Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Hitchens vs. Wilson, post-King's College Debate Interview

  • Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson: Post-debate interview with David Sessions and Alisa Harris, editors of Patrol Magazine
  • October 29, 2008, The King's College

    HITCHENS: It's a pleasure for me to debate with someone who quite literally is a Christian, in other words, is a Bible-believing, takes it all, as it were—I hope you wouldn't mind my saying—literally, because I very often find in debates with the religious that, as I did at a Templeton event which some of your students came to recently, I was debating a Catholic...

    SESSIONS: Yeah, I was at [indecipherable]...

    HITCHENS: I was debating a Catholic Monsignor. Well you saw, he really wouldn't stick up for his faith at all.

    SESSIONS: Right.

    HITCHENS: He was as close to being secular as you could be so I couldn't attack what I know Catholic doctrine to be because he wouldn't stick up for it.

    SESSIONS: Right, it seemed [indecipherable]...

    HITCHENS: Whereas with Douglas Wilson there's no such problem; he's the real deal. So that is relatively uncommon for me to find someone who would do that.

    SESSIONS: So who would you say is the most formidable Christian you've ever discussed with? Where does Douglas [indecipherable]?

    HITCHENS: Well, pretty high. This is only our first, we haven't done a formal set piece debate yet, this is more like a town hall. But of others who I've debated with, Dinesh D'Souza, who I debated with under auspices of The King's as a matter of fact, the New York Society for Ethical Culture a while back, is very good. He's very learned and he has a much better understanding of the atheist position. He could, I'm sure, if he was asked to do it for a wager, he could probably make an atheist speech that would persuade you. About that I'm not so sure with Douglas Wilson, that he understands what my position is. I actually got some indication today that he doesn't. But believe me, as we travel around in the next couple of days he bloody well is going to find out.

    SESSIONS: Just to sort of revisit that question, that morality question: It's obviously, to the Christian audience, it's something that really sticks with them.

    HITCHENS: Yes.

    SESSIONS: They have to have an answer on it.

    HITCHENS: Sure.

    SESSIONS: You seem like a little bit more ok with saying, "Well, it's ok if we aren't sure about that," or "We're"—it doesn't seem like it's as crucial a definition for you. Is that correct, or...?

    HITCHENS: The fact that our species, and not only our species (by the way because other animals manifest it too), does demonstrate concern for others above and beyond ourselves. That's commonly thought to be what morality consists of is caring about other people or other creatures. Other creatures do it and we do too. There is no mystery about this in my view; it is not a gift from God. To call it that is to make an uninteresting claim. What does that prove if it's true? It would seem to me to have the implication that there's no need to strive for morality since it comes, as it were, free from Paradise. I don't think it does. So—but if you take my materialist explanation for its origins then there's nothing left unexplained; that would explain all the, what otherwise are ridiculous inconsistencies. How come that we're made in the image of God but that we're only partly moral? Ok, that's a mystery for you. It's a pain that you've invented for yourselves that you could do without. Just forget it. You don't have to worry about that anymore. So it's a pointless, sterile proposition.


    HARRIS: Ok, Dr. Wilson my first question is if you had to pick one argument for the existence of God, what do you think would be the most strongest argument and the most persuasive argument and which argument would be the weakest for the existence of God?

    WILSON: For the existence of—I guess I would object to the supposition that's in that because I believe everyone knows the existence of God innately already and so the best—if that's true, then what's the best argument given the suppression of that truth that will persuade people to stop repressing that? I would say the most persuasive is the resurrection of Christ from the dead. So many apologists speak as though the resurrection needs to be proven but the New Testament speaks of the resurrection as the proof.

    HARRIS: Ok.

    WILSON: Jesus is the God. He was declared with power to be the son of God by His resurrection from the dead as it says in Roman 1:4 or in Acts 17, God is given proof of this to all men by raising Jesus from the dead. So in the New Testament, the resurrection is the proof and so I would say that's the declaration from that is what's caused the church to grow in advance. Now most people are not principled atheists, so the resurrection is far more compelling to them than it is to someone like Christopher Hitchens.

    HARRIS: Principled? What do you mean by principled?

    WILSON: Where they would say, "I deny the existence of God and here are my reasons."

    HARRIS: Ok.

    WILSON: Most people don't get that far. They just don't think about it.

    HARRIS: They don't think about it.

    WILSON: Right. And so when trouble arises in their life and they want gospel or good news you preach the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and that's compelling. Jesus said when He's lifted up on the cross He would lift all men, He'd draw all men to himself. Well that's compelling. It's not a traditional logical argument, but it's convincing.

    HARRIS: Kind of along those lines, do you think debates about the existence of God, debates about morality, do you think they are debates that interest most Americans or are they of interest to academics and theologians?

    WILSON: No, I think there has to be a very broad interest in this given how the books by the latest wave militant atheists are selling. Dawkins is a bestseller; Hitchens is a bestseller; Sam Harris is a bestseller. And then on the Christian side the responses have gotten a lot of attention and response and debates like this draw people. It's a big draw. So I think it's very much on America's mind.

    HARRIS: Yeah, more so than it has been, or...?

    WILSON: Yes, I'd say more.

    HARRIS: And what would be the reasons for that?

    WILSON: This is my own theory, but I believe that—I attribute the latest wave of atheist fervor (militant atheism) to panic. It's starting to strike them that conservative evangelical Christianity might actually win, that the secular progressive agenda might not sustain itself and I think they're upset at that and they've decided to counterattack. In previous generations in previous eras, Christians would be patronized, you know, the secular elitist people would pat us on our head: "You believe in God and that's fine, just, you know, be a good little boy." Now, religion poisons everything. It's a very militant, anti-theist position, not just, "I don't believe it myself."

    HARRIS: So you would credit it with the growth of the writings with the influence of Christianity?

    WILSON: Yes, very much so. And it's striking that two out of the three leaders, Dawkins and Hitchens, are European, or they're English. You know, American Christians see America as, you know, sliding into a secular perdition, but to Europeans we're a raving, right-wing, puritan, you know. And so they come over and they go, "Yikes!" that's part of what I think causes them to react the way that they do.

    HARRIS: Another question: You have a classical education and teach at a classical school so you're aware of the classical arguments for the existence of God. Are there new arguments for the existence of God or are there—have most of them been outlined and put forth years ago?

    WILSON: Most of the traditional arguments were outlined by Thomas Aquinas and summarized and there are—some of them are kinda fishy, like the ontological argument. Some are pretty standard: the cosmological argument or the teleological argument. Arguments from design are pretty standard and are still serviceable in a lot of ways. But one of the things that I do in my debates with atheists is I argue presuppositionally and that is a form of argumentation established by Cornelius van Till in the last century, in the twentieth century and that really is a new argument for God's existence, a new argument for the integrity of the Christian faith. So the presuppositional argument or the transcendental argument for God's existence which is everybody has to assume God in order to affirm or deny him.

    HARRIS: Ok, and did that come up, the presuppositionalist argument, did that come up in today's debate?

    WILSON: Yes. When I kept asking him, "By what standard, where are you standing when you make the claims that you do? You're borrowing from the Christian faith in order to attack the Christian faith." So all the illustrations of you're getting into our car and driving it were a form of presuppositional argumentation.

  • Read more at Patrol Mag
  • More Hitch/Wilson
  • The debate with the Catholic Monsignor to which Hitch referred in the opening paragraph can be seen here
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