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The Supreme Being and its Discontents June 25, 2007

Posted by smiffy in Books, Religion, Skepticism.
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Last Sunday, a little piece of the internet came to Ireland in person. For admirers of Christopher Hitchens, the debate at the Gate theatre between him and John Waters entitled ‘God is not great’, organised as part of the Dublin Writers’ Festival, provided an opportunity to see him in person, rather than relying on Youtube, Google video and downloaded mp3s.

I’m a little ashamed to admit that, for me, bringing my books along to be signed and having bought my tickets as soon as they became available, there was the same ripple of excitement that I used to get going to concerts. It was, I suppose, the web-nerd equivalent of a Morrissey gig. I should really know better.

To the debate itself. Moderated by Brenda Power, the unthinking man’s Olivia O’Leary, it was broadly amicable (disappointingly) consisting of short opening remarks from the protagonists, a longer discussion between the two and a few questions from the audience at the end.

Anyone who has seen any of other debates Hitchens has participated in recently in what seems to be The Anti-Theist World Tour 2007 (here‘s a typical example), or who heard him on Newstalk or, more amusingly, sparring with David Quinn on Today FM prior to the debate, will be familiar with his arguments. Indeed, much of what he said has already been covered by the Unholy Trinity of Dawkins, Grayling and Harris, although Hitchens says it much more eloquently. Essentially, not only is there no God, but the belief in God is itself immoral and causes otherwise good people to do very bad things: anything from the circumcision of infants to flying planes into the World Trade Centre.

Pre-empting the suggestion that without God as some sort of ultimate horizon of truth there can be no objective morality, he presented a challenge to the audience (as he has done on numerous other occasions): give an example of a single moral action or statement coming from a religious person that could not also be made or carried out by an atheist. Examples of those who nobly and selflessly stood up to fascism based on their religious principles doesn’t really hold as a justification of faith, Hitchens argues, unless one is to also accept that the unquestioned sacrifices made by those communists who fought against Hitler in some way justifies Stalinism.

It’s a neat trick on Hitchens’ part, but I think it’s the wrong answer to the question of whether there can morality without God. He’s probably right, to an extent, when he argues that the moral impulse is innate, part of our evolutionary heritage. He’s wrong, though, if he thinks that there can be some sort of objective moral framework which exists outside of subjective experience, as theists would hold. A more correct and more honest response might to be concede that indeed, an atheist position means that we can never truly know what the correct moral action is in the same way that we ‘know’ that 2+2=5. The important addition, however, is that theists can’t have absolute moral knowledge either. It’s no more subjective for me to say “I feel killing is wrong, therefore I choose to believe that it is” than it is for someone to say “God tells me that killing is wrong, therefore it must be”, as the theist still has to choose which ‘God’ to believe in.

Surprisingly, to me anyway, Waters was more impressive than I expected in his opening remarks. In a preview of what we might expect from his forthcoming magnum opus Lapsed Agnostic, he took us on a little autobiographical journey where he told us about his rejection of religious faith earlier in his life, and his recently rediscovered affection for God (to the extent that he prays and attends Mass). Knowing that there are few crackpot theories that Waters hasn’t, in the past, both misunderstood and embraced, it was eye-opening to see him speak rather eloquently on what he claims is an inherent desire within mankind to understand the meaning behind everything around us, and the need for mystery, or (although he didn’t put it this way) the experience of the numinous in our lives. Whatever else, you have to give him his sincerity, even if he does seem at times to be teetering on the brink of madness, and he’s a far less objectionable figure than some of the tarted-up religious conservatives currently writing (the likes of Ronan Mullen, Breda O’Brien and the appalling David Quinn).

However, like so much of what Waters argues, when you try and get to the root of the argument behind all the flashiness, it falls apart. He has a point when he suggests that an exclusively empiricist or ‘scientific’ view of the world is rather limited. For example, while we might understand the evolutionary reasons why people for relationships, or love their children, it doesn’t make the lived experience of those relationships any less valid. Similarly, people will always search for something beyond their own understanding, and ask whether there is a particular significance to their lives or, indeed, to existence itself.

Where he’s wrong, however, is to claim that this someone suggests the existence of a God. The existence of a question (e.g. “Why are we here”) is one thing; what Waters does is extrapolate an answer (“Because of God”) from the question itself, rather than trying to answer the question or, indeed, think about whether the question makes sense at all. He certainly should look at Lewis Wolpert’s Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast, which is far more discrediting to faith itself than anything by Dawkins or Hitchens, as it provides a plausible evolutionary basis for why people ask those kinds of profound questions, rather than tackling the flaws in the answers.

When Waters found himself debating religion itself, he was on much less steady ground. Admittedly, he tried to cover himself at the start by admitting that much of what Hitchens stated was true and that religion (sorry, ‘organised religion’, that great bugbear of the hand-wringing liberal) was responsible for much evil in the world. Indeed, he conceded so much at the start that it was hard to understand what he actually believed in, other than some vague notion of something approaching the concept of ‘God’. You’ll find that this is a common tactic of the smarter theists when dismissing the work of Dawkins or, more recently, Hitchens. They argue that what’s presented is an ignorant caricature of what religion actually is, and lament that such a straw-man version of faith is being debated. Leaving aside the fact that the vast majority of religious adherents don’t actually have the sophisticated understanding of theologians, the best response to this strategy that I’ve seen is the so-called Courtier’s Reply.


Waters’ bravest, or most stupid, move was to suggest that the freedoms we enjoy in Western society are a consequence of our religious, specifically Christian, heritage. Now, he’s right in arguing that we have no way of knowing whether we would be in a better or worse position today if religious belief had never existed; of course, he has no way of knowing it either, so it’s something of a pointless argument. However, when he suggests that those who attack religion are like people in a tree sawing away at the branch they’re sitting on, he’s displaying an amazing ignorance of the history of religion in society. The Catholic Church, the faith to which he subscribes, has consistently opposed every progressive political movement in history and has found itself sympathising or siding with the worst kinds of tyrannies. The liberal freedoms such as freedom of expression which Waters lauds are enjoyed by him despite the actions of the Church, not because of them. As Hitchens put it, he is wearing the medals of his own defeats.

So who won? Well, in one sense I’d have to say Hitchens. His arguments were stronger, he was a better debater and, I think, he broadly had the audience on his side (apart from a few morons during the questions at the end who seem to believe that shouting about ‘your friend George (Bush)’ constitutes a valid argument). Waters, while sincere, descended into incoherence on a number of occasions, although he put up a respectable defence.

On the other hand, there can’t really be any winner. This isn’t an argument that’s ever going to convert anyone, a point which Hitchens concedes, even if Dawkins doesn’t. Religious faith is, by definition, impervious to rational argument so no matter how persuasive the prose, it’s difficult to see how someone whose belief already defy evidence and reason are going to have those beliefs changed.

While the current atheist renaissance is all very enjoyable and the holy texts well worth the reading (Hitchens’ is probably the best – broad, but shallow), it’s worth remembering that this year marks the 80th anniversary of Bertrand Russell’s lecture ‘Why I am not a Christian’ (collected in a book of essays of the same name). Everything you’ve heard Dawkins or Grayling, Harris or Hitchens argue against religious belief is already captured in that short work.

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Comments»

1. JG - June 25, 2007

I was there too and I’d agree that Hitchens won. However the audience seemed to be largely made up of Hitchens’ worshipers, which made things a little easier for him and allowed him to get away with (and indeed be applauded for) telling a member of the audience to “fuck off.”

He’s an obnoxious turd, albeit a clever one.

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2. smiffy - June 25, 2007

That guy deserved to be told to fuck off. His question was stupid, he wouldn’t shut up and the reason the audience applauded is because they were there to hear a debate about religion, not some Hugo Drax lookalike who wanted to have a pop about the invasion of Iraq.

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3. JG - June 25, 2007

There were a few goons there, no doubt, and that guy didn’t make it very clear what exactly he was asking but he didn’t deserve to be told to fuck off.

The guy commented that Hitchens had “abandoned all his cherished beliefs” and asked if he considered himself to be a moral being. Nothing about Iraq. Hitchens just didn’t like the tone so went off on one, wondering if the guy looked as annoying as he sounded and telling him to fuck off etc.

You or I wouldn’t get away with that in a debate, I don’t see why Hitchens should.

It was like a football match, people weren’t there to hear the discussion, they were there to chear on their man. I hate a cosy consensus, even when it’s one I broadly agree with.

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4. smiffy - June 25, 2007

Oh come on, the question was obviously about Iraq. Or, rather, it wasn’t really a question and was just a pop at Hitchens for supporting the invasion. The tone was incredibly snide, the ‘question’ was clumsy, pointless and didn’t make much sense, and guy deserved everything he got.

