I know it’s a bit belated, but I have to tell you about the debate I was at on Saturday, between the famous atheist Christopher Hitchens and the also relatively famous Christian apologist John Lennox. The motion they were debating was, ‘The new Europe should prefer the new Atheism,’ a motion which gives plenty scope for intriguing discussion in itself, but also – perhaps deliberately – backgrounded some of the more commonly debated fundamental issues surrounding the tenability of the new atheism as a worldview.
Oddly enough, there wasn’t much in what Hitchens said that I found particularly objectionable. He discussed the Danish cartoons controversy in terms of how appalling it would be if Europe turned into an Islamic theocracy, as indeed it would be, then mentioned a few other things which he disapproved of (such as teaching creationism in schools and selling indulgences), pointing out that they were religiously motivated – as indeed they are. Nor in fact was he as offensive as I might have feared. Hitchens strikes me as charming, entertaining, and also ruthlessly ferocious in his denunciations of religion – I went prepared to steel myself against the arrogance and merciless scorn which I perceive (I’m sorry to say) as the clearest hallmarks of the New Atheism. Yet, strangely, all guns blazing he wasn’t. And although he rounded off by saying that the New Europe should adopt secularism as a core value, if you were simply going on the contents of what he said in his 15-minute opening statement, he didn’t seem to be arguing particularly closely or strongly that ‘the new atheism’ should be the specific philosophy flavouring that secularism.
This left Lennox in the happy position of not having much to disagree with – and freed him up to expose those aspects and implications of the arguments embodied in the new atheism which are most problematic, and most undesirable – whether for any given individual, or more relevantly, for the New Europe as a whole. He brought up many of the most obvious popular apologetics arguments which serve as a convenient first line of defence when the choice is between the New Atheism and religion of any sort whatsoever. (It is interesting, if I can interpolate a comment of my own, that Hitchens seemed to act as though demonstrating the flaws in any religious system whatsoever, say militant Islam, is a demonstration that all religions of every sort are worthless, including Christianity as represented by, say, traditional Anglicanism. As if they were equivalent in any meaningful way.) Lennox mentioned, for instance, the need to distinguish between the use and abuse of religion, then went on to point out the way that Christian values underpin many of the aspects of European civilisation, including the freedoms which the new atheism makes use of in order to condemn (Christian) religion, and he also highlighted how illiberal it is of the new atheism to desire to eliminate religion from public and private life.
There followed a discussion based on questions from the floor. On two questions, there was what we can only call a mysterious and selective glitch in the sound system such that specifically Mr Hitchens was unable to hear or understand what was being said. One challenged his analysis of Russian militarism, giving points of information which undermined the argument he’d been making; the other came from an elderly and slightly doddery local gentleman, who wanted to know how an atheist would counsel the parents of a twenty-something involved in a tragic accident whose injuries couldn’t be treated by the doctors. For whatever reason, we didn’t hear a response from Mr Hitchens on either issue.
Another contribution from the floor was intriguing in a different way. Someone made the brief statement that she thanked John Lennox for defending her right to believe whatever she wanted, while believing she was going to suffer in hell eternally. Hard to tell if she meant it seriously – if she did, it was a generous acknowledgement that no reciprocal generosity is offered from the New Atheists, who, it would seem, are devoted in the main to ridiculing Christianity out of existence. Yet it remains perplexing that if people think about heaven and hell at all, they are automatically convinced that hell is their inevitable destination – as if heaven wasn’t a genuine alternative, or as if it wasn’t the case that (to paraphrase what someone said yesterday) everyone who ends up in heaven is someone who in themselves deserved the opposite.
The closing statement from Christopher Hitchens has also stuck in my mind. Rather than restate any of his arguments or rebut points raised by John Lennox, everything he said in conclusion was a new point which hadn’t been discussed in the preceding hour and a half. Specifically, he spent a lot of time on what he called vicarious redemption (neither redemption nor vicariousness had been mentioned at all previously). The strange thing was that he gave a passable and quite gripping account of what the gospel offers – someone to pay the debt of all your sins, so that you are no longer accountable for them – yet he twisted it round right at the end to exclaim over how immoral this scheme of redemption seemed to be to him. Setting aside the issue of where his standards of morality came from that allowed him to pass such a judgment, his condemnation of vicarious atonement (for so it would probably be better termed) is a fine example of nothing so much as breathtakingly missing the point: the counter-imputation of our sins and Christ’s righteousness is a scheme where the most absolute standards of morality and justice are preserved absolutely intact. As Romans 3 explains, in the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, God declares his righteousness: he declares, I say, his righteousness, that he might be just, and the justifier of those that believe in Jesus.
As I say, I don’t think Hitchens was on top of his scathing form, and I don’t think he presented much of a case for the New Atheism as a prescription for the New Europe rather than generic secularism – and on the positive side, Lennox heartily presented some upbeat recommendations, a vision for the new Europe based on the shared morality of its population, interacted with questions from the floor in a cheerful and non-patronising manner, and basically was geniality personified. Whatever made the difference, when they counted the numbers for and against the motion at the end, there was a clear majority opposing the motion. At least from what I could see, there were no fewer in favour of the motion compared to when the numbers were counted right at the start ahead of the debate, but the people who had identified themselves as don’t-knows had swung substantially against the motion. Whatever difference it makes.