Debate: Poison or Cure? Religious Belief in the Modern World
November 3, 2007 — 15:48

Author: Robert Gressis  Category: Atheism & Agnosticism  Comments: 12

A debate between Christopher Hitchens and Alister McGrath has been posted on "The Official Richard Dawkins Website". In my opinion, the typical person who enters the debate "on the fence" will most likely leave siding with Hitchens.

This is not due only to Hitchens's polemical acumen (or at all to McGrath's lack of talent — he's certainly not lacking for that). Rather, I think that any debate set up as this one seems to have been will always favor the atheist (not to say the atheist will always get the better of the theist).

Why should that be? Because the atheist has far fewer beliefs in the arena than the theist does. First, the theist is almost always going to be a member of a particular religious tradition, and so will have–or at least will have to have–lots of particular answers to a variety of different questions, even if he hasn't thought much about these answers. For example, I am a Catholic. I have a lot more to say about the moral argument for the existence of God than I do about reasons to believe in papal infallibility. Yet, as a Catholic I'm committed to papal infallibility, at least to this degree: I am disposed to be sympathetic to it, and ill-disposed to be critical of it, before I even examine the claim. So, any atheist who debates a Catholic can unleash a fusillade of questions, having to do with arguments for the existence of God, the historical evidence of the resurrection of Jesus, Catholic sexual morality, the child sexual abuse scandals, etc.

On the other hand, what can the religious believer say to the atheist? It seems to me that what he has to do is either find a contradiction in non-belief in God (perhaps by having a powerful ontological or two-stage cosmological argument) or a contradiction between atheism and some other belief the atheist is likely to have. But if all I know about someone is that he is an atheist, then I will have a great deal of difficulty with the second tack, because I'm not likely to know what other beliefs the atheist has, say about morality, qualia, abstract objects, etc. 

An analogy can be given. Imagine a debate between a moral nihilist and a Kantian (or a utilitarian, virtue theorist, etc.). The moral nihilist will have a grand old time bringing up perennial objections to the Kantian, but the best the Kantian can do is point out how the nihilist goes against common sense. (Note that this goes for a debate even between an atheist and a  non-religious theist.)

Second, and much related to the first difficulty the theist has, quickly articulating a powerful objection to a position is often, perhaps usually, much easier to do than to respond to it. However, although it is easier to offer an objection to a position than it is to respond to it, it does not follow that the position objected to is weaker. For instance, one can very quickly and easily present the dilemma of determinism (which was, when I first encountered it, quite unsettling); but offering a compatibilist or libertarian response to it takes a lot more nuance and thought. If someone were watching a debate between a compatibilist/libertarian and a hard determinist, though, and didn't have a dog in the fight (if that were possible), then what he would see if someone constantly qualifying, elaborating, stuttering here and there, and saying things that were hard to understand (this would be the believer in free will), whereas the skeptic about free will would have a clear, persistant line of reasoning that he could repeatedly rephrase in florid language (should he, like Hitchens, have that talent). 

My third point is a difficulty that is perhaps particular to the Christian debater. The atheist, should he want to, can impugn Christianity as "poison", "maniacal", "immature", "deranged", "a death cult", and so on, but if the Christian were to respond in kind, he would look hypocritical. On the other hand, if he doesn't (as he shouldn't), then he might look as though he doesn't have confidence in his beliefs. In fairness, though, Hitchens's stridency might also turn off undecideds. 

One last thing, which doesn't have anything to do with the nature of public debate between an atheist and an adherent of a monotheistic religion, but rather with this particular debate between Hitchens and McGrath. Hitchens was questioned about what makes it the case that we ought to carry out our moral obligations, and his response was that we have a natural genetic predisposition to do so. It goes without saying, at least here, I should think, that this answer, which Hitchens appeared to think sufficed, is a non-starter. 

  • Derrick

    I think that you’re right in this particular regard, but I’m skeptical about debates in general. It seems that the entire idea of a debate is intrinsically flawed. What it always comes down to in a debate is that the one who wins is going to be the one that has better rhetorical skills. Who actually has the better position is never guaranteed the win because of these considerations. For example, put Quentin Smith and Bill Craig in a debate ten times, and Craig will probably (at least) win nine out of those ten times, not because of his arguments (good though they may be), but just because Quentin isn’t a good public speaker. And even if you ignore this, it still doesn’t necessarily give the person on the fence a decent grasp of the relevant positions in the discussion. At the risk of sounding overly rhetorical, I think that debates seem better suited for sophistry than real philosophy.

    November 3, 2007 — 19:11
  • Nice post, Robert. I agree with you.
    In general, the more well-defined one’s position is on any given issue, the more potential places at which it can be attacked.
    The only way to make a theist/atheist debate fair is either for the theist to be very modest in his or her conclusions, or to pin the atheist down on enough issues in advance so that we get, in effect, a comparative examination of two well-developed worldviews.

    November 3, 2007 — 21:15
  • I think lurking in the background is the vexed question of burden of proof, something I read you as alluding to in your second difficulty. I have been involved in the promotion of a few theist/atheist debates, and have been disappointed with all of them. Ultimately neither the atheist nor the theist can agree on who carries the task of defending their position and who is on offense. This results in awkward table pounding and sophistry that leaves me beweildered and wanting to hear argument, usually leaving more satisfied with the atheist’s ability to rigorously defend his case than the theist’s.
    Another reason I find these kinds of debates to be distasteful is because often organizations that host these events fail to pick competent, well-spoken, and respected theists. When advising a campus club on which philosopher they should have as their atheist debater, I asked who would be representing them on the theist side. When they gave me the name of a protege of a popular Evangelical ‘apologist’, I told them they ought to get someone from a local humanist society or similar community organization, as this person was simply not up to philosophical snuff, falling squarely within the category of sophist. Rather than finding someone who is versed in rigorus arguments for atheism, they find someone who approaches atheism with the view that it has been soundly defeated by philosophical and scientific research, which the competent theist knows is simply not the case.
    I’m not sure if this is a criticsm of the organizations that host debates on the existence of God or of underlying attitudes within the community of Christian philosophers. For what it is worth, I have not watched Hithens – McGrath debate. My prior experiences with debates on the existence of God have left me wanting nothing to do with that particular intellectual exercise.

