Friday, May 11, 2007

Hitchens v. Wilson

It's made the rounds, and I'm bored and can't think of anything else to write on, so the (non)debate between Christopher Hitchens and and Douglas Wilson, on God/no g-God in Christianity Today.

The question they address is Christianity Good for the World? With dumb questions like that, expect dumb answers on both sides, as I see it. And this one does not disappoint. The problem is that the two (as is common in these debates between rational level atheist/theist discussions) that they are throwing their punches in places where their sparring partner is not. They are not learning anything nor getting any shots in really.

For one thing it is hard to take Hitchens seriously---although I'm doing my best here. As he repeatedly states in this and other venues on the subject of religion all he wants is to be left alone by religious folk. Well if you want to be left alone (really) by religious people than writing a book on how religion is inherently poisonous to all society is probably not the best wya of being left alone. If, as he so often describes, he is against tyranny by individuals (even God) then why is he slamming his beliefs down others throats?

Wilson on the other hand comes off (to me) more forthright, but doesn't say anything particularly earth-shattering. Wilson is sticks to very traditional Western evangelical-Lutheran like understandings of grace/salvation that (in my mind) confuses more than it helps.

But anyway, here goes.

Hitchens begins by stating that Christianity did not invent the Golden Rule (which is true) or the Love thy neighbor bit (also true). He also states that the stories of Jesus are not literally true....some of that true. And so what?

One could argue that while such notions were strong in elite Greek philosophical circles and mystery religions, that Christianity was the one that brought such notions to the lower classes and mass appeal.

Then Hitchens pulls out this bizarre ass line:
Even if I accepted that Jesus—like almost every other prophet on record—was born of a virgin, I cannot think that this proves the divinity of his father or the truth of his teachings.
Like almost every other prophet on record? WTF? Ever read the Hebrew Prophets there Chris? Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos, on and on. Not a one of them born from virgins. What I think he means are wonder-worker, saviors, and god-men hero figures in Late Antiquity. Some, many of them were supposedly born from virgins.

And with all these issues we return eventually to the atheist partners pathetic descriptions of the g/God they do not believe in. As in the following from CH:
I cannot, of course, prove that there is no supervising deity who invigilates my every moment and who will pursue me even after I am dead. (I can only be happy that there is no evidence for such a ghastly idea, which would resemble a celestial North Korea in which liberty was not just impossible but inconceivable.) But nor has any theologian ever demonstrated the contrary. This would perhaps make the believer and the doubter equal—except that the believer claims to know, not just that God exists, but that his most detailed wishes are not merely knowable but actually known
A supervising deity is a mythic God. That is one I do not believe in and one many religious people do not. So why not say mythic religion is bad. [It has its strengths too no doubt but for now I'll just concede that point]. Many of Hitchens' other points follow in this line: an attack on the notion of vicarious suffering, about a fifth grade level of understanding on redemption/forgiveness, creation as intending humanity=arrogance; eternal damnation, etc.

The best way to deal with such yahoo-ism is usually just to say yeah that's rubbish and that's not the real stuff of the religion. Then Hitchens is forced to argue (as an outsider and non-believer) that he knews true believers (mythic ones) from false ones (anybody else). Begging the question how does a professed atheist know what belief is so he disparage it?

Now on to Wilson.

He responds:
Christians believe—as C. S. Lewis argued in The Abolition of Man—that nonbelievers do understand the basics of morality. Paul the apostle refers to the Gentiles, who did not have the law but who nevertheless knew by nature some of the tenets of the law (Rom. 2:14). But the world is not made better because people can understand the ways in which they are being bad. It has to be made better by Good News—we must receive the gift of forgiveness and the resultant ability to live more in conformity to a standard we already knew (but were necessarily failing to meet).
After Wilson has made an initial good point about Hitchens' inconsistency with saying that ancient cultures knew morality hence religion is no good (but all ancient cultures were religious, even pre-monotheistic ones so how does this work?), he goes down this road of Protestant evangelical theology. It is Christianity Today magazine after all. Complete with a reference to C.S. Lewis and everything. Theology from the 1950s in other words. Not wrong per se just out of date.

Then Wilson goes on a long tirade (and a cliched one at that) about how atheism can not ground its own morality. He cites the notion of the Founding Fathers (good American Protestant that he is) as proof of this. The Founding Fathers--if he were Catholic he would be likely quoting Church Fathers, so Fathers apparently are always going to be brought in to prove a point--believed in a notion of Providence which then frees humans to form limited constitutional forms of governance.

