Responses to the ‘New Atheism’, Part 1: Ravi Zacharias & Sam Harris



A conservative Christian family member recently sent me Ravi Zacharias’s book The End of Reason: A Response to the New Atheists (2008) and asked that I offer a reply.  The following is my reply.

_____

1.  Introduction

1.1  The Author
Ravi Zacharias, born in India and now a Canadian/American, is a well known “international” Christian apologist. Zacharias preached in Vietnam and Cambodia during the Vietnam war, participated in Harvard’s first Veritas Forum, and has given presentations at Princeton. He spent a brief time as a visiting scholar at Cambridge University and is currently a visiting professor at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. In all other respects, he appears to enjoy the general career of the apologist: books, website, ministry, conferences, and radio.

1.2  The Occasion
The End of Reason (2008) is Zacharias’s response to Sam Harris’s bestselling Letter to a Christian Nation (2006). As indicated by the subtitle (“a response to the new atheists”), Zacharias intends to also implicitly address Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins.  These other authors are explicitly noted intermittently: Zacharias refers to “Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and a few others” (16), “Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett” (30), “Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris” (43), “Christopher Hitchens, a man too intelligent to write a book as base as The Missionary Position” (101), and “Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and others” (126).  Dennett is on my view the most interesting intellectual out of the four (Hitchens the most notable), yet Zacharias has nothing to say about him. Dennett remains lurking in the evangelical shadows of “and others”.

_____

2.  The Opening Tale

2.1  Paragraph One
On my view, the most intriguing part of The End of Reason is the opening five paragraphs (13-15), the first two serving as the foundation. Here is the opening paragraph:

A university student arrives home and informs his parents that, after reading a popular atheist’s book, he has renounced his family’s faith.  His mother, particularly, is shattered by the news.  The father struggles to engage his son in dialogue, but to no avail. The deepening grief causes them to distance themselves from their son.  When the game of silence does not work, the mother is plunged further into depression and despair.  The grandparents become involved, watching in anguish as beliefs that have been held dear in the family for generations crumble.  Before long, this family that was once close and peaceable is now broken and hostile.  Abusive words between mother and son are exchanged with increasing frequency and intensity, and the siblings blame their brother’s new strident atheism for the rift in the family. After a long night of arguing with her son, pleading unsuccessfully with him to reconsider his position, the mother takes an overdose of prescription medication and ends her life, unable to accept what she interprets to be the destruction of her family.

This is certainly a sad tale.  But can even the discerning, charitable reader predict what the moral of this story will be?  This short narrative entertains some events that are unquestionably fanciful, such as the son’s declaration that he has “renounced his family’s faith” and the fact that it is the religious father who “struggles to engage” in “dialog”. It is improbable, if not incredible, that a University student would refuse to dialog about an influential book he has just read. With these narrative details put aside, however, the rest of the story appears to me sufficiently realistic given the level of ‘dysfunction’ in many families. It seems reasonable to suppose, for example, that parents as characterized generally by this story would naturally cling not to the seeking after what is empirically true, enlightening, and that which promotes the common good of society, but rather, to the “family’s faith”. Similarly, it is not implausible that grandparents are watching on as traditional beliefs held “for generations crumble”. This appears to be, in fact, a universal story of the conservative mind meeting a changing world.

All we know about the son from this short story is that he was sincerely convinced, after reading a book, that God does not exist, and further, that he is willing to confess this to his parents. The level of grief experienced by the parents is therefore not what we might consider a healthy response.  That it is the parents that distance themselves reveal a particularly unhealthy, albeit common, set of social habits. I appreciate Zacharias’s willingness to include the real possibility of unjust and irrational shunning that often takes place in social situations like this. Zacharias calls this shunning “a game of silence”, implying some level of intentional manipulation. This increases the injustice of the parent’s initial response exponentially. Given this shunning, game of silence, and despair on the part of the son’s parents, the larger family unit becomes “broken and hostile”.  The mother is willing to engage in “abusive words” with her son, which the son now, apparently, begins to offer back. The parents are willing to allow their son’s other siblings to blame his new sincerely adopted and studied beliefs to be the sole cause of the family’s suffering. The university student is therefore unjustly accused by his immediate peers under the oversight of his very own parents.  Even after all this, the parents take it upon themselves to berate  their son long into the night, “pleading” with him.  The mother is apparently unwilling to reconsider her manipulative game of shunning her own son and unwilling to stand up for her son against the unjust accusations from her other children. Rather, so determined that her son’s new beliefs have been the sole cause of the “destruction of her family”, she commits suicide.

