Berlinski vs Hitchens debate

(Isaiah J. Armstrong) #1

I recently watched this debate and found it very interesting. I really would like to see how everyone on RZIM Connect would respond to Berlinski and Hitchens’ critiques on each others’ positions.

Who do you think was the most persuasive, and why?
What did you like/dislike about Berlinski’s presentation of ideas? Anything you agree or disagree with?
How about Hitchens? Agree/disagree?
As a Christian, how would you respond to Hitchens and his arguments against Christianity?

(SeanO) #2

@O_wretched_man I think Hitchens communicated better in this particular debate, though I disagree strongly with his arguments. I like Berlinski, but I felt that his presentation lacked Hitchens’ flare and that his arguments - chiefly the connection between oppressive regimes and atheism in the 20th century - were not necessarily suited to facing Hitchens.

Hitchens argued:

  1. Universe is so large and earth so insignificant how can we think we are special?
  2. Crazy people will be crazy whether they use unbelief or belief to justify their behavior (nihilism or ‘God told me’)
  3. Those who believe in God should be required to provide evidence - it is not the atheist’s job to defend unbelief
  4. Pascal’s wager is weak because it requires abandoning intellectual integrity to avoid potential divine judgment and gain divine reward
  5. The regimes of the 20th century that were terribly violent were not strict atheists but rather were a kind of personality cult that claimed both divine and scientific authority

Berlinski made a good point or two:

  1. The physical size of the earth has no connection to its spiritual significance
  2. I, a secular Jew, have no bias in this matter
  3. Agreed with Hitchens on Pascal’s Wager

I would make a few observations:

  1. Pascal’s Wager was made in the context of a largely Judeo-Christian culture where people generally accepted divine judgment - Pascal was not necessarily asking atheists to lay down their intellectual integrity but rather trying to prod lukewarm Christians to recommit to the faith - I am not a huge fan of using this wager in our modern cultural context either
  2. Unbelief requires evidence just as much as belief - where did the universe come from if not from God? Can you prove it? In fact, I think God has given us exactly the right amount of evidence so that we can either choose or reject Him (see Pascal quote below).
  3. While the violent regimes of the 20th century may have invoked deity, they certainly did not obey the teachings of Christ. As Christians, we are not saying that any belief in any deity will bring hope and light - but rather that belief specifically in Jesus will bring hope and light.

“He gives exactly the right amount of light. If He gave less, even the righteous would be unable to find Him, and their will would be thwarted. If He gave more, even the wicked would find Him, against their will. Thus He respects and fulfills the will of all. If He gave more light, the righteous would not learn humility, for they would know too much. If He gave less light, the wicked would not be responsible for their wickedness, for they would know too little.” - Blaise Pascal

What were your thoughts after watching the debate?

(christopher van zyl) #3

@SeanO this is quite a hectic quote. :sweat_smile: And I agree with you. Hitchens flare is always great to watch.

@O_wretched_man I love this debate. What are your thoughts on it?

(Isaiah J. Armstrong) #4

I found Hitchens’ response to redemption very interesting. He also indirectly called Jesus dying on the cross a human sacrifice, which is also something Sam Harris likes to say. Overall i agree with @SeanO about Berlinski being disappointing. I was hoping for more (I recently finished his book, The Devil’s Delusion, which was great). Personally I enjoyed Hitchen’s debate with John Lennox much better. One thing i find with Hitchens is that he can be quite cavalier when it comes to misquoting the bible:

Like 14:26
26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.

You know, I’m also currently reading John Stott’s The Cross of Christ, and i find that there is more in that book that responds (indirectly) to atheists’ rejections of the christian faith than most christian books responding directly to atheists. Maybe it’s because Stott’s book breaks down the atheist straw man version of God by analyzing the scriptures for the real understanding of God’s nature in what He reveals to us in his Word.

(SeanO) #5

@O_wretched_man I think you will find that multiple objections to the Christian faith rely on a straw man view of God. The God of the Scriptures is capable of handling all of the suffering and raw emotion that life generates and acts with a much fuller / more accurate understanding of human nature than is demonstrated by those who critique Scripture.

Could you share a link to the Hitchens / Lennox debate? What made you like it more? How do you think Lennox handled it better than Berlinski?

