Saturday, January 12, 2013

The afterlife of Christopher Hitchens

Sometimes when I'm getting ready for work in the morning, I like to listen to various Youtube clips.  Since I'm not sitting in front of the computer, some of the best stuff to listen to are videos that feature debates.  Lately, I keep getting videos featuring the late Christopher Hitchens in my "What to Watch" feed.  Some of them I've seen before, but every now and then one will come up that's brand new.  It's pretty astounding how many videos there are.  One thing the guy was not afraid to do was get into a debate.

While they're interesting, part of me dislikes the entire debate format.  I can understand why guys like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers refuse to debate creationists.  On one hand, it gives those creationists ammo to say, "Look!  He's afraid!  He knows he's going to lose!"  On the other hand though, why should a respected biologist take the time to debate something that's nothing more than a ridiculous pseudoscience?  It doesn't matter how many people believe it, creationism is bogus, and why should he legitimize it by having a debate?  Sometimes, there simply isn't anything to debate.

There's something different though about those Hitchens debates.  True, many of the people he debates drop so many ridiculous logical fallacies and unproven assertions that there's no way for him to address all of them point-for-point.  What's great about them though is the fact that he did them while promoting his book God is Not Great.  Also, according to him, he didn't take the expected book tour for a book like that, and instead he went right into Christian territory in order to have these debates.  In other words, the Christians were giving him a format to bring his point of view to people who might not hear it otherwise.

Because that's the thing, in some parts of this country, there are people who never really hear the arguments against theism.  All they hear is what they're exposed to.  Even in the Information Age, it's astounding how many people I've talked to who don't seem to understand the basic objections that an atheist has.  If I had a nickel for every time I had to explain basic stuff like what the Big Bang even is and how atheism and agnosticism aren't mutually exclusive, well, I'd have one hell of a lot of nickels.

So that's what he was doing - getting the message out to people who wouldn't normally hear it.  I think that one of the most telling of these debates was the one with William Lane Craig, Lee Strobel, Douglas Wilson, and Jim Dennison.  What's so telling about it?  All of those guys are Christians.  Not only that, but so is the moderator, who gets into the debate as well and makes some points.  In other words it takes 5 GUYS to debate Hitchens.  What do you think it would be like if it was the other way around?  Well, I'd feel bad for the Christian, that's for sure.  And it's not like each of the Christians get their turn followed by a response by Hitchens.  He has to listen to all four (five, really) before he's able to get his say.

Honestly, I'm not sure how many atheists would be willing to do this, and Hitchens handles himself admirably in this.  At least, he does a better job than I ever would.  I'd be sitting there facepalming my way through the whole event if I had to listen to those guys.

It's a pretty long debate, and I watched it in pieces over the course of a few days.  The things that stand out are the absolutely absurd assertions of William Lane Craig.  The guy's a good speaker, and he's probably pretty convincing to everybody who's already convinced.  However, his assertion that "if it's possible that a God exists, then a God exists" is so breathtakingly inane that I'm surprised that Hitchens didn't fall out of his chair.  Craig also likes to use the "fine tuning" argument, which I've heard theists parrot ad nauseum.  Luckily, Hitchens skewers that one, although I doubt it changed the minds of his fellow panelists.  The thing is with that point is that it's so nebulous, like most arguments for theism.  What, exactly, does "fine tuning" even mean?  And considering that our planet (not to mention the universe) is mostly completely uninhabitable and that the galaxy next to ours is crashing into us, how can anybody even go there?  Plus, with 99% of the species on this planet going extinct, you really gotta wonder.  (I'm repeating what Hichens said here, but I think those points stand just fine on their own.)

Of course, a theist can work his way around anything.  I once had one brush off the whole crashing galaxies thing by saying that God can do what he wants, and it's probably just part of his plan since he said that he was going to destroy our world some day anyway.  In other words, there's no way that they can be wrong.

Then you've got Douglas Wilson, who seems like an affable fella, but he makes one of the most disingenuous arguments that's been floating around in Christian circles.  He tries to flip the burden of proof around by insisting that Hitchens can't call anything "immoral" in his world view because he doesn't have a "standard".  I've had this bit of sophistry thrown my way before as well.  The fundamental flaw with this assertion is that just because one has a standard, that doesn't make it either good or correct.  If Hitchens was a Scientologist, then he'd have a standard, but that wouldn't make it correct or even reasonable.

Forgive me for somewhat parroting Sam Harris here, but just because an atheist can't define an ultimate, objective standard for morality, that doesn't mean that he cannot speak to it at all.  What's the ultimate standard for what's healthy?  Is it the shape you're in?  Is it how long you live?  Is it how many pullups you can do?  If I can't do what Michael Phelps does, does that mean that I'm unhealthy?  What about a basketball player who can't swim as well as him but can jump higher?  Who's healthier?  But the problem with the Christian who makes this form of argument is that it's like saying:  "Hey, you can't say that drinking lighter fluid is unhealthy!  You don't have an ultimate standard!  However, I do.  And my standard is Kieth Moon."

Unfortunately, Hitchens is only able to address this point very fleetingly, as he's basically buried up to his neck in bullcrap.  Still, you gotta admire that he even went for it, and if he even reached out to one person in the audience (or on Youtube) then it was worth it.  And this is the great thing about the world we live in.  Hitchens may be no more, but he's still out there, haunting the tubes, getting the message out to those who are struggling to reconcile those nagging doubts in their heads.

For a much more amusing example, I recommend the following two videos.  Hitchens is the guest on the Way of the Master radio show, which is hosted by the odiously arrogant Todd Friel.  While I'm not a fan of what the guys in the other debate are saying, I could see myself enjoying a conversation with them (maybe not Craig - the guy is too absurd).  This Friel guy is something else though.  Anyway, Friel tries to get Hitchens to play along with his absurd little "game show" that's basically an attempt to corner a nonbeliever into accepting that his position was groundless.  Hitchens simply will not play along though, and Friel keeps trying to get him on track, with much amusement resulting for any nonbeliever out there.  Enjoy.

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