Part 9 of series: god is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens: A Response
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Yesterday I began to express my concerns about Christopher Hitchens’s tendency to ridicule people with whom he disagrees, especially people of faith. I explained that, in my experience, a debater resorts to ridicule only when he or she realizes that rational arguments won’t prevail. I also suggested that scorning people almost never helps them hear what you are saying. I ended by suggesting that ridicule is, in most cases anyway, immoral, and that most people would sense this intuitively (a curiously Hitchensian moral argument on my part).
I want to press the moral point a bit further because I’m deeply concerned about the state of our world and the extent to which ridicule and its cousins are hurting us rather than helping us. Even if Christopher Hitchens is right that god is not great, and that religion poisons everything, I’d propose that his tendency to belittle people will not make the world a better place. And if those who agree with him follow suit imitate his example, this will make matters even worse.
When I asked Hitchens about this in our debate on the Hugh Hewitt Show, he said:
CH: Ah, well, itâ??s just the way I am. I mean, I am a polemicist, if you like, and one has to get peopleâ??s attention first of all.
I admire this honest and straightforward answer. But the question is whether one ought to be such a polemicist or not, especially when dealing with touchy issues like religion. To put it differently, when you survey the religious conflicts in our world today, when you take seriously the tinderbox of religion, do you really think we’re helped by polemics, or would another approach be more helpful? Is it best to get people’s attention by putting them down? The word “polemicist” comes from the Greek word polemos, which means war. So I ask: Will the world be helped by more warlike words?
I am not saying that we should just all be nice and pretend as if we all agree about matters of religion. I’m not an advocate of Rodney Kingism, wondering why we can’t all get along. If you’ve read my last several posts on god is not Great, you know that I’m perfectly willing to take on someone’s ideas and to criticize those ideas. But I try to avoid ad hominem low blows. And when I make them, which I do at times, I repent and retract.
Why have I chosen to engage in respectful discourse rather than ridicule? To be sure, I’ll own that it comes from my Christian convictions. Silly as it may sound to some folks, I try to love my neighbors and my enemies even when I’m debating them. (For the record, I do not consider Christopher Hitchens to be my enemy. In human terms, he may want to disabuse me of my faith, but at least he won’t blow me up. And in Christian terms, human beings are not the enemy.)
Yet I have chosen the way of respectful discourse, not only because it reflects my faith, but also because I’ve found that it works better in practice. It fosters better understanding of all sides. It helps me to learn things I haven’t learned before and would be unable to learn if I were too busy blasting away at my opponents. And, get this, respectful discourse sometimes helps my opponents in arguments to actually hear what I’m saying and, in some instances, even to be persuaded by it. If I call somebody stupid, he won’t hear a word I’m saying. If I speak with somebody respectfully, she just might listen.
I resolved to try and be a respectful interlocutor years ago when I was an associate pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. I had invited Dallas Willard to speak to a group at the church. Willard was (and still is) a Professor of Philosophy at USC, and one of the most brilliant people I have ever met. He was also a Christian who spoke on matters of faith to church groups. Willard gave a fantastic lecture, insightful and challenging, yet clear enough for lay people. His content was serious but he didn’t take himself too seriously. (Photo to the right: Dallas Willard)
Following the lecture we had time for questions. A person from my church raised his hand and asked one of those questions that makes one cringe. It was an embarrassing and self-serving question, one that wasn’t so much a question as an attack on what Willard had just spent 45 minutes teaching. The question came close to an insult, actually. “Here I’ve got one of the smartest men in the world speaking to my church,” I thought, “and he’s got to deal with this sort of thing.” I was mightily embarrassed.
But before I had a chance to fret, Willard responded to the question. His answer was straightforward and fair. He didn’t seem to mind repeating things he had already said. He didn’t seem bugged by the insinuation of the questioner that his ideas were foolish. More striking to me was the manner of Willard’s response. He treated the questioner with kindness and respect. I watched as the questioner stopped being defensive and started listening for the first time to what Willard was saying. I also saw how other people in room, many who sensed the tension of the moment, relaxed enough to start engaging with ideas rather than with raw emotions.
At that moment I resolved to try and be like Dallas Willard, which, given my own history of headstrong, prideful argumentation, wouldn’t be easy. For over twenty years I’ve tried to “be like Dallas,” in my speaking, in church business meetings, when I teach seminary, when I blog, and even when I do debates on the radio. Though I’ve failed in this effort many times, I haven’t stopped trying. I only wish I were as smart, mature, and kind as Dallas Willard. Yet, lacking these qualities is no excuse for not trying to emulate his example.
I don’t doubt that Hitchens’s tendency to call his opponents “stupid” and to label a highly-regarded theologian as an “ignoramus” helps to sell lots of books, just like he said to me. And I expect it does get more attention than a respectful and reasonable approach. But I’m just not convinced that the world is any better off with more ridicule-filled books or with more people paying attention because derision is more interesting than respect. Would that we could learn to disagree about ideas without disparaging each other. This, I believe, would in fact make the world a better place.