is (alas) not terribly unusual in such debates, but this event really takes it to a whole new level. Both speakers manage to sound quite intelligent without ever making even one inductively or deductively valid argument. Good lord below, I’ve done my mind a disservice by slogging through this one.

Hitchens vs Richards at Stanford U.

Christopher Hitchens debated Jay Richards (video, audio) over the particular question of theism versus atheism, but they managed to stray far and wide during the course of the event.

As usual, Hitchens puts out a crazy salad of very well-worded emotional appeals, but doesn't bother to show how any of his arguments should lead one to conclude either materialism or deism. He leave the hard work of sorting out his facts into an argument with a conclusion to his listeners, which I suppose may be an acceptable mode of instruction at an institution such as Stanford. Nevertheless, I was (as always) far more impressed with his style than with his substance. Even when he alludes to a good argument (e.g. the problem of evil) he doesn't flesh out the deductive structure thereof.

Richards, by contrast, gives several facially valid arguments in rapid succession, and appeals to natural human intuitions (such as the intuition that moral statements are universally binding, or the intuition that everything that begins to exist has a cause, or the intuition that anthropic coincidences must imply design) to make his case both efficiently and effectively.

As usual, Hitchens recovers significantly during the Q & A, but he never comes close to countering the serene and methodological approach of his opponent, and his frustration (or lack of sobriety) shows through on a few occasions. It was a bit sad to watch, really. With the exception of the Hitchens/Craig debate, I've never seen the Hitch so thoroughly beaten.

Overall rating: 3.5 stars
Believer rating: 5 stars
Unbeliever rating: 2 stars