I’d like to say a few things about two very prominent people in the modern debate over religion and anti-theism. They are Christopher Hitchens and Alistair McGrath.
I’ve been meaning to write about Hitchens for a while now, but after watching his recent debate with McGrath on YouTube, I wanted to comment on both of them. (This article will be more effective if you watch all 11 parts of the debate first.)
Christopher Hitchens is a true intellectual. After reading God Is Not Great (twice) and watching almost of all his debates, I see a man who very much knows what he’s talking about. He has a deep reservoir of literary, philosophical, cultural, and political knowledge to draw upon. He speaks with authority, and import. One of his fears is one that should never be realised: being boring. Listening to him speak at length is almost mesmerising. It is, for me, fascinating and intriguing.
The reason for this is actually quite simple: Hitchens is direct. He doesn’t mince his words. He doesn’t beat around the bush. He answers the questions put to him. You know where he is coming from. Even if you don’t agree with him, you can never accuse him of shirking a question or challenge. He doesn’t make unsupported or vacuous assertions. He backs each and every statement up with logical reasons or a reference to a historical or modern event. His cultural experience and familiarity with other peoples and cultures is matched only by his wit. When you listen to him, you feel like he imparting real wisdom. He communicates very effectively.
McGrath is an unusual character. There is something almost appealing about McGrath, and I think I can best describe it as innocence. He is probably a very nice person in everyday life. I can imagine myself liking McGrath if I heard him talk about something other than religion. Unfortunately, this is his chosen specialist subject, so it is this that I will judge him on.
I do not hear McGrath speak with authority. He speaks as one giving a sermon, than a speech. He does not argue, he preaches. It is as though, for McGrath, just to be on stage with the likes of Hitchens and Dawkins is the victory in itself. He is there because he claims to know the unknowable. Whereas Hitchens and Dawkins are experts in their field, and do not waste a single word, most of McGrath’s words are a waste of time, and his expertise is in theology, a topic which should not be considered a field in its own right.
One of McGrath’s problems it that he simply doesn’t answer the questions; he doesn’t address the issues, he avoids them. If he doesn’t know he’s doing it, he is deluded and mentally compartmentalised. If he does know he’s doing it, his skills are wasted as a theologian: he should be a politician.
And this is when he avoids the issues and doesn’t give meaningful answers, (which is most of the time). When he does attempt a proper answer it gets even worse. He proceeds from the assumption that the bible is god’s word. He talks about the authority of Jesus to speak and say the things he did. He misses the rather glaring point that why should Jesus need any authority to speak good advice and brotherly love. Are the egregiously factual and historical contradictions of the NT unknown to him?
I think McGrath sees public debate as a forum to preach his personal beliefs instead of answering the problems of his faith.
At one point he admits that he doesn’t recognise the charge of celestial dictator levelled at god by Hitchens, but can see where Hitchens is coming from. I’m sorry, what?! You can understand why somebody might believe god to be a celestial dictator, but not agree with them? Is there that much confusion and doubt about god’s personality that McGrath can sympathise with those who think god is a cruel figurehead in the ultimate totalitarian regime?
McGrath acknowledges the truism that just because we might wish something to be true, doesn’t make it so. He then adds the self-evident extraneous tautology that just because we wish something to be true, also doesn’t mean that it’s false. Well, yes, Alistair, very true, but what’s your point? McGrath not only wastes his time, he wastes everyone else’s too.
He suggests (for McGrath never says anything of certainty, but rather dilly-dallies and prefixes or suffixes every important statement with “perhaps”, “maybe”, “it seems to me”, “in some way” etc), that atheism is another form of wishful thinking. Perhaps he forgets that the majority of people in the world don’t believe in his particular version of Skydaddy; perhaps he forgets that the burden of proof is on him? If atheism requires faith, so does believing that Santa doesn’t exist.
McGrath admits that it’s strange that so many people haven’t heard the gospel. He says this might be unfair, but in regions where the gospel hasn’t been heard, people will be judged on how they’ve acted to the best of their knowledge. Well, isn’t that what good moral people do anyway? So, what is the point of the gospel? Why not judge people based on what they actually do, instead of what they believe, like we do in any enlightened modern secular society?
McGrath also makes the incredibly transparent faux pas of saying that Jesus’ ransom sacrifice and the subsequent possibility of salvation by god is an OFFER, and god does not impose this on us. Did McGrath think Hitchens would not pick up on this?? Needless to say, Hitchens does. Hitchens plainly points out the notion of hell; of infinite punishment for finite sins. McGrath, in customary fashion, has nothing to say in reply.
When asked about the horror and cruelty in the Old Testament, McGrath again says he must see it through the eyes of his Christianity. In other words, he says less than nothing. His words are valueless. McGrath waxes religiously about “progressive revelation” but I have no idea what this means and I suspect neither does he. What matters is that once again he talks and talks and says nothing; what about the horror and cruelty in the OT? How does McGrath reconcile that? We are left to wonder, because McGrath doesn’t tell us what he thinks.
McGrath obfuscates and equivocates; he equates the search for god with a search for deeper answers, philosophical truths, and metaphysical questions. He conveniently ignores the reality that religion does not start with questions or searches. Religion starts with answers. Religion starts with THE answer: ‘god did it’, and works backwards.
McGrath also admits that his beliefs are a matter of faith and he cannot prove them. So why does he debate then? What does he have to offer? What expertise does he have? How can he expect to be taken seriously, when the very thing he is supposed to be debating about, he believes even although there isn’t a shred of evidence to support it? On what merit does he deserve to be on the same platform at a Hitchens or a Dawkins?
Hitchens argues that believing you are a messenger from god, a theist, a believer that there is an almighty being who favours you is the ultimate in selfish wishful thinking and solipsism. He claims it is arrogant and absurd because you are claiming to know what you cannot possibly know. What does McGrath have to say? Only that he doesn’t claim to have any special knowledge. But as usual with McGrath, this is just rhetorical irrelevant nonsense. He forgets again, or ignores again, that his beliefs require that he pretend to know things that he cannot possibly know.
In short, McGrath is a huge disappointment. He does not even compete with Hitchens. He has no credentials to debate over the subject at hand, but perhaps I cannot be too critical with him for this: the alchemist flushes when the chemistry professor walks into the room; the astrologist is mysteriously quiet when the astronomer shows up. The theologian huffs and puffs and excuses and preaches and blusters and whines, but anyone with an ounce of common sense can see him for what he is: an expert in the preposterous; one who pretends to know what he doesn’t have a clue about.
Nothing demonstrates the hollow falsity of religion better than that of the issue of morality. In conclusion, I will reiterate the Hitchens Challenge: “name an ethical statement made by a believer, or an ethical action, that couldn’t have been made by a non-believer.” The lack of an answer, or perhaps the inability to answer, by theists, speaks volumes.
With Hitchens you get clear, precise questions and clear, precise answers. He even says that he would be prepared to stay and debate for longer because “I won’t go, if someone can claim I didn’t answer a question.” And why shouldn’t he say this? He isn’t the one trying to square the circle. Another gem he quoted which I hadn’t heard before, from Einstein: “the miracle of the natural order is: there are no miracles.” In other words, miracles just don’t happen. There are no easy, lazy, stupid answers. There’s an explanation for everything. We don’t need to wrap our heads around supernatural beings. (Incidentally, McGrath never does respond to the question of whether god intervenes or not in world events.)
The world and the universe is exactly what we would expect to find if religion was FALSE; if we were an averagely-evolved mammalian species, recently appeared on the scene and for the most part, largely under-developed mentally. There is no mystery for the atheist. This all makes sense. There are no apologetics required. It is the theologians, like McGrath, who must embarrass themselves by dodging and weaving and equivocating, and trying to make sense of ancient Jewish bronze-age myths in a modern world that has long since stopped needing or wanting these ridiculous explanations.