Religion Battle Royale

Click here for the full video of a recent three-way debate between Dinesh D’Souza, Dennis Prager, and Christopher Hitchens, representing Christianity, Judaism, and atheism, respectively. It’s an excellent, stimulating, wide-ranging discussion on faith, reason, God, and morality, with three tremendously formidable debaters—even if Hitchens tends to be a snide, boorish ass.
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D’Souza on "An Absentee God?"

During this debate, Christopher Hitchens actually raised an intriguing challenge to God’s existence (good points from atheists are so hard to find these days). Now, Dinesh D’Souza has an answer:

What happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay in Vegas. On Friday July 11 the libertarian conference FreedomFest will have, as its featured event, a debate on “Christianity, Islam and the War on Terror” between Christopher Hitchens and me. The media will be there, and the organizers also expect to have the debate up on the web. (Just in case Richard Dawkins is listening, I’ll have to remember
not to use Hitler-style shrieks and yells.)

In thinking about this debate, I’m reminded of an argument that Hitchens made in our New York debate last October. At that time I did not know how to answer his point. So I employed an old debating strategy: I ignored it and answered other issues. But Hitchens’ argument bothered me.

Here’s what Hitchens said. Homo sapiens has been on the planet for a long time, let’s say 100,000 years. Apparently for 95,000 years God sat idly by, watching and perhaps enjoying man’s horrible condition. After all, cave-man’s plight was a miserable one: infant mortality, brutal massacres, horrible toothaches, and an early death. Evidently God didn’t really care.

Then, a few thousand years ago, God said, “It’s time to get involved.” Even so God did not intervene in one of the civilized parts of the world. He didn’t bother with China or India or Persia or Egypt. Rather, he decided to get his message to a group of nomadic people in the middle of nowhere. It took another thousand years or more for this message to get to places like India and China.

Here is the thrust of Hitchens’ point: God seems to have been napping for 98 percent of human history, finally getting his act together only for the most recent 2 percent? What kind of a bizarre God acts like this?

I’m going to answer this argument in two ways. First, in this blog I’m going to show that Hitchens has his math precisely inverted. Second, in a future blog I’ll reveal how Hitchens’ argument backfires completely on atheism. For today’s argument I’m indebted to Erik Kreps of the Survey Research Center of the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research.

An adept numbers guy, Kreps noters that it is not the number of years but the levels of human population that are the issue here. The Population Reference Bureau estimates that the number of people who have ever been born is approximately 105 billion. Of this number, about 2 percent were born before Christ came to earth.

“So in a sense,” Kreps notes, “God’s timing couldn’t have been more perfect. If He’d come earlier in human history, how reliable would the records of his relationship with man be? But He showed up just before the exponential explosion in the world’s population, so even though 98 percent of humanity’s timeline had passed, only 2 percent of humanity had previously been born, so 98 percent of us have walked the earth since the Redemption.”

I have to agree with Kreps’s conclusion: “Sorry Hitchens. And Hallelujah.”
Part 2 of his response:

Here I want to show how Hitchens’ argument completely backfires on atheism. Let’s apply an entirely secular analysis and go with Hitchens’ premise that there is no God and man is an evolved primate. Well, biology tells us that man’s basic frame and brain size haven’t substantially changed throughout his terrestrial existence.

So here is the problem.
Homo sapiens has been on the planet for 100,000 years, but apparently for more than 95,000 of those years he accomplished virtually nothing. No real art, no writing, no inventions, no culture, no civilization. How is this possible? Were our ancestors, otherwise physically and mentally undistinguishable from us, such blithering idiots that they couldn’t figure out anything other than the arts of primitive warfare?

Then, a few thousand years ago, everything changes. Suddenly savage man gives way to historical man. Suddenly the naked ape gets his act together. We see civilizations sprouting in Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China, and elsewhere. Suddenly there are wheels and agriculture and art and culture. Soon we have dramatic plays and philosophy and an explosion of inventions and novel forms of government and social organization.

So how did
Homo sapiens, heretofore such a slacker, suddenly get so smart? Scholars have made strenuous efforts to account for this but no one has offered a persuasive account. If we compare man’s trajectory on earth to an airplane, we see a long, long stretch of the airplane faltering on the ground, and then suddenly, a few thousand years ago, takeoff!

Well, there is one obvious way to account for this historical miracle. It seems as if some transcendent being or force reached down and breathed some kind of a spirit or soul into man, because after accomplishing virtually nothing for 98 percent of our existence, we have in the past 2 percent of human history produced everything from the pyramids to Proust, from Socrates to computer software.

So paradoxically Hitchens’ argument becomes a boomerang. Hitchens has raised a problem that atheism cannot easily explain and one that seems better accounted for by the Book of Genesis.
UPDATE: A reader posed a few challenges to D’Souza’s argument (if he wants to know why I’m not publishing his comments, he’s free to ask here). I want to address them, though, since they strike me as common areas of misunderstanding.

Humanity’s “takeoff” provides no evidence that God was involved. It could have been coincidence, or the invention of something like the written alphabet or mathematics or several such developments at once.

But this is precisely the issue: mankind had a whopping 95,000 years in which none of it happened. Then “several such developments at once”? Granted, it’s not material evidence, and it’s not proof, but you’ve gotta admit, it’s certainly intriguing circumstantial evidence.

It also provides no evidence that it was Christ or Christianity specifically that is the answer. Advancements took place before Christ…maybe the Greek Gods get credit for Ancient Greece?

