Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Hitchens/Sharpton debate

Slate has posted the video of the recent debate between Al Sharpton and Christopher Hitchens. I watched it last night. It's pretty good.

This is the debate that caused a one-day furor because of an offhand remark that Sharpton made concerning Mitt Romney being defeated by "real Christians" or something like that. Whatever, it's hardly anything to do with the rest of the debate.

I'd not heard Hitchens speak before. He reminded me a lot of Richard Dawkins. He's clever and has thought out his arguments well. Plus, he has a British accent, which immediately gives him extra credibility and makes his insulting statements sound witty. Well, at least among us hopeless Anglophiles.

Sharpton got in a few good digs, some by recalling Hitchens's stance on the Iraq War, and many others simply by being nimble on his feet. Curiously, he made no effort to defend any particular belief or holy book, and conceded that, yes, people have a long history of doing bad things in the name of God. I'm not completely up on my Protestant sects, but as I understand it, part of what led different branches of Christianity to form and to turn away from Rome was their belief in the ability of the individual to experience and understand God. This may explain Sharpton's point of view -- he is a Pentacostal and was apparently ordained as a minister in his early teens. Another guess is that it may have been merely a debating strategy -- Sharpton seemed solely intent on defending God ("him- or herself" he was careful to say, repeatedly). He also clung to a second major point, that there can be no morality without belief in a higher power. Sharpton said that he'd read Hitchens's new book, and that while he disagreed with it, thought it was good and urged the audience to read it.

As you might expect, there was no "winner." Nor was there much convergence of viewpoints between Hitchens and Sharpton. Almost certainly, you'll finish the debate believing the same thing as you did before. But I found it entertaining, and refreshingly free of the interruptions and general rudeness that characterize most made-for-TV smackdowns these days. It was, in a word, civilized.

On a personal note, I was mostly happy to see another witty and articulate spokesman for the extreme anti-religious point of view. Hitchens did soften his stance a bit at the end. He acknowledged, even defended, the right of others to believe what they will. But he, like me, insists that those beliefs be kept private, and not imposed on him or his children. Also like me, he rejects out of hand the notion that morality requires religious faith, and instead argues that the tendency to behave properly toward others, while perhaps imperfectly developed, is innate in human beings. It is, we believe, a product of evolution, and without it, we wouldn't have lasted as a species. He did not explicitly say, but hinted at, the idea that the altruistic beliefs ascribed to religion must have come from humans themselves. This, to me, seems self-evident. Hitchens made the point most clearly by facetiously wondering if the Jews believed that murder was okay before they received the Ten Commandments.

I know that a lot of people, even some other agnostics and atheists, find the extreme anti-religious point of view offensive, and wish that this point of view would itself be kept quiet. I used to be in that camp, myself. Now, in reaction to the political clout of the other side, I believe it is important to present a firm and vocal disagreement. The philosophy of live and let live is my ideal, but I no longer think that living this way, for the time being, will work.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Apart from the fact that I agree (within measurement error) 100% with Christopher Hitchens, I was pleased to need to consult a dictionary five times (thank the designers of the video playback software for a pause button!) to look up various vocabulary the extremely articulate Hitchens used, to wit: invigilating, solipsism, confute, superarrogation, and (the gratuitously untranslated) primum non nocere. The word fatuous, used more that a few times, was nicely condescending, although Hitchens did not spare the audience more scathing and direct phrases such as “What an incredibly stupid question”. In this sense, he is refreshingly even more confrontational than Richard Dawkins.

One quibble with Hitchens (albeit on a tangential topic) was the assertion that it was perfectly moral to kill “our enemies” who are presumably trying to kill us for irrational reasons. This conveniently ignores the fact that the desire of most Americans who agree with the sentiment is based on religious or ethnocentric reasons, not dispassionate self-defense. It also ignores the reasonable possibility that religion is used by some Muslims as a justification for more mundane self-interest, such as the belief that we are exploiting our superior strategic position to dominate their culture and resources. Finally, his argument does not address the vexing question of how we know that we know that we are acting morally (our conscience is our guide, but what guards our conscience?). I think there is a morally defensible argument to this, but Hitchens did not make it.

I am much more disappointed in the Reverend Al Sharpton, who after this performance should stop calling himself Reverend. His participation had clearly been intended (beyond the sheer entertainment value that he always wonderfully brings to a debate) to defend the belief at least in a personal God, a belief which he as a Christian preacher should have been able to advocate for and defend. Instead, he stuck with the vacuous premise that God exists, independent of any influence beyond a “moral framework”, which presumably was communicated to humankind, though Sharpton fails even to make this point. In short, Al Sharpton is a boxer that took too seriously the tactical advice of a trainer to bob and weave, and made a strategic decision to bob and weave, ultimately losing his title for failure to engage. Although I believe his side of the debate is ultimately indefensible, it would have been more instructive to see an honest attempt to defend it.

In summary, although less a debate than an oral summary of the arguments put forth in Hitchen's latest book, watching it has induced me to order his book, and so (at least for one person) it was an effective presentation.