Faith No More
What I've learned from debating religious people around the world.
This week sees the opening on various cinema marquees of the film Collision: a buddy-and-road movie featuring last year's debates between Pastor Douglas Wilson, who is a senior fellow at New St. Andrew's College, and your humble servant. (If I may be forgiven, it's also available on DVD, and you can buy our little book of exchanges, Is Christianity Good for the World?)
Newsweek's reviewer beseeches you not to go and see the film, largely on the grounds that it features two middle-aged white men trying to establish which one is the dominant male. I would have thought that this would be reason enough to buy a ticket, but perhaps she would have preferred the debate held in London last week featuring me and Stephen Fry (two magnificent specimens of white mammalhood) versus a female member of Parliament who is a Tory Catholic convert and the Roman Catholic archbishop of Abuja, Nigeria. It filled one of the largest halls in the city, and many people had to be turned away. For a combination of reasons, the subject of religion is back where it always ought to be—at the very center of any argument about the clash of world views.
Ever since I invited any champion of faith to debate with me in the spring of 2007, I have been very impressed by the willingness of the other side to take me, and my allies, up on the offer. A renowned scholar like Richard Dawkins, who is quite used to filling halls wherever he goes with his explanations of biology, is now finding himself on platforms with dedicated people who really, truly do not believe that evolution is anything more than "a theory." I have been all over the South, in front of capacity and overflow crowds, exchanging views with Protestants most of the time, but also with Catholics and, in New York and the West Coast and Canada, with—mostly Reform—Jews in large and well-attended synagogues. (So far no invitations from Orthodox Jews, Mormons, or Muslims.)
I haven't yet run into an argument that has made me want to change my mind. After all, a believing religious person, however brilliant or however good in debate, is compelled to stick fairly closely to a "script" that is known in advance, and known to me, too. However, I have discovered that the so-called Christian right is much less monolithic, and very much more polite and hospitable, than I would once have thought, or than most liberals believe. I haven't been asked to Bob Jones University yet, but I have been invited to Jerry Falwell's old Liberty University campus in Virginia, even though we haven't yet agreed on the terms.
Wilson isn't one of those evasive Christians who mumble apologetically about how some of the Bible stories are really just "metaphors." He is willing to maintain very staunchly that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and that his sacrifice redeems our state of sin, which in turn is the outcome of our rebellion against God. He doesn't waffle when asked why God allows so much evil and suffering—of course he "allows" it since it is the inescapable state of rebellious sinners. I much prefer this sincerity to the vague and Python-esque witterings of the interfaith and ecumenical groups who barely respect their own traditions and who look upon faith as just another word for community organizing. (Incidentally, just when is President Barack Obama going to decide which church he attends?)
Usually, when I ask some Calvinist whether he is really a Calvinist (in the sense, say, of believing that I will end up in hell), there is a slight reluctance to say yes, and a slight wince from his congregation. I have come to the conclusion that this has something to do with the justly famed tradition of Southern hospitality: You can't very easily invite somebody to your church and then to supper and inform him that he's marked for perdition. More to the point, though, you soon discover that many of those attending are not so sure about all the doctrines, either, just as you very swiftly find out that a vast number of Catholics don't truly believe more than about half of what their church instructs them to think. Every now and then I read reports of polls that tell me that more Americans believe in the virgin birth or the devil than believe in Darwinism: I'd be pretty sure that at least some of these are unwilling to confess their doubts to someone who calls them up on their kitchen phone. Meanwhile, by any measurement, the number of those who profess allegiance to no church (I am not claiming these as atheists, just skeptics) are the fastest-growing minority in America. And don't tell me that warfare increases faith and that there are no unbelievers in foxholes: Only recently I was invited to a very spirited meeting of the freethinkers' group at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., where there has been a revolt against on-campus proselytizing by biblical-literalist instructors.
Thanks to the foolishness of the "intelligent design" faction, which has tried with ignominious un-success to smuggle the teaching of creationism into our schools under a name that is plainly stupid rather than intelligent, and thanks to the ceaseless preaching of hatred and violence against our society by the fanatics of another faith, as well as other related behavior, such as the mad attempt by messianic Jews to steal the land of other people, the secular movement in the United States is acquiring a confidence that it has not known in years, while many of those who put their faith in revelation and prophecy and prayer are feeling the need to give an account of themselves. This is a wholly good development, and it is part of the pluralism and polycentrism that distinguish the sort of society that we have to defend against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.