2.2  Paragraph Two
So what, then, is the moral of this story?  Why did Zacharias open the book with precisely this moving narrative?  Did the father or mother do anything wrong?  Is there anything they might have done different?  Did their other children respond in ways that were unjust?  Should the parents have rather corrected this problem between their children? Is the shunning, the game of silence, and the accusations against the ‘black sheep’ of the family the target of the forthcoming lesson? As it turns out, none of these issues are to the point of the story.  Rather, the point is that the book that this university student read that helped lead to his new beliefs should not have ever been written.  The person who wrote the book is immoral and deluded. (more…)

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Sphinn
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • StumbleUpon

A Recent Debate: Is the Catholic Church a force for good in the world?



 ”Speaking for the motion, Archbishop John Onaiyekan and Ann Widdecombe MP. Speaking against the motion, Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry.” To watch all five segments of the debate, go here.  I have embedded the second segment below (press ‘HQ’ if you find pausing):

The audience was polled before the event: 678 people thought the Catholic Church is a force for good in the world. 1102 poeple thought that it was not. 346 people were undecided.

After presentations were made by all four speakers, another poll was conducted: 268 people thought that the Catholitic Church was a force for good, and 1876 thought that the Catholic Church was not a force for good in the world. Only 34 remained undecided.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Sphinn
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • StumbleUpon

Analytic Outline of My Entries Related to Hitchens, Wilson, and the Movie Collision



 wilson and hitchens in pub

The following is an index of links to entries I have made – ordered by date – related to Hitchens, Wilson, and the Collision Movie.

The Moral Argument Series:

Part 1    (February)
In this entry I introduce the central argument between Hitchens and Wilson: the Moral Argument. According to Hitchens, morality is innate and based on empathy, thereby implicating God as an immoral, blood-thirsty tyrant. But according to Wilson, Morality is only paradoxical: without this apparently tyrannical God, there would be no wrong and right to begin with and no basis for protest. (Wilson does not grant a tyrannical God but refuses to explain why throughout the debate).  In order to investigate the idea of ‘innate’ morality, I turn to anthropologist Colin Turnbull’s moving story about the Ik girl named Adupa.

Part 2: Summary of Debate     (March)
Here, I introduce C.S. Lewis’ more successful and humanitarian version of the Moral Argument and then provide a summary of the debate between Hitchens and Wilson, published on-line by Christianity Today and by Canon Press.

Part 3: Ethical Information     (March)
In this entry I map out my analysis of the debate under four headings and provide my analysis for the first. I argue that the debate is largely over by Round 2:

Hitchens points out that Wilson is “trapped in the net” of his own making. Genocide and slavery have been “positively recommended in holy writ,” and abortion is denounced in the Oath of Hippocrates (and I add, not holy writ).

Part 4: Immoral Defense     (March)
On my view, this is the most important part of my analysis since I am able to draw on my personal knowledge of Wilson; this helps explain the implied sociopathology of Wilson’s attempt at grounding morality. (The last two subjects of analysis appear less consequential, although I plan to finish this analysis sometime soon).

Part 5: Collision Movie     (May)
Next, I introduce the Collision movie, transcribing part of a released Sneak Peak. Hitchens says, “One of us not just has to lose the argument but has to admit real moral defeat. I think it should be him.”

___________

Molly Worthen on Douglas Wilson and Christopher Hitchens (April)
Worthen published an article on Wilson in Christianity Today, and begins by noting Wilson’s foxtrot with Hitchens. I sought to provide more depth to Worthen’s analysis and corrected some factual errors. One reputable person commented on this entry:

Your piece is f-ing brilliant, and I’m glad I found it after reading Worthen’s interview with The Controversialist in the April 09 Christianity Today. You bring to light a lot of questions I had after reading Worthen’s article, and answer them brilliantly.

Letters To A Middle Aged Contrarian     (April)
I enjoyed Hitchens’ book a good deal: Letter To A Young Contrarian. So in this entry I provided some of those citations that I appreciated most. A bizarre dialog transpired in the comment section, involving some Kirkers.

___________

The New Enlightenment Series:

Part 1: The New Enlightenment     (September 25th)
After studying the work of Seana Coulson and the cognitive science tradition of Lakoff, Johnson, Fauconnier, Fillmore, and Turner, I read Lakoff’s new book The Political Mind. Lakoff’s announcement of the New Enlightenment fit nicely with Hitchens’ call for a renewed Enlightenment in god is not Great. Many disparate items clicked and I set forth a formulation of the New Enlightenment: “a progressive, interdisciplinary demeanor that weds the emerging mind sciences, meta-critical philosophy, the arts, and the work of the public intellectual.”

