Mark D. Roberts

Part 8 of series: god is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens: A Response
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Christopher Hitchens is an engaging writer, a master of clever rhetoric. Please understand that I’m not using “rhetoric” here in a derogatory manner. I respect the person who is a master of words, and, to be sure, Hitchens is such a master. To be completely honest, I envy his ability with language. I’m glad that the Decalogue doesn’t prohibit the coveting of your neighbor’s rhetorical skill, otherwise I’d be sinning right now.
In my last two posts I’ve shown, however, that sometimes Hitchens seems to let his language run away with him. Exaggeration, in measured doses, can accentuate one’s point. But when it distorts reality, then it isn’t especially helpful for the reader who seeks truth and not just entertainment. In the end, I don’t think it helps the writer, because discerning readers will tend to dismiss his claims as bombastic, whether they’re true or not.
Yet as I read god is not Great – two times, actually – I was concerned, not only about an over-indulgence of hyperbole, but also about a consistent tone of ridicule. I’ve got to believe that even someone who loves this book would agree that it’s full of scorn for religious people. Let me cite a few examples:

[Concerning religious furor over the year 2000] The occasion was nothing more than an odometer for idiots . . . (p. 60)
Augustine [one of the theologians most highly regarded by Christians] was a self-centered fantasist and an earth-centered ignoramus. (p. 64)
[Concerning the notion that certain places are holy] the ostentatious absurdity of the pilgrimage (p. 6)
Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago. . . .” (p. 7) Not good news for us preachers!
[Religion] comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance, and other infantile needs). (p. 64)
[Re: alternative views of how the universe was created] “creationist” stupidity (p. 78); the stupid notion of “intelligent design” (p. 85).
All attempts to reconcile faith with science and reason are consigned to failure and ridicule for precisely these reasons. (p. 65)

Perhaps such attempts will fail, and Hitchens is right. But why does he consign them to ridicule? Why does it help to make fun of people who see to reconcile faith with science and reason? Why not take them seriously enough to engage their ideas and show, in a scientific and reasonable way, why they are wrong? Hitchens admits to a great respect for science. But science doesn’t advance human knowledge by ridicule, but rather by careful investigation and logical examination. So again my question: Why are such attempts to reconcile faith with science and reason consigned to ridicule? (Photo to the right: A bit of the most recent Harvard Divinity Bulletin)
Ironically, a few days ago I received the latest edition of the Harvard Divinity Bulletin. (The Spring 2007 edition is not yet up on the website, but will presumably become available here at some time in the future.) The cover story focused on recent efforts among Harvard faculty to engage in cross-disciplinary studies of science and religion. It was entitled: “A Confluence of Opportunities To Bring Science and Religion Together: Several Harvard projects try to discover a middle way of debate, stressing synthesis rather than dogmatic opposition.” The article included some excerpts from a lecture delivered by Martin Nowak Professor of Mathematic and Biology at Harvard. He said things like:

Science is no replacement for religion because we are interested in many questions which are not scientific. For example, what is the purpose of my life? Where do I come from? Where will I go? Everybody has these questions either consciously or subconsciously.
Scientists should admit that science does not provide any evidence against well-formulated theology. On the other hand, religion should not oppose scientific progress.

Now Christopher Hitchens is surely welcome to disagree with Professor Nowak and to show that his points are wrong. But is it rational, scientific, or moral for Hitchens to ridicule this man? If so, why? If not, why does Hitchens claim the right to do so?
Throughout most of my experience in life, substantive arguments don’t need scorn. Arguers only stoop to such tactics when they realize that their arguments aren’t good enough to prevail. You can see this writ large over the face of American politics these days. If you can’t beat your opponent with logic, start tearing down your opponents character, intelligence, or whatever. Ridicule is the weapon of last resort for the debater going down to certain defeat. And, I’m sorry to say, in our culture ridicule often carries the day.
I was concerned enough about the prevalence of mockery in god is not Great to use up my one chance to ask Christopher Hitchens a direct question in our debate on the Hugh Hewitt Show. Here’s the interchange:

MR: Well, only in that the harder parts of your book for me were the places where you rather ridicule people of faith. Now, sometimes you ridicule people of faith that I also agree with you are thinking and doing things that are virtually worth of ridicule. But I wondered why you do that when it seems like you’re going to lose the opportunity to influence some of the very people you would want to influence.
CH: Ah, well, it’s just the way I am. I mean, I am a polemicist, if you like, and one has to get people’s attention first of all.
MR: Well okay, that’s fair.
CH: And that may sound to you as it somewhat slightly sounds to me as a vulgar answer, but it is the truth, right? One can’t write a book saying God is not that brilliant.

Well, I suppose one could write such a book, but it wouldn’t sell nearly as many copies at Hitchens’s more provocative tome.
My problem is not with provocative language, with clever rhetoric, with incisive arguments, even when they’re directed at me. My problem is with ridicule, with ad hominem attacks upon people with whom one disagrees. I would argue that ridicule rarely accomplishes anything other than making people upset. It almost never helps the person with whom you disagree to listen to what you’re saying. And, at least in my book, ridicule is almost always an immoral act. Moreover, I’d bet that you don’t even need a religious basis to see that ridicule, especially when talking about that which people hold most dear, is wrong.
Yet I’m willing to argue this case against ridicule a bit further. I’ll pick up the thread tomorrow.

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