In June 2007, I spent three-hours debating Christopher Hitchens on a live radio program. It was on of the more challenging and, to be honest, frustrating experiences of my life. Hitchens is an expert, not only in throwing verbal darts, but in evading questions that he cannot answer satisfactorily. So our debate really was not the conversation about truth that I would have preferred.
Since I was not able in the context of the debate to deal with many of the specific issues I had hoped to discuss with Hitchens, I wrote an extended critique of god is Not Great on my blog. I could make my points in this context, but was, of course, not able to receive Hitchens’ responses. Thus, he was not able to defend himself or to admit where he might have been in error.
In case you’re interested in the actual debate, I thought I’d put up the full audio version and a transcript.
Here is an audio version of the debate.
Here is the transcript:
The Great God Debate
The Hugh Hewitt Show
HH: Welcome to a special edition of the Hugh Hewitt Show, The Great God Debate, a three-hour exchange of views between Christopher Hitchens and Dr. Mark Roberts. Christopher Hitchens, a graduate of Oxford, of course, long time journalist, Vanity Fair columnist, author of many books and collections of essays, including a biography of Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, and most recently, god Is Not Great, last week, the number one bestselling non-fiction book in America. Dr. Roberts, frequent guest on this program, is a graduate of Harvard College, and also received his PhD from Harvard. He is a pastor, a professor, a blogger, and the author of six books. His latest is available this week, in fact, Can We Trust The Gospels. Gentlemen, welcome to you both. Christopher, good to have you back on.
CH: Very nice of you to have me back.
HH: And Mark, good to have you back as well.
MR: Thank you, and Christopher, it’s nice to meet you electronically.
CH: Thank you for saying so.
HH: I set up this debate with the help of my internet friends by suggesting I would be offering propositions to you both, and then having you comment on each of them as we go forth, and then cross comment. In the course of fifteen segments, I hope to get through at least a dozen of these. Many are drawn from Christopher Hitchens’ new book, some are drawn by my having read Mark’s manuscript, although that’s not available yet to Christopher, so I’m going to minimize that a little bit. I want to begin, though, by asking a question of Christopher Hitchens and Mark Roberts that comes from Christopher’s brother, Peter, in the Daily Telegraph this week, where he writes, “Where is Christopher’s certain knowledge of what is right and wrong supposed to have come from?” Christopher Hitchens, how do you respond to your brother?
CH: Well, it’s the most commonly asked question of unbelievers, or perhaps I should say atheists, and I regard it, though you put it very politely, as a slightly insulting one. But the suggestion that you make is that if I don’t respect a celestial dictatorship that’s unalterable, nothing is going to prevent me from lying, cheating, raping, thieving and so on. Well, I can’t exactly tell you why I don’t do those things, or why I enjoy, say, going to give blood, which I do. After all, I don’t really lose a pint, but somebody gains one, and I have a rare blood group, and I might need some blood one day myself, so it seems an all-around very satisfying transaction. In a sense, do I need to say much more than that?
HH: Dr. Roberts, does he?
MR: Well, on one hand, no. I think there are certainly moral, good people who believe all kinds of things, including atheism. In fact, I have sometimes said that I sometimes believe Christians kind of rely on God, and need God here because they actually are not as good people as folk who not believers. And somehow, we need a little extra help. I think there’s…the problem is not that there aren’t atheists and others who are moral and live morally, I think the problem would come if somebody who disagreed on a matter of ethics, and said well, I understand that you, Christopher, believe I shouldn’t, you know, shoot this innocent person. But in my view, I think I should shoot this innocent person. I’m not sure how, and I’d be interested, how would you say to that person at that point no, you, shouldn’t, and here’s why you shouldn’t.
CH: Well, I think I would probably be capable of giving some good reasons. I think for one thing, it would be an outrage to their conscience. Let’s don’t consider the interest of the other person for a moment. And after all, some people do need to be shot, but you stipulated innocence. Well, it would be an outrage to your conscience if for some reason, we do, we are aware of doing ill or doing good. The test I apply in my book, a fairly good, pragmatic, American test, is what do you do when no one’s looking? The fact is someone is looking. You have an internal conversation with yourself where you don’t want to look or feel bad. I don’t think this comes from God. I think it comes as part of our evolution. Darwin points out, and others have noticed since that there are animals who behave ethically to one another. They have solidarity, they have family groups, they seem able to feel sympathy. They certainly come to each other’s aid, in the case of some of the higher mammals. I think our morality evolved, and I don’t believe that my Jewish ancestors thought that perjury and murder and theft were okay until they got to Mt. Sanai and were told no dice. But there’s another insulting, if I may say this, implication to the question, which is that those who do subscribe to the idea of an all-seeing permanent surveillance from a celestial dictatorship, are therefore going to behave well. Now, there’s absolutely no evidence for that proposition at all. And some of the things that are enjoined by the Ten Commandments, such as not envying other people’s property, which in my view, is a great spur to innovation, as well as the thought it’s impossible not to have, actually don’t lead to moral preachments, nor do commandments to mutilate the genitals seem to me to be moral preachments, nor does the idea of terrifying children with stories of hell appear to me to be moral. There’s a great deal of wickedness that’s attributable purely to religious belief. Morally normal people wouldn’t do these things if they didn’t think God was desiring them to do so.
HH: Mark Roberts…
CH: So I return the question in that form.
MR: So then, for you, our morality is something that has come by way of evolutionary process? Did I get that correctly?
CH: Yes, it’s necessary for human society to evolve, that to be certain, and it’s found in all societies, whichever god they worship, or whichever cult they practice, that courage is respected, cowardice is not, murder is forbidden, theft is very much frowned upon. There are different sexual morays, not very, very widely different. The incest taboo seems to be very common, so does the one on cannibalism. I mean, the societies that don’t follow those teachings, or rather follow…not teaching, I mean, societies that violate those laws tend to die out of horrible diseases or of in-breeding.
HH: But I would pose the question to you both, child exposure, common in the ancient world, still common in some societies, practiced widely in China today, is not considered immoral in those societies, but does it offend your conscience, Christopher, given that you’re concerned about, you’ve reference a couple of cruelties to children?
CH: Yes, it does, and I have to say it rather startles me to think of a society where that wouldn’t be the case.
MR: Well, I agree with you on that. I think my point would be that you have perhaps explained why we are moral, namely that it comes from evolution. I don’t know that you’ve provided an adequate explanation for why we should act morally if indeed we don’t agree on what morality is, the case of infant exposure would be a good one. But my point would be further, it’s an interesting example, because in my Church, and you know, mostly, I’m a pastor. In my Church, we’re very involved with a group in China of Christian people who are there quite precisely to save young children, usually girls, who have been left exposed and to die. And in this case, it isn’t just a humanist impulse or conscience, but it’s a very specific response to the view that they are precious in the eyes of God, and that we are called to reach out to those who are lowly. So at least in some cases, the ones that I’m most familiar with, we have a rationale for being moral, and examples of people being moral, quite specifically because of their, in this case, Christian conviction.
CH: Very well, and I wish great luck to your friends, and there are many other Christians I know who do marvelous work in North Korea, for example, where the people are trying to escape from a prison slave state there, and also for keeping the issue of Darfur in front of the public. I think the Evangelical movement deserves a great deal of credit. But here’s my challenge, which you don’t have to answer now, but let’s say I’d love an answer by the end of our discussion. You have to name a moral action taken, or a moral statement uttered by a person of faith that could not be taken or uttered by a non-believe. I haven’t yet found anyone who can answer me that. There’s a perfectly good secular reason for opposing especially the exposure of girls…it’s often worse than exposure, by the way, in China. I mean, they bury alive all the stifling girl babies. I mean, it will in the end mean there aren’t enough women. There’s every reason why the Chinese are going to discover…I mean, it’s alarming, I wrote this in Vanity Fair once, that an officially communist society will very soon have no word for brother or sister, let alone uncle or aunt. And that, as they say, will not stand. It has to change. They’ll discover that they’ve ruined their own demography, as well as to having done, in the meantime, things that are revoltingly cruel. But when you talk about innocent children, remember, it is surely the scripture that tells us that children are born in original sin, and are insensate.
HH: A minute to the break.
MR: I’ve never read that insouciant.
HH: A minute to the break.
MR: I’ve never read that insouciant part in my Bible before, but maybe I missed it. No, my point would be that Christopher, you would explain the fact of human conscience in light of evolution. That may well be true. I would actually say something I know you don’t believe, but you and I can differ on all kinds of things, that your innate morality is in fact quite a real remnant of your having been created by a moral God, and that one of the reasons that your arguments work, appeal to common conscience and stuff like that, is that we have in fact embedded within us something more than the accident of evolution, but something that God has in fact given, however twisted it might be. And so I think on the religious side of things, I can at least make a stronger case not only for why we should be moral, namely that there is a God who knows all things, and says this is a good way to live, but I can even explain why atheists are in fact moral, and that is they’re created in God’s image.
