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Thursday, August 5, 2010

Is Christianity Good for the World? by Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson

Hitchens vs. Wilson

With an introduction by Jonah Goldberg (author of Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning), this 67 page book consists of six rounds in a debate over the topic "Is Christianity Good?"

Since Is Christianity Good for the World? has used the term "round" to describe the turns that each authors take, I will follow that lead and treat the book like a boxing match.

In this corner, we have the political conservative, political commentator and well-known atheist author of such books as God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, undoubtedly the smartest man in the room in whatever room he wanders into...Christopher Hitchens.

In the other corner, we have pastor, college instructor and author of such books as God Is, How Christianity Explains Everything and Letter from a Christian Citizen...Douglas Wilson.

Round One

Hitchens steps out first with a barrage of attacks on Christianity in general, none of them addressing the thesis (Is Christianity Good for the World?) head on, but clearly intended to give his opponent too many topics to deal with so that his response will be confused. His arguments include the following: Christianity did not create the idea "Love thy Neighbor" - all societies teach this basic morality anyway, the 10 Commandments introduced no new legal thoughts and the Good Samaritan in the parable was not Christian so even one of Christianity's most precious stories has no grounding in Christian behavior -the Samaritan was not Christian. He also attacks the idea that Moses or Jesus actually lived, and if they did it would not matter since God himself is immoral for ordering "genocide, slavery, genital mutilation, and other horrors." (p. 23) Christianity also needs to take responsibility for the good and the bad in its history.

Wilson responds with a logic question - if all societies teach this basic morality, and all societies have religions and religion is bad than are societies basically moral or not? Secondly, he notes that Christianity was not another delivery of "new and improved law" (p. 26) so Hitchens' arguments about morality are largely beside the point. Wilson makes a point that is especially weak in this first round but will apply later on - why should Hitchens care about the actions of the past? His strongest argument is his ending argument, although not completely framed: "Given your atheism, what account are you able to give that would require us to respect the individual?" (p. 29) This is a reference, I suppose, to the idea of God-given rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence.

Results: Round One - Hitchens gets it on points

Round Two

Hitchens barely comes out of his corner to fight - only two pages and his best argument is that the atheist helps his fellow man out of "mutual interest and sympathy"(p. 32) while the religious person does it out of fear of punishment or desire for reward. (personal note: Hitchens shows a misunderstanding of Christian teaching with this argument)

Wilson has a two page response but he brings up his best argument - Christianity creates a fixed standard with which one can judge behavior, thus making hypocrisy possible. Atheism has no fixed standard, so Wilson asks: "Is there such a thing as atheist hypocrisy?" (p.34)

Results: Wilson wins on points

Round Three

Hitchens repeats arguments from the first round, takes offense at a verse from Psalms that Wilson did not mention, mis-quotes the parable of the Samaritan, compares Czarist Russia (with its Orthodox Church support) as being hardly any better than Stalinist Russia and points out that societies free from direct religious control are generally better off than theocracies. He does not answer Wilson's direct questions from last round

Wilson corrects Hitchens' translation from Psalms and explains the point of the Parable of the Samaritan. Wilson also notes that Hitchens keeps saying that all societies know the 10 Commandments (at least the human to human parts such as not killing and stealing despite the fact we have a history full of exactly that sort of stuff in every society throughout history - "the problem is that ancient man didn't know that, and modern man still doesn't know it." (p.39) Wilson asks if "atheism provides any rational basis for rational condemnation when others" do "vile things," while Christianity does (p.40). He expounds on that point for two pages in his best argument in the debate.

Results: Wilson knock Hitchens to the canvas

Round four

Hitchens stays off topic and goes into a barrage of attacks on religion in general (Islam in particular on p. 45). He points out, again, that other religions and cultures have created some of the same ideas as Christianity. He begins to address Wilson's argument about atheism and behavior standards in his last line of the argument with a nice (but too lengthy to fully quote here) line about using religion as your standard "is a degradation of our right and duty to choose for ourselves." (p.46)

Wilson returns to his arguments from round three and defuses Hitchens' last argument. He drifts off into a bit of evangelism but mostly he sticks to his best argument.

Results: Wilson on points

Round Five

Hitchens concedes that he was incorrect about the Parable of the Samaritan and then pouts, "It's not a very impressive parable to begin with." (p. 51) Hitchens finally stirs to life and brings up the problem of evil and the argument that Christianity tells "us we are created sick and then ordered to be well." (p. 54) He goes after Wilson's evangelism from the previous round. This is Hitchens' best round.

Wilson comes back strong with arguments about Hitchens' logic. He argues that Hitchens claims that people do the right thing but also "have an innate predisposition to both good and wicked behavior." (p. 55) Wilson wants to know the basis for even calling behaviors good or wicked. Page 55 is Wilson's single best page. The rest of the round is not nearly as impressive, except for the last line: "the two fundamental points of true atheism. One: There is no God. Two: I hate Him." (p. 58)

Results: split decision on this round. The best for both

Round Six

Hitchens finally answers Wilson's question with a question (why is Christianity the standard of behavior?) and an answer - morality has evolved over time. The standard of right and wrong is what we have come to by learning and experience. "Religion...has made many morally normal people assent to appalling cruelties." (p. 62)

Wilson responds, "If our morality evolved, then that means our morality changes...and that means everything we consider to be 'moral' is really up for grabs" (p. 63-4) There is no fixed standard for anything. Wilson finally gets to deliver the punch that he'd been lining up since the first round.

Results: this round goes to Wilson.

I've got 1 round as a tie, 1 for Hitchens, 4 for Wilson.

Get the book for yourself and see if you agree with my assessment.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on December 28, 2009.

Other works referenced in this review:

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