Part 2: Mind, Law, & the Naive Cynicism of Tetlock, Wax, and Mitchell     (October 12th)
This is a long essay. I began by framing the New Enlightenment in terms of Daniel Dennett’s recent thoughts on philosophy and cognitive science. I had been intrigued by Jon Hanson’s and Adam Benforado’s article in the Emory Law Journal, ‘Naive Cynicism: Maintaining False Perceptions in Policy Debates,’ particularly by the cast of characters in the footnotes, who are cynical about the alleged value of the mind sciences in the study of law and public policy. I went on to outline some of these characters’ more recent work and concluded that Greg Mitchell, flirting with conceptions of the unconscious mind that are similar to my own, none-the-less still offers a strong form of naive cynicism.

Part 3: Mind Science and the Humanism of Christopher Hitchens, Flannery O’Conner & C.S. Lewis     (October 23rd)
This is another long essay where I critique and expand an anti-reductionist tradition from the philosophy of Mind, and I put some flesh and blood on it through provocative narratives from Flannery O’Conner and C.S. Lewis. I brought in Hitchens to provide a more humanistic frame for the New Enlightenment, but just half way through the rough draft I was alerted to the spike in the media over the premier of the movie Collision. So I introduced Wilson’s and Hitchens’ tango and referenced some of the previous entries above.

Part 4: Newsweek’s Prattle     (October 24th)
To my surprise, Amy Miller of Newsweek gave me a reason to get out the old boxing gloves of Pooh’s Think Part 1. Miller encouraged her readers not to watch the movie Collision – and for no good reason, to put it modestly. I am not so modest about it in this entry.

Part 5: Christopher Hitchens & Douglas Wilson: The Collision Movie     (October 25th)
Here, I provide what I think is some helpful immediate context for Collision and note the crucial broader context not just pertaining to Wilson’s current moral argument but to Douglas Wilson, the man. A narrative, historical, anthropological method still awaits, as does the continuation of my book, The Kirk: Mother of War.

Part 6: My Reply to Hitchens’ Reply to Miller     (October 26th)
Hitchens replies to Amy Miller’s Newsweek article in Slate. In this entry I comment on Hitchens’ reply by noting the similarity between his defense of the Collision movie and H.L. Menken’s comments on Dr. Machen in 1931. However, I note the dissimilarity between Wilson and Dr. Machen, and I state boldly the importance of what we can know about Douglas Wilson. I write, for example,

Wilson has a plan, he lusts incessantly for attention and control, and, I have come to fully believe after years of painful experiment and research, he has the full capacity to rape and maim any sentient organism that might get in his way. This is true, at least, so long as the world would allow him keep his pulpit and halo. In other words, he plans to do nothing he cannot get away with. And, thankfully, the backlash to Wilson has been vehement and loud and sustained enough, particularly from his close neighbors in his small town who actually know enough about him, to all but neuter this old bull.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Sphinn
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • StumbleUpon

The New Enlightenment, Part 5: Christopher Hitchens & Douglas Wilson: The Collision Movie



Douglas Wilson’s and Christopher Hitchens’ involvement in the recent Christian booksellers’ Expo and Wilson’s involvement in this years’ conference with John Piper is a significant insertion of Wilson, and by association his Kirk of north Idaho, into the consciousness of broader evangelicalism. You can see Piper’s and Wilson’s public discussion of Wilson’s involvement with Hitchens here .  Many Christians who have an understanding of Wilson’s pedigree and history over the last two decades think this is actually a serious insertion of an aberrant and dangerous controversialist into the mainstream.  Molly Worthen tackles this issue tactfully, if not coyly, in her write up on Wilson in Christianity Today this last summer, before Wilson was invited to John Piper’s conference. You can see Worthen’s article here.  (I replied with commentary on Worthen’s article here.)

Now, media coverage of the movie Collision – a presentation of the three day tour of Hitchens and Wilson – is spiking in order to introduce the release of the movie this week, which is, arguably, at least in proper context, an important cultural event for America. You can see, for example, NPR’s interview with Hitchens and Wilson here, (conducted by Guy Raz).

For anyone interested in the immediate context of Collision, I recommend at least two sources: First, I recommend Canon Press’ short book  (Canon Press is the Kirk’s inhouse press) containing the original debate between Hitchens and Wilson, titled ‘Is Christianity Good for the World?’ (2008).  I provided a summary of this debate, which you can find here. This summary was intended to be rigorous and exhaustive enough for the reader that did not have access to book, but this debate was already published online by Christianity Today, which can be found with a few keystrokes in Google (you will need to wade through many pages picture-framed by evangelical advertising).

