The following is a guest post by Stephen Rowe, a teacher and SFU grad in Coquitlam, BC, and editor of TheBroodingTheologian.com. Having suffered the pains of being a few years older than the undergrads next to him at Simon Fraser University, Stephen took up an interest in the “secular/religious” debate and the rhetoric thrown around classrooms by those who think they know, but know rather little. The purpose of the Humanist Lens is to open debates not polarize them and we think it important to look at a recent debate between eminent atheist Christopher Hitchens and former Prime Minister and Catholic Tony Blair. Enjoy.
On 26 November, 2010, Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair held a public debate in Toronto titled “Be it resolved, religion is a force for good in the world“. A poll was taken before the speakers began their discussion, and it showed that 57% were against the motion whereas 22% were for it; and the results after the dialogue showed 68% siding with Hitchens and 32% with Blair.
Please do not be satisfied with these somewhat banal numbers. To read any sort of victory or dominance into them would be similar to deciding on the quality of a soccer game based on ESPN’s ball possession statistic. Realistically, these debates attract supporters for each ‘team’, and therefore after the ‘game’ is over, there is little expectation for one side to win over the supporters of the other. If anything, the ‘fans’ from the respective sides are more likely to shake hands and share their appreciation for their team’s performance, and then get on with things. I am too invested in my own commitment to humanity to be fooled by Hitchens’ sinister rhetoric about the bizarre concept of religion he creates; nor do I lean on people like Blair to knock the wind out of any opposition to my own worldview.
I have listened to numerous debates involving Hitchens and have been consistently frustrated with the way the dialogue proceeds. Objectively, Hitchens is a very crafty and charming speaker who is guaranteed to entertain the audience, which makes him amicable and endearing to listeners despite the snarling tone behind his very biting words. To this effect, Hitchens is somewhat of a satirist who anthropomorphizes an entity–Religion–in such a way that those disposed to opposing it will feel affirmed at his mocking it, and those disposed to defending it will be equally insulted. For those who are undecided on the issue, the extreme qualities that Hitchens endows this entity with effectively persuade them to accept the absurdity of religion, and side with him. The thing about satire is that it requires a significant amount of prior knowledge and the ability to navigate through the skilled rhetoric of the satirist to get at the truth of the ideas presented. Unfortunately, the general public are devoid of these skills, and therefore Hitchens continually ‘wins’ the popular vote. This is why I feel like I am a professional among amateurs when I listen to these debates; not that I think I am an elite among the plebeians, but that I am interested in competing at a professional level rather than in a beer league: all the players around me just want to keep the game fun and entertaining for themselves without the possibility of being cut from the team. I guess this means that the general population is a bunch of beer leaguers…
There is a serious problem in the disposition of our current social ethos, and this kind of debate only perpetuates it by failing to actually deal with the ideas that underlie. For the atheist, the assumption is that God doesn’t exist, and this is asserted dogmatically without any consideration for a sound argument that would give others a reason to agree or accept the validity of such an assumption. If you read the texts of the great atheists throughout the past century, you will notice the philosophical rigour they display in explaining their position and the honesty with which they approach the significance of the assumption they are making. (Anthony Flew is a good example of one such champion of atheism who wrote a lot of literature defending his position.) The New Atheist is not concerned with arguing for his/her position; it is more important to throw more vicious punches, or dump a slushy on the head of their opponent (to sneak a Glee reference in) to assert his/her superiority. The thing to notice is the parallel this kind of conflict has to a school bully looking to pick a fight with someone inferior; and someone who has to be inferior whether it is true or not in order for the bully to maintain his/her dominance. It really is a survival of the fittest scenario.
On the other hand, the religious person is forced to take up a defensive position, not in terms of making a convincing argument for his/her own assumption (that God exists), but that what the atheist is claiming as Religion is not accurate. A true believer does not obstinately stand on their assumption, but recognizes that every aspect of his/her worldview depends on its validity. The idea that God exists is the foundation for the definition of humanity by which the believer lives his/her life by, and so it is vital for him/her to continually seek out the truth of it, and where his/her beliefs about it are false.
I believe that the Humanist dialogue of the past involved individuals who respected the ideological presuppositions of the respective positions, and who were serious about proving their own ideas to be true. Currently, the dialogue has the atheist (the secularist, to be accurate) taking sticks and stones to a weakly, self-fabricated caricature of Religion in hopes that the religious will just walk timidly down the hallways and shut the hell up. (Notice the rhetoric in this article that forces us to view debates as two interlocutors punching each other through dialogue.)Unfortunately, and if you take the analogy of a beer league game seriously, you will realize that the ground on which the New Atheist stands is unstable and unaccounted for, and therefore the punches pulled and the stones thrown miss the target that is the truth of what a true believer actually believes–the New Atheism is a beer league for the quasi-intellectual.
(If you want to see what happens when Hitchens is faced with someone who invites him to play professionally, watch this dialogue with Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete.)