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HH: My first proposition, gentlemen, on what science and scientists tell us about God, that many fine scientists believe in God does not prove God exists, and that many fine scientists do not believe in God does not prove that God does not exist. Two illustrations, Dr. Francis Collins is the head of the Human Genome Project, he declared at the National Prayer Breakfast on the first of February of this year that, “I can’t identify a single conflict between what I know as a rigorous scientist and what I know as a believer,” and he condemned the increasingly shrill voices around us who argue that the scientific and spiritual worldviews are incompatible. “I am here this morning to tell you that these are different ways of finding truth, and are not only compatible, but they are wondrously complementary.” There’s also a new Walter Isaacson biography of Einstein, quotes many, many passages of the great physicist, including one that reads, “I am not an atheist, said Einstein. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows something must have written those books. It does not know how.” Christopher Hitchens, is my first proposition correct?
CH: I actually don’t think it is. I think that science has provided us with explanations for things that religion used to think it did explain. I think that has to be simply conceded, not just about the origin of the cosmos, but by the origin of species, including our own, and the commonality, as shown by the Genome Project, between ourselves and other animals, and indeed other vegetables…no, no other vegetables, but plant life. Our DNA is extraordinary in demonstrating that, and it simply abolishes the need to think about a prime move.
HH: Mark Roberts…
CH: You can…in other words, it’s an optional belief. Dr. Collins is absolutely welcome to say he believes in God, and even though he can’t seem to argue that as well, as he does elsewhere, that he’s a Christian. But it’s, as I say in my book, it’s an optional belief now. It’s been optional ever since LaPlace, when demonstrating the workings of the universe, was asked well, there doesn’t seem to be a God in this design of yours, he said well, it actually operates perfectly well without that assumption. So you can make it if you want, but it’s completely superfluous. It can’t be integral to it. It doesn’t explain anything. Einstein did say he was not an atheist, but he went on to say that he had no belief whatever in a personal God. He was a spinozist, which is a very exact way of saying that you do not believe that God intervenes in human affairs.
HH: Yes, and that is quoted repeatedly.
CH: And if you don’t believe that God intervenes in human affairs, then I think you’re not a Christian, because a theist may very well say well, the order of the universe seems to imply some kind of authorship, but that’s as far as one can go. Religion means you have to say you know what God wants, and what is in His mind. For example, I don’t understand why my partner in this discussion has such a modest job, if he knows as much as to know that God gave me a conscience. I mean, if he has sources of information as extraordinary as that, he should be much better known than he is.
HH: I think that Einstein goes on to say that he’s almost a Calvinist. He’s a determinist. He quotes at length that way. Mark Roberts, my proposition was, though, that the number of scientists agreeing or disagreeing on either side does not tell us anything, actually, given the multiplicity of views on this. Science has not proven or disproven God.
MR: Well, there would be several points to make. One is that though the majority of scientists do not have religious faith, according, actually, to a very fascinating recent study by a group of sociologists, about 40% of university scientists in this country have some kind of religious faith, about 60% don’t, about half of those are atheist, half of those are agnostic, which is kind of fascinating. Part of what the study found, though, is that the correlation is very strong not between what people believe as scientists, but how they were raised. In other words, those who were raised in atheistic homes continued to be atheistic, those who were raised in religious homes continued to be religious. And that seems better to explain the nature of their faith or non-faith. But I would go back to something, and actually, it’s quoted, Christopher quotes it in his book by one of my professors at Harvard, Stephen Jay Gould, who spoke of religion and science in terms of non-overlapping magisteria, that is to say that science offers explanations of a certain sort, religions offers explanations of a certain sort. I would agree with Christopher’s assertion that when religion tries to make scientific explanation, it makes a mess of things. I would want to go further and say when science tries to go the other way, it makes a mess of things, and that what we have is different ways of explaining behavior, different ways of explaining reality. I would argue that both can have validity. For example, consider my love for my children. I think it’s real to talk about my feelings of love for my children. They are quite real. A materialist might say no, that’s simply a biochemical or molecular event happening in your brain. Well, I happen to believe it is a biochemical molecular event happening in my brain. But I also believe that my love for my children has a reality that that kind of scientific approach can’t get at. And so we need different ways to deal with reality. Science is extraordinarily helpful, but I think there’s also a place for religion to fill in the blanks that science can never fill in.