Second, I highly recommend listening to the tour debate at Westminster Theological Seminary in full, without the movie-craft of Collision (Collision is produced by a Kirker and an evangelical movie-maker). You can find this debate, hosted by the Seminary’s website, here.  I think proper immediate context can be well served by listening to this debate raw.

(For extra-credit homework, please also watch the exchange between Hitchens and the four Christian apologists at the Christian Book Expo, which you can find here.  And if you have a bit more time on your hands, you do not want to miss Hitchens’ article in Newsweek back in March:  ‘The Texas-sized Debate Over Teaching Evolution’.  Hitchens begins by mentioning  the Book Expo. Please note the link to the right of this site, titled Christopher Hitchens’ Papers.)

But these two sources – the Canon Press debate and the Westminster debate – are just for necessary, immediate context. As for broader context, well, where to begin? 

The function of a religious leader in the act of apologetics has little to do with the argumentative content of discussion (as I will argue as I continue to develop my philosophy and social psychology of religion and informal anthropology with respect to the Kirk). In the case of Wilson’s performance of late, this factor is multiplied exponentially. I say this for a number of reasons but will name only two here: First, Wilson is not interacting with Hitchens’ arguments nor supporting his select assertions through the same rigorous and rational habits of modern apologists that have preceded him – from C.S. Lewis to Greg Bahnsen.  This is actually not intended as a criticism, given what I take to be the social role of Christian apologetics. Second, this association with Hitchens is a very interesting stage for Wilson, and precisely what is not being discussed explicitly about Wilson in these exchanges is more important than the what is.  What Wilson does not say, given the historical and social context, as well as what Hitchens implies about Christianity and her apologists only generally, is more important that the content of rational dialog and what Wilson and Hitchens are saying explicitly about one another. Just what is so immensely interesting about Wilson and his Kirk, and why Wilson is one of the most ‘important’ religious leaders in America today, has very little to do with Wilson’s rehashing half-baked ideas about objective standards for morality, rationality, and beauty.

It is worth emphasing here that I had been working on a book for a couple years, The Kirk: Mother of War. My primary work so far was conducted before Wilson and Hitchens made contact and before, in fact, I knew who Hitchens was.  I remain convinced as I follow this media coverage on the intersection of “two lives colliding”, as well as the largely uninterrupted footage of Collision, that this broader context is necessary for a full and proper understanding of the linguistic sound bytes we have seen so far and might continue to be exposed to. Those appreciative of Hitchens’ past journalism will no doubt understand the importance of an expanded, historical, narrative, and anthropological investigation.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Sphinn
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • StumbleUpon

Evan Wilson & the Big Haus



evanleslielibraryblogheader

As I would not be able to say about his brother , Evan Wilson is a man of peace. I found refuge and hospitality years ago in a sub-cultural of Moscow, Idaho, ruled by Evan and known as the Big Haus.  Click here  for a recent introduction.  I guess that sometimes you do reap what you sow and you will be found out – one way or the other – later in life.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Sphinn
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • StumbleUpon

The Moral Argument, Part 5: Collision Movie



COLLISION – 13 min VIMEO Exclusive Sneak Peak from Collision Movie on Vimeo.

This is apparently just the first 13 minutes of the soon to be released movie. Here is a transcript of an important section from about the five to seven minute mark:

 

Hitchens: I am impressed with Douglas for this reason: very often when I debate with religious Jews, Christians, and Muslims, what they are trying to do is say, look, our morality is the same. So we agree on what is or is not moral. Its just we disagree about where it comes from. No, he understands very well: It is the will of God that is involved. 

 

Wilson: I am a Christian. I take it on faith. I believe that faith provides me with the basis for rationality and I believe that my faith in God and his Word and his Christ provides me with an objective basis for moral considerations, moral values.

 

Hitchens: Pastor Wilson doesn’t make it easy on himself in that way.  He imposes on himself and on others an unbelievably strenuous burden of worry and guilt. . . .

 

Wilson: People say look, are you a fundamentalist? Do you take the bible literally? The answer is no.  But I believe it absolutely. This is a collection of 66 books written over centuries – many different genres, many different authors. And I believe it is our responsibility to study it, understand it, and understand what genre a particular book of the bible is.  Is this history? Yes or no.  Is this poetry? Yes or no.  Is this prophetic enunciation? Is this epistolary? What is it? And then I believe it and accept it that way, on its own terms.

 

Hitchens: Whether the argument is celestial, or original [concerning the creation or earliest stage], social or political – any of these dimensions – it puts him and me, despite our good personal relations, on a side apart, divided from one another.  There’s no bridge that can suffice. One of us not just has to lose the argument but has to admit real moral defeat.  I think it should be him.