(Isaiah J. Armstrong) #6

Here it is:

I found that Lennox responded very well to all of Hitchens’ arguments, even though Hitchens’ powerful presence had the audience in his favour. Another reason why i was impressed with Lennox in this debate was because originally Lennox wasn’t even supposed to be the one debating Hitchens. Dinesh D’Souza was supposed to, but someone in his family was having a major surgery and so he couldn’t make it.
I believe he did better than Berlinski because unlike Berlinski, he does a great job in exposing Hitchens’ reasoning.

(SeanO) #7

@O_wretched_man That’s amazing that Dr. Lennox just stepped up to bat and served with such humility and clarity.

(Kathleen) #8

@O_wretched_man - The Cross of Christ is FABULOUS! Excellent choice. You can tell it came from a man who lived a long life wrestling with all these big questions. I found his description of the multifaceted nature of God’s wrath to be particularly helpful for my understanding.

(Anthony Costello ) #9

When I first heard Hitchens debate, he shook me up quite a bit. However, when I began reading in theology and philosophy, I realized that he really was not a terribly great thinker; he was mainly a great rhetorician. He never really presented arguments for his own position, more than just lob grenades and make clever quips about religious belief and religious believers. His debates against Lennox and William Lane Craig pretty much exposed his lack of depth.

However, I have heard from several Christian philosophers that he was quite a nice guy, very charitable, and also always willing to question his own beliefs. Larry Taunton especially spoke very highly of him (even wrote a book about him). It’s interesting that his brother became a very devout believer; and is certainly his equal in intelligence and cleverness.

in Christ,

(Isaiah J. Armstrong) #11

I’d have to confess it was the same for me when I first heard Hitchens. He really shocked me with his demanding presence. I own his book (found it at a thrift store along with Dawkins’ and both of Harris’ bestsellers ironically) but haven’t read it in its entirety yet. It was his book that led me to get Berlinski’s book and Lennox’s book (Gunning for God) on refuting the new atheism movement.

(Isaiah J. Armstrong) #12

Yes I just finished reading that part. Its really is a fantastic book. I love how he pulls in many different arguments from other theologians, than provides his own backed by scripture.

(Isaiah J. Armstrong) #13

Another common attribute I notice about the new atheists is their downplay of sin. They have a very superficial idea of the biblical reality of sin, and I see this played out in Hitchens’ rejection of redemption. John Stott addresses this issue (of downplaying sin) and the dangers of it in The Cross of Christ:

The emphasis of Scripture, however, is on the godless self-centeredness of sin. Every sin is a breach of what Jesus called “the first and greatest commandment,” not just by failing to love God with all our being but by actively refusing to acknowledge and obey him as our Creator and Lord. We have rejected the position of dependence that our createdness inevitably involves and made a bid for independence. Worse still, we have dared to proclaim our self-dependence, our autonomy, which is to claim the position occupied by God alone. Sin is not a regrettable lapse from conventional standards; its essence is hostility to God (Rom 8:7), issuing in active rebellion against him. It has been described in terms of “getting rid of the Lord God” in order to put ourselves in his place in a haughty spirit of “God-almightiness.” Emil Brunner sums it up well: “Sin is defiance, arrogance, the desire to be equal with God, . . . the assertion of human independence over God, . . . the constitution of the autonomous reason, morality and culture.” It is appropriate that the book from which this quotation is taken is titled Man in Revolt.

This other quote, taken from Berlinski’s The Devil’s Delusion in his response to something Hitchens wrote:

When Christopher Hitchens asks how much self-respect “must be sacrificed in order that one may squirm continually in an awareness of one’s own sin,” the only honest answer is that for most of us, self-respect is possible only if the squirming is considerable.

Sin is certainly a deviating reality that constantly gets in the way of our relationship with God. A world that redefines sin as “a blip on the radar” is a dangerous world, indeed. Sin has to be taken seriously. Here is another quote by Stott:

Not all guilt feelings are pathological, however. On the contrary, those who declare themselves sinless and guiltless are suffering from an even worse sickness. For to manipulate, smother and even “cauterize” (1 Tim 4:2) the conscience in order to escape the pain of its accusations renders us impervious to our need of salvation.

He continues on:

To recover the concept of human sin, responsibility, guilt and restoration without simultaneously recovering confidence in the divine work of atonement is tragically lopsided. It is diagnosis without prescription, the futility of self-salvation in place of the salvation of God, and the rousing of hope only to dash it to the ground again.

I completely agree with Stott on this. He says that we can’t just reinstate “sin” into our vocabulary and not include the atonement. That is why the only way to completely understand the cross is to have an understanding of the “gravity of sin,” as Stott puts it. Today’s New Atheists are very content with debunking their own definition of sin while blaming human suffering and pain on the likes of determinism, that we are ultimately slaves to our DNA and there is nothing we can do about it. Free will is an illusion concocted by the conscience and nothing more. Yet they still blame God.
Why do naturalists question God’s intentions when a natural disaster strikes, a product of the very god they support? Why don’t they ask their own natural god why it’s very being causes the greatest of evils in the natural world: death (decomposition and aging in biology)? This I don’t understand. Why does God have to answer for human pain and suffering but genetics (or Richard Dawkins’ "selfish gene) doesn’t? Shouldn’t the question be (for naturalists): why does determinism create so much pain and suffering in this world?
That I’d like an an answer to.

(SeanO) #14

@O_wretched_man Regarding the downplaying of sin, we see at the end of Romans 1 that those who reject God and become enslaved to sin invert good and evil. We always seek to justify ourselves, so once we give into sin we naturally claim that there is nothing wrong with it and will seek any justification necessary to reach that conclusion. Each culture has certain sins which it is predisposed to justify rather than to confess. We are also fairly good at condemning others for the sins that our own culture is not prone to committing. For example, our culture justifies sexual immorality and then condemns other cultures for racism (which is also obviously sinful). We are good at deflecting our own guilt.

Romans 1:32 - Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

Do you think the idea of sin is relevant to someone who rejects the idea of God? Sin by definition requires a God to sin against.

Also, do you think the new atheists actually blame God for suffering or simply mock their paper tiger view of the Christian God?

(Isaiah J. Armstrong) #15

I think your question refers an obvious answer, and yes I certainly agree with you. I know it has been said before, but I believe the new atheists truly oppose reason (as Ravi’s book The End of Reason suggests) because, in those two debates i posted, the audience hung off of every word that came from Hitchens’ mouth. Before I watched the debate with John Lennox, I read the comments on Youtube. Judging from the comments, I expected Lennox to quote a boatload of bible verses, to which one comment said (and i quote):

“Lennox answers every question with more and more biblical quotes and claims about Jesus for which he has zero proof, which is what the debate is about in the first place. Hitchens lays out clear and cogent arguments to support his points while Lennox keeps quoting the bible as if that’s all the “proof” he needs. The entire debate becomes absurd because of it. He also keeps saying he bases his arguments on the evidence that Jesus lived, died and rose from the dead and so forth, when there’s little real evidence he even existed at all. “They were not superstitious” - I actually laughed out loud at that one.”

That was one of the comments. But we DO have proof for God’s existence, and it goes back to Paul’s letter to Timothy:

3 For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.

During Berlinski’s debate, every time the camera scanned the crowd, i saw how angry some people looked. I remember one time specifically when Berlinski was talking one guy had his arms crossed and his face looked so scrunched up in anger i almost expected him to lash out at Berlisnki (it’s amazing to remember how much God loves those who hate him!). Hitchens, on the other hand, couldn’t say anything wrong (which was the case in both debates) according to those precent. One line that Lee Strobel likes to coin, which i really like, is along the lines of, “How many leave the debate a newborn atheist?”

(Kathleen) #16

Similarly, how many leave the debate a newborn Christian? :smirk:

Debates are interesting things, aren’t they? I don’t really see their function being to ‘convert’ people. They’re more for framing the argument, and, usually, it becomes more about the people on stage and how they present themselves rather than the ideas/issue being debated. However, they can be good platforms to springboard into smaller, individual or group conversations, though, which is useful!

(SeanO) #17

@O_wretched_man It is indeed amazing how much God loves us in spite of the fact that we all were once His enemies. Rarely will someone die for a friend, but almost unbelievable is the Man who died that those who hated Him might find life and life to the full.

Regarding Bible verses, I think it is very difficult for most people to understand that if their view of the Biblical God is incorrect then their critiques are also incorrect - or at least for them to acknowledge that their view of the Biblical God might be incorrect. They simply assume that their paper tiger view of God as a moral monster is what Christians actually believe and proceed forward from that point. They are not willing or able to genuinely engage with the Biblical text. Often I think this is due to group think, where they are simply agreeing with their peers rather than participating in genuine critical thinking. This is where I think Os Guiness’ point that people must experience ‘signals of transcendence’ before they are willing to genuinely open up to the possibility of God becomes important. There are phases in peoples’ lives where they have the capability to truly think freely and others where they are stuck in the mud of preconceived notions or ideas.