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Debate between John Lennox and Christopher Hitchens at the 2008 Edinburgh International Festival

Short Report

The event was held in Usher Hall, one of Edinburgh’s largest indoor venues and the organisers estimated that there were around 1,400 people attending the debate. The motion that The New Europe Should Prefer the New Atheism, was debated by Christopher Hitchens (Social commentator and author of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything) and John Lennox (Oxford University Lecturer and author of God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?). An initial show of hands showed that the audience was quite evenly split (with perhaps a very slight advantage to those opposing the motion) and that there was a good proportion (perhaps 20%) of people who were undecided.

The format of the debate was 15 minutes for opening statements (with Hitchens going first) followed by 5 minutes each for rebuttals. There was then 30 minutes of questions from the floor followed by a 5 minute concluding remark from each of the speakers (With Lennox going first this time). The debate was moderated expertly by James Naughtie, a well-known radio 4 presenter.

The final result was that Lennox “won” the debate (the motion was not passed) with a small, but discernible shift, in favour of his viewpoint from the previously undecided camp. To his credit, Hitchens conceded that there were more in favour of John, even though the moderator was initially unsure.

Extended Report

Opening Statements

Hitchens reminded the audience that Edinburgh was one the centres of the enlightenment and he warned that the secularism was under attack in the New Europe from a number of sources. These were:

  1. The threat of Islam. He focused upon the demanding of special rights for Islam backed up by violence and used the example of the reaction to the Danish cartoons as showing that freedom of speech was being eroded through fear.
  2. The revival of Russian imperialism, founded upon the Christian orthodox faith. He spoke of the conflict in Georgia, as well as the recent flexing of muscles against Poland (for agreeing to the missile defence shield) and the Ukraine (for being more pro-western).
  3. The non-scientific ideas being propagated in some schools by Christian fundamentalist teaching.
  4. The capitulation of the European churches to Islam (e.g. the pope retracting his comments about Mohammed after there was a backlash, the archbishop of Canterbury suggested sharia law should be recognised in Britain and Prince Charles saying he should be defender of the “faiths” rather than of the “faith”) .

He concluded by saying secularism is at the core of our constitution and that he hoped that the fact back started here.

Lennox responded by saying that he agreed with much of what Hitchens had said, and continued:

  1. He too was appalled by extremists, but said that saying “religion poisons everything” is the same as saying “science poisons everything” – it is nonsensical. You can’t blame science for giving you pollution or napalm and therefore you have to distinguish use from abuse.
  2. That Jesus spoke of rendering unto Caesar what was Caesar’s and that you have to distinguish between the abuses of Christendom and the teachings of Christ.
  3. That Christianity provided the educational establishments and the freedoms upon which new Europe is based, yet the atheist’s want to get rid of it (they are forgetting their history and they can’t have it both ways).
  4. That atheists say the world would be better without religion, but the world would have been better without the communist regimes (and that Marxism is underpinned by atheism).
  5. That science cannot explain everything (e.g. why are we here?) and that the discipline itself was only possible through the belief in a creator/law giving. He said that atheists have “faith” in the rational intelligibility of the universe, but their worldview gives no basis for believing this. He said it was a false dichotomy to speak of science or faith.
  6. That if you do not believe in absolute morality and you think that we evolved from mindless processes then you cannot trust your own rationality (as rationality does not come from irrationality).
  7. Likewise you have no grounds for saying something is right or wrong as you are merely “dancing” to your DNA (quoting Dawkins). DNA serves evolutionary pressures not the truth (quoting atheist John Gray). Therefore concepts of good and evil, right or wrong evaporate, as do any notions of justice. If you believe in a creator then you have grounds for saying people have innate morality as they are made in God’s image.

So John concluded by opposing the motion and pointing out that the atheists couldn’t even use the word “should” anyhow (as they are unable to establish the grounds upon which to make a moral statement).

Hitchens’ Rebuttals

Hitchens took John’s comment about the basis for morality in good humour. He said he understood the problem with getting an “ought” from an “is” and therefore said that he was changing the motion to the new Europe “must” adopt the new atheism (rather than “should”). His rebuttals were:

  1. He didn’t need 5 minutes to rebut the resurrection (but then did not attempt to do so)
  2. That Jesus said he came to bring the sword (not peace)
  3. That European universities owed a lot to Islam initially (not Christianity)
  4. That you used to have to be in a holy order to even study at Oxford
  5. That historically many scientists have also held some very wacky superstitious beliefs
  6. That religion is totalitarian and that this round-the-clock supervision included condemning you for thought-crimes and continuing to supervise even after you are dead.
  7. There is no evidence to believe there is truth in Christianity
  8. That Stalin’s regime was a religious one founded upon the previous quasi-religious reign of the tsars
  9. That North Korea (thought to be secular) is actually a highly religious regime based upon leader worship
  10. That there has been no atheistic regime based upon the teachings of Hume, Spinoza, Jefferson, Bertrand-Russell and others and if there were it wouldn’t be a violent one.

Lennox’ response

  1. Jesus was not referring to a physical sword in that passage and his views on violence were demonstrated by the fact that he even resisted violence at his own arrest
  2. That the idea of a law-giver is not a wacky belief, but it is a serious intelligent theists (Whitehead’s thesis)
  3. That the debate was not about certain beliefs about science, but it is about whole worldviews. This is why Francis Collins and Jim Watson (both of whom headed up the human genome project) have differing views. There are scientists on both sides of this debate and therefore it is not about God or science – it is about worldviews.
  4. Your view of justice depends on which side of the fence you are on (i.e. the oppressed crave justice). He used the example of marriage to respond to Hitchens’ portrayal of a divine supervisor regulating your behaviour. He said that your wife is someone who watches over you and who regulates your behaviour, yet marriage is not seen as bad thing for that reason, because it is someone who loves you, etc.