The Declaration of Independence, due to the influence of Ben Franklin (a Deistic Mason btw) on Tom Jefferson, states that we hold these truths to be "self-evident." Self-evident is not revelatory nor is the notion of a Deistic God necessary to get that going. So this whole notion that atheism inherently leads to despondency, nihilism, and relativism (i.e. no moral grounding) is a dumb notion repealed by ethical atheists the world over.

Wilson's earlier traditional apologetics and soteriology do not line with the Founding Fathers. Deism is not Christian Theism. To be fair some of the Founding Fathers were traditional religious believers (George Mason I think was one such), but they were largely in the minority as compared to the deism or even possibly closet atheist (Franklin?) majority.

Wilson writes:
So I am not saying you have to believe in the supernatural in order to live as a responsible citizen. I am saying you have to believe in the supernatural in order to be able to give a rational and coherent account of why you believe yourself obligated to live this way. In order to prove me wrong here, you must do more than employ words like "casuistry" or "evasions"—you simply need to provide that rational account. Given atheism, objective morality follows … how?
Back to being a broken record for a moment. The notion of a supernatural is not necessarily or even logically Wilson's traditional Christian God. You could say Wilson is right that in order to make a moral standard, there has to be some notion of a Truth to this Universe. If you want to call that Supernatural so be it. Hitchens (again he is orange) expresses deep awe for science and the wonders of creation. There's supernatural minus a God Figure. So even if we accede to Wilson's point, Hitchens easily can say he has his own supernaturality. His belief is in Rationality and Rationality brings truths (in its own orange worldspace) that are in fact self-evident. So self-evident that they are not seen by the majority of the humans past and present. If it were indeed truly self-evident in all worldspaces, it would not have been a revolutionary insight in the Declaration. It would not have even been necessary to mention it actually.

This is why approaching these issues outside the framework of vertical development takes you to very fragmented, (in my mind) mostly useless places. The issue isn't atheism/theism but the holarchical worldspaces within which those camps arise. They are both well worn and legitimate though profoundly partial responses to life and the Life Process. And the real issue they are struggling with can not be solved at that level; it can only be dis-solved by negating the premises and unconscious "faiths" inherent in those worldviews & identities.

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At 6:40 AM, Blogger MD said...

I think it is a good debate between the two. wilson picked apart hitchens logic quite nicely.


At 12:41 PM, Blogger Cole said...

How do atheism and agnosticism both not lead to nihilism and relativism? "Ethical athiests" does not repeal those notions so much as show how many people can live in contradiction to the direct consequences of their espoused beliefs. Nietzsche's critique of secular humanism and socialism as a more full extension of Christianity's slave morality describes exactly this phenomenon.

At 12:58 PM, Blogger CJ Smith said...


I don't disagree that secular humanism is not an extension of Christian ethics. I think that is exactly the reason I think these debates are so dumb.

But they are still atheist. The point I was making is that atheism is a belief system. That's why it doesn't lead to nihilism. At least this kind of atheism we are discussing here.

The early Christians were called atheists not because they had no g/God but because they did not worship the local Roman gods.

Just so atheists of this variety do not worship no God but rather just not the mythic God. Hitchens is not Nietzsche for a whole host of reasons (brilliance for one), but Hitchens does believe in rationality.

Nietzschean atheism heads to nihilism no doubt or rather to the re-empowerment of the red hero-myth figure and power-based clannish ethics.

No one is ever really a nihilist or true relativist when pressed in my view.

I think you've conflated secular humanistic (orange) atheism with relativistic (green) atheism. Those are wildly different creatures. And the issue isn't, as I was arguing, the atheism but the level/worldview.

You could be a Bob Wright-like person who thinks there is evolution and intelligence comes out of evolution and there is a trajectory but not believe in God. Or Fukuyama when it comes to the trajectory towards classical liberal governance. Or Habermas as to communicative reason. None of those individuals is a believer in God.

How does Deism not inherently lead to nihilism and relativism? Just cause there is some un-involved, un-caring Creator Architect, what does he care how we treat each other? Or Theravadin Buddhism for that matter which ignores the question of God altogether.

I just think the argument about atheism/agnosticism has no way to ground itself is a red herring.

Nothing in this universe has a way to ground itself in some ultimate sense. Unless one says that some text or being or whatever outside the bounds of what else we know to be true inserts himself/itself and then creates a blueprint by which all is judged. But again it can't ground that other than an appeal to authority.

Minus that option, all worldviews/levels are IOUs to the Universe, they are the drama of the relative world. They are all eventually going to fail in an ultimate sense. [The Atman Project].