 

This last statement is worth repeating: One of us not just has to lose the argument but has to admit real moral defeat.  I think it should be him.

 

I argue for the inherent immorality of Wilson’s moral argument for the existence of God in The Moral Argument, Part 4 .  

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Sphinn
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • StumbleUpon

Leithart, the Probe, and Nathan Phelps



leithart-crop

Dr. Peter Leithart is the Cambridge trained theologian of the Kirk, operating ‘out of bounds’ as a PCA minister. Leithart now heads the New St. Andrew’s College’s new graduate program after performing for years as a foundational faculty member. I had mentored with Leithart the year or so previous to the launch of Pooh’s Think, Part 1, and he was a friend. He had always been kind to me and in fact is the only ‘Kirker’ who ever showed a sincere desire to listen to me once Father Wilson included me among his local enemies. Leithart even set up meetings between Wilson and myself that he moderated, after explaining he was sympathetic “to both sides.” During the meetings, he was quick to interrupt Wilson but he always allowed me to speak my mind.  Leithart offered no protest even when I offered Wilson some ferocious interrogating questioning over the ‘Letter without Signatures,’ which was an important embarrassment of the Kirk’s just after she began her bullying of me.  This was truly, on one level, the tyrant having to submit to a balance of power in order for the dissenting, minority voice of the weak to get a hearing.

 

Today I recalled something I learned about the working of my unconscious mind just after the launch of Pooh’s Think, Part 1, and I owe this revelation to Leithart. Informal coffee at a local shop was Leithart’s traditional preference for meetings, but his first approach to this post-poohsthink era was marked by a greeter degree of formality than was custom. I met Leithart in his office at New St. Andrew’s College and not too far along into the meeting it became evident to me that he was offering a mild form of gracious interrogation. He was to ask me questions, and I was to answer. He asked me a question about homosexuality and emergent theology. Perhaps not fully satisfied by my answer, he followed up by asking if homosexuality is “wrong.”  “Yes,” I answered. I had been defending emergent Brian McLaren and others from libelous, irrational attacks from the Kirk – all generated by anti-homosexual rhetoric – and so I suppose there was a suspicion I had become a bit ‘squishy’ on the issue.

 

I remember how odd it was to sit there in this environment and feel no emotion of any kind.  I self-monitored my level of agitation and heart rate.  I was more than calm. I was about ready to fall asleep by a combination of boredom and exhaustion (the blasts, clinched fists, and shrieks of the new blog war could not be heard from Leithart’s monastic chamber).  I really did not know why I was even there meeting with Leithart. I did not care what I was asked and had no rhetorical purpose.  I was happy to answer any question in perfect sincerity and truth.  I had nothing to hide and I felt not the slightest bit of defensiveness as I sat there, half-numb, answering the questions.

 

The questioning led to me talking a bit.  I was talking about Wilson’s war against the community – I had already conceptualized it as precisely that.  I mentioned my concern about how we were treating our local neighbors and noted it was the opposite of Jesus’ ministry.  But just then I began to cry.  Crying turned into a bit of ginger weeping and I could not stop.  Leithart kindly got up and closed the blinds, hiding me from the public side-walk just outside his large window. 

 

I was not necessarily in doubt of what the main driving force was during those early days of dissent, but I was also skeptical of what underlying motives might have been lurking in the background.  The stark change in emotional reaction during this meeting with Leithart confirmed that at least a significant motivation was one that I was willing to defend as self-justifying in the face of any coming retaliatory abuse.  This was a helpful probe into the workings of my unconscious mind, and as startled as I was by the probe’s effect, it was not difficult to considered it just that on the spot. I did not enjoy breaking down in tears in front of Leithart over what seemed to be almost nothing, but the violent change of emotions over this singular issue was enough to confirm I had some of the right kind of fuel to propel me into what was coming (I would not have dared guess at that time I would have what it took to propel all the way through it and remain alive).

 

The occasion of this remembrance was a speech I read today for the second time  by Nathan Phelps (my thanks to Edward Babinski  for the notification).  Phelps grew up under the authority of a man, his father Fred Phelps, who has become internationally famous for following out certain implications of his reformed Baptist convictions. With an ever expanding gospel vision, Fred Phelps’ GodHatesFags.com  has blossomed into GodHatestheWorld.com  The striving  of Fred Phelps against his own local community, as described in this speech by Nathan Phelps, in many respects reminds me of Wilson’s war against, Moscow, his own small town in north Idaho.  (it is, by the way, pronounced ‘Mos-coe’ not ‘Mos-cow’).

