Blogging the string in the labyrinth of Crete

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

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).



Blogger MICKY said...

CrypticLife said...
You, Mickey, are pretty arrogant to state yourself as a gift to all people.

Dear Atheist, behaviorist, determinist, and humanist
Did you know that Jesus Christ died on a cross, for your sins? I, MICKY, AM A GIFT TO ALL PEOPLE. Are you a PSYCHOPATH? Were you ABUSED as a child? Are you in HELL? How do you FELL, MR ATHEIST?
John 3:16 (chapter 3, verse 16 of the Gospel of John) is one of the most widely quoted verses from the Christian Bible. It has been called the "Bible in a nutshell" because it is considered a summary of some of the most central doctrines of traditional Christianity:

16For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. John 3:16 (King James Version)

A typical interpretation of the verse might be as follows:

* For God so loved the world… — God is a God of love and this love motivates his action in the rest of the verse
* …that He gave… — God giving something to the world of humanity that He owned, His Son as a sacrifice
* …His only begotten[1] Son… — the Firstborn of all creation Jesus of Nazareth is also the Son of God.
* …that whosoever… — that any one
* …believeth… — being saved is based on faith and trust in Jesus to save or faith
* …in Him… — the belief being in Jesus, God's means of salvation for humanity
* …shall not perish… — implies the fate of those who do not believe: spiritual eternal death
* …but have everlasting life. — shows the reward of those who believe: eternal life
* Peace Be With You
* Micky

12:08 PM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

Okay, one by one:

No, I did not, and still do not, know that Jesus Christ died on a cross for my sins. There's quite a bit of debate about whether the event happened at all, but even if it did the motives are in doubt.

You're an irritation to a lot of people. And a sizable portion of the world doesn't speak English, so I hope you broadcast in different languages if even you hope to believe your own propaganda.

I'm not a psychopath. Not sure why you'd suggest it. I'm open, though, if you have any evidence to the contrary.

If I had been abused as a child, do you think that would be a sensitive way to ask? For the record, I was not abused.

Whether I'm in Hell, or as you say it, HELL, depends on your definition of HELL. Certainly not Alighieri's Inferno, if that's what you mean.

"How do you FELL?" -- I'll assume you mean "How do you feel?", and the answer is fine. You don't need to refer to me as "Mr Atheist", though, I'm informal. Call me Athey if you like.

Your quote -- the "central doctrines" of Christianity -- could also be interpreted as glorifying child sacrifice. If the message is "Believe or Die", it's quite jarring that you'd then have the temerity to ask me if I'm a psychopath.

3:55 PM  
Anonymous ximeze said...

Thanks for the report, Cryptic.

"it felt as though they were going through a secretly collusive dance for the benefit of the audience. But perhaps that was just me."

Humm, were they signing books afterwards & did they sell lots of those?

4:47 PM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

D'Souza was selling his new book, "What's So Great About Christianity". Hitchens wasn't selling books, I imagine because his work "God Is Not Great" is hardly new at this point.

I think D'Souza's books probably sold reasonably well, though it's a bit hard to judge.

One nice thing the debaters did was forego their concluding statement time to take additional questions from the audience.

4:57 PM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

Oh, and yes, D'Souza was signing books (I noticed you asked if he was signing, not about the selling).

6:30 PM  

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