Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Christopher Hitchens debates Alister McGrath

reposted from:,1826,n,n
Chris Street comments are in bright green; highlights in blockquotes (yellow).

A House Divided: Hitch at Georgetown

by Hitchens Watch

Reposted from:

The following report was written by a good friend of mine. He's not a Hitchens junkie like most of us. In fact, I'm not sure he's ever read Hitchens at all? He's never looked at this site, I know that. But he went to see Hitch on Thursday night at Georgetown and has written a very neat take on the affair for us.

Proving among other things that we're not a totally partisan hate site, I give it to you unedited. I like the raw feed... - MG

By Nelson Thacker

At a stronghold of Roman Catholic doctrine, Christopher Hitchens debates a renowned Theologian and emerges as the more persuasive orator, by far.

Given that the forces of darkness have always enjoyed a sufficiency of brilliant apologists like Bertrand Russell, Steven J. Gould, Carl Sagan and Gore Vidal, it's rather ironic that the putative Creator of the Universe has tended to select his choicest champions - the Apostles, St. Paul, C.S. Lewis, Billy Graham… - from vapid stock. It's almost as though the Father of Light is waging His eternal war against Satan with one hand tied behind His back.

The latest name to join God's pantheon of pious patsies is the Oxford theologian Alister McGrath, whose distinguished head was handed to him during a debate against the outrageously articulate Christopher Hitchens at Georgetown University on October 11.

In an auditorium decorated with stained-glass windows and gilded portraits of Christ and the Virgin Mary, the controversial author of "The Missionary Position" and "God Is Not Great" waged intellectual combat with the lightly armed McGrath on the subject of religious belief in the modern world. It wasn't long before Dr. McGrath would find himself in a missionary position of his own and at the mercy of a far more compelling public speaker.

"I need the lectern," Hitchens joked as he took the floor, wasting no time in setting an irreverent tone for the evening. "If I can't be erect, I may as well be upright."

This generated only nervous giggling from the partisan Christian audience. The elderly female journalist seated near me didn't bother to include the clever wordplay in her notes.

Abandoning comedy, Mr. Hitchens quickly got down to the serious business of crucifying organized religion. He condemned people of a vague faith who insist the Bible shouldn't be interpreted literally, then criticized those of a stouter faith who believe the Bible is moral in its literal interpretation.

"Is it moral to believe that your sins can be forgiven by the punishment of another person?" he rhetorically asked. "This is called scape goating."

What he referred to as "compulsory love" is another Biblical tenet that Mr. Hitchens attacked.

"Love your enemy?!" he gasped. "No philosophy is more suicidal than this. We must destroy our enemy! Fortunately, everyone in America agreed the enemy must be destroyed after 9/11."

Perhaps the most caustic of Hitchens' early comments was his coining of the term "celestial dictatorship" to describe God's orientation toward His flock.

"It is totalitarian," insisted Mr. Hitchens, "and this relationship turns people into sado-masochists. God says you're a wretched creature but, take courage, heaven awaits you."

Mr. Hitchens made convincing arguments. His eloquence, strong voice and relaxed manner soon won the respect of the Georgetown illuminati. Certain turns of phrases appeared too well fashioned to be improvised, but this didn't detract from the inherent logic of Mr. Hitchens' ideas.

The second quarter-hour of the discussion belonged to the amiable Dr. McGrath. Speaking in a voice designed by nature for the pulpit − simultaneously conciliatory and didactic − Dr. McGrath lamented the bad rap that has befallen religion on account of the occasional atrocity perpetrated in its name.

"There's something about human nature that prompts acts of violence," he vaguely said, breaking no new ground. "The real problem isn't religion, but extremism. We humans have the ability to react against our genes, to be better than we are. And how can we do this without a transcendent morality to guide our actions?"

I quickly surmised that Dr. McGrath was a person comfortable dappling in abstract concepts. He has possibly carved a career out of the sort of spin that renders the more obscure aspects of scripture palatable to thinking people. On those occasions when he managed to speak in concrete terms, he was too obvious, even to the point of being patronizing, as when he mentioned the well-known study that divulged religion to be emotionally gratifying.

Another thing that was clear about Dr. McGrath was that he was an unadulterated peacemaker. He made many attempts during the evening to find common ground between himself and his humorously abusive opponent.

When the lectern was again handed over to the sardonic Mr. Hitchens, he immediately broached the subject of heaven. Referring to the wishful-thinking hope of an afterlife, Hitchens said that religion is immoral and sinister because it makes us want to hasten our own death.

With only eight minutes to rebut Dr. McGrath's more salient notions, Mr. Hitchens became noticeably more desultory than he had been in his first appearance at the podium. Jumping quickly from the subject of Russia in the time of the czars to America in the time of Jefferson, Mr. Hitchens eventually got around to defending evolution with the observation that people are "only a half chromosome away from chimpanzees."

Characterizing humans as soulless primates is an important feature in Hitchens' worldview. He counts it as a great achievement that we have honed our powers of reason and moral instincts into tools for survival. While he views the Church as hypocritical and detrimental to our growth as a species, his outlook on life is more or less positive.

Dr. McGrath's final monologue was also considerably more rapid-fire than his first. He said that God is more a "celestial liberator" than "celestial dictator" because people who follow His rules are somehow more free to do what they want than, say, nihilists.

That inscrutable opinion was delivered with the same simpering Cambridge accent and arched eyebrows as the next: "Wishful thinking may, indeed, lead us to disappointment, but it could also result in something that's true!"

In an apparent attempt to humorously demonstrate his point, Dr. McGrath added, "For instance, I wish I had some water for my parched throat right now!"

In response to this, Mr. Hitchens stood up and brought Dr. McGrath the glass that he had been drinking from. Possibly fearing either a strange disease or an alcohol buzz, Dr. McGrath politely abstained from imbibing the proffered beverage.

The half-hour Q&A session following the debate was as lopsided an affair as the monologues had been. Questions written on index cards by the audience were read to the guest speakers by a moderator.

If God doesn't exist, how can we say this action is right or that action is wrong? was the first question posed.

Mr. Hitchens blithely pronounced the question to be silly, then ferociously answered, "Faith in God doesn't make you moral. The suicide bombing community is entirely faith based. A faith-based religion is about as useful as the Pope's balls!"

It was a disturbing word picture, but an interesting comparison. The older woman sitting to my right scowled when I copied the quote into my notebook.

Responding to a question that included a stab-in-the-dark assumption about God's thought process, Dr. McGrath spewed the most trite of religious doggerel: "He's a God who offers but doesn't impose."

Mr. Hitchens immediately challenged the comment. "Doesn't impose?!" he said incredulously. "Of course He imposes! The deal is this: If you don't accept His offer of redemption, you will go to hell."

Instead of giving a contrapuntal response to this interesting statement, Dr. McGrath took another of his countless sips of water. I think almost everyone in the lecture hall was disappointed with Dr. McGrath for not locking horns with Mr. Hitchens in defense of a critical linchpin in the Christian belief system.

For no apparent reason other than to kick a dead horse, Hitchens then wrapped up the evening by claiming victory in the debate. Considerable applause filled the room. Either Mr. Hitchens had won some converts in this unlikeliest venue for atheism to take root, or dozens of undecideds were now serving two masters.

The polemicists shook hands. The moderator asked them if they wouldn't mind returning to Georgetown for another debate in the near future. Mr. Hitchens said, "Sure, why not?" Dr. McGrath's answer was infinitely less eager.

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