At 2:21 PM, Blogger Cole said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 2:24 PM, Blogger Cole said...


I do not understand why the lack of grounding acts as a red herring. Of course Orange and Green both deny its relevance, and avoid the fear and trembling until the existential dawning occurs; that does not make the abyss go away. I must ask what you mean by "really a nihilist." It seems to me that any post-conventional nihilist, contrasted with a pre-conventional "nihilist" would not have any distinguishing external/objective characteristics; the description of a contemporary knight of faith in Fear and Trembling comes to mind, the subjective approach taken as defining feature.

I do not think a close reading of Nietzsche supports either the Red hero figure or clannish ethics. Nietzsche's accolades seem much closer to Yellow individual development to me, and his writings about amor fati clearly indicate a transpersonal understanding and he places that at the top of his developmental scheme. From The Will to Power:
"Such an experimental philosophy... wants to break through to the opposite - to the point of a Dionysian affirmation of the world as it is, from which nothing has been subtracted, eliminated, or selected - it wants eternal circular process... The highest state that a philosopher can reach: to adopt a Dionysian stance towards existence - my formula for this is amor fati."


At 2:59 PM, Blogger ~C4Chaos said...

"This is why approaching these issues outside the framework of vertical development takes you to very fragmented, (in my mind) mostly useless places."

exactly. but you haven't seen a dumb debate on religion and atheism until you watch this one :)


p.s. more Christopher Hitchens and his uber-logic here.

At 4:30 PM, Blogger CJ Smith said...


Thanks for the response.

Nietzsche is complex and I agree that he definitely was breaking through barriers. I think however that he was so far out of ahead of the curve in a way that he wobbled towards the end and fell back on some earlier models. He had nothing else to rely on perhaps. Heidegger in my mind is similiar--his (Heidegger's) promotion of the pre-Socratics for example.

I was thinking particularly of Nietzsche talking about the hero characters of pre-feudal Japan, pre-Christian Germany/Scandanavia, etc. in Beyond Good and Evil as historic forerunners of the Overman/Bird of Prey.

Not clear to what degree in his mind they were simply very imperfect approximations or closer to what Nietzsche had in mind. But I'm open to being wrong on that point.

By really a nihilist I mean someone who actually believes in no-thing. Everybody believes in something. Even believing in "nothingness" (so-called) is a belief.

You wrote:
I do not understand why the lack of grounding acts as a red herring. Of course Orange and Green both deny its relevance, and avoid the fear and trembling until the existential dawning occurs; that does not make the abyss go away.

What does the "its" refer to it in both Orange and Green deny its relevance.

Could you please clarify that for me? Thanks.


At 5:32 PM, Blogger Cole said...

I do not have any secondary sources backing me up, but my reading of Geneology of Morals has a dynamic conception of higher men, where traits that make the higher man at one point make a lower man further down the road. So the Red warlords take over but then lose their power to the Blue mythic ascetics who in turn lose to Orange scientific ascetics. In Geneology, Nietzsche actually praises the ascetic ideal in that it developed the discipline necessary for the higher men to devote themselves to a life project; my understanding is that the Overman reflects the earlier heroes in that he does not behold himself to a morality beyond himself yet differs in that he has a personal telos beyond momentary expressions of personal power. It also suggests to me, though not textually based at all, developmental schemes where higher tiers recapitulate development of the lower tiers (Spiral Dynamics, Leary-Wilson model).

I understood nihilism to only make claims about our interpretations and knowledge, rejecting idealism not as false but as immaterial for we have no way of ascertaining objective knowledge. I do not think that nihilism requires the rejection of relative knowledge.

I'll try to restate my objection to the red herring comment. Orange and Green may both accept the logical claim that their values have no basis in themselves, yet reject any relevance to that emptiness.

At 7:37 AM, Blogger MD said...

This is how tone deaf you are Chris when all you want to do is ram everything down the "we need developmental worldspace framework" rah rah rah hobbyhorse:

You patronize: "Complete with a reference to C.S. Lewis and everything. Theology from the 1950s in other words. Not wrong per se just out of date.

But it was Hitchens who brought up C.S. Lewis in the first place! So when Wilson counters that, he cites Abolition of Man. Not to demonstrate anything "out of date" or "1950s" (whatever the hell that means, but it is clearly a cheap put down) but because it was on the floor. To not respond would be to concede Hitchens' use of Lewis, and why would Wilson do that?

And, your own diversion into the irrelevant territory of the American founders personal beliefs ignores, as usual, what is actually said -- which is Wilson's probing question of how is it that if Western Christian culture was so totalitarian, it produced, through the ages, the concept of liberty?

