Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Hitchens vs. Wilson 'Collision' movie

OK, so finally I get round to writing a post for this blog! Don't worry, it'll probably be one a year from here on :)

So, last night I watched again the excellent documentary 'Collision' which follows atheist writer Christopher Hitchens and pastor Douglas Wilson as they tour to debate and promote their joint book 'Is Christianity Good for the World?" which arose from a correspondence on that question. It's a great film and they both come across as powerfully intelligent debaters and even though they simply couldn't disagree more on the subject in hand, they also clearly respect and enjoy each other's company.

The debates that are shown in the movie focus on several aspects of Christianity and religion in general, but the one that appears the most and seemed to me to be the foundation of Wilson's arguments for his faith is morality.

Wilson's position seems to be this - there is an objective morality and it comes directly from God. Morality is a reflection of the true nature of God, and we all have a sense of morality because it was God that created us and gave us that moral sense (ignoring the fact that some don't have it at all, but I digress). So he rebuts the argument that Hitchens puts (and is fairly common I think) that Christians believe atheists are only able to be moral because of Christianity. Wilson argues that of course atheists can be moral (just as Christians can be immoral) but that the question is not if they can, it is why they (and any of us presumably) are moral, or rather have this apparently innate sense of morality. His answer is, as mentioned, that it is an innate part of God in the first place.

OK, now that at least makes sense on the question of whether atheists can be moral. Plenty of complete idiots think they can't and of course that's total nonsense and I was glad that Wilson didn't think that. Having said that, he brought up Stalin at one point as an example of an atheist's immorality but of course being an atheist says virtually nothing about a person's capability to be moral. An atheist could be the most generous and altruistic person you know, or they could be a psychopath. Same for Christians of course, and Wilson must know that Christians in history have committed atrocities in the name of their religion (and of course that it can be argued that Stalin didn't do what he did in the name of atheism, but his own form of dogma).

He also makes the claim that atheists can have nothing to say about the God-ordered genocide of the Amalekites in the Bible because "the universe doesn't care". Here he is claiming that an atheist has no reason for saying that an act is immoral because he has no foundation to base any particular moral opinions on. I see what he means - but of course I disagree with the conclusion and I'll come back to that - but as he does have a foundation for his moral choices (God) he can have an opinion.

The problem with that is, and to his credit Wilson has no problem saying this, is that he thinks the genocide of that particular group of people was morally correct because God had ordered it. It was God's will therefore - by definition - it was morally correct. That's quite an admission. Basically to the Euthyphro dilemma (Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?) Wilson is answering the latter. It is morally good because it is commanded by God. Fullstop, end of discussion. Which when you think about it is a pretty terrifying thing to admit you believe, and simply confirms Hitchens' assertion that with God, anything is permissible. As long as you can convince yourself (or someone with perceived religious authority can convince you) that an act is God's will, then by definition that act is moral. Presumably Mohammed Atta and his 18 accomplices believed something similar.

Wilson's argument against using rationality to decide on the God question follows on from his 'foundations' argument. To argue for rationality, he says, is to make a circular argument as you are using your premise (rational thought) to prove your conclusion (rational thought). An atheist would clearly object if he were to quote Bible scripture in an attempt to prove the inerrancy of the Bible, which is the same thing. Your choice of 'world view' cannot be justified by that world view itself. Seems like a strong argument to me really, and Hitchens isn't show to give any response to it. What occurs to me though is that surely you can use results to determine the validity (or not) of your world view? Maybe I am not using the word rationality in the same way as Wilson, but the greatest expression of human rationality so far achieved has to be the scientific method. It's not perfect but it's the best way of understanding the world we have. Most importantly, as ably illustrated by the xkcd comic strip - it works, bitches!

Doesn't the extraordinary success of rationality in science point to it being a pretty good world view? What achievements does the religious world view have to show in comparison? So maybe you can't philosophically argue for rationality by using rationality, but that argument then applies to ALL world views, religious included, and so surely judging by results is the best we can do. I know which side I'm on.

Of course by making that argument Wilson must hen admit, and he does, that his world view is based on nothing but faith. Which I also find to be an almost incomprehensible decision. And leads me to another point that his discussion on morality brings up, which is this - if our sense of morality comes from God, if God's will itself defines morality and he gave us that moral sense himself - why do so many of God's actions and demands in the Old Testament seem so abhorrently immoral to us? How can Wilson decide that an act of genocide, which can only be seen as an immoral act by any sane person, is in fact a moral act when the very sense that he claims God gave him must tell him otherwise? There are countless examples in the Bible of God acting in ways that are clearly immoral to us - yet that shouldn't be possible if Wilson is right. Take the Book of Job, where God mentally and physically tortures a man to extremes to win a bet with Satan. Does he believe that because God acts in this way, those actions are morally permissible? He can't, of course, but why not when by his own admission what God wills is by definition moral? Bizarre. I have no doubt Wilson has complex and well thought out answers for all of this, but to me at this point it seems contradictory to say the least.

The other thing to mention is of course that there are many very good evolutionary theories about the origins of moral behaviour, altruism etc in humans, and plenty of evidence that many other animals also behave in these ways. So the origins of our moral sense may well have perfectly rational explanations and not require any supernatural touch whatever. If that turns out to be so, and I'm confident it will, why would anyone reject those explanations in favour of a leap of faith to believe in a God whose own actions as discussed above seem so immoral? Why believe God is moral in the first place, surely he could be good, bad or indifferent? To believe he is the perfectly moral being as Wilson does seems to fly in the face of all the available evidence (none of which actually suggests he exists in the first place of course).

Hitchens also never tackles Wilson with the problem of evil and I would like to hear Wilson's response to that. Anyone with a clear thought in their head can see that there is an unthinkable amount of suffering and pain in this world that if God wished to could be prevented. Yet it exists, Wilson must therefore not have any moral objections to God's perceived inaction. Again a pretty scary thought.

Anyway, those are my thoughts after watching the film, I highly recommend it and you can also read the initial letters between the two men here.

Sapere Aude!


  1. Thanks for sharing your insightful thoughts and pointing me in the way of this movie. However the secular manifesto of morality, etchics, fellings &alturism outside religion seems to be elusive even for guys like Hitchens.
    Which is really sad, cuz its at the core of modern/postmodern philosophy really.
    Keep it up :)

  2. Two things that might add to the structure of two missing arguments -

    1. The Amalekites were incredibly cruel and vicious, including sacrificing their own young to their gods as well as participating in violent sexual rituals including people and animals.

    2. Free will means just that - people can do what they want. Take the core of that a way and we're all just puppets.