Archive for the 'Christopher Hitchens' Category

The Logic Police: Wilson vs. Hitchens

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!

Special Privilege for Religious Values

There’s a feature on religion by Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian today. It’s positively riddled with things that piss me off.

“We are witnessing a social phenomenon that is about fundamentalism,” says Colin Slee, the Dean of Southwark. “Atheists like the Richard Dawkins of this world are just as fundamentalist as the people setting off bombs on the tube, the hardline settlers on the West Bank and the anti-gay bigots of the Church of England. Most of them would regard each other as destined to fry in hell.

Is it appropriate to describe Dawkins as a fundamentalist? I suppose it depends entirely on how you’re defining the term. Well, whatever, for the sake or argument let’s assume it is. But there’s fundamentalism and there’s fundamentalism. There are some things it’s not quite so bad to be an extremist about as it is others. For instance, being absolutely adamant about needing evidence for belief is very different from being absolutely adamant about needing to kill everyone who doesn’t worship the right God. Even if Dawkins is as much of a fundamentalist as the bigots and the jihadis, then he’s certainly not fundamentalist about the same sorts of things or in the same ways as they are. That’s quite an important distinction. It’s precisely the reason you don’t see people like Dawkins and Harris committing mass murder in the name of their beliefs. Slee looks to be evoking a variation of the epistemological equivalence tack that Jim posted on. It’s a crock. But there’s more of it from John Gray:

Gray, professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, whose book Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia will be published later this year, detects parallels between dogmatic believers and dogmatic unbelievers such as Hitchens and Dawkins. “It is not just in the rigidity of their unbelief that atheists mimic dogmatic believers. It is in their fixation on belief itself.”

As far as I’m aware both Hitchens and Dawkins are unbelievers because, in short, they have seen no evidence to warrant belief. Their unbelief is not fixed; it’s evidence dependent. So, unless they’ve been exposed to decisive evidence for the existence of God and yet they stubbornly refuse to believe, it’s hard to see how they’re epistemologically equivalent to believers.

Neuberger is to take on Hitchens, Dawkins and Grayling when she speaks at a debate against the motion We’d Be Better Off Without Religion next month. The debate has been moved to a bigger venue. “What I find really distasteful is not just the tone of their rhetoric, but their lack of doubt,” she says. “No scientific method says that there is no doubt. If you don’t accept there’s doubt in all things, you’re being intellectually dishonest.” This is a thought taken up by Azzim Tamimi, director of the Institute of Islamic Political Thought. “I refer to secular fundamentalism. The problem is that these people believe that they have the absolute truth. That means you have no room to talk to others so you end up having a physical fight. They want to close the door and ignore religion, but this will provoke a violent religiosity. If someone seeks to deny my existence, I will fight to assert it.”

So, “if you don’t accept there’s doubt in all things, you’re being intellectually dishonest.” Apart from when you don’t accept there’s doubt in that sentiment, presumably. You could be forgiven for thinking a Rabbi would be on very thin ice with a statement like that. If, where their beliefs that we’d be better off without religion are concerned, Hitchens, Dawkins and Grayling are simply dogmatic then, presumably, at least one of the following has to be true:Either: They have stated directly that whatever the evidence they will continue to believe that we’d be better off without religion. Or: They have been exposed to decisive evidence that we’re better off with religion yet continue to believe we’re not. Now, I’m pretty sure the first is false, and to suggest the second would be to beg a central question. It would presuppose such evidence exists.

If someone seeks to deny your existence, I suppose you may want to fight to assert it. But is Azzim Tamimi’s ontological status really being disputed? Denying the very existence of the faithful is hardly a corollary of arguing that religion is pestiferous and its manifestation in the public sphere inappropriate. Who knows though? That fact may not prevent Tamimi or some of his acolytes from expressing their “violent religiosity” regardless.

The refrain of Christians like [Nick] Spencer is that unless religion is a part of public-policy debates, then society will be impoverished. Last November the Archbishop of Canterbury gave a lecture in which he distinguished between programmatic and procedural secularism. The former meant that in the public domain, everybody had to silence their fundamental convictions and debate in a value-free atmosphere of public neutrality. For Williams, this was a hopeless way of carrying on public discourse in a bewildering society that embraced not only many faiths but many anti-faith positions, and in which real disputes over very different values needed to take place. Better was procedural secularism, which promised that different groups could at least converse with each other in public discussions over sensitive questions of value and policy. This would involve, said Williams, “a crowded and argumentative public square that acknowledges the authority of a legal mediator or broker whose job it is to balance and manage real difference”.

It is an idea similar to one set out by Yahya Birt, research fellow at The Islamic Foundation. “One form of secularism suggests that religion should be kept in the private sphere. That’s Dawkins’ position. Another…, is to do with establishing a modus vivendi. It accepts that you come to the public debate with baggage that will inform your arguments. In this, the government tries to find common ground and the best possible consensus, which can only work if we share enough to behave civilly. Of course, there will be real clashes over issues such as gay adoption, but it’s not clear to me that that’s a problem per se.”

Argues Spencer: “We should be more willing to treat other value systems as coherent, reasonable and even valuable rather than as primitive or grotesque mutations of liberal humanism to which every sane person adheres.”

I’m not sure we should accept that religious people will “come to the public debate with baggage that will inform [their] arguments.” They may well come with baggage that will motivate their arguments, but not inform them. Furthermore, I’d have thought that the only time we should feel obligated to “treat other value systems as coherent, reasonable and even valuable” is when those value systems are, indeed, coherent, reasonable and even valuable. Not at any other time nor for any other reason. Not, for example, because they’re religious values. Religious values that might not actually be coherent, reasonable and valuable but instead deranged, irrational and disgusting. Moreover, how could this proposed public mediation even work? Yahya Birt doesn’t think it’ll be “a problem per se”. Oddly enough though, he doesn’t feel the need to go into detail. Without engagement on the foundations, however, it looks somewhat intractable. If one side, for instance, is arguing that homosexuals should enjoy freedom from discrimination and the other that they should be executed because their God says so then how does one mediate such a thing? And how about when two faith positions themselves are in direct opposition? You can embellish the matter with woolly terms like “common ground”, “mediation” and “the best possible consensus” all you want. But the idea that we should exempt certain values from being judged purely on their merits by granting them special privileges on religious grounds seems, putting it mildly, unsettling.

P.S. David Thompson, Ophelia Benson, Jim Denham, Caspar Melville, Ben at Religion is Bullshit and the peculiarly monikered “Shuggy” also have a go. The Guardian has also posted some letters in response to the piece.