Monday, November 19, 2012

Peter Hitchens Debates with an Atheist Professor...

..and does very well indeed.

In fact, this post is the latest in a series of exchanges, all of which arose from a debate at the Oxford Union, which (goody goody!) is eventually to appear on Youtube.

Hitchens makes some excellent points, including this one:

"There is no comparable choice [to the choice between theism and atheism], whose effect extends into all eternity. On the choice between living in a just and purposeful universe, and life in an accidental, pointless chaos, all else in life and thought hinges, including charitable and political choices."

I remember deciding, when I was still very young and religiously undecided, that neither believers nor unbelievers really behaved consistently according to their cosmologies. Atheists act as though there is some intrinsic purpose to life, and some metaphysical traction to morality. Religious believers, even more surprisingly, act as though this world was more important than the next one. Ultimately, I think atheists are generally better than their beliefs, while religious people (for the most part) fall short of their beliefs.

Though Hitchens certainly acquits himself well in the debate, the atheist Professor quite validly complains that he keeps dragging the question of psychological motivations into the discussion. This is a favourite theme of Peter Hitchens, one pursued at length in his excellent tract The Rage Against God.

This is how Hitchens puts it in the post:

"Let me say it again. It is the whole purpose of my argument. We cannot know. We must choose. We choose on the basis of what we desire. We then find evidence which supports our choice. I have said all this quite clearly before. I am very interested that, though I have said this so clearly, he has not understood it."

Now, I think it is almost certainly true that in most matters of belief and conviction-- not just those pertaining to religion-- we tend to pick a side first and come up with rationalisations later. However, this isn't always the case. I see no reason to doubt C.S. Lewis when he described himself as a reluctant convert to Christianity. Others, like the philosopher George Santayana, have been reluctant unbelievers. (Interestingly, I read recently that the celebrated Irish radical and Spanish Civil Warrior Frank Ryan, according to one girlfriend, "would like to disbelieve in God but couldn't".) I was myself, once upon a time, a reluctant unbeliever. I do not attempt to hide the fact that my current beliefs comport with my deepest desires.

However, for the purpose of debate, we must set the question of motivations aside. The argument ad hominem is regarded as a fallacy for a good reason. The tit-for-tat game of speculating upon each others' motives could go on forever, and delay a proper debate forever, and there is no way of settling it. If you don't believe me, read any text dominated by the "hermeneutics of suspicion", for instance, most feminist and most Marxist theory. The general drift of these is: "Well, he would say that, wouldn't he? He's a male chauvinist pig (or a capitalist swine, or more probably both)."

Not that we can never sally into this field-- for instance, C.S. Lewis's argument from desire is premised upon the human yearning for God. But this is a specific argument. To drag the question of motivation into an argument where it is not strictly relevant is quite a different matter.

I am a big fan of Peter Hitchens, even though my few gingerish forays into the comments section of his blog have been greeted with a rather Wellingtonian bark. Still, that's what we love him for. And for wonderful witticisms like this one: "If it walks like a dogma, and barks like a dogma, and is shaped like a dogma, I think it needs a dogma licence, and I shall call it a dogma."

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