What is funny to me is how you ignore how Wilson artfully deconstructed Hitchens' logic. What point of Hitchens' survives Wilson's first response? Nada, which is precisely why Hitchens attempts to bag out with the "casuistry" cop out.

Chris, the first task of being able to read the world is to suspend disbelief -- which means put aside your predecided hobbyhorses.

Hitchens isn't "orange"; there is nothing "fragmented"; there are no "worldspaces" at play here. You can't demonstrate otherwise. Literally, it is unprovable for you to be valid in thinking there are.

In this way you ignore the plain dynamics of this debate, you are like the person who, faced with a rose garden overcome by weeds and lack of care, suggest the solution is, not to rip out the weeds and support the already extant roses (which is genuine hard work, and unsexy), but to say, what we really need here is a comprehensive garden plan that takes into account the various theories about gardens. Anything less than that is partial and fragmented. Meanwhile, sane people listening to you go, "ummm, okaaaaaaaaay"...

Since you can't convince ANYONE who doesn't already buy into "developmental worldspaces" rah rah that your "meta" position is valid, such as people who might come to your site somehow after reading Christianity Today, why persist in this folly? Or are you not concerned about people outside the Wilber choir?

frustrated but always hopeful,

At 3:57 PM, Blogger CJ Smith said...


[Cole I promise a response to you to come...]

Don't exactly know where to start, kinda bird spray firing you went on there. So if my response has that feel I apologize.

My point was that even if Wilson does do a good job of critiquing Hitchens he then introduces his (Wilson's) own problematic schema.

It solves one set of problems only to create another. I call that partial, if you want me to call it something else, nominate a word or two.

You could then I suppose, Wilson won but in my mind that's not much of a victory. More like didn't lose any territory.

Further I argued that given my use of stage-analysis and its first principles, Wilson is bound to fall into something like this problem. If not this exact one, something like it.

Those are two different arguments and someone could agree with me on point #1 while disagreeing on #2.

But your comment to me conflated those two. Since its clear rightly or wrongly you don't accept #2, then I'll proceed with a defense of point #1.

Take the Lewis issue, since you raised it.

Hitchens quotes Lewis saying that Jesus taught the ethics he did only because he thought the end was imminent.

Wilson then replies with a Lewis quote that nonbelievers can understand morality but the real issue is the lack of grace.

On both points I actually think Lewis is wrong. Or I guess not very accurate.

There is some background to this, unmentioned. Lewis was paraphrasing the great Albert Schweitzer in his book on the Historical Jesus from around 1900 on the idea that Jesus thought the end was imminent and ethics are only true relative to that context.

This is where the Lewis quotation comes from which often comes up in these debates (from both sides): that Jesus was either crazy or the Messiah.

Actually it could have been neither. Once you realize that the framework has serious flaws in it.

It is much better to say that Jesus thought the end or rather the new beginning was already here----"The Kingdom of God has come among you." It was not fulfilled and this creates the expectation of a climax but the kingdom was not only a future event. This has massive implications for the ethics debate and throws into question the whole crazy/Messiah dyad.

God was already restoring Israel and the ethics are, in part, an ethics of living in the restoration. Hence the admission of "sinners". [N.T. Wright and E.P. Sanders are good on this point].

But it also true that Jesus represents a figure familiar to the lands of The Galilee: a rustic, Elijah-like prophet, who lives a simple life, calls for divestment of goods, heals, and calls God "Abba". See Geza Vermes (Jesus the Jew) for more on this point.

And this latter group taught many of the same ethics without an apocalyptic framework.

All those books quoted incidentally were written from about 1970 on, hence the reference to bad 1950s theology. [There is good 1950s theology btw]. Or rather out of date.

Lewis also wrote before the massive change in Christian understanding of Second Temple Judaism which came from the work of E.P. Sanders (Paul and Palestinian Judaism, which I'm reading now).

Lewis is certainly right that non-believers can understand morality, but if the issue is grace then Lewis (and Wilson?) would be better served by extending their understanding of grace to include other religions, in my view.

I won't get into here, but non-believers is a very imperfect term because as I'm constantly saying everyone believes in something. That's why think a structural analysis adds key insights because it follows what people believe not these very abstract debates with un-defined terms lobbed about.

I can't speak for Wilson on this point, but Lewis certainly believed that the Judaism of Jesus' day was a legalistic (non-grace) religion of quotients to be fastidiously kept. The caricature of the Pharisees in the Gospels in other words.