There wasn’t enough time for questions anyway, and the screamers who had no interest in the subject (including the guy who started going on about some Iraqi nun out in Tallaght) abused the time that was available.

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5. JG - June 25, 2007

The tone was snide, yes. The question was rubbish, yes. However, it deserved some sort of response. Telling somebody to ‘fuck off’ in a debate is absolutely pathetic and proably made the questioner feel like he made a great point, which of course he hadn’t.

I’d agree with most of your post, by the way, particularly the bit about Ronan Mullen, Breda O’Brien and David Quinn. Whenever I read any of them I always wonder why I bothered.

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6. ejh - June 26, 2007

I saw Tariq Ali do much the same thing in London a couple of years ago when he got fed up with some heckler who was accusing him of supporting Saddam (if my memory serves). Tariq, who was tired and not obviously in the best of health, eventually told the guy that he (i.e. the heckler) was old and would die soon.

This was beyond the bounds of defensibility however much of a twat the heckler was being: although of course had the chair (I was going to say “of the meeting”, but in fact it was just a talk at the London Review Bookshop) told the guy to shut up then it might have avoided unpleasantness later on. Don’t know if this would also be applicable to Hitchens v Waters.

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7. WorldbyStorm - June 26, 2007

I like Hitchens. He’s a fantastic writer and thoughtful individual. He was wrong about the war, but that isn’t a hanging crime just yet. But…while I have considerable sympathy for him in this particular context I think ejh has a point and it was up to the moderator or chair (and BTW, love the line about Brenda Power, smiffy) to deal with this appropriately.

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8. ejh - June 26, 2007

He wasn’t just wrong, though, he was horribly obnoxious and vile about it. I think this did no little damage to his writing which largely disappeared under an avalanche of bile and pomposity.

The latter characterisitic still remains (and the drink doesn’t help) but I do think he’s recovered some fire, discipline and flair and I’m pleased about that.

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9. JG - June 26, 2007

Somebody like John Bowman would have been better. He wouldn’t have let Hitchens take over.

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10. JimFlynn - June 27, 2007

Being the ‘moron’ that interjected on Mr Hichtens tirade by asking why he was failing to comment about ‘his mate George’ while expounding on his view that the Iranians needed to be liberated from their – however flawed – democratically elected government and Hitchens, cop out on morality by seemingly interposing international law as a replacement to ‘Gods Law’ – while the latter he attacked, in my opinion correctly, as nothing but a man made charade he seemed unquestioning of the authority of than other system drawn up by just as uneven power relations which allows him the moral cover to support mass murder in Iraq. Smiffy I fear you, like many university and lounge room Liberals, are part of that virus of the modern Left which afflicted the British Independent and Observer in the lead up to the war and took the oh so intellectually ‘hard core’ position of supporting the invasion of Iraq. I’m afraid in my book there is only one question for a self proclaimed western ‘moral philosopher’ like Hitchens do you support Imperialism in your oh so right on help the natives manner or do you believe in battling oppression with reason not death. – Smiffy Lord Teverlyn shared your Liberal left wing intellectualism in another era. Hitchens done nothing to challenge his persona as loud mouth cheerleader for his Anglo-American middle class values. As for claiming Waters made good points – the man was embarrassing.

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11. smiffy - June 27, 2007

Well, I didn’t support the war in Iraq so you’re wrong on that count.

Now, while you’re perfectly entitled to believe that there’s only one question that should be put to Hitchens (I don’t believe he has proclaimed himself to be a ‘moral philosopher’ though), I and many others were there to hear the debate about religion, and not listen to a rehash of the same old arguments about interventionism. It was bad enough when those chosen to ask question went off on that kind of tangent; shouting something like ‘what about your friend George’ as if it was making some kind of argument is, I’m afraid, moronic.

I don’t think I did claim that Waters made good points. Rather, I said that he was more impressive than I expected (i.e. he was a better speaker in delivering his opening address than I would have imagined). I would think someone whose idea of contributing to a debate is to scream mindless slogans from the audience is on rather thin ice when describing someone else as ‘embarrassing’.

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12. JimFlynn - June 27, 2007

The debate was is God great? That had been dealt with quite satisfactory early on when it became clear that Waters was not able to string a coherent thought together. Hitchens then started on about, in my view, imposing morality on other countries, a strange type of all seeing secular mortality as declared by him and that other alcoholic George Bush. If you where there to listen to Hitchens and need him to explain to you why there is no God but only religion without looking for a man who did declare himself a ‘moral Philosopher’ during his tirade – that’s up to you – I on the other hand like to have our self declared betters answer the questions I think need asked not what they what to answer. Keep on looking for your new Gurus and Gods Smiffy. I however recommend looking a bit further that an uppity English snob and warmonger.

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13. WorldbyStorm - June 27, 2007

In fairness JimFlynn, I think it’s a mistake to use the Iraq issue as the yardstick by which you measure all actions from here into the future, which seems to me to be implicit in what you say. I supported the war at the time, not that my support was going to sway London or Washington one way or another. Hitchens publicly supported it in a fashion which I could never have done so, but even his influence I would suggest was paltry (and by the by, I recall reading how he turned on anti-war protesters while in full on anti-Iraq war mode and was feted by his new best friends from the neo-con right and even at that point I was disturbed by his behaviour, so I’m not a starry eyed idealist when it comes to his actions). I’m not going to pretend my analysis was correct, nor am I going to wear sack cloth and ashes for the rest of time. People make political mistakes and errors, often for the best of reasons.
As for the debate being dealt in a satisfactory fashion early on, that seems like special pleading on your part. I wasn’t there, but with all due respect if Waters was unable to deal with the issue correctly then it was for others in the audience to critique Hitchens on the topic, not for people to take a tangent which while I’m sure it was entirely satisfactory to yourself was hardly so to anyone who was paying to see the discussion at hand.
Taking your other points…smiffy, as has been noted was and is anti-Iraq war so your characterisation of him as pro-war is irrelevant. As for Hitchens being a self-declared better, and an uppity English snob. I’d be intrigued as to your evidence for same. Is it his accent that makes you regard him as such? Why do you reify him in this fashion?
If you won’t engage on the terrain presented, but determine that the only way to take on individuals like Hitchens who were profoundly wrong on the Iraq War is to start name calling them, in a manner not unlike the US right treats its opponents it’s hard to take your critique very seriously. Simply put that wasn’t the forum to tackle him on Iraq, and whether your self-declared role of trying to get him and others to ‘answer the questions’ (what questions in particular, and really, what answer would satisfy you?) seems a little self-regarding.

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14. JG - June 27, 2007

WorldByStorm,
I don’t think anybody is going to by able to provide you with “evidence” that Hitchens is an insufferable snob but it’s unmistakable when you listen to the guy for five minutes.

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15. smiffy - June 27, 2007

I think Hitchens is, undoubtedly, arrogant but not insufferably so. Personally, I think it’s kind of funny and often refreshing but that’s clearly a matter of taste.

As for being a ‘snob’, I’m not so sure. It might be better to clarify the term a bit more.

Oh, just to add, I much prefer snobs to inverted snobs like our chum above who use words like ‘intellectualism’ as terms of abuse.

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16. WorldbyStorm - June 27, 2007

JG, I genuinely don’t get the ‘snob’ thing, unless it is some sort of interpretation of his accent and “Englishman abroad” persona. I know a number of people both here and in the US who have met him and found him pleasant enough. I think there is a confusion with an intellectualism which he wears, rather like Dawkins now I think about it, neither lightly nor sometimes – frankly – particularly pleasantly. But note that on my first intervention on this thread I agreed with ejh that such a response was unfortunate and the moderator should have dealt with both intervention and response.

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17. JG - June 27, 2007

Fair enough. I think it is a matter of taste, as someone else said. We’re all familiar with how he behaves we just react differently to it. I’ll just add that it has absolutely nothing to do with his accent or nationality. I think Dawkins’ style is quite different though. I saw him on the Late Late and he listened to the audience respectfully and responded to them politely. For me, that’s a minimum.

I agree about the moderator. She was terrified of him and never really took control of the discussion. It’s amazing the difference that makes.

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18. WorldbyStorm - June 27, 2007

Don’t disagree with you at all JG.

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19. Idris of Dungiven - June 28, 2007

When I hear Dawkins and Hitchens, all I can think of is ‘whatever happened to the materialist conception of history?’ Because to ascribe all our current and past ills to religion alone is to ignore the very vital material factors which drive a society in one direction or another.

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