The Supreme Being and its Discontents June 25, 2007Posted by smiffy in Books, Religion, Skepticism.
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.