A Toast to Hitchens

I woke up to the news that Christopher Hitchens has died. Well, that sucks. Controversial and ornery though he could be, he was also a superb writer, thinker, and pusher-of-boundaries. So, in his honor, I’ve dug up an old post I did in 2008, reporting on his debate with Frank Turek over the existence of god at VCU. Hope you enjoy.

September 11, 2008:

On Tuesday night, I joined my VAA fellows in going to Richmond to see Frank Turek and Christopher Hitchens debate the existence of god, as mentioned in an earlier post. And I took notes. Boy did I take notes. I was jumping up and down in my seat at some points with retorts and comments bubbling out of my brain! I don’t know why I’m so darn hyper sometimes. I’ve written about it and it’s appearing as a two-part post on Brother Richard’s Life Without Faith. [Editor's note: link no longer goes to my post. See below!] Many many thanks to him for taking me on as a guest blogger!

Thanks again to the fabulous guys and gals of the VCU United Secular Alliance for hosting this incredible event. And a “hello!” to their president, Roy, who I finally met in person but have known as the “bionic atheist” online. And of course, to the VAA people who were just great and witty and fun and intelligent and entertaining on the drive there and back, before the debate, after the debate, and at dinner.

Also, *fangirl moment.* So we were waiting on this huuuge line to get Hitchens to sign our books and chat and such. And I knew what I wanted to say, which I wrote about in my long post above, but what I didn’t mention is that I’m an idiot when talking to people I admire and stumble over my words, but I think it came out okay. However, when I went to shake Christopher Hitchens’s hand, he took it up and he kissed it! So of course I’m stumbling even more like a moron, but I think he took my compliment and understood my point. Anyway, that was charming and cool.

Off to go play with my new iPod Touch… I mean, get work done.

What follows is the review of the debate, at least the version that exists on my computer:

10 September 2008

On September 9th, the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) United Secular Alliance hosted a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Frank Turek on the pressing question, “Does God Exist?” Christopher Hitchens is well known in the atheist community for his book “God is Not Great” but has an impressive list of publications on the subjects of religions, politics, and anything else under the sun. Frank Turek, is co-author of “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist” and promises to show why you shouldn’t either on the video on his website. This was setting up to be a great debate. So, I headed on over to Richmond with the fabulous members of Virginia Atheists and Agnostics (VAA) from UVa. After a hilarious and intellectually stimulating car ride, we sat in the packed auditorium (there were TWO overflow rooms) chatting about our expectations for the debate and trying to pick out the Christians from the atheists by sight. Needless to say, t-shirts tend to give it away.

The debate was moderated by Dr. Timothy Hulsey, the Dean of the Honors College and Associate Professor of Psychology at VCU. He asked Turek to start the debate since he was arguing in the affirmative. To be honest, I was actually excited to hear what Turek had to say. After all, can he really show that atheism depends on faith? Can he bring something new to the discussion and make a convincing argument for a god or gods? However, one of his first statements struck a wrong note. he said that both he and his opponent had the burden of proof to present in this argument. He seemed to fail to realize that the burden of proof rest on the affirmative, or on the believer, in any test of reality. Okay, let’s let him make his points.

He claimed three arguments: cosmological, teleological, and moral. (Oh goodie, I’m an astronomer, I can’t wait to hear the cosmological argument.) Turek talked about the Big Bang and evidence for it, including the second law of thermodynamics (okay…), the expansion of the universe (good), the cosmic microwave background (great!), the irregularities in that background radiation (good), and Einstein’s relativity which links time and space (well done, sir!). His argument then turns to, and I paraphrase, “nothing was before the Big Bang, and something came from nothing, therefore an intelligent creator had to make that choice to bring it into being.” Hold it now, what? The current understanding of physics only probes back to the fraction of a second after the Big Bang, so we don’t know what came before it. For a time, before it was realized that the universe’s expansion is accelerating, it was considered possible that the expansion could decelerate, and the universe would collapse back on itself to create another Big Bang and another universe with a different set of conditions. There is also the hypothesis that there are many universes, or a multiverse, such that Big Bangs are happening all the time, creating different universes. The point is, we just don’t know. Science has a gap, and Turek is happy to fill that gap with his creator god. Has he not learned from the lessons of history that the “god of the gaps” argument falls apart in light of new evidence? Also, he ignores the problem of infinite regression. If the creator created the universe, how was the creator created from nothing? Turek basically proclaims, with a bit of arrogance, in my opinion, that he has all the answers in the face of deep questions about the universe and our existence. This is starting to sound like every other weak argument for god that I have heard. He falls right into the logical fallacy that just because something is currently unexplained that is must be forever unexplainable and thus relegated to the supernatural. And atheists are the ones with too much faith?

