Still, Wilson fares a little better than Rick Warren in this debate with Harris -- Harris pretty much eats Warren's lunch. This is partially because the Warren/Harris debate is a colossal mismatch; Warren does not, let's be honest, represent the most sophisticated or subtly nuanced form of belief. Isn't there someone out there who can not only match Harris in terms of intellectual horsepower but also do so with resorting to tired fundamentalist cliches in the process?
Even Voltaire was cagey about it; "If God did not exist it would have been necessary to invent him" is a pretty roundabout way of saying we probably invented him. Christianity has, ever since, had to continually re-package belief in modernistic terms, and the difficulty of this task is illustrated by the growing multitude of Christianities since the Reformation (the Reformation and the Enlightenment being rival children of Renaissance humanism).
One of Hitchen's points touches on this, when he argues that Christianity, if it is to claim credit for the good done by some of its adherents, it must also take responsibility for the nasty things done in its name (again, shades of Voltaire here, just to help put Hitchens on the map; he also, at one point, recapitulates a line of reasoning from Rousseau). And he has a point. Wilson's response is to say this is like holding a professor responsible for the stupidity of pupils who came late to class and skipped the final paper. It is true that some Christians like to give faith the credit for great discoveries made by people who happened to have been Christians. And there's clearly a certain logic to Hitchens' argument.
But first, let's look at Wilson's rebuttal: the "slacker student" argument suggests that the people who did nasty things in Jesus' name were bad Christians. I'll gladly add my voice to the chorus that wholesale slaughter, torture, deception, and oppression of Muslim forces (wait a second -- am I talking about the Iraq war or the Crusades? Sorry -- got confused for a second) is not really in the spirit of Jesus, and in fact flatly contradicts his teachings. By the same token, however, Buddhists claim that atrocities done in the name of the Buddha are not true to Buddhism; Muslims argue that violence in the name of Allah is not properly Muslim; Marxists argue that Stalin's brutal regime was not really the best example of Marxism, and so on.
In fact, what we're really saying is that, within whatever context we're operating, people who commit atrocities are not good people, which seems kind of redundant. Moreover, even if we might regard these folks as bad Christians, many of them were shining examples of the faith in their day. If we are going to argue that they misunderstood Jesus, then so did the rest of their culture, which was decidedly Christian.
Which brings me back to Hitchens' point. Of course most of the nasty things done in the West were done by Christians, and so were most of the things for which we are grateful, simply because for about a millennium and a half in the West everyone was a Christian by definition. In fact, we can go so far as to say that nearly every contribution to human society was made by a religious person, and nearly every atrocity was committed by a religious person, simply because well over 99% of anyone who has ever lived has been religious in some capacity.
People don't really need religion to be bad or to be good. They will use it, if it's available, but it is not a necessary condition for either extreme. They might need religion for other reasons, or at least like having it around, but religion's contribution to the human experience is something of a red herring, simply by virtue of its universality.
It's a bit like arguing that we should all have our appendixes taken out on the basis that people with them have done bad things, and then having someone make the counterargument that of course many wonderful and brilliant people have had extant appendixes (the proper plural, of course, is "appendices" but this seems confusing when one is speaking of the vestigial organ).
Hitchens should be arguing, if I may be so bold as to make the suggestion, that religion, like the appendix, once served a purpose but is no longer useful, or to push the metaphor further, that it is infected and about rupture, and should be removed forthwith. At this point it would become apparent that Hitchens and Wilson live in two very different conceptual worlds that no amount of mono y mono repartee is going to touch.
They get close to this when Wilson argues the necessity of some kind of transcendent referent to anchor our moral presentiments (my summary, not Wilson's). Hitchens invokes "innate human solidarity" as a basis for ethics. Wilson's challenge on this point is engaging:
"On what basis is innate human solidarity authoritative? If someone rejects innate human solidarity, are they being evil, or are they just a mutation in the inevitable changes that the evolutionary process requires? What is the precise nature of human solidarity? What is easier to read, the book of Romans or innate human solidarity? Are there different denominations that read the book of innate human solidarity differently? Which one is right? Who says?"This is not as absurd as Wilson wants to make it, but his worldview requires a positive absolute -- Something that explains everything else -- whereas Hitchens' requires a kind of negative absolute -- nothing that can't be verified. What he almost concedes in the wording of his question is that each of these questions can be asked of God, or whatever Transcendent Reality you wish to invoke.
Anchoring our ethical considerations in such a Transcendent Reality only works if our Transcendent Reality happens to the only right one. Where I come from, this is a variant of ethnocentrism. It is attractive to have God on your side in a moral argument, but it simply doesn't hold up: we need God because we can't agree on morality. Fine. But if we can't agree on God, are we really any better off?
[At this point, re-reading this, two things occur to me: one, it's too long, and you've long ago lost interest and are now just being polite. Two, it sounds like I'm saying I could argue atheism better than Hitchens, which seems odd.]
Finally, the very pretext of the debate, "Is Christianity Good for the World?", is unfair to Wilson from the start, and I'll point out that Christianity Today framed the debate in those terms. If Skeptic had offered a similar debate, the savvy Christian polemicist would have declined, or demanded a re-orientation of the terms. Because ostensibly, the argument here is about truth, and not about the pragmatic value of worldviews.
If Christianity (of the variety we are discussing here) is true, does it matter if it is good for the world? Does the truth have to be good for the world? What if the truth is something grim, or something we can't handle, or something utterly bizarre and inexplicable? The terms of the debate presume a kind of pragmatism that is ultimately more congenial to the atheist than the believer.
The world is not going to come to Jesus en masse in a global revival. In most Christian theologies it take some kind of cosmic cataclysm for every knee to bow and every tongue to confess. Even if that kind of Christianity is true, we're not all going to accept it. Likewise atheism. Even if there is absolutely no God, or nothing for which God-language might be an appropriate approximation, we are not all going to throw off the chains of religion and breathe the rarefied air of scientific rationalism. Nor are we going to march into an Aquarian age of spiritual enlightenment.
Most likely, we're going to keep on muddling through, regardless of what may or may not be true. Sometimes we'll find it, sometimes we won't. These questions go all the way down to the ontological bone, and really, they have no answers. The existence of God is not something on which we can hold court. Whatever is, simply is. Neither belief nor unbelief is an inherent form of intellectual sloppiness, though such sloppiness abounds on both sides (and in this essay).
Hitchens' weakness, as is pointed out in more than one review of his work, is that he is picking on what is today a minority view of God, if a powerful voice in American culture and politics, and one that often prides itself in a kind of anti-intellectualism that makes it an easy target. Wilson, to be sure, is a cogent thinker, but doesn't seem able to see past the contours of his own thinking (and neither, to be fair, does Hitchens, and then again, are any of us?), and he's working with material that is a priori flawed from the perspective of scientific rationalism.
Hitchens' straw-man arguments are only justifiable because he didn't have to create the straw man himself -- fundamentalism supplies them in abundance. Knocking them down, ironically, then becomes evidence that the other side "doesn't get it" and serves as proof of human depravity. Or in other words, they take defeat to be victory, which if you think about it (and I'm going to be hopeless misunderstood, I fear) means that at least in this one instance, they manage to be true to the .