Berlinski vs. Hitchens: An agnostic secular Jew and an atheist debate the implications of a purely secular society.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — On Sept. 7, David Berlinski and Christopher Hitchens met for a debate in Birmingham, Alabama. Hosted by the Fixed Point Foundation, the debate premise was “Atheism Poisons Everything,” a spin off of the subtitle of Hitchens’ book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.
Arguing the affirmative was David Berlinski, a secular Jew and agnostic whose intellectual background ranges from mathematics to molecular biology. Arguing the negative was Christopher Hitchens, a prominent atheist and seasoned polemical journalist.
I attended the debate with my father, my brother Joseph and my good friend Lindy Abbott. We were among the sold-out audience of 1,200. Hitchens appeared to be the main attraction, as it was one of the few appearances he would be able to make because of his battle with esophageal cancer.
In terms of my expectations for the debate, I was interested in listening to Darwinian critic Berlinski, who is such an anomaly among his colleagues that I’ve taken to referring to him as the S.E. Cupp of the scientific world (and vice versa).
But I was particularly looking forward to hearing Hitchens explain why atheism isn’t toxic. Yet his responses did not clearly defend atheism as much as condemn religion to be infinitely worse.
Berlinski seemed to have the upper hand in most of the debate because of this. He cited a social history of atheism, which brought him to the conclusion, “I submit to you that [regarding the notable regimes in that history] the 20th century was one of unparalleled stupidity, brutality and violence.”
Berlinski said that the deplorable regimes of that century were ruled by leaders whose agendas were influenced by atheism, notably because they believed in “no greater power than their own.” He also said they derived support from “crackpot theories” in the field of science.
Furthermore, Berlinski said the “inquiry about atheism is not necessary for scientific [progress]” and that the “serious sciences” (math and physics) do not argue for or against God. He pointed out that Christianity developed the Western scientific tradition (even Hitchens conceded this) and reasoned that atheism ultimately has a “deforming influence on science.” To explain consistency in the universe and find stability in civilization, Berlinski said that the Judeo-Christian view is the most reasonable and sufficient for society.
Hitchens’ response was a jab at a creator God. If such a designer exists, he argued, then “he must be a piteously wasteful, capricious designer,” because the incredibly vast universe is evidently lifeless except for our tiny planet. (“Just because our part of the universe is small doesn’t mean it isn’t the center,” countered Berlinski).
Hitchens described a religious person as “wearing a heavy coat, dragging a ball and chain,” with no ambition for the present world. Being an atheist, argued Hitchens, is not a political or moral position – it is compatible with many different ideologies.
When asked which of Jesus’ teachings he believed to be evil, Hitchens responded that the “concept of vicarious redemption is a disgusting and immoral doctrine.” He went on to say that the “moral rot of Christianity is vicarious forgiveness.”
At one point, moderator Larry Taunton asked Berlinski an intriguing hypothetical question from the list: Would he prefer a secular or an Islamic Europe?
“I have no clue,” said Berlinski. “The question has no provocative sense of urgency.”
Hitchens was eager to assert what his answer would be, which gave him the opportunity to appear more decisive. But neither man’s response was satisfying to me.
As a woman, I heard the question a little differently. Would I rather live in a society in which I’m at risk of being locked away and married to some strange sheikh or live in a society in which I’m at risk of being forced to have an abortion because I’m carrying an unwanted specimen of the human race? Neither, to be quite honest.
One may argue that the latter is not the result of atheist thought. Well, no, not every atheist would condone such a thing. Like Hitchens said, atheism isn’t a moral view, but rather something compatible with a range of convictions. Therein lies the inefficacy of atheism as a unified foundation for a society. That is probably why Richard Dawkins calls himself a “cultural Christian.”
The hypothetical question made the entire premise of the debate seem to unravel.
If Hitchens was right in saying that the examples of atheistic regimes weren’t actually governed by atheism, then a purely secular society has never successfully existed and the debate, in a legal sense, has no ripeness.
If Berlinski was right in tracing harmful statist regimes to atheistic thought, then there are no long-standing examples to emulate – and certainly no appealing ones. China is officially atheist, but it is no beacon of human rights and liberties. Communism is apparently the only system of government which can sustain a secular society, but the fruit of its soil can hardly be called pleasant.
Although fascinating, the premise “Atheism Poisons Everything” was awfully vague (like Hitchens’ premise that religion poisons everything). Does anything poison everything?
One could say, in the abstract, that atheism poisons everything, because the Luciferian concept of tolerating no higher power than one’s self has been a prime motivator of secularist regimes – and disbelief in a higher power is atheistic. In his opening remarks, Berlinski said, “I’m perfectly aware, as you should be aware, that the proposition that atheism poisons everything is perfectly compatible with the proposition that religion poisons something.”
Religion, like any cultural system of man, can be poisonous when it becomes an oppressive, formulaic organization.
But being religiously against religion is at least as toxic, and this is what Berlinski perceives to be the problem with New Atheism.
The goal of the debate was to discern the implications of a secular society. It was an amazing thing to observe, really: A heretical debate carried out safely in a truly free country. The United States of America is not a secular state, nor is it a Church state. Israel is regarded as one of the pillars of the West, and it was the Judeo-Christian principles of human dignity that arose from it that cultured such advances as the field of science and the U.S. Constitution’s precious First Amendment:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
No religious state or secular state could improve that. Forced belief and forced unbelief are equally insufferable.
The debate will be aired by C-SPAN2 at 6 p.m. CST Saturday, Sept. 18 and 7 a.m. CST Sunday, Sept. 19. You can also pre-order the DVD and read more about the questions raised during the debate from www.fixed-point.org.
Read more of Amanda’s column Not Your Average Read in the Communities at The Washington Times.