Question and Answers

The question and answer session was quite mixed with various people (from both sides) making statements which were not questions (e.g. an elderly scot tried to evangelise to Hitchens in a long-winded manner and another person accused Lennox of consigning her to hell because of her beliefs – John responded to this by saying that we are all given a freedom to choose and that God does not want to consign anyone to hell).

One person highlighted the fact that Hitchens had commended secularism rather than new atheism to the audience. He asked how he could he say that the new atheism would not lead to the ramification of old atheism (e.g. the regimes of Stalin, etc). Hitchens responded to this by saying fascism was another name for the Catholic far right.

Someone asked about miracles and John responded by affirming the existence of a creator who had shown himself historically and that he was quite capable of feeding events into the laws of nature. He pointed out that although atheists like to attack the likelihood of the resurrection, he pointed out that some atheists prefer to propagate the “multiverse” theory, where there are supposedly many different parallel universes in which, for example, you and I don’t exist in some or where one of us has a green moustache in another. John pointed out that if you are willing to believe that, then you are willing to believe anything.

Another person asked about whether “Intelligent design” was associated with a “lunatic” fringe. John replied “not necessarily”, which prompted some gasps amongst the audience, but he went on to explain that the words “intelligent design” and “creationism” had been hijacked by some and caricatured by others, when in fact, the idea that there is a creator and that there is intelligence behind the design is a very credible scientific thesis (i.e. it is not one to be dismissed out of hand).

Another person asked whether in fact Christianity had been shaped by society (the prevailing zeitgeist) rather than the other way around (mentioning than Lucretius and Epicurus had not been influenced by Christianity). John responded by pointing out that Greece was not a wonderful utopian society when these ideas were being disseminated and it was Christianity that revolutionised Europe.

A number of people touched upon historical violence in the name of Christianity, which John rebuffed by pointing out that these instances were people disobeying the explicit teachings of Christ. Another person asserted that people were just products of their own religious upbringing and that religions contradicted one another so most of them must be wrong. John denied that people blindly followed their upbringing and he agreed that religions contradict one another and so couldn’t all be right.

Concluding Remarks

John started by pointing out the difference between the “soft” atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, etc) and the “hard” atheists (Sartre, Camus, etc). Whereas the soft atheists cling to the things that they cherish in society (morality, justice), the hard atheists were under no illusion as to where their views ultimately led (to the destruction of all values, morality and hope).

  1. He challenged the new atheists to justify how they were able to say humans were more significant than just slime, when their views give no basis for this (e.g. Peter Singer saying a human baby has no more value than a piglet).
  2. He also reiterated the importance on being able to debate these issues in the public sphere, but that he wasn’t sure that the atheists shared this notion of freedom of expression (given Sam Harris saying that there are some circumstances where you maybe justified in killing someone because of their beliefs).
  3. He questioned whether the new atheists should be allowed to decide for everyone what was right and he pointed out that atheism nurtures a need for meaning (and therefore religion).
  4. He said the atheists lose their pretension of intellectual credibility when they lump all religion in together.
  5. He then pointed out that Christianity played a major role in the creation of the new Europe in the first place (e.g. in helping to overthrow the old atheism in communist East Germany) and he finished by quoting the recently deceased literary nobel prize winner Solzhenitsyn: “if I were called upon to identify briefly the principal trait of the entire twentieth century, here too, I would be unable to find anything more precise and pithy than to repeat once again: Men have forgotten God”.
  6. John said he wished they hadn’t forgotten God and finished by saying Christianity helped pull the wall down in Europe, do we really want to build another one?

Christopher Hitchens responded by asking how we know all this and where John was getting all of his information from.

  1. He said he didn’t need to call upon an invisible means of support from a totalitarian God who provides divine assurance.
  2. He criticised the idea of “vicarious redemption” and said that you shouldn’t want someone else paying your debts for you (as he said it cancels your responsibility).
  3. He said that this offer is then backed up by a threat of hell.
  4. He asked how we even know about hell when all the religions contradict each other and therefore by definition that most religious thinkers throughout history must have been wrong (assuming that one religion is right). He says this causes moral chaos (as people can’t agree).

Finally he concluded with a challenge to name a moral action done by a religious person that couldn’t be done by a non-religious person and then said to think of an evil action done in the name of religion. [He meant to finish by saying that would not be done by a non-religious person, but he didn’t say this, which meant his final point wasn’t quite as he had intended).

General comments about the debate

Debating style

The debate was an interesting clash of styles, with Hitchens favouring less points, but made very forcefully with humour and quips to strengthen his argument. He did make a couple of isolated “low blows” by interrupting one of Lennox’s points during the rebuttal (by dismissing it as a weak point), as well as saying “he didn’t need 5 minutes to dispel the resurrection” without then attempting to do so.

Lennox by contrast had a huge number of points and quotes (many from atheists) and therefore if you transcribed the debate he would have been the overwhelming victor. However, because of Hitchens’ strong oratory skills, he was able to reduce the gap, in spite of Lennox’s great charisma.

Format

It seemed that Hitchens going first turned out to be fortuitous because his opening statement focused upon politics and religion and it included much that Lennox could agree with. Lennox was then able to attack the ideas underpinning new atheism, which left Hitchens with only the rebuttal and concluding remarks to reply in kind. However, the format did allow Hitchens to have the last say, although it would have been nice to have heard Lennox’s responses to some of these final comments, such as those concerning the cross.