What Sanders showed was that the Law/Torah in Judaism from the earliest days right through to Jesus and beyond into Rabbinic Judaism is that the giving of the Law (which Jews will celebrate in about 10 days Shavuot) was a matter of freely chosen election, a gift of grace.

In this article Wilson is responding to the question of Christianity, so fair enough.

But if the issue is grace (and let's say it is), then if I were penning a response I probably would show how the so-called Great World Religions or some of them anyway, through grace establish moral systems.

Otherwise, Wilson is left as I said with a traditional Protestant argument about Law/Grace, which he is of course free to do and likely believes, which is fine, I just think that it is open to a whole series of criticisms itself.

And relatedly, it assumes there is no grace in atheism, a point shared by both Wilson and Hitchens. A point on which they I think are wrong. Sam Harris has mystical experiences so did Bertrand Russell.

I'm not sure given that the two Lewis quotes concern quite different issues that it was necessary that Wilson bring up Lewis as you suggest. Wilson never answered the question about whether Jesus' ethics apply today and/or should have applied for so long given the charge they were only applicable in an end-time sequence. So maybe he did accede the point to Hitchens, I don't know?

As to the Founders, I myself wouldn't believe this but there is an easy enough (seems to me) response to the question about how could Western society have been so totalitarian if it produced liberty?

Namely that new things, "black swans", "emergent" phenomena, actually occur. We see this is in evolution all the time.

No doubt Hitchens would argue that as soon as a Voltaire or Paine stepped on to the scene and jettisoned religion that is when liberty sprouted. Again I would say that is at best 1/4 right.

I know this won't get me anywhere, but something more or less like a combination of Wilson and Hitchens is what would be predicted through a level analysis. Namely that new things are possible and while elements of the previous system are retained they are re-interpreted.

Liberty could be one such item.

I think Zakaria's tracing of the rise of Western classical liberalism, in his book The Future of Liberty is the best in this regard. The first place to look is the Papal-HRE fight in the medieval period. The Papacy creates the first "NGO" outside the control of the state. The state then must learn to govern without recourse to secular principles. [This same principle is why I believe Iran will go secular some point fairly soon minus an outside intervention ]

And then certainly the Reformers add a piece, but even there remember Luther called on the princes to exterminate the peasant revolutionaries. Calvin and his people threw non-conformist Anabaptists in the river (literally).

There is certainly a trendline moving through Aquinas and more importantly Hugo Grotius that even God is answerable to the Natural Law. In Protestant exegesis this is why even though God the Father loved Jesus he had to let him die on the cross because fair is fair and the standards of justice could not be overruled. There were others who argued differently (Scotus, Ockham) and I don't want to get back into the Ratzinger v. Islam debate but this does link up with that point.

That notion of a standard of justice outside the control of the divine and any human authority (divinely mandated or otherwise) would link up I think with the notions of providence in the Founders.

But that would not totally sit well with Wilson' Reformed theology. Because Calvinistic theology is based on the primary assumption that God is Pure Majesty without bounds. Was Calvin too Muslim?

My sense is if you follow that Natural Law argument then the Natural Law is really God. In which case you either become a Deist or a scientific materialist and believe in the Laws of Nature. All of which may be right but is not Christian covenantal theology. That's why as I said I think while it helped Wilson on one level against Hitchens there are consequences that I don't think Wilson wants to maintain either.

Peace. Chris

At 4:09 PM, Blogger CJ Smith said...


PS. I'm not sure I"m standing on the outside of the garden pontificating about how un-integral the garden is.

I think, if we're on the topic of Jesus, I'm following the mandate--let them both grow (the wheat and the tares) until the harvester comes. He knows better than anyone of us.

At 4:22 PM, Blogger CJ Smith said...


Thanks for the response that helped me understand better.

So I think you're right on Nietzsche (sorry I think I said it was Beyond Good and Evil and you were right it was Genealogy of Morals). Esp. like the recapitulation idea.

I guess regarding nihilism: denying that we can know objective knowledge is a form of objectivity. But you're right relative truth is definitely not denied, which is I think another way of saying the same thing. Or what I (clumsily?) tried to say by saying no one was a full on nihilist when pushed into have to make certain basic decisions.

Solid point about accepting the premise, denying the conclusions. My question is given you said that it was orange/green who did this did you mean, to put it way too crudely, "atheist" orange/green or all manner of orange & green? I would accept the latter proposition and in a large sense that is why I think these debates never go anywhere. Bc I think it is a limitation inherent in the stage(s) regardless of which "version" of that stage one holds.

In other words, I would say both of them suffer from the malaise you outline. Do you agree with that way of putting it? Peace.



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