    November 3, 2007 — 23:04
  • Soren

    I appreciate the post, both for the link, as well as for raising the general topic. I agree that, in general, the theist has the disadvantage, for the reasons stated above. But should we give up on debates? I’m not so sure.
    Although debates sometimes shed more heat than light, they have this virtue: they effectively raise public interest in topics of importance. (I’ve seen 1,000+ college students show up for a Friday evening debate.) In short, debates get people thinking and talking about things they might otherwise pass over in silence. In light of this, I think they’re worth having, so long as they’re done right. But the sad fact is that even on college campuses people are not well prepared to take part in civil, reasoned, public discourse. Thus, even when a debate is done right, the results might disappoint.

    November 4, 2007 — 4:31
  • Screwtape Jenkins

    I’d like to offer my layman’s opinion. Feel free to ignore it.
    If I may borrow from Sean Connery here, it seems to me that McGrath tends to bring knives to gunfights. In the debates of his I‘ve witnessed, his opponent’s goal is plainly to destroy the Christian faith completely and utterly, while McGrath’s stated goal is typically “to get a conversation going”. I can only guess that this is because he thinks this is the most Christian thing to do. I think the most Christian thing you can do in a debate like this is to win and win big. That’s not to say that anything goes; the Christian should of course be civil. But he should also have no compunctions about relentlessly attacking the atheist’s stated positions.
    This debate was ultimately about the moral foundations of Christianity versus those of atheism. Hitchens’ position is not that there is a logical contradiction within Christianity on moral grounds, but rather the much less sophisticated view that because Christianity offends our moral sensibilities we may safely dismiss it. McGrath should have mercilessly attacked Hitchens on the grounds for this position if his version of atheism is true. What does it mean to have a moral obligation if our genes control us, as Hitchens claimed they did in his opening statement? If human morality is just a survival mechanism fitted to our local terrestrial environment, then what is the justification for applying its conclusions universally? It seems to me, as a layman, that on Hitchens’ metaphysical assumptions, his argument is impossible to make. McGrath should have relentlessly pressed him on this, but chose instead to take the high road. Unfortunately, the high road in debates like these is usually the road to defeat.
    McGrath, in my opinion, is sometimes a little too interested in civil discourse and common ground. I don’t think there is any reason (nor any excuse) for a Christian philosopher to lose a debate to someone like Hitchens on the merits.

    November 4, 2007 — 10:46
  • Robert Gressis

    I don’t want to give the impression that I think the practice of debates on the theism/atheism topic should be abandoned; rather, I want to point out only that theists should expect, at best, a draw, in any such debate, for the reasons of format I mentioned above.
    Thus, if I were defending the theist position in a debate, I would raise the above points in my opening statement, so as not to get sympathetic persons-in-the-audience’s hopes up.
    But I also agree with Peter Thurley about college religious organizations’ choice of theist proponents. The very best they get is William Lane Craig. Craig is, in my opinion, quite a good philosopher, but (a) he does some bullet-biting in areas where I don’t think he has to (at least if memory serves), and (b) his philosophical acumen goes out the window when he discusses the relationship between theism and morality.
    More later.

    November 4, 2007 — 10:48
  • Dear Robert,
    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, and your nihilism-Kantian debate thought experiment is really nice.
    One more thing that comes to mind here is Sextus Empiricus. You say just about anything about anything, and the clever sceptic will have half a dozen objections.
    A final analogy. Think how much fun a clever sceptic has with a scientist defending the relativity of simultaneity, wave-particle duality, or evolution. The sceptic’s arguments just write themselves. The only reason the scientist has a chance of winning a popular debate is because of the social prestige of science. (And we know what the unkind sceptic would say about that!)

    November 4, 2007 — 21:33
  • On second thought, maybe the problems with debates can be avoided by careful focus, once one realizes what the problem you have identified is.
    Suppose that instead of defending Kantianism, the Kantian insisted only on defending the claim that there are objective normative facts, and resisted being drawn into what is irrelevant to that question, except when necessary. The nihilist might pull out some evolutionary sceptical arguments, and might hammer the Kantian with cultural differences, but the Kantian could hammer back with self-defeat arguments, and with crowd-pleasers like: “If nihilism is true, racism is not wrong.”
    This would probably require a moderator to enforce the focus, to prevent questions like: “But you think…”
    p.s. The link to the debate is bad.

    November 4, 2007 — 21:45
  • Robert Gressis

    Thanks for the compliments, Alex. I have to disagree with you on one thing, though: the link to the debate works when I click it. Have others had problems with it? If so, you can also find it on youtube. Here’s the link to part 1 (it has 11 parts):

    November 5, 2007 — 1:36
  • Soren

    I think your point about the need for focus is right on. The frustrating thing is that you can organize a debate and take pains to limit the focus, yet one of the debaters may decide to issue red-herring cheap shots like “Where was God on 9/11?” when the topic was expressly limited to, say, the resurrection. Since I have witnessed such behavior, I would definitely agree that a strong moderator is important to help ensure focus.

    November 5, 2007 — 6:00
  • The link now works. And it’s a different URL than it was last night, I think. Weird.

    November 5, 2007 — 12:48
  • Matthew

    I think you’ve just experienced what is know as the problem of administrative hiddenness.

    November 5, 2007 — 12:52