 

The abuse Nathan Phelps saw as a young child within his own household – against him, his siblings, and his mother – is certainly nothing I have ever experienced, yet there are many astounding similarities in our two narratives.  Please read Phelp’s speech,  which offers a moving narrative of not only his childhood, but the long intellectual battle that was to follow PTSD and his confusing encounters with the ecumenical evangelical world years after running away from home, getting married, and having two children. Here is some of what Phelps said towards the end of his speech that I find of particular interest:

 

At night I worried and fretted.  Sleepless, anxious hours passed as I played violent confrontations with my father over and over in my mind. . .

 

Exposure to mainstream Christianity was creating conflicts and raising questions that sent me in search of answers.  I found a counselor with a theological as well as psychiatric degree, and spent 9 months working with him.  (more…)

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Sphinn
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • StumbleUpon

The Moral Argument, Part 4: Immoral Defense



childs-handIn continuation of my analysis of the debate between Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson, I argue that Wilson has adopted an attitude towards morality that is immoral.

 

Wilson makes clear in his introductory remarks that empathy and emotion play no role in grounding morality:  “If there is no God, then who cares?”  Without divine authority revealing some law-code on the matter, Wilson delights in the stoic detachment and unconcern he is sure he would offer in response to human suffering.  

 

This is at least the argument. The lack of a conceptual role for empathy and emotion in Wilson’s rhetorical agenda does not entail that Wilson in fact possesses no empathy or emotion. Although, one still has to wonder by the end of the debate. Can an intelligent person, whose own morality is firmly rooted in empathy and emotion, consistently and honestly state that empathy and emotion provide no grounds for human morality? I doubt this is possible, but even if it is, I am morally certain that this remains at least unlikely on a case by case basis. So we should have prima facie warrant for a small amount of suspicion.

 

I commented a couple years ago on Wilson’s review of Sam Harris’ book, Letter to a Christian Nation, and noted this same stance from Wilson. After a while, and after reaching the peak of my retaliatory endeavors in Moscow, I expressed my perplexity by posing the argumentative question: “Is Douglas Wilson a Psychopath?” I do admit that there was an element of literal inquiry involved in the asking as I considered the altogether separate evidence of Wilson’s violence towards me and the many other sheep that have been beaten by his sociological rod.   But now that I have read this debate, I want to ask a less offensive question.

 

Is Douglas Wilson a sociopath? There is a sense in which his moral argument suggests so, and I doubt I am the only reviewer of this debate to have the suspicion (I know for a fact I am not the only person who has strongly entertained the idea generally, based on other evidence).

 

Hitchens argues that many of the teachings of Christianity are immoral. But consistent with Wilson’s opening sentiments, Wilson just does not seem to care. At every step, Wilson remains silent on just this point. Hitchens puts empathy right on the table in each round and Wilson will not touch it. Hitchens questions the morality of the eternal torture of the dead, but Wilson changes the subject, refocusing attention on the sacredness of the Old Testament and bypassing the problem of hell altogether – a doctrine he is not shy in promulgating from his own pulpit. Even while defending the sacredness of the Old Testament, Wilson does not address any of the alleged atrocities Hitchens claims the Old Testament recommends. Rather, Wilson just says that Hitchens has no reason himself to give a damn about human suffering. If there is no God, everything is matter and motion and so “who cares? ‘On with the rapine and slaughter!’” (more…)

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Sphinn
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • StumbleUpon

The Moral Argument, Part 3: Ethical Information



bio_hitchensMy summary of the debate between Wilson and Hitchens (Canon Press) can be found here.  My analysis follows in four parts, beginning with this entry. Here is the map of what is to come:

1) Part 3 – Ethical Information:  The question over humanity’s access to “ethical information” jeopardizes the continuation of the debate beyond round two. Upon analysis, it appears the debate was over in round two.

2) Part 4 – Immoral Defense:  This debate is not just about morality, but also the expression of morality, the morality of Hitchens and Wilson. This moral expression has revealed a good deal of immorality, and oddly enough, Hitchens, the atheist, is not the one responsible. (He didn’t even say “fucking” at just the right Hitch moment.) I want to address the immorality of Wilson’s moral stance. If Wilson’s defense of Christian morality is itself immoral, then it is self-refuting.

3) Part 5 – Strenuous Conditions:  I want to take a close look at Wilson’s various challenges and questions. On analysis, it appears Wilson offers not one challenge, but five. Wilson demands that Hitchens provide the following:

a) A warrant, or rational warrant, or justification for his moral beliefs.  b) Definitions for ethical terms.  c) A standard for moral evaluation.  d) An account, without reference to a theistic metaphysic, of language, meaning, concepts, reason, truth, and the process of argumentation.  e) A source of moral authority that should be obeyed.

