Mark D. Roberts

Part 1 of series: god is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens: A Response
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series
A few hours ago I had the opportunity to debate Christopher Hitchens on the subject of his recent bestseller: god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. For three hours (including commercials) Mr. Hitchens and I stood toe-to-toe (electronically speaking) on the Hugh Hewitt Show, a talk-radio program. (Note: if you missed this program live, it will soon be available on the Internet. Check this website. Picture to the right: Christopher Hitchens holding forth.)
The specific topics for the debate were selected by Hugh, who moderated the program. Though he and I are friends, he did not tell me what the topics would be in advance. He and I both knew it was important for us to play fair in this debate (which meant, of course, that I way over-prepared, since I needed to be able to cover every possible topic raised by Hitchens’s book). Some of this over-preparation will now pay off as I begin to blog about god is not Great.
To be honest, I felt pretty nervous before the debate. Though I have some expertise in Christianity, and especially in the field of New Testament, and though I have been a pastor and adjunct seminary professor for many years, I am not one who regularly engages in apologetic defenses of Christian faith. Others are much better than I at such efforts (such as Dr. Craig Hazen and his Biola colleagues, including Greg Koukl and Dr. John Mark Reynolds. Prior to my conversation with Hitchens, I spoke with these three brilliant defenders of Christian faith, and am grateful for their counsel. It’s good to have smart, godly friends!)
My pre-debate nervousness was increased by the fact that Christopher Hitchens is a bright, well-educated, quick-thinking, widely-read, rhetorically-brilliant and dagger-tongued debater. Plus, for the last month he’s been going around the country sparing with religious and academic types about his book. By now his attacks and defenses will have been finely tuned for maximum effectiveness. Plus, there’s the fact that Mr. Hitchens speaks with a British accent, which means he’d sound better than I no matter the content of our presentations.
There is also the issue of the format. Talk radio, in most cases, is not well suited to careful, reasoned, extensive discourse. It’s much better for soundbites, which Hitchens cranks out in droves. But this makes it challenging to engage in logical discourse, especially when the issues are complex. One could easily win the argument, logically, but lose the war in terms of the impact on listeners.
I had hoped that both Christopher Hitchens and I would have done the debate from Hugh’s radio studio. I looked forward to the chance to talk with Mr. Hitchens face-to-face. Human communication is usually better this way, even in a debate format. Unfortunately, however, he preferred to call in his part over the telephone, which is common in the radio business. I can imagine that Christopher Hitchens is, by now, pretty tired of debating us religious folk. I don’t blame him for wanting to phone it in.
How did the debate go? Overall, I think it was fair and reasonably informative. As I think over my responses, I’d love to go back and change a few. By far the hardest thing about debating Christopher Hitchens is his tendency to throw out a lot of critical claims all at once. I found myself needing to choose which to pick up and which to leave on the table. This was frustrating, since I feared that one might assume I agreed with things I just didn’t have time to refute. My blog will give me the chance to be both clearer and more complete.
I mentioned a number of resources in the debate, and will put up links to these in case you want to track them down. Then I’ll say a bit more about the last resource on the list:

Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony
Owen Gingerich, God’s Universe
Francis S. Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief
N.T. Wright, Simply Christian
Elaine Howard Ecklund. “Religion and Spirituality among University Scientists”
Mark D. Roberts, Can We Trust the Gospels?
Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus

I did not bring up the Ehrman book. Hugh did, I believe, because it figures prominently in god is not Great. Though there are many fine insights in Misquoting Jesus, I don’t generally recommend it because it has much that is distorted and unhelpful. In fact, I wrote a substantial critique of this book shortly after it was published.
In our conversation about Ehrman, Hitchens mentioned something he said in his book, that he chose Ehrman “on the basis of ‘evidence against interest’: in other words from someone whose original scholarly and intellectual journey was not at all intended to challenge holy writ” (p. 122). Apparently, Hitchens believed that Ehrman was still some sort of Christian or theist, albeit not of the fundamentalist stripe. Hitchens seemed taken aback when I noted that Ehrman is not a believer, but gave up his faith a long time ago. Hitchens said he would check this out.
In my off-the-cuff comments on Ehrman, I was essentially correct, though I got a couple of details wrong. I think I said that he lost his faith in grad school, and has been an atheist for three decades, and has during that time published literature opposing orthodox Christianity. After the debate I checked my facts, and found that Ehrman considers himself an agnostic, not an atheist. Moreover, given that he finished his PhD in 1985, it would be more accurate to say he’s been a non-theist for over twenty years, not thirty. Nevertheless, the fact that he hasn’t been a Christian for his entire professional and publishing life doesn’t make Ehrman a good example of “evidence against interest.” It’s obvious, especially in Misquoting Jesus, that Ehrman has plenty of interest in debunking Christian belief. He isn’t hiding this fact, even as I don’t hide the fact that I am a Christian and that this influences my thinking and writing.
My source of information about Ehrman’s rejection of Christianity is a little essay he wrote called “An Agnostic Reflects on Christmas.” There he explains how, even though he no longer believes in the message of Christmas, he is still touched by Christmas stories and celebrations, especially Christmas trees. Ironically, Bart Ehrman and I agree profoundly on this last point. I am also a big lover of Christmas trees, as I have made abundantly clear in past blogging. I’m happy to say that Ehrman and I part company on the truth of Christmas, however.
In my next post in this series I’ll begin to examine aspects of Hitchens’s case against God and religion, and why I believe this case is less than convincing.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus