Theologian Douglas Wilson and atheist Christopher Hitchens, authors whose books are already part of a larger debate on whether religion is pernicious, agreed to discuss their views on whether Christianity itself has benefited the world. Below is their exchange, one in a series that will appear on our website over the course of this month.
Douglas Wilson is author of Letter from a Christian Citizen, senior fellow of theology at New Saint Andrews College, and minister at Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho. He is also the editor of Credenda/Agenda magazine and has written (among other things) Reforming Marriage and A Serrated Edge: A Brief Defense of Biblical Satire and Trinitarian Skylarking. His Blog and Mablog site inevitably makes for provocative reading.
Christopher Hitchens wrote, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Twelve Books). Hitchens is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and a visiting professor of liberal studies at the New School. He is the author of numerous books, Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, Thomas Paine's "Rights of Man," Letters To a Young Contrarian, and Why Orwell Matters. He was named, to his own amusement, number five on a list of the "Top 100 Public Intellectuals" by Foreign Policy and Britain's Prospect.
From: Christopher Hitchens
To: Douglas Wilson
Subject: Is Christianity Good for the World?
This is mildly amusing casuistry whichaside from its recommendation of Wodehousecontains nothing that distinguishes it from Islam or Hinduism or indeed humanism. Were I a Christian, I would be highly unsettled by the huge number of concessions that Wilson makes. Since I am not a Christian, I mutter a mild "thank you" for his admission that morality has nothing at all to do with the supernatural. My book argues that religious belief has now become purely optional and cannot be mandated by anything revealed or anything divine. It is one among an infinite number of private "faiths," which do not disturb me in the least as long as its adherents agree to leave me alone.
Since Wilson does not even attempt to persuade me that Christ died for my sins (and can yet vicariously forgive them) or that I am the object of a divine design or that any of the events described in the two Testaments actually occurred or that extreme penalties will attend any disagreement with his view, I am happy to leave our disagreement exactly where it is: as one of the decreasingly interesting disputes between those who cling so tentatively to man-made "Holy Writ" and those who have no need to consult such texts in pursuit of truth or beauty or an ethical life. The existence or otherwise of an indifferent cosmos (the overwhelmingly probable state of the case) would no more reduce our mutual human obligations than would the quite weird theory of a celestial dictatorship,whether Aztec or Muslim or (as you seem to insist) Christian. The sole difference is that we would be acting out of obligation toward others out of mutual interest and sympathy but without the impulse of terrifying punishment or selfish reward. Some of us can handle this thought and some, evidently, cannot. I have a slight suspicion as to which is more moral.
On a recent visit to Arkansas, I ran into a huge billboard near the Little Rock airport which simply said "JESUS." This struck me as saying too much as well as too little, and I had almost forgotten it until Wilson's evasions brought it back to mind.
* * *
From: Douglas Wilson
To: Christopher Hitchens
Re: Is Christianity Good for the World?
I am glad that you found my response mildly amusing. I am also grateful we share an appreciation for Wodehouse. And I am extremely glad that you would like me to begin talking about the death of Christ for sinwhich I fully intend to do. But the pattern the New Testament gives us is to address the need for repentance first and then to talk about the need for faith in Christ as Savior. Within the boundaries of our discussion, repentance would be necessary because you have embraced the internal contradictions of atheism, all for the sake of avoiding God (Rom. 1:21; Ps. 14:1-2). So we will get to the gospel, but I am afraid I am going to have to ask you to hold your horses.
So, back to the business at hand, the business of intellectual repentance. Dismissing something as casuistry is not the same thing as a demonstration of casuistry, and refusing to answer questions because the other guy is being evasive is quite a neat trick if you can pull it off.
I am afraid you misconstrued my acknowledgement thatwith regard to public civic lifeatheists can certainly behave in a moral manner. My acknowledgement was not that morality has nothing to do with the supernatural, as you represented, but rather that morality has nothing to do with the supernatural if you want to be an inconsistent atheist. Here is that point again, couched another way and tied into our topic of debate.
Among many other reasons, Christianity is good for the world because it makes hypocrisy a coherent concept. The Christian faith certainly condemns hypocrisy as such, but because there is a fixed standard, this makes it possible for sinners to fail to meet it or for flaming hypocrites to pretend that they are meeting it when they have no intention of doing so. Now my question for you is this: Is there such a thing as atheist hypocrisy? When another atheist makes different ethical choices than you do (as Stalin and Mao certainly did), is there an overarching common standard for all atheists that you are obeying and which they are not obeying? If so, what is that standard and what book did it come from? Why is it binding on them if they differ with you? And if there is not a common objective standard which binds all atheists, then would it not appear that the supernatural is necessary in order to have a standard of morality that can be reasonably articulated and defended?
So I am not saying you have to believe in the supernatural in order to live as a responsible citizen. I am saying you have to believe in the supernatural in order to be able to give a rational and coherent account of why you believe yourself obligated to live this way. In order to prove me wrong here, you must do more than employ words like "casuistry" or "evasions"you simply need to provide that rational account. Given atheism, objective morality follows how?
The Christian faith is good for the world because it provides the fixed standard which atheism cannot provide and because it provides forgiveness for sins, which atheism cannot provide either. We need the direction of the standard because we are confused sinners. We need the forgiveness because we are guilty sinners. Atheism not only keeps the guilt, but it also keeps the confusion.
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Hitchens' God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, Thomas Paine's "Rights of Man," Letters To a Young Contrarian, and Why Orwell Matters; and Wilson's Letter from a Christian Citizen, Reforming Marriage, and A Serrated Edge: A Brief Defense of Biblical Satire and Trinitarian Skylarking are available from Amazon.com and other retailers.
Wilson's Blog and Mablog has posts in response to God is Not Great, as well as other topics.
Hitchensweb.com has links to Hitchens' online articles.
Hitchens debated Al Sharpton on May 7.
Books & Culture articles about Hitchens and Wilson include:
Can You Reason with Christians? | A response to Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation. (May 7, 2007)
Christopher Hitchens Explains It All for You | Move over, Sam Harris; another atheist wants the pulpit. (Books & Culture, April 30, 2007)
Book of the Week: Strange Bedfellows | Christopher Hitchens and Christopher Caldwell collaborate on a collection of political writing. Has the millennium arrived unnoticed? (Books & Culture, January 27, 2003)
Uncompromising Positions | Hitchens and Orwell (Books & Culture, November 1, 2002)
Mr. Wilson's Bookshelf | "Wayfaring Stranger" (Books & Culture, November 17, 2006)
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