Is Christianity Good for the World?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Is Christianity Good for the World? A Debate, by Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson

Internet-wise, I was at the right place at the right time. When I was reviewing Doug Wilson's Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning, I stumbled across a blog post at Canon Press offering Doug Wilson's latest for bloggers to review. Even though I was months late, the very kind Frank sent me not one, but three books to review. This is about as close as I will ever come to winning the lottery, and this was much healthier for my soul!

This morning at breakfast, I just finished Is Christianity Good for the World?, a debate between celebrated atheist Christopher Hitchens and the always-pithy Douglas Wilson. Despite the serious subject matter and considerable intellect of the two authors, it's an engaging little book which I finished quickly (especially considering I was usually feeding a toddler while reading it). It began as a series of articles sponsored by magazine Christianity Today and evolved (if I may use that word) into this book.

I love a good debate, and this one was fun. Logical arguments, spotting fallacies and weak reasoning, trumping the opponent... these all make my nerdy heart go a-flutter. This debate all came down to authority, at Wilson's insistence. Hitchens started by railing against totalitarianism and religion, and pitted them against atheism and free will. Wilson responded by saying that unless you glorify God as God and give thanks to Him, argumentation is moot. Wilson kept trying to ask why Hitchens could use words like 'right,' 'wrong,' and 'evil' if morality, as he claimed, was a product of our evolved species. Hitchens argued that his morality was more noble because he was motivated by goodness itself and not fear of an imaginary afterlife. I thought it was interesting that despite Hitchens claiming the moral higher ground, he was consistently disdainful and made Wilson seem even more polite by contrast. Here's an example of his tone:

Deists used to agree with you about a Creator but were not religious in that the assumption of such an entity did not license the further assumption that he or she desired to intervene in human affairs, let alone the assumption that the torture and death of a single individual in a backward part of the Middle East was the solution that we had been awaiting for tens of thousands of years of brutish homo sapiens existence. (p. 52)

In my opinion, Wilson not only proved Hitchens' evasiveness in showing a basis for his standards of right and wrong, but he also showed himself to be funnier and kinder. After much civility, Wilson finally broke down and wrote:

You write like a witty but acerbic tenth-century archbishop with a bad case of the gout. (p. 64)

So, is Christianity good for the world? Hitchens seemed stuck on attacking all religion in general, and Wilson became (necessarily) focused on asking how an atheist had any moral claim to right and wrong, if we're all just 'matter in motion' and continually evolving and besides, who is to say that morality won't evolve to something totally different in the future? Wilson's arguments reminded me of "The Great Debate" between my old pastor, the wonderful Dr. Greg Bahnsen, and Dr. Gordon Stein. I'm paraphrasing from my recollections from high school when we studied this, so I encourage you to check out the video or transcript, but Dr. B trounced the guy by basically saying, "You're using the standard of 'right' and 'wrong' to judge me, but a godless world has no basis for absolutes. You're just borrowing from my own worldview."

Of course I'm a Christian, but I think Wilson showed his position to be more interesting and logically sound than Hitchens'. More than that, however, is Wilson's grace: congeniality towards his opponent, thankfulness to God and Christianity Today for the forum provided, and the grace given in the gospel message at the end of the book. Especially during the upcoming book tour and public debates, I hope this book changes hard hearts by changing stubborn minds. I think that Wilson's argumentation and Hitchen's celebrity will make this debate another one for the history books.

UPDATE: I was really thinking of the Bahnsen vs. Tabash debate, not Bahnsen vs. Stein. That's okay, they're both brilliant.


Barbara said...

Great review, Rachel. Funny that you should mention Dr. B. I had a dream about him just this morning, that he was still alive and had remarried, with a little baby. He was amazed by having a little one at his age! Funny...

Nathan Garrett said...

Nice review, thanks for posting it.

Rachel said...

My dreams are always boring. That's a funny one, Mom!
I always think about Dr. B this time of year. Someday, I hope I'm still missed a decade after my passing.