CH: Can I just add one tiny thing?
CH: I obviously want everyone to go and rush out and buy my book, but there is another book by Professor Victor Stenger that’s recently been published called God, the Failed Hypothesis. He’s a much better scientist than I am, probably not as good, though, as Professor Stephen Jay Gould, celebrated atheist. I very much envy you having had him as a professor. Here’s an example of what I mean, then. And since we mentioned Einstein, what Einstein says is that the miraculous thing about the universe is that there aren’t any miracles in it, that the beautiful thing about science, and particularly about physics, is its extraordinary regularity, symmetry, beauty, predictability and so on. So that’s the extraordinary thing, that miracles do not occur, because this natural order is never disturbed. Now there, it seems to me as a pretty flat contradiction. Who really would be a Christian if it didn’t claim, if Christianity didn’t claim that miracles could be worked by faith?
HH: Now I am reading from Walter Isaacson’s biography on page 384. Einstein said try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature, and you will find that behind all the discernable laws and connection, there remains something subtle and tangible and inexplicable, a veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend, is my religion. To that extent, in fact, I am religious. I think that contradicts, Christopher Hitchens, what you just said.
CH: No, no it doesn’t at all, because do the religious say that these things cannot be explained? They do not. They say there is a God, and we know what He wants.
HH: Mark Roberts?
CH: They make a claim they cannot conceivably sustain, and when challenged on it, they say well, of course you can’t believe it if you don’t have faith. This is irritating. It’s the exact negation of what Einstein just said.
MR: Well, I would have to agree with Christopher Hitchens that religious people can sometimes be irritating, having dealt with many of them and being one myself. I think what I would want to say is that we can look at the wonder of Creation, or that’s perhaps begging the question, of the universe as it is, and we can get to the point of saying either that’s all there is, and it is wonderful, or we can get to the point of saying there must be something beyond this, some sort of God, can’t be proved, but one can’t say that it doesn’t matter whether there is that God or not.
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HH: This proposition, number two, goes to you first, Dr. Roberts. All religions have done cruel things at some times, and some religions have been all, well, cruel almost continuously. But neither fact proves that all religions are cruel, or that some religions do not reject cruelty at least in theory all the time. True or false?
MR: True. You want me to elaborate?
MR: Yeah, one of the things that is certainly true, and Christopher Hitchens is an incredible collector of things that religious people have done that are terrible. And I’ve got to say, having read his book now twice, carefully, that about half the time, I’m reading it, and I’m saying wow, this is really bad, and I agree completely with his moral outrage. So I certainly believe that religions and religious people have done a lot of bad in the world. I don’t think one can conclude from that that therefore religion necessarily poisons everything, or always poisons everything. That seems to me to be taking many steps forward in the debate without sufficient evidence. One would need to make a much stronger case. So I think I’m very happy with the view that religion, especially when mixed in with other things, can make matters much worse, and historically, religious people have done some terrible things in the guise of religion.
HH: Christopher Hitchens?
CH: Well, no, I’m afraid I think that the crimes of religion are innate in it. And the reason why I think it’s wicked ab initio is this. First, as I have said, it depends upon the worship of an absolute and unchangeable power. It’s simplicity totalitarian. Second, it degrades our human self-respect by saying that we wouldn’t act morally if it were not for the fear of this celestial dictatorship, and it degrades the idea that we could do the right thing for its own sake. And then third, it seems to me absolutely invariably true based on sexual repression, and out of fear and disgust, robbing the sexual act, the most important thing that we do. And the misery and the violence that comes from that seems to me inevitable, and to be laid not at the door of those who misuse religion, but at the door of those who interpret it correctly.
HH: Mark Roberts?
MR: Well, I…again, there’s too much to address here, but let me kind of go for the middle of that, that religion claims we wouldn’t act morally without fear. This is one of the places where as I’ve read your book, Christopher, I sometimes wonder if you and I live in alternative universes. I’ve been a Christian for fifty years, I’ve been a pastor for twenty plus years, I’ve preached, I’ve told my congregation many things that I think they are to do morally. Never once, never once have I played the fear card, not one time ever, nor the reward in Heaven card. For me, the justifications for moral behavior have to do with the nature of God and God’s love, God’s call to love, a response in gratitude to what God has done for us in Christ, and so forth and so on. I realize that you don’t believe that those things happen to be true, but what is certainly true is that at least in the part of the religious world in which I live and where I’m a pastor, I have never done that which you say all religions must do, so I’m mystified.
CH: Well now, well, I mean, I get this at every stop. You know, I’ve been debating this up and down the country with men of faith, and women, too, for some weeks. And I’ve realized that I’d have to write a different book for each one of them, because you cannot make the assumption that people actually do subscribe to what the scriptural texts actually say. But if you’re telling me that Christianity does not say that there’s an eternal punishment for sinners, then I’m very happy to find that you’re not, to that extent, a believer.
MR: (laughing) Well, I think actually, Christianity believes that there’s eternal punishment for all people, but God is gracious, and therefore, we don’t have that problem. But the eternal punishment, then, isn’t the motivation. We’re all stuck. That’s part of where original sin, if one believes in that, and that’s a pretty slippery doctrine, comes in.
CH: Well of course I don’t believe in original sin. It’s a preposterous idea, and a wicked one, too.
MR: Well, all I’m saying is that if we believe that, then that is, it’s completely irrelevant to our behavior, how we act, because we’re all going to hell anyway. So…
CH: Well actually, if you think that this is only a brief veil of tears, and a preparation for a later life, what does it really matter what does happen here?
MR: Well, it matters if our being on Earth is a part of God’s work of restoring the brokenness of Creation. And then what we do is extraordinarily important.
CH: Well, that’s incredibly cruel. As I open my book by saying that’s telling people they’ve been created sick, and then ordering them to be well.
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HH: Christopher Hitchens, proposition number 3, on page 114 of your book, you write, “The existence of Jesus is highly questionable.” Can you back that up?
HH: Please do.
CH: Well, there doesn’t exist a shard of convincing evidence that He ever did. The Gospels were written a great deal after the events they purport to describe. And they contradict each other on every important aspect of the life story. I actually do think there must have been such a person, but it’s only by a process of induction that is not flattering to the myth. In other words, the fabrication of the story of Bethlehem is designed to fulfill an ancient prophecy, and because that’s where it’s supposed to happen and all this, so that an invention has to be made of a tax by Caesar Augustus and a census and all this, and that explains why the Holy Family is in that place instead. Well, if the thing had been invented out of whole cloth, then they would just have had Him born there, and have done with it. But the fact that all this fabrication has to be made to make it come right suggests that there was someone born in that, roughly that area at around that time who was a preacher of some sort. But there isn’t a trustworthy word…I’m probably, if I’m not trespassing on the territory of my partner here, there isn’t a trustworthy word, as you know from reading Bart Ehrman and others, in any of the Gospels that you could remotely say was historical evidence.
HH: Mark Roberts?
MR: (laughing) Well, yeah, I guess you and I are going to have to disagree on this one, too. But let me say a couple things. First is the Gospels in the New Testament are not the earliest witness to the existence of Jesus. That would be in the letters of Paul, which are quite a bit earlier than the Gospels, and independent from them. And those letters actually refer to earlier oral traditions. So in fact, we have certainly evidence outside of the Gospel that’s earlier. The other thing…
CH: It’s all hearsay, though.
MR: Well, in that it is spoken of…what do you mean by hearsay?
CH: Well, I mean it’s not, there’s nothing attested by anyone you could reasonably describe as a reliable witness, in anything you could reasonably describe as a reliable form.
MR: Well, I don’t know what you’ve…
CH: Except for the counterintuitive evidence that…there’s so much fabrication, that it would seem needless if there hadn’t been a real person to be telling these fibs about.
MR: No, it’s interesting. Your argument on Bethlehem is the kind of argument, actually, that I make in my book, in that when you really look at the evidence, it’s obvious that it wasn’t fabricated, or they would have done so much of a better job. My point is simply that the Gospels are not the earliest witness. There also are some non-Christian witnesses from around the end of the 1st Century, the Jewish historian Josephus, the Roman historian Tacitus, Suetonius in all likelihood refers to Jesus, though calling him Crestus. So we have from a time not too far from the Gospels evidence of Jesus outside of Christianity. But the other point I would simply want to make, I think you said that the Gospels themselves contradict themselves on almost every point that matters, or something…did I get that right?
CH: Yeah, sure.