I will seek to explain how, as Hitchens put it, all these “strenuous conditions are surplus to requirements.”

4) Part 6 – Moral Philosophy:  Hitchens progressively revealed his own moral philosophy throughout the debate, whereas Wilson never stopped insisting that Hitchens was simply refusing to address Wilson’s challenges. Hitchens’ own view on morality deserves an analysis before investigating whether Hitchens did or did not offer a sufficient answer to Wilson.

_________

1) Ethical Information

Is Christianity Good for the World? Hitchens answers: One reason Christianity is not Good for the world is that Christianity is not an origin of moral precepts; and if not an origin of moral precepts, then an unlikely candidate for an origin of moral goodness, much less the fount of moral goodness; and if this is so, it would seem hard to appreciate how Christianity is good for the world in any immediate and practical sense. This is not an unimportant consideration. The church’s cultural boasting remains unhampered by her continued multiplication of moral atrocities and absurdities. How is this if she does not at the very least bring us the standard by which to judge her hypocrisy?

This was Wilson’s chance to start the debate strong. But in his eagerness to lecture this intimidating foe, Wilson starts off a little too strong. (more…)

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Sphinn
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • StumbleUpon

The Moral Argument, Part 2: Summary of Debate



q-comedians-bts-vanity-fairTaking a fatalistic view that was at odds with his ostensibly cheery humanism, he used to say that “if you look in playgrounds, you see the little judge and the little burglar and the little murderer and the little banker.” He tried and failed to derive consolation from religion, and once had the following exchange with Cardinal Basil Hume: Hume pontificated to him that, were there to be no God, human life would be absurd. “Well, exactly” was Mortimer’s rejoinder. (Mortimer Rests His Case)

 

Canon Press recently took aboard a short debate between Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson. The resulting small book is titled “Is Christianity Good for the World?”  If the reader is uncertain as to how the two authors are inclined to answer this question, I suggest a preliminary perusal of the respective links.  (I just switched Wilson’s link from wikipedia to his NSA page as an act of fairness, and  just discovered in the new link a picture of someone wearing a gray sweater that looks a lot like the one I am currently wearing.  I’ll go turn around and look in the mirror. Yep, that’s a picture of me. Notice that I am the one paying attention – further proof of my loyal Kirkship.)

 

splash_04My interest in this debate is two-fold. First, I believe this debate sheds further light on the work, life, and psychology of fundamentalism’s most intriguing American leader, Douglas Wilson, as well as the beautiful world he brought forth from the dust of the earth, which I like to call – as did Wilson not long ago – the Kirk. Second, Christopher Hitchens’ reputation as one of our most important public intellectuals is further supported by the invigorating and challenging prose he provides during the course of this debate – which can be seen as a practical extension of his new book god is not Great. I will reserve my worries about god is not Great for a future entry, and for now just admit that the book is, it seems to me, one of the finest ever written. It is therefore a pleasure for me to analyze the collision of the two lives and the two positions that went into the making of this debate.  

 

Due to Wilson’s insistent neo-presuppositionalist method (as the theowonks who hold the keys to the reformed tradition might want to call it), the argumentative course rarely veers too far from what I call the Moral Argument.  The Moral Argument is based on the theist claim that morality is inescapable, while also, apart from a theistic metaphysic, inexplicable. Another way of stating it – if one would opt for oversimplification – is that if God does not exist, there is no right or wrong or good or evil.

 

The importance of the Moral Argument itself cannot be overstated. The debate between Christianity and atheism is in a politically strategic position. We continue to see the ramifications of fundamentalist religion throughout the world, and on the subjects of divine authority and holy writ, America now stands as the most ambivalent sovereign. The debate among Americans over theism is therefore one of the most important debates the world currently knows. The American fundamentalist now enjoys the responsibility for halting the encroaching skepticism of cosmopolitan society, not just in America, but by extension and global influence, throughout the world. And the Moral Argument is perhaps one of the theist’s most important argumentative and rhetorical tools by which to accomplish this.

 

In this entry (Part 2) I provide a summary of the debate between Hitchens and Wilson. In part 1 of this series I explored one of Colin Turnbull’s anthropological narratives of the Ik people in order to wrestle with what it means to say morality is ‘innate.’  In Part 3, forthcoming, I will begin my analysis of the debate.  

 cs-lewis

Some of my readers might be a bit disappointed by Wilson’s literary and philosophical performance as displayed in the summary below. So I will seek to first show just how capable the Moral Argument is to stir and perplex. To accomplish this, I allow C.S. Lewis a brief moment to make the case.  It turns out, the Moral Argument can be offered with at least a small dose of empathy and cogency. 

