Response to Hitchens-Wilson Debate

December 10, 2008

Hitchens vs. Wilson:  Some Thoughts
By Dr. K. Scott Oliphint, Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology

I have been asked to provide some thoughts to the debate which I hosted between Christopher Hitchens (atheist) and Douglas Wilson (Christian). My reticence to do this stems from a couple of concerns. First, it is easy to figure out what Tony Romo should have done in yesterday's game. However, figuring that out is monumentally different than being in the game.
Second, and perhaps more important because more subtle, it is crucial for anyone listening to the debate to recognize the medium in which it is given.

The debate took place on Westminster's campus by virtue of an invitation from those involved to host the debate. One of the reasons for it, surely one of the central reasons, was that the three debate locations (New York, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C.) would become the setting for a film documentary. Because of that, the debate was structured to fit into such a context. In other words, we should recognize that what was not happening in the debate was a well-structured and lengthy discussion of central and essential ideas.

To put it more concisely, the debate was calculated to fit into a (film-able) context, and not calculated toward a focused penetration of foundational and antithetical paradigms. (Parenthetically, Christians, of all people, should be keenly aware of the fact that, in important ways, the medium is the message. This is most clearly demonstrated when so-called political "debates" are staged for television such that very little, if any, substantial discussion is permitted, or even possible.)

Having said that, central and essential ideas were broached in the discussion and were even broached with some precision and clarity. Both Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson did a wonderful job of communicating some of their basic concerns. But anyone listening to the debate will recognize that there are a plethora of issues that are introduced, some with very complex and meticulous contexts, that simply cannot be developed, given the format.

Hitchens is an atheist whose knowledge of Scripture is good. He is quite capable of pulling out various passages of Scripture that, on the surface and given his atheistic bent, can seem ludicrous. The questions he raises about Scripture (the demons sent into the herd of pigs, the lex talionis, etc.) all need the proper exegetical and hermeneutical approach in order to see them for what they are. But, such an approach cannot be garnered in an hour of give and take.

Given the (film-able) context, the listener will, nevertheless, hear a number of quotable moments in the discussion — sound bites, if you will. A few of my favorites, listed in no particular order:

Doug Wilson (DW): Neither one of us has a problem with killing the Amalekites.
Christopher Hitchens (CH): What if I was an Amalekite? It changes everything.
CH: To no argument does religion add anything that doesn't make it more toxic.
CH: The swine-possessed miracle, if it were true, would not be worth having. It seems to blaspheme the notion of "true" and "beautiful" quite badly. How can you claim that miracles are only true when they're Calvinist?
CH: Even if I grant the whole thing [i.e., Christianity], but it makes no difference, it wouldn't make me a Christian if it were all true.
CH: Don't you have an abnormally unsuspicious mind?
CH: A lot of people need to be treated, by me, in ways that I don't want to be treated myself.
CH: There is a gulf fixed on how we think, not just what. I don't think it would be a good thing if I could think Christianity were true.
CH: If there was a loving God, I can't but feel that one would know it.
CH: That's what I assume faith must be - the willingness to assume what you must prove.

What may not be as obvious to the listener —but was obvious to me as I stood next to these men — is that there was a moment toward the end of the debate when the previous mood and tone was traded in for an intensity and real concern that was otherwise missing. It came after a (good) question was asked concerning Doug Wilson's view of evidences, after which time, the following (my paraphrase) was said:

DW: I have faith in the Bible, you have faith in reason.
CH: No, I don't have faith in reason; I'm inclined to doubt something if its truth will be something that suits me. We [i.e., atheists] don't love the idea that we will be annihilated; we don't indulge in wish-thinking. We don't assume what we're asked to prove.
CH: You're a man of one book
DW: You're a man of one thought [audience laughs]
CH: If you laugh at that, you're like Bill Mahr's audience, you'll laugh at anything.
I don't like being told that my arguments aren't as good as his because he has divine information that I don't have.
CH: There's an assumption with which I will dispense before the inquiry - there is no supernatural intervention in this argument. Like LaPlace, I don't need the god-hypothesis.
If he does exist, he is incompetent, absent-minded, capricious and cruel.

This gets to the nub of the issue, and, in my opinion, was the reason that Christopher Hitchens thought he should demean his audience. He does rely on his own understanding - of the world, of Christianity, of himself, of beauty, or morality. Wilson hit the nail on the head.
Hitchens sees such reliance as a skeptical process, in which he doubts whatever is useful to him, but this "process" is just another way of saying, "I am my own master, and I am master of all I survey."

What if, for example, there are some things that are immoral, even irrational, to doubt? How would we know such a thing? How could we demonstrate it? Certainly not by doubting them, since that would be to affirm the irrational. We could only know such a thing and demonstrate the irrationality and immorality if we first accepted these things as bedrock truths, truths without which there would be no other truths.

Christopher Hitchens, listeners will note, never doubts his own ability to determine what is true and what is not; he never concedes that he could be wrong, and centrally wrong, about everything. Not only so, he demands a god who will act and think as Hitchens determines. Like the passers-by at the cross, Hitchens demands, "If you are the Son of God, I command you to come down from the cross" (cf. Matt. 27:39f.) That is, I'll only believe what you say if you do what I say.

Doug Wilson knows that he is wrong about everything, unless what he affirms and knows is what God has said. This point, though unable to be developed, was clearly made by Wilson and it turned the otherwise affable Hitchens against his own audience toward the end.

It was my privilege to host these men in this discussion. They were gracious, articulate and engaging. But we should not lose sight of the fact that what happened on that night had its focus on the battle taking place in the heavenly realms. And we should pray that victory will be seen in the subduing of the heart of Christopher Hitchens.