MR: Well, this is going to be a nice moment to promo my book, but I put in, I think it’s a list of thirty three places in which the four Gospels agree, and I would say that many of those things are in fact the main points, and quite astounding. For example, the four Gospels agree that the earliest witnesses to the Resurrection are women. They’re doing this in a culture that doesn’t accept the testimony of women in a law court, that almost surely would never have been fabricated, it would have been ridiculous to do so. So the fact that all four Gospels agree on such a thing is in fact very important. The fact that the Gospels agree on the fact that Jesus recruited his disciples in a culture in which rabbis didn’t recruit but had disciples come to them, et cetera, et cetera. I could go through the whole list. I won’t do that.
CH: Well, I don’t say at every point, but I mean, annoyingly, I’m just for once in a hotel that doesn’t have a Gideon Bible.
MR: It’s an atheist hotel. That’s your problem.
CH: I just invite anyone listening to this to read any…actually they’d better quickly read all four of the accounts of either the birth or the death, and see if they can make them agree.
HH: Mark Roberts?
MR: Well, isn’t it…the interesting thing is if they all agreed, I think the critics of the New Testament would say a-ha, collusion. In fact, there was an effort in the 2nd Century among Christians to try and get them to sort of be one coherent account. Interestingly enough, the early Church rejected that in favor of what one would say was before more independent witnesses, although a couple of the Gospels are probably relying on each other. Folk who have worked this through, and I would be one of them, have found ways to see yes, there are differences in the telling of the story, but to suggest that they’re somehow wild contradictions makes me again wonder if you and I are living in parallel universes.
CH: Well, I mean, you force me to press you. I mean, do you think that at the time of the Crucifixion, the graves in the greater Jerusalem area opened, and many of the dead came out and walked the streets? That’s one account.
CH: It’s not sustained, but you do think that happened?
MR: It’s in Matthew’s Gospel.
MR: As a believer, I think it happens. If I put on my historian hat, I say this is one Gospel, one witness to this. This makes it again, now speaking as a historian, historically unlikely. As a believer, I believe it. What I’m talking about is…
CH: I find it absolutely flabbergasting, because among other things, that surely degrades the idea of resurrection by making it commonplace.
MR: It degrades the idea of resurrection…
CH: If it can happen to…if just the graves had opened and anyone can get up and walk around, what’s so special about the proposed resurrection of the Nazarene?
MR: Well, you know, it’s even worse than that, because Christian theology holds that every person will be resurrected, so we’ve thoroughly degraded it.
CH: Well, why you are making things up, why not throw that in?
HH: Can I ask, though, was the account in Matthew contradicted by the other Gospels?
MR: There’s no contradiction. All I’m saying…
HH: That’s what I was…
MR: …is when there’s one testimony to something that otherwise we would consider to be unlikely, if you simply look at that from a historical point of view, you’d say that’s unlikely. Now I happen to believe that it happened, but I believe that it happened because as I have studied the Gospel of Matthew, I find Matthew to be a reliable historical witness to what happened in that time. So on that ground, I’d argue for it.
CH: No one, whether Tacitus nor Joesphus or any other chronicler of the period seems to think there was an earthquake.
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HH: I turn to Bart Ehrman. He figures prominently in Christopher Hitchens’ book, he figures prominently in Mark Roberts’ book. Christopher Hitchens, what do you find so appealing about Bart Ehrman?
CH: Well, I find…it’s what Bertrand Russell used to call the argument of evidence against interest, or as my friend, you probably know him, John O’Sullivan says…
CH: He says if the Pope says he believes in God, he’s only doing his job. If he says he doesn’t believe in God, he may be onto something. Bart Ehrman did the best a man could do to keep up his belief, and he appears to have been, I hope, again, to trespass into my partner’s field of expertise, but to have been quite a renowned scholar of the Gospels, in several languages, in the believing Christian community. I’m right, am I not, in saying this?
HH: Mark Roberts?
MR: He is a well-regarded scholar.
CH: And he came to the conclusion that it was mythical?
MR: Well, when he was a young man.
CH: And that most of the, most of the stories, including some of the ones that I used to most enjoy contemplating when I was being taught the Bible at school, are inserted even later than one had said as they feared.
HH: Mark Roberts?
MR: I think you’re talking there about the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8.
MR: Yes, he points out that that particular story is not found in the earliest of the copies, the manuscripts of the Gospel of John that we have. The thing is that that has been well known for centuries to any and every scholar, and most Christians, because if you open up your Bible, you’ll find out that in most copies of the Bible, that story is in brackets anyway. That’s old, old news. I don’t know why in particular that’s relevant.