 

C.S. Lewis’ chapter on animal pain, found in his book The Problem of Pain (1962), led to ‘The Inquiry’ of C.E.M. Joad, the head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of London.  The problem Lewis and Joad were considering is often understood to be ‘The’ problem for theism: the Problem of Evil.  Lewis and Joad tackle the Problem of Evil by way of a sub-question: how can an all powerful and all good God cause so much pain (‘evil’) in the non-sinful animal kingdom? Lewis concludes his reply to Dr. Joad’s inquiry with the Moral Argument:

 

I know that there are moments when the incessant continuity and desperate helplessness of what at least seems to be animal suffering make every argument for theism sound hollow, and when (in particular) the insect world appears to be Hell itself visibly in operation around us.  Then the old indignation, the old pity arises.  But how strangely ambivalent this experience is: I need not expound the ambivalence at much length, for I think I have done so elsewhere and I am sure that Dr Joad had long discerned it for himself.  If I regard this pity and indignation simply as subjective experiences of my own with no validity beyond their strength at the moment (which next moment will change), I can hardly use them as standards whereby to arraign the creation.  On the contrary, they become strong as arguments against God just in so far as I take them to be transcendent illumination to which creation must conform or be condemned. They are arguments against God only if they are themselves the voice of God.  The more Shelleyan, the more Promethean my revolt, the more surely it claims a divine sanction.  That the mere contingent Joad or Lewis, born in an area of secure and liberal civilization and imbibing from it certain humanitarian sentiments, should happen to be offended by suffering – what is that to the purpose? How will one base an argument for or against God on such an historical accident! (more…)

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Sphinn
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • StumbleUpon

The Moral Argument, Part 1



splash_02“Is what is pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved?” This was an unsettling enquiry for our world’s first democratic society. Equilibrium was restored through nothing short of Socrates’ execution.  But today, this is a question warmly embraced by the ambassadors of heaven.  The answer is now obvious:   because it is loved.

 

To put it in more fashionable terms: a human action is moral only because God thinks it moral. And God is entitled to his opinions on this subject. His own immutable triune personhood is the very fount and standard of all we can rightfully call good, right, beautiful and just. The Almighty has, as the epistemologists say, “special access” to the relevant facts.

 

No matter what the growing body of evidence suggests about the relation between morality and religion – no matter how horrible God’s character might at times seem to be, how harsh his dictates, how petty and arbitrary his rule, cruel his command of exclusion, condemnation, and genocide – the debate is over as soon as it begins: religion provides the only sufficient standard for morality. Sure, God ordered his chosen people to slaughter all the unarmed women and children in a non-threatening neighboring community. This is of absolutely no consequence to issues of morality; without this God, there would be no such thing as right and wrong anyway.

 

Anti-theist Christopher Hitchens winces and then stares knowingly at this new confident Euthypro; with gate relaxed, his cheeks droop and swagger with defiance.  With his own brand of cavalier authority, Hitchens then  pronounces the truth that any half-wit mammal already knows: morality is “innate.” “I just don’t see what the big deal is,” Hitchens retorted while interviewed with Douglas Wilson on CBN.  

 

Well, is there a big deal? This is one question I want to explore. Does the non-theist have a basis for a robust moral claim? And while we are enquiring: Does the theist have a basis for a robust moral claim as he or she supposes?  And a third question arises: even if we were to grant a moral claim to  the non-theist, what then do we do with Hitchen’s ferocious pronouncements and censorial judgments against the immorality of the Christian faith? The inescapability of solidarity in human communities is one thing; the new atheism’s sermonic roasting of the poor Christian’s conscience is another. On the face of it, this at least seems to be a big deal.

 

Canon Press has recently published a debate between Wilson and Hitchens, splash_041also web published at Christianity Today.   As any good professing presuppositionalist would do, Wilson centers the debate on a neo-Van Tillian version of the moral argument. I plan to offer an analysis of this debate and in time get on to seeking some answers for the questions above. For now, I want to challenge Hitchens’ elegant claim that morality is simply “innate.” 

 

This claim reminded me of Colin Turnbull’s The Mountain People. During the time of my monastic career in the Kirk, Peter Leithart assigned Turnbull’s book as mandatory reading for his year-long theology class at New St. Andrews College.  Systematic theology, Leithart explained, does not do as good a job as Turnbull’s anthropology in illuminating the true nature of sin.  

 

Turnbull lived among a small group of “mountain people”, called the ‘Ik’, for two years in the mountains separating northern Uganda, Sudan and Kenya. (more…)

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Sphinn
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • StumbleUpon