Monday, September 15, 2008

Thoughts on the Hitchens Debate

Last Tuesday, a number of us went to a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Frank Turek. The United Secular Alliance at VCU did a great job in organizing and hosting the debate, even though they ended up with far more people than they expected, so props to them. A couple people who attended the event already blogged about it, so you can read about their impressions here, here, and here. (I'm a little late on the bandwagon.)

The topic of debate was "Does God exist?" (I'm pretty sure it was God with a capital G.) I think many Theists and Atheists would agree that this is not a very fun topic to debate. For one, it's been done to death. Arguments for God's existence have been hurled around for millienia, and people have been arguing against them for just as long. For another, most theists and atheists would agree that faith, not reason is the basis for their belief in God, so what's the point in having a debate?

This second point is illustrated in Frank Turek's arguments. His opening statement consisted of these arguments for the existence of God:

1. The universe came into existence out of nothing./Something can't come from nothing./Therefore, something that is timeless, spaceless, and massless created the universe.

2. The astronomical constants necessary for a universe that supports life are very exact./The probability that these constants occur in our universe is infinitesimally low./Therefore, something intelligent fine-tuned these constants to support life.

3. Objective morality exists./No human has the authority to dictate what morality is./Therefore, someone (?) morally good dictated what objective morality is.

But I think that if you were to ask Turek, outside the debate, why he believes in God, he wouldn't give you these arguments. I'm assuming that Turek didn't one day read about the Big Bang theory in a science book and thought, "Wow! I should start believing in God now!" I bet, if he was truthful, he would answer, "I believe in God because of my personal faith." Fine. But to come up with reasons for the existence of God, you'd have to assume certain things that aren't universally agreed upon, and engage in circular reasoning. (Rudy Henkel does a good job of refuting Turek here)

Hitchen's opening statement, which was not supposed to address any of Turek's arguments, but only to lay out his own, basically started out by mocking some elements of Catholic dogma, pointing out the inconsistencies. Limbo used to be where unbaptized babies went, until the Pope got rid of it. Like in his book "God is Not Great," Hitchens talks about how immoral organized religion can be. His bottom line was not that "God does not exist" but that religion makes us all slaves and it's better to not believe in God. Turek did point out (and rightly so) that Hitchens did not argue about the debate topic, but he did spend some time on how there are many religions with conflicting truth claims and no evidence for the truth claims of any one particular religion. But neither did Turek try to refute any of Hitchen's points.

At this point, it was clear that Turek and Hitchens were talking to different audiences. I'd fault Hitchens for not sticking to the topic, except rarely. But I found it interesting that Turek conceded pretty much all of Hitchen's points about religious people being immoral while still clinging onto the argument that morality was evidence for the existence of God. In addition to argument #3 above, Turek made this argument: Atheists believe that people are solely comprised of molecules and chemicals (benzene and carbon were his favorite examples)./Molecules and chemicals don't have morality./Therefore, atheists can't explain where morality comes from. (But theists can explain that morality comes from God, therefore God exists?)

Hitchens clearly lost the debate through lack of trying. I was disappointed that when he did try to address Turek's points, he did so in a very unclear, roundabout way. For instance, I think he tried to explain that the lack of an alternative explanation to "God did it" indicates a lack of knowledge, not the existence of God. But Hitchens didn't go on to explain why "God did it" is a terrible way to decrease the amount of stuff we don't know about life, the universe, and everything.

I enjoyed listening to both sides talk--Hitchens was funny and verbally abusing as usual. Turek was more coherent and well-mannered than I expected. However, it was not a good debate. And one audience member very aptly pointed out that there was little chance either one would have convinced members of the audience to reject their preconcieved notions. I think atheists have a harder time convincing general audiences that God does not exist, because general audiences are mostly Christian and because scientific reasoning is not widely understood. But that doesn't mean that atheists should shy away from those debates and preach to their own choir, instead.

Tl;dr: Debate was entertaining. Turek made some circular/non-sequitur arguments. Hitchens was hilarious and verbally abusive but off-topic.

Edit: More debate blogging from Nicole here and here.


Jordan Wade said...

I think Hitchens' did two things appropriately:

1) He placed the burden of proof where it belongs -- on the one supporting the hypothesis.

2) Didn't argue that there is no God, Only argued that the hypothesis is not well supported. (Reinforcing #1)

After doing these two things, Hitchens filled up the time with something he's good at -- entertaining.

I couldn't have asked for more.

Nicole said...

Late to the party... sorry, my feed link was wrong in Google Reader!

Now, Hitchens said that the hypothesis for God is not well supported, however, he didn't elaborate to my satisfaction. Turek's abuse of science was clear and easy to refute... well I say that naively because any refutation would be ignored by a true-believer.

So they were not well matched in that Turek tried to focus on science and Hitchens on morality. Hitchens DID call him out on that, differentiating between deism and theism, but as Dee pointed out, Turek was contradictory on that.

Also, good point, Dee, that the debate question itself is more or less useless, and that Turek does not believe because of his reasons. I'd rather see Hitchens debate a more concrete topic.

I finally watched the video of Hitchens debating Rabbi Boteach... pretty awesome. (Yes, I'm months behind!)

Brian said...

Full MP3 Audio of the debate between Christopher Hitchens and Frank Turek can be found here at