CH: Oh, it isn’t particularly relevant. It’s just it was the one that struck me, because it used to be one of my favorite stories. That’s all.
MR: Ah. Well…
CH: But I mean, the totality of Dr. Ehrman’s work, the book is called Misquoting Jesus.
HH: And your estimate of Misquoting Jesus?
CH: Well, I can’t wait to read your reply to it, because I’ve tried and failed to find someone who will take the book on from a Christian point of view, so perhaps I’ve now found one.
HH: Oh, you have.
MR: Well, you may not be persuaded, but in fact, the second chapter of my book looks at the textual and manuscript background for the Gospels. And in that, I try to lay out much of what Ehrman does. And by the way, I need to say, much of his scholarship is quite fine, though he has been a person who has been opposing Christianity for thirty years. So I don’t know that he’s necessarily objective in all things, nor am I. But he is a fine scholar.
CH: Excuse me?
CH: He’s been an opponent of Christianity for thirty years?
MR: Yes. He lost his faith, he admits to have lost, losing his faith in graduate school. He’s an atheist. And he has been arguing as an atheist now for over thirty years, and writing books opposing orthodox Christian faith.
CH: My understanding was very different from that. I’m going to have to check.
MR: Oh, it’s quite true. There’s a place in which he himself talks about losing his faith, and yet still celebrating Christmas rather sadly.
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HH: This hour…in the third hour of today’s show, we’re going to go back the general question of religion and morality. This hour, though, I’m going into the tall grass of the New Testament, and I want to begin with some propositions that Christopher Hitchens puts into his book, in the discussion of the New Testament, particularly that H.L. Mencken and Thomas Paine’s view of the New Testament, “a helter-skelter accumulation of more or less discordant documents, some of them probably have respectable origin, but others palpably apocryphal, have been,” and this is the key, “born out by later Biblical scholarship, much of it first embarked upon to show that the texts are still relevant.” Dr. Roberts, I’m going to start with you. Is Mr. Hitchens correct that much of Biblical scholarship has come to believe the New Testament to be an accumulation of more or less discordant documents, many of them apocryphal?
MR: Not most of New Testament scholarship, but a substantial segment of it. Really the segment that I spent a lot of time in when I was in grad school at Harvard has tended greatly to emphasize the discordant nature, or the disagreements among New Testament writers. There is a whole other sort of world of New Testament scholarship that has continued to see that there’s quite a bit of commonality. I think the truth is that it’s quite a bit in the middle. There are a great diversity of perspectives on Jesus and what He means. There’s a difference of opinion on a number of issues within the New Testament, and yet the New Testament is quite unified in its central message in understanding who Jesus is, and what God was doing in Jesus.
HH: Christopher Hitchens, when you write that the Gospels, “cannot agree on the mythical elements, they disagree wildly about the Sermon on the Mount, the anointing of Jesus, the treachery of Judas and Peter’s haunting denial, most astonishingly, they cannot converge on a common account of the crucifixion or the resurrection. Thus, the one interpretation that we simply have to discard is the one that claims divine warrant for all of them.” Are you considering that if an account is not replicated, it is thereby undermined? Or are you just talking about direct conflicts between accounts?
CH: I suppose I’d rest my case on the statement that extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. If we were going to be asked to believe that the laws of nature are suspended, and that virgins give birth, and that dead people walk again, we want to be sure that we’re getting pretty impressive testimony. And this falls short of being testimony, really, at all.
HH: Mark Roberts?
MR: I don’t understand that last comment. Why is it not testimony?
CH: Well, it’s hearsay. It’s hearsay from a very backward, illiterate society. And usually, passed on by people with a very strong interest in getting it believed.
MR: You’ve just made the important point, and I appreciate you’re doing it. It was an illiterate society. It was an oral society. One of the things that scholars have studied at great length in the last twenty years, in fact, it’s one of the live issues that academic meetings of New Testament scholars is the nature of oral communities. And what they discover is that there is actually quite a bit of discipline and order within oral communities in terms of hearing, remembering and passing on information. And in fact, you might be interested in a book recently published by Richard Bauckham, who is a professor at St. Andrews in Scotland, on the Gospels having been written by eyewitness and the eyewitness account. Because they were an illiterate society, then it wasn’t hearsay in the way ours is. These were people who were disciplined in remembering and accurately passing on stories. And so the fact of it being that society is one of the things that makes it reasonable to trust that the oral traditions passed on the context of this community are in fact believable.