This complaint gets the two arguments mixed up. D’Souza does not tie human advancement to the coming of Christ at all, but to the endowment of man with a soul. The only point Christ pertains to is the percentage of the human race that lived before Him as opposed to after.

It’s also interesting that technology has advanced exponentially in recent history, despite no known input from Allah or God or Zeus.

That’s because the input we’re talking about—the soul transforming an animal called human into a man, giving him a true mind rather than a brain—already happened. According to D’Souza’s theory, human reason and creativity flow from this singular change.

Remembering Rev. Jerry Falwell

What Was It About Falwell That’s Supposed to be “Little”?

Michael Medved, 5/17/07

Secular militants have provided no shortage of intemperate, vicious, mean-spirited reactions to the death of Jerry Falwell but perhaps the most revealing came from Christopher Hitchens (author of a new book attacking religious delusions, “God is Not Great.”)

Interviewed by Anderson Cooper on CNN, Hitchens seemed oddly obsessed with repeatedly applying a single—and singularly inappropriate — adjective to the late Dr, Falwell.

In the course of the interview, Hitchens decried “the empty life of this ugly little charlatan…” and then asked “who would, even at your network, have invited such a little toad….” Shortly thereafter, he declared, “The whole consideration of this horrible little person is offensive to very, very many of us…” He also concluded that Dr. Falwell even counted as insincere in his religious faith, suggesting, “He woke up every morning, as I say, pinching his chubby little flanks and thinking, I have got away with it again.”

In what possible sense did Jerry Falwell count as a little man?

In the most obvious, physical sense Hitchens’ attempt to belittle Falwell might reflect the common envy of a small guy for a larger, stronger specimen. Aside from the late pastor’s obvious girth, he stood well over six feet tall. I’ve shared refreshments with both Falwell and Hitchens, and the Brit’s not bigger in any sense of the word.

Of course, Hitchens and his apologists might respond that describing Falwell as “little” denotes his ultimate insignificance, his limited intellectual, spiritual dimensions, not his physical size, but even here the dismissive term hardly applies.

As the driving force behind the emergence of the modern Christian conservative movement in U.S. politics, Falwell changed history – as even his most vitriolic critics concede. “The Moral Majority” which he founded played a crucial role in the Reagan landslide of 1980, and even more conspicuously led the way to the stunning, unpredicted Senate sweep that gave the GOP control of the upper house of Congress for the first time in 26 years. Twelve Republican challengers – most of them outspoken Christian conservatives – seized the seats of twelve highly entrenched Democratic incumbents (including such luminaries and former Presidential candidates as George McGovern, Birch Bayh and Frank Church). Liberals may lament the outcome of that watershed election but it’s impossible to dismiss its importance.

In other words, this purportedly “little charlatan” Jerry Falwell, managed to bring about a big shift in American politics – thereby qualifying as a major figure in all the battles of the Reagan Presiency and beyond. Everything about the man actually counted as big – big ambitions, big plans, big ideas, big impact. In addition to his well-known role in politics and media, Falwell qualified as a spectacularly successful institution builder. His Thomas Road Baptist Church, which he founded from scratch in 1951, now draws 22,000 members, and booming Liberty University (founded in 1971) educates nearly 8,000 students (more than Dartmouth or Princeton). Emerson once said that “any durable institution is nothing more than the lengthened shadow of one man.” In that context, Falwell counts as a big guy, with a big shadow.

There is one possible sense in which a major figure might be described as “small” – if even this powerful, influential individual comes across as petty, obsessed with trivialities, nursing grudges and slights.

Falwell possessed none of these characteristics of smallness, and managed to strike up unlikely friendships even with his political and religious adversaries. Opponents as diverse as Jesse Jackson and Larry Flynt remembered him on his passing as a “friend,” praising his graciousness and geniality while emphatically rejecting his ideology. Falwell engaged in frequent, sometimes furious battles in politics and pop culture but he did so, for the most part, as a proverbial happy warrior. The New York Times wrote in their obituary: “For all the controversy, Mr. Falwell was often an unconvincing villain. His manner was patient and affable. His sermons had little of the white-hot menace of those of his contemporaries like Jimmy Swaggart. He shared podiums with Senator Kennedy, appeared at hostile college campuses and in 1984 spent an event before a crowd full of hecklers in Town Hall in New York, probably not changing many minds but nevertheless expressing good will.”

The fact that some of Falwell’s critics displayed
so little good will on the occasion of his passing (“Ding Dong, Falwell’s Dead!” exulted a typical headline at CommonDreams.org) reflects their insecurity and bitterness, not their certainty. Religious believers feel no need to sneer and celebrate when a noted atheist leaves this life. If, as the skeptics believe, there’s no fate awaiting any of us beyond a future as worm food, then deeply religious people have no more reason to worry than their irreligious counterparts.

If, on the other hand, there’s a watchful God who’ll ultimately judge us all by Biblical standards, then the non-believers may face significant reasons for concern. No wonder an angry atheist like Christopher Hitchens reacts with such defensive fury to the very idea that Falwell (and, ultimately, the rest of us) will go on to some form of eternal reward.

Despite the effort to disregard him as “little,” Falwell qualified in every sense as a large figure– big hearted and cheerful, secure and sincere in his own faith, with enormous dreams and major impact. He never would have stooped to a cruel, small-minded, petty and pathetic publicity stunt like smearing one of his ideological adversaries on the very day that opponent died.

So who, then, is the real “little toad,” Mr. Hitchens?




Other remembrances:
Ann Coulter, Zev Chafes, Armstrong Williams