On Hitchens

Four interesting little articles or events surrounding Christopher Hitchens have piqued my interest in the last few weeks. For the uninitiated, Hitchens one of the more prominent voices of the New Atheist movement.

Hitchens, in a recent column on Slate, described himself essentially as the modern day champion of atheism – in the same sense that medieval kings had champions who would throw down the gauntlet to knights from near and far…

Ever since I invited any champion of faith to debate with me in the spring of 2007, I have been very impressed by the willingness of the other side to take me, and my allies, up on the offer.

Hitchens is making his big screen debut shortly. A series of debates he held with American pastor Douglas Wilson is being turned into a feature film called Collision.

Some of his preconceptions about Christians have been challenged in the process – and they’re the issues I find most offensive about the manner in which atheists conduct themselves in debates.

On one hand they say “don’t generalise us, we’re all different” and on the other they throw all Christians into the same boat as the Westboro Baptists or (medieval) Crusaders.

Hitchens made this comment on his interactions with Christians in debates:

“I have discovered that the so-called Christian right is much less monolithic, and very much more polite and hospitable, than I would once have thought, or than most liberals believe.”

Who’d have thought that some Christians might actually act like Christ.

Then he ends up committing what I think is the other great error in the discourse – the inability to split the Bible up into literary sub-genres.

Wilson isn’t one of those evasive Christians who mumble apologetically about how some of the Bible stories are really just “metaphors.” He is willing to maintain very staunchly that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and that his sacrifice redeems our state of sin, which in turn is the outcome of our rebellion against God. He doesn’t waffle when asked why God allows so much evil and suffering—of course he “allows” it since it is the inescapable state of rebellious sinners.

Some stories in the Bible are clearly metaphors – like the parables. Others are not. The fact that some Christians can’t tell the difference doesn’t mean that every piece of the Bible needs to be taken at literal face value, and it doesn’t make anyone who sees a place for metaphor or symbolism a liberal.

Hitchens was in Sydney recently speaking at the “Festival of Dangerous Ideas” – his presence earned him a gig on the ABC’s Q&A. You can watch his exchange here. I only hope that Christians presenting their belief in an absolute truth can avoid the smugness the he occasionally exhibits. I know we often don’t.

While he was in Sydney Michael Jensen had an opinion piece published in the SMH that thanked Hitchens for getting people talking about God…

He points to certain passages in Hitchens’ work that fail to grasp any form of nuance in Christian thinking and buy into other people’s subjective hatchet jobs…

“Please repeat your completely erroneous claim that, in the Old Testament, God never shows or speaks of compassion or mercy; or that one about how the gospel writers can’t agree on anything. Or drop once more that clanger about how the Christian doctrine of the resurrection means that Christ never died.

Say again, in front of an audience, your historically laughable tale of how the Maccabees of the 2nd century BC were responsible for both Christianity and Islam. Say that the missing document called “Q” influenced all four gospel writers (p. 112) – when everyone who knows anything about it knows that this is just plain false.

Give full vent to your magnificent spleen. Remind us of the lack of marsupials in the book of Genesis and watch us squirm with embarrassment. Display once more that you read the Bible with no more sophistication than a snake-handler. Dismiss with an elegant wave of your hand the whole exercise of New Testament scholarship, especially the authors you haven’t read.

State again, with the conviction of someone who knows he is right, why it is that you can’t stand people who know they are right (p. 242).”

This was followed by a piece in the SMH this week by a Jewish scholar – who again points out the problems with the way Hitchens handles both the Jewish and Christian Bibles (particularly the OT).

Hitchens cites the Binding of Isaac and “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” injunction as brutish and stupid. Yet, scholars have interpreted the binding as ending child sacrifice and the injunction as a caution against excessive vengeance. Hitchens says that the God of Moses never refers to compassion and human friendship, overlooking “love your neighbour as yourself”.

For his part, Dawkins is clearly out of his depth when it comes to Jewish teachings and ethics. He claims, for instance, that “love thy neighbour” meant only “love another Jew”. He apparently is not aware that in the same chapter, Jews are commanded to love the stranger that lives in their land as they would themselves. When Jesus, himself a Jew, was asked “Who is my neighbour” he did not refer to other Jews, but to a Samaritan, considered at that time as heretical and unclean.

Which prompted this response from an atheist physicist also on the SMH website. The reason I post this is that in one paragraph he raises two of the points that Dave wrote about in post two of his “Reasons I’m not an Atheist” series.

The human brain has evolved over millions of years to be well adapted for dealing with and surviving the challenges thrown up by the kinds of environments in which human beings live. It has been suggested that the same adaptations that have contributed to humanity’s success as a species have also, as a side effect, predisposed us towards accepting certain kinds of mystical and religious beliefs. Our brains may well be “hard-wired’ for religion. Add some cultural nurture to our evolved nature and we have the beginnings of an explanation for why so many people follow some form of religion. When it comes to choosing one particular religion over another, it seems to be largely a matter of indoctrination; the best predictor of a person’s religious beliefs is the beliefs held by his or her parents.

Meanwhile, my conversation with the “friendly” atheists on the post I linked to yesterday is still going.


Phoebe says:

'When it comes to choosing one particular religion over another, it seems to be largely a matter of indoctrination; the best predictor of a person’s religious beliefs is the beliefs held by his or her parents.'
I find this theory of 'indoctrination' both ignorant and condescending, of course implying that the only truly rational thinkers out there capable of avoiding brainwashing are the atheists. I find I always surprise people when I tell them there are no Christians in my family. It's actually a very useful tool for evangelism (which of course is no accident!). People expect me to tell them the story of how I grew up in church and my parents were missos or something to that effect. Occasionally I'll ask them if their parents were atheists too (which is often the case) and if they've ever really challenged when they were brought up with. I usually get further surprised looks when I encourage people to read not only the Bible but also the Qur'an, Buddhist writings, Hindu literature etc – and to actively seek truth rather than just passively swallowing the stereotypical rubbish the media and society at large likes to throw around.