HH: Now Christopher Hitchens, one of the arguments that Dr. Roberts makes in his book, and again, you haven’t had a chance to read it, yet, is that if we use one standard to assess historical documents and accounts of history, just one standard, that the Christian standard, or the Christian evidences are far stronger than anything similar, whether Thucydides or Heroides or Josephus or Tacitus, that the distance and time between the autograph and the manuscripts that reproduce it much, much smaller, the number of copies much, much higher, and that any consistent approach to history would elevate the Christian account above almost any other account of any other ancient occurrence.
CH: I don’t know that I’m really qualified enough to pronounce on that. I mean, there is a big argument, for example, about whether Homer ever existed, or whether it’s the work of many hands. There’s no agreement, really, about the authorship of the plays of Shakespeare, though it seems fairly certain they all were written by one person. That’s much closer to us.
HH: But I recall in your book…
CH: The likelihood that this…Shakespeare doesn’t say you have to believe things that would otherwise be completely unbelievable on unsupported oral testimony. I say in my book, for example, it doesn’t matter to me that we only have second-hand evidence for the existence of Socrates. We can’t say for certain there was such a person. His teachings and his methods remain with us, and we call them Socratic. That’s just, that’s quite enough for me. But I’m not telling you, or anyone else, that if you don’t agree with me about Socrates, you’re going to go to hell, or if you do, you’re going to go to Heaven, and your sins will be forgiven you.
HH: But in your account of Socrates which I found compelling…
CH: …just extraordinary claims are made that are not verifiable, but extraordinary demands are made in their name upon us, which hold that because of this, there are things we mustn’t do and things we must.
HH: Well, Socrates would make the demand upon…
CH: And we also have to believe…excuse me, it’s…these are only the micro parts of what’s unbelievable. To me, the essentially unbelievable thing is this. What should be agree on for the lifespan of homo-sapiens now? We know pretty much how long we’ve been on the planet. Dr. Roberts, what’s your view of that?
MR: Will you say again? I missed…
CH: What’s your view of how long homo-sapiens have been on the planet? Our species?
MR: Oh, a long time, much longer than 6,000 years, let’s put it that way.
CH: Yes, I mean, I think it’s, there isn’t an absolute certainty, but let’s say except for the absolute literalists who think that’s the age of the Earth, well over 150,000 years.
CH: …in the course of which time enormous numbers of people are born, don’t live frightfully long, die, usually of their teeth, or by violence of some others, or in childbirth, or of nameless diseases that they can’t identify because they don’t know about the germ theater of disease, and so on. And it goes on and on like that. And only about 6,000 years ago does Heaven decide to intervene in remote parts of the Middle East. Now I find that unbelievable on its face. I don’t just think it isn’t true, I cannot see how anybody could believe that, or wish it to be true.
HH: Dr. Roberts?
MR: You know, let’s…one of the things, you quote Socrates in your book, and you like Socrates. I like Socrates, too. And one of the things you say of Socrates, all he really knew, he said, was the extent of his own ignorance. And then you add to me, this is still the definition of an educated person, which comes close to being a compliment to me, though you don’t know me well. I’ve often said, I’ve been quoted in saying that I knew much more when I was twenty than when I’m fifty, and by the time I’m seventy, who knows what I’ll know. There is a great deal about what I believe to be God’s work in the world, that eclipses my understanding, and sometimes, quite frankly, bugs me, and I will take that up with God on many an occasion and in all kinds of ways. If I were God, do I think I would do things differently? Yes, I would. But I have, myself as a Christian, come to the place of saying I am not God, that’s probably a good thing for the universe, and where I find God’s ways mystifying, I’m going to pursue what is true, I’m going to seek to know what is true, and at the same time, I’m going to be satisfied with my own ignorance.
HH: But I want to go back to the…somehow, we got away from the idea that the accounts of Socrates are much more thinly sourced than the accounts of Christ, but you are willing to go with the teachings of Socrates, even though they recommend some frankly ill-advised decisions with regards to the city and the state, and his own survival.
CH: Oh, no, no. I’m sorry, I’m not an endorser of…I mean, I’m not, there’s no such thing as a Socratist, but I admire his method of argument.
HH: Okay, but as to just the simple historical fact, when it comes to the source materials that Dr. Roberts claimed, antiquