After having been made aware of this film – containing an extensive debate between Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson – I found the internet correspondence which prompted its recording. The issue concerns the question of whether Christianity is, in Wilson’s words, “good for the world”. The internet communication contains a number of arguments and counters which will be broken down and presented by my particularly analytically skilled, and as I’m continually informed, small head… Ok, maybe it’s just small.
Hitchens’ first argument:
Although Christianity is often credited (or credits itself) with spreading moral precepts such as “Love thy neighbor”, I know of no evidence that such precepts derive from Christianity. To take one instance from each Testament, I cannot believe that the followers of Moses had been indifferent to murder and theft and perjury until they arrived at Sinai, and I notice that the parable of the good Samaritan is told of someone who by definition cannot have been a Christian.
To these obvious points, I add that the “Golden Rule” is much older than any monotheism, and that no human society would have been possible or even thinkable without elementary solidarity (which also allows for self-interest) between its members. Though it is not strictly relevant to the ethical dimension, I would further say that neither the fable of Moses nor the wildly discrepant Gospel accounts of Jesus of Nazareth may claim the virtue of being historically true. I am aware that many Christians also doubt the literal truth of the tales but this seems to me to be a problem for them rather than a difficulty for me. Even if I accepted that Jesus—like almost every other prophet on record—was born of a virgin, I cannot think that this proves the divinity of his father or the truth of his teachings. The same would be true if I accepted that he had been resurrected. There are too many resurrections in the New Testament for me to put my trust in any one of them, let alone to employ them as a basis for something as integral to me as my morality.
The Logic Police’s Reconstruction:
- P1. If moral behaviour predates Christianity then Christianity is not a necessary condition for moral goodness.
- P2. Moral behaviour predates Christianity.
- Conclusion. Christianity is a not a necessary condition for moral goodness.
Hitchens is also making the claim that:
- P3. The existence of a Human Society is a sufficient condition for the existence of some moral goodness.
This is good news for Hitchens since if Conclusion and P3 are true he has denied Wilson the possibility of claiming that Christianity is a necessary condition for moral goodness.
Wilson’s first counter:
Your first point was that the Christian faith cannot credit itself for all that “Love your neighbor” stuff, not to mention the Golden Rule, and the reason for this is that such moral precepts have been self-evident to everybody throughout history who wanted to have a stable society. You then move on to the second point, which contains the idea that the teachings of Christianity are “incredibly immoral.” In your book, you make the same point about other religions. Apparently, basic morality is not all that self-evident. So my first question is: Which way do you want to argue this? Do all human societies have a grasp of basic morality, which is the theme of your first point, or has religion poisoned everything, which is the thesis of your book?
The second thing to observe in this regard is that Christians actually do not claim that the gospel has made the world better by bringing us turbo-charged ethical information. There have been ethical advances that are due to the propagation of the faith, but that is not where the action is. Christians believe—as C. S. Lewis argued in The Abolition of Man—that nonbelievers do understand the basics of morality. Paul the apostle refers to the Gentiles, who did not have the law but who nevertheless knew by nature some of the tenets of the law (Rom. 2:14). But the world is not made better because people can understand the ways in which they are being bad. It has to be made better by Good News—we must receive the gift of forgiveness and the resultant ability to live more in conformity to a standard we already knew (but were necessarily failing to meet). So the gospel does not consist of new and improved law. The gospel makes the world better through Good News, not through guilt trips or good advice.
The Logic Police’s Reconstruction:
Notice that although Wilson alludes to Hitchens’ first argument he does not, at first, address it directly. Wilson avoids doing so because he believes that two of Hitchens’ premises are in logical contradiction:
- P3 (Wilson’s altered version). The existence of a Human Society is a sufficient condition for the existence of moral goodness.
- P4. Many Human Societies are incredibly immoral.
By accusing Hitchens of believing both these premises, Wilson makes it seem as if Hitchens is claiming that a society’s existence guarantees its moral goodness, which, in turn, rules out the possibility of it being ‘incredibly immoral’. Since this involves a contradiction, either P3 or P4 must be false and Hitchens must decide which to abandon.
However, and here is the logical sleight of hand, Wilson can only make this accusation after removing Hitchens’ existential quantifier in Premise 3 — the word ‘some’. Without doing so P3 and P4 are not in direct logical tension since an ‘incredibly immoral’ society may contain some moral goodness. Of course, this is precisely what Hitchens believes. In removing the requisite quantifier Wilson has violated the principle of charity and either intentionally misrepresented Hitchens’ argument or committed a relatively shabby logical error. The contradiction is spurious and, as a consequence, provides no legitimate challenge to Hitchens’ original argument.
Wilson then goes on to concede Hitchens argument, the conclusion of which being that Christianity is not a necessary condition for moral behaviour. The theist has no need for despair, however, since Wilson’s second paragraph provides us with a counter argument:
- P1. A necessary condition for the world being a good place is belief and conformity with the Christian Gospel.
- P2. A pre-Christian world cannot, by definition, believe and conform with the Christian Gospel.
- P3. A world in which there is belief and conformity with the Christian Gospel is better than a world in which the Christian Gospel does not exist.
- Conclusion. The post-Christian world is a better place than the pre-Christian world.
Unfortunately for Wilson P1 and P3 are both question begging. That is, they take for granted the idea that the world is a better place because of the Good News contained within the Christian Gospel. This, however, is precisely what needs to be proved. As a consequence Wilson has failed to deliver a rebuttal to Hitchens’ original argument.
As it stands the score is as follows:
- Hitchens: 1 Wilson: 0
Make sure you check back for the Logic Police’s second instalment of the Wilson Vs. Hitchens debate!