Friday, May 25, 2007

Are Debates with Atheists Good for the World?

Christianity Today recently began a series on the topic, “Is Christianity Good for the World?” – a subject which turns out to relate to my previous post more than tangentially. Pearcey’s main contention, after all, is that the atheistic materialist really has no warrant for lauding lofty humanistic values given their mechanistic and deterministic view of the universe; and this observation has been the focal sticking point of the entire exchange.

The champions called to do battle are an odd pair of obviously mismatched pedigree, an observation humbly noted by the affirmative position (fellow Idahoan, Doug Wilson). Maybe that’s what makes the ensuing discussion such an embarrassment for the negative thus far. Beyond the usual frustration in such “conversations”, where mis-characterizations abound, one gets the distinct impression that Christopher Hitchens is so confident that he’s interacting with an idiot that he doesn’t bother to formulate a single argument. Instead, not unlike our favorite-fork-flinging hero, he unleashes a torrent of verbal cutlery aimed to humiliate the religiously inclined. His attacks are debonair, but rarely of any serious substance – which is where my frustration lies with this larger “down with God” publishing trend we’re seeing lately.

At the point we need philosophers and theologians we are served with self-inflating pundits (or, as in the case of Dennett, philosophers who refuse to engage religion philosophically). Were it not for their impressive vocabularies, it might be more obvious that the “debates” presented in these forums are more like a re-run of Sally Jesse Raphael than they are serious philosophical symposiums. The academic forbearers upon which the edifice of Western society rests (people like Augustine, Aquinas and Pascal) are gaily waved away without protest by people like Hitchens, choosing instead to best Bill O’Reily and Sean Hannity on promotional book tours. The call for a “new enlightenment” conveniently forgets the Christian resources by which we got the first one. He wishes to rise from the ashes of institutions and ideas which, though singed, still stand strong both academically and popularly. Even Nero waited for the city to burn before playing his violin.

Leon Wieseltier’s evaluation of Dennet’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomena in The New York Times could just as aptly describe what I’ve seen of Hitchens in this interchange:
And Dennett's book is also a document of the intellectual havoc of our infamous polarization, with its widespread and deeply damaging assumption that the most extreme statement of an idea is its most genuine statement. Dennett lives in a world in which you must believe in the grossest biologism or in the grossest theism, in a purely naturalistic understanding of religion or in intelligent design, in the omniscience of a white man with a long beard in 19th-century England or in the omniscience of a white man with a long beard in the sky.
If you haven't read the exchange, follow the link and catch up - I'm curious to hear your reactions.