This argument continues with a string of quote mining from too many astronomers for me to count. Many scientists, whether theist, deist, or atheist, have used the word “God” to emphasize a gap in our knowledge or wonder at the majesty of the cosmos and how little of it we understand to date. So, that is fertile ground for quote mining, as if arguments from authority hold any weight in science. He extensively quotes Fred Hoyle, who, as any astronomer could tell you, rejected the Big Bang hypothesis in favor of the discredited Steady State universe, shunning scientific evidence and discourse to do so. Next, Turek goes on to explain that the constants of the universe and the placement of our planet and all of that is tuned just perfectly for life to exist. To be honest, I haven’t been able to sit down and work out the math, but I suspect that the error bars for the balance of forces in the universe are larger than many claim them to be, and that some sort of matter could still arise from a host of conditions, thus opening up the door for replicating matter, or life. I will get to more objections to Turek’s points through the words of Hitchens later on.

His teleological argument springs forward from this, claiming that life is clearly intelligently designed. He talks about “macroevolution” and the complexity of DNA and the impossibility of all of these arising by “pure chance.” This is, again, the same old drek that you hear from creationists, IDists, and others that gets shot down again and again. Natural selection is NOT equivalent to pure chance! Mutations occur by chance, and only the tiny fraction of those that actually help the organism thrive survive to spread throughout the gene pool. Evolution is an observed fact; natural selection is the clearest, simplest, and most well supported explanation and is widely accepted by the scientific community. You know the drill by now.

The final piece of the puzzle is morality. This is a concept that Turek twisted and misunderstood and kept ramming into the debate time and time again throughout the evening. Basically, he says that there cannot be moral objectivity without god, or, we do not know what is right and wrong without some higher power governing us. He points out that this does not mean that atheists cannot be moral or that theists cannot be immoral, just that morality must come from on high. After all, how can rationality and mathematics come from randomness? How does reason come about from chemical interactions within our brain? Here, he makes the fatal mistake of equating atheism with determinism, despite the fact that, and I paraphrase John Cleese, “since the 1920s quantum mechanics has destroyed forever the notion that everything can be described mechanically.” Turek again sees a gap in our knowledge, that being the questions, “Where does our morality come from? How should we determine it? What causes reason, consciousness, and the mind?” He says it must be another mind, that of our creator, again ignoring infinite regression. He ignores the advances in neurobiology that have discovered chemicals that create feelings of love and happiness. He ignores evolution and sociology and humanism. I strongly recommend that you read Michael Shermer’s “The Science of Good and Evil” to get a feel for this field of study, and to avoid sticking god into this gap.

Now, on to Hitchens’s opening statements. I’d like to pause to apologize for the long summary of Turek’s opening statements, since they are so full of my own rebuttals. Since Hitchens is not a scientist, he did not address those points in the way that I would have, so I have included my own for completeness, lest you think that Turek’s claims could go unanswered. But more on that later.

Hitchens points out that god is real, at least to some people. Just as heaven is real, and hell is real in the fear of children, and limbo is real to distraught Catholic mothers who have lost their unbaptized babies, even after the Catholic Church has said that limbo does not exist. Hitchens sees it as his mission of sorts to overthrow the type of people that would use this type of lying and fear to subjugate people under their supposed moral superiority. (May I say, wow.) He points out that religion in general claims infallibility of its belief system. In particular, the Catholic Church claims infallibility of the papal teachings, and yet the late John Paul II had to apologize for the mistakes in the Church’s past, such as the Holocaust and the Crusades. And people of faith just have to accept that. An atheist such as himself will not take that for an answer, and he has seen no convincing argument to date that says that god should exist.

Hitchens accuses Turek of “tap dancing” from deism to theism to Christianity in his arguments, and wonders how he knows which of the many gods throughout history, or which personal god, is this creator. He links religion to servility, wishful thinking, and ignorance. After all, there is no need for gods or supernatural explanations when natural explanations do a much better job. (Here, a reference to Laplace would have been appropriate, but again, I am astronomy-biased.) And even still, how does one get from a deistic designer to a personal god that answers prayers and all the rest? He calls the argument from morality “egregious.” After all, instructions from on high reflect a certain need for servility that is just callous and cruel in his point of view. He challenges the audience to think of one moral action or thought that a believer can do or think that a non-believer cannot. (It’s hard, and I couldn’t do it.) Then, think of an immoral action or thought that a believer can commit that a non-believer cannot. His examples include suicide bombing and genital mutilation. After all, instructions from on high certainly trump all else. Here, I digress to disagree slightly. Although I understand that religion is dangerous and allows for these sorts of atrocities to be considered moral, I do not think that these atrocities would not exist without religion. There are a host of irrational beliefs that need not be supernatural to encourage such immorality and claim superior authority. Racism, tribalism, patriotism, hero-worship, and many more can be used and misused without religion to attain these ends.

I’ll get back to Hitchens’s argument, where he points out that all the cosmological evidence points to a “heat death” of the universe. How does theism’s god allow for that? How does he or she or it allow for suffering? This creator is simply a totalitarian monarch, the ultimate “Big Brother” that looks for your mistakes and can convict you of thoughtcrime. Why would we “wish to live as an abject slave?”

Next, each speaker got five minutes for rebuttal, then asked questions of each other directly. This was followed by questions from the audience that were written on index cards and collected by ushers. I’ll try and keep this brief and point out the highlights, since after all, video should be available soon to satiate your hunger for the whole thing! Turek claims that other gods, such as Zeus, do not fit his notion of a personal god (isn’t that convenient) in response to the challenge to explain why his god is better than all the rest. He challenges Hitchens to a second debate in which they can argue New Testament theology and evidence, which prompts Hitchens to later point out that Turek never talks about his own faith, but instead hides behind scanty attempts at evidence in order to support his unsupportable world view. Hitchens also points out the obvious fact that theism asks us to turn away from scientific and moral inquiry. Here, I interject to mention Laplace again and his lack of a need for a “god hypothesis” in the motions of the planets. I am particularly moved by Neil deGrasse Tyson’s observations that Newton may have been able to figure out perturbation theory before Laplace if he hadn’t given up and said “god did it” when faced with scientific difficulty.

Hitchens conservatively estimates that homo sapiens has existed on the planet, at least once nearing extinction, a fate which has consumed at least 98% of the world’s species, for 70,000 years. First, this answers Turek’s point about the perfect design of the universe for life. After all, in this wide universe, only an immeasurably tiny speck that is this planet is known to support life, and is in precarious balance for life as we know it. Humans have just barely adapted to survive here, and not with the best of design either. The designer isn’t very good. Also, monotheism has existed for only 5,000 years at most, so what took heaven so long to intervene in our species?

The period in which they questioned each other convinced me that each man was talking past the other. Not on purpose, mind you, but each starting set of assumptions is so different, that they just couldn’t accept the basic premises of some of the questions. Turek kept harping on determinism and claiming to have all the answers, such as the belief that god will intervene before the universe’s heat death. Hitchens cannot possibly respond rationally to this and says, “Have it your way.” At one point, Turek keeps hounding on his “molecules” and starts to ask, “But where does evil come from…?” and Hitchens interrupts with, “Religion. Where does good come from? Humanism.” Turek proceeds to Godwin the whole discussion and Hitchens replies that Hitler, Stalin, Hirohito, and the like were anything but secular. I guess that answers my earlier disagreement with Hitchens that religion is not the only irrational, destructive belief system. Hitchens, finally, at one point, tells the audience that Turek has not produced on shred of scientific evidence for his claims of a creator.

Many more points are discussed, such as abortion, the meaning of a conscience, evidence that would change one’s mind, and a little bit about sex. At the end, Hitchens declines to make a closing statement, since he feels he has already made his case (”shot my wad” was the actual wording). Instead, he asks if anyone in the audience has a question for him. One man near the front raises his hand and asks why, if he does not believe in a god, does he spend so much time refuting one? Hitchens’s answer is one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard, and I will not do it enough justice except to say that he has been galvanized by the events of 9/11 to fight the evil in the world brought on by religion and to oppose theocracy. Man, what a hero. Turek then closes with a summary of his (awful) points and a little bit of weirdness. He says that even though Hitchens seems to say, “There is no god and I hate him,” that god knows there is a Hitchens and…. wait for it…. wait for it… god loves him. Half the audience groaned while the other half applauded. Amazing. Turek then likens Hitchens to an Old Testament prophet and even to Jesus, calling the supposedly religious away from tradition and back to morality, only it is Hitchens’s morality (actually the Enlightenment as mentioned in “God is Not Great”), and thus Hitchens wants to be god. The laughter from the atheist crowd was response enough.

After the debate, we joined the huge line that formed to speak to Hitchens, books to be signed clutched in hand. Turek also had a table with a few people around it, where he tried to defend his claims to questioning audience members. Why most of the theists in the audience did not stick around, I’m not sure. At one point during this, he abused Occam’s Razor and then went on to say that the multiverse hypothesis calls for multiple creators, and so nothing good was going on there. I finally got up to Hitchens’s table where we chatted for a bit about how he should visit UVa since, after all, he quite admires Thomas Jefferson. I complimented him on his speaking style and expressed my wish that more scientists could speak like that to refute the misuse of science by people like Turek. He agreed, and was of course just as tired of hearing the same old rubbish. Overall, he was charming and intelligent and very laid back. Hopefully, we can get him to come to UVa and spend more time discussing!

So who won the debate? It’s hard to pick a clear winner when neither side could accept the other’s starting premises. It’s crystal clear which side I favor, but I hope that Hitchens’s words have planted a seed of doubt in someone’s mind. After all, he is on a heroic mission, and he doesn’t need a god to send him on his way.

Links of interest:

Christopher Hitchens
Frank Turek
God is Not Great
I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist
Wikipedia on the Big Bang
Wikipedia on Natural Selection
John Cleese Podcast
Neil deGrasse Tyson on God’s retreat from cosmology
Wikipedia on Godwin’s Law
Wikipedia on Occam’s Razor

And finally, the debate itself, all delicious 2 hours of it, was posted online several months later.

Turek vs. Hitchens Debate: Does God Exist? from Andrew Ketchum on Vimeo.

3 comments for “A Toast to Hitchens

  1. December 16, 2011 at 14:58

    Excellent post. I always thoroughly enjoyed watching him debate. Such intellect and such wit. He will be sorely missed.

  2. Joey Gilbert
    December 16, 2011 at 22:06

    Since we were created within this universe the universe has to be considered our creator. The universe also created our consciousness, this doesn’t mean the universe is conscious but I find it hard to believe that something can create something else that is “smarter” then it.

    Also it has been evident in my life that the more I love the universe and the things I interact within it, the more love I receive. Call this god or call this karma or call it nothing. My point is I believe the universe would love us if it could because it literally gave us life, like a parent, and we are all like babies to the universe no matter how old or wise we become.

    It is easy to bash religion because of all the logical fallacies but I think it is important to remember that the moral code instilled by religion helped form our society and ultimately helped create a place for science to thrive. Religious thought is evolving and should work hand in fist with science and hopefully will in the future. Religion needs some serious logical continuity. We will never have all the answers in science but we must remain steadfast and faithful that our hard work will contribute positive results and hope for a better future. This is life, this is human, you can say this is the will of God or you can say it isn’t. To me it is hard to argue that the universe doesn’t ‘want’ us to thrive considering it created all our instincts that push us to survive and create and improve and wonder and go and grow and go and reach for those effin stars!! Hmmm I wonder what is out there….

    The main point, life became infinitely more grand when I began to try and comprehend the universe.
    I don’t know if god is real but I know the universe is, for a fact, and I know it loves me because I love it so much and it has to love me because it gave me the ability to love. Ok I guess that is reaching a bit but do you seriously believe we have abilities within ourselves like love that the universe doesn’t have? How would that even be possible that something was created within us that isn’t found within the universe? I love the universe.

  3. bob
    December 21, 2011 at 05:43

    I’m never sure about this sort of thing; anyone who thinks that you can scientifically debate religion understands neither science or religion.

    Turek is an idiot (and a heretic) for trying to “prove” his faith.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *