“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

More of a Near Miss--Response to "Collision"

The documentary Collision is an attempt at irony. The title is spelled on the box with a bloody slash for the i coming in the middle of the word. The film opens with hard rock music and Christopher Hitchens dropping the gauntlet: "One of us will have to admit he's wrong. And I think it should be him." There are jerky closeups and dramatic pullaways. The whole thing is made to resemble one of those pre-event commercials on pay-per-view for boxing matches or UFC's.

The big surprise, which I don't think I'm ruining, is that evangelical Christian Douglas Wilson and anti-theist Christopher Hitchens--even in the midst of their heated disagreement--seem to like and respect each other. At several points they stop debating and simply chat with one another. They even trade Wodehouse quotes (and here I thought you had to be English to appreciate that humor). Some of the best scenes have the two men disagreeing without any detectable bitterness, over drinks in a bar, as they ride side by side in car, and each even giving signs of being genuinely curious about what the other is saying. All this bonhomie takes place despite the fact that neither changes his position at all over the course of their book tour.

I guess for some this may come as a surprise, but I've been arguing religion and science and politics with people I like, or even love, since I was in my early teens. One of the things that got me excited about the movie was that my oldest brother, a cancer biologist whose professed Christianity I suspect is a matter of marital expediency (just kidding), once floated the idea of collaborating on a book similar to Wilson and Hitchens's. So I was more disappointed than pleasantly surprised that the film focused more on the two men's mutual respect than on the substance of the debate.

There were some parts of the argument that came through though. The debate wasn't over whether God exists but whether belief in him is beneficial to the world. Either the director or the editors seemed intent on making the outcome an even wash. Wilson took on Hitchens's position that morality is innate, based on an evolutionary need for "human solidarity," by pointing out, validly, that so is immorality and violence. He suggested that Hitchens's own morality was in fact derived from Christianity, even though Hitchens refuses to acknowledge as much. If both morality and its opposite come from human nature, Wilson argues, then you need a third force to compel you in one direction over the other. Hitchens, if he ever answered this point, wasn't shown doing so in the documentary. He does point out, though, that Christianity hasn't been any better historically at restricting human nature to acting on behalf of its better angels.

Wilson's argument is fundamentally postmodern. He explains at one point that he thinks rationalists giving reasons for their believing what they do is no different from him quoting a Bible verse to explain his belief in the Bible. All epistemologies are circular. None are to be privileged. This is nonsense. And it would have been nice to see Hitchens bring him to task for it. For one thing, the argument is purely negative--it attempts to undermine rationalism but offers no positive arguments on behalf of Christianity. To the degree that it effectively casts doubt on nonreligious thinking, it cast the same amount of doubt on religion. For another, the analogy strains itself to the point of absurdity. Reason supporting reason is a whole different animal from the Bible supporting the Bible for the same reason that a statement arrived at by deduction is different from a statement made at random. Two plus two equals four isn't the same as there's an invisible being in the sky and he's pissed.

Of course, two plus two equals four is tautological. It's circular. But science isn't based on rationalism alone; it's rationalism cross-referenced with empiricism. If Wilson's postmodern arguments had any validity (and they don't) they still don't provide him with any basis for being a Christian as opposed to an atheist as opposed to a Muslim as opposed to a drag queen. But science offers a standard of truth.

Wilson's other argument, that you need some third factor beyond good instincts and bad instincts to be moral, is equally lame. Necessity doesn't establish validity. As one witness to the debate in a bar points out, an argument from practicality doesn't serve to prove a position is true. What I wish Hitchens had pointed out, though, is that the third factor need not be divine authority. It can just as easily be empathy. And what about culture? What about human intentionality? Can't we look around, assess the state of the world, realize our dependence on other humans in an increasingly global society, and decide to be moral? I'm a moral being because I was born capable of empathy, and because I subscribe to Enlightenment principles of expanding that empathy and affording everyone on Earth a set of fundamental human rights. And, yes, I think the weight of the evidence suggests that religion, while it serves to foster in-group cooperation, also inspires tribal animosity and war. It needs to be done away with.

One last note: Hitchens tries to illustrate our natural impulse toward moral behavior by describing an assault on a pregnant woman. "Who wouldn't be appalled?" Wilson replies, "Planned Parenthood." I thought Hitchens of all people could be counted on to denounce such an outrage. Instead, he limply says, "Don't be flippant," then stands idly, mutely, by as Wilson explains how serious he is. It's a perfect demonstration of Hitchens's correctness in arguing that Christianity perverts morality that a man as intelligent as Wilson doesn't see that comparing a pregnant woman being thrown down and kicked in the stomach to abortion is akin to comparing violent rape to consensual sex. He ought to be ashamed--but won't ever be. I think Hitchens ought to be ashamed for letting him say it unchallenged (unless the challenge was edited out).

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