Is Christianity the Problem?
I attended the debate last night between Christopher Hitchens and Dinesh D'Souza at Kings College. The topic of the debate was "Is Christianity the Problem?" This is a bit sketchy as an impression
I didn't previously have a particularly good impression of D'Souza; the only time I had heard of him he was using the VT massacre in a particularly morbid critique of atheism. He acquitted himself far better here.
Hitchens has a somewhat rambling and expansive style of debate, trailing into myriad topics with an answer. It contrasted sharply with D'Souza's more succinct approach. It also caused some friction as D'Souza accused Hitchens of using excess time at one point, exclaiming, "See, that's what atheists do! They hog the public square!" I take it the irony of saying this at Kings College, a Christian school where religious statuary adorned the walls, did not occur to him.
A lot of the debate was rather predictable for anyone with a passing familiarity with the arguments -- most of the points were tried and true, and they didn't have time to get long beyond the first salvos. During parts of the debate it felt as though they were going through a secretly collusive dance for the benefit of the audience. But perhaps that was just me.
Hitchens main point, at least the main point that focused on the titular topic of the debate, was the immorality of the methods of Christianity. Essentially, framing ethics in a hypothetical original sin relieved only by a "blood sacrifice", where the alternatives are heaven or hell, based on acceptance of this framework, is per se immoral. Pasquale's wager, whether posed by humans (as Hitchens believes) or God (as D'Souza believes) is an extortive attempt to control behavior. He backed up his statements with the evils that only someone bound by religion would conceive. In some Islamic countries, he related, a virgin cannot be executed. Apparently, these nations, in holding closely to their religious traditions, do not execute virgins: they rape them first.
Hitchens has something of a point here. Plenty of Christians over countless generations have played the threatening aspect of Christianity. The mere fact that Pasquale's wager exists suggests as much. The "fire and brimstone" preacher and ramrod nun are perhaps stereotypes, but not entirely imaginary ones. His unfortunate problem here is his own hyperbole: when an audience member asked him to justify his quote "Religion poisons everything", Hitchens reply was lacking in force.
D'Souza's point (the one that actually focused on the topic of the debate) was that Christianity has done a lot of good for the world, from inspiring scientists to developing values. He defended against the "religious wars" argument by noting the small numbers of people killed in the Salem witch trials and the Inquisition. D'Souza also tried to cut the Greeks mostly out of the ethical picture by noting some of the reprehensible practices of their day: leaving infants on mountaintops and slavery, without protest by important philosophers of the day.
The audience skewed more towards D'Souza than one might expect for New York City, with some young audience members giving fist-pumps to his statements. This was likely an effect of holding the debate at a Christian college. Both debaters received applause at their strongest points and laughs at the sharpest of their witty jabs, but most of the audience questions were directed towards Professor Hitchens.
Much of the debate, however, was pulled into a direct discussion of theism v. atheism. Hitchens had no particular motive to stick very close to the topic of debate, and while D'Souza remained somewhat closer, he also wandered a great deal from the alleged topic. Topics like whether miracles are possible or not is pretty much irrelevant to whether Christianity is a problem.
Frankly, I would rather have seen an actual debate on the topic of whether Christianity is a problem than a rushed rehash of atheist-theist arguments that you can troll through on a thousand internet fora. As an atheist myself, I'm not at all sure that Christianity is a problem, and it is an interesting idea to explore (though I believe theism to be false, it's not obvious that an idea is destructive purely because it's false).
Whether Christianity is a problem or not shouldn't really have to do with whether it killed people in the past, or did good in the past, but should be based on where it will go -- or avoid going -- in the future. There are likely arguments of some depth on each side here, but as yet they're largely unaddressed. Christians don't want to address them because they get into internal debates about topics like whether Christianity can accept homosexuality. Atheists don't particularly spend much energy addressing them either because atheism is not a value system at all (and most would argue that it should not try to be one).