Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Great God Debate: Criticism of Hitchens

As I said in my previous post, I got to see Christopher Hitchens live at the Back Bay Events Center, debating Rabbi David Wolpe, which he's done a number of times before.  It was certainly worth it; I heard this conversation as I was sitting down:

Person 1:  "Where do you want to sit?"  (It was General Admission)
Person 2:  "I don't care, anywhere is better than YouTube!"

Certainly true.  Out of the four horsemen, I think Hitchens is the one I enjoy listening to most.

It wasn't a traditional debate with time limits and strict protocol, more of a conversation with the two panelists.  Tom Ashbrook from NPR was the moderator, and was pretty good with his questions, not showing any favoritism or softball questions to either panelist.  He had some trouble controlling the conversation, but who can really control Hitchens?

Most of the conversation was pretty standard stuff we see and hear from Wolpe and Hitchens.  Wolpe was unconvincing; Hitchens was on point most of the night, and mostly made Wolpe look pretty wishy-washy and non-committal.  But rather than go on and on about how great Hitchens was (and he was), I'd rather talk about a few points I think Hitchens could have stronger on.

First, Wolpe puts out a ridiculously juvenile argument about free will.  He basically asked Hitchens how he could decide to pick up the glass of water in front of him without free will.  Regardless of whether you believe we have free will or not (I don't, in any meaningful sense of the phrase), this example is complete nonsense.  How do dogs decide to drink water from their bowls without free will?  If your picking up of a glass requires free will, then so does this action.

Hitchens, unfortunately, doesn't really address his argument at all, and says, when asked whether we have free will: "We have free will because we have no other choice."  Great line, but it seems meaningless to me.  I was disappointed this argument wasn't addressed more.

The second problem was when Wolpe brought up the fact that religious people seem to do more good in the world (give more to charity, etc.).  Hitchens started by rightfully pointing out that while the charity is good, it's offset by a lot of negative actions as well (child abuse, undermining education).  But Hitchens also brought up his challenge, which most of us are familiar with:  "Name a moral action that a religious person can do, that a non-religious person cannot."  This is a good argument for the case that non-religious people are capable of being just as moral as religious people (or more so), but it didn't address Wolpe's point, that religious people are doing more good deeds in practice.  Also, when he present the corollary to his challenge: "Name a terrible that can be done in the name of religion," Wolpe pointed out that as humans we all have the same essential capability to do both good and bad, and religion has nothing to do with it, and came across well after this exchange.

While I spent a little time being critical of Hitchens, he dominated the debate overall, and was very well received.  His wit and rhetoric are always entertaining, but he got his points across very clearly throughout the night (other than the examples I mentioned above).  He certainly got the biggest applause breaks, which was slightly surprising given that the event was hosted by the New Center for Arts and Culture, which is a Jewish organization.

There is supposed to be a video online in a couple of weeks, which I'll post if I can find it.  I'll also write a post about the encounters I had outside the Back Bay Events Center (take a guess what type of people were out there).


  1. "How do dogs decide to drink water from their bowls without free will? If your picking up of a glass requires free will, then so does this action"

    That is superb. So simple, so obvious. I wish I'd tought of it. Thanks.

  2. Good points all around.

    Regarding the issue on whether religious people are more active in terms of acts of charity and good will, I often wonder about the motivations behind such acts (not amongst all, but certainly some). Choosing to perform good deeds because the bible tells you to do it (especially for fear of eternal fire) doesn't seem to be a very sincere or moral action at all. I would argue that someone like Mother Teresa had absolutely no concern for the well-being of the poor and sick, that her main M.O. was to create more Catholics - even if they were children with AIDS, at least they'd be Catholic children with AIDS.

    As to free will...I'm with you on Hitch's not-quite-evasion of the question. Perhaps it's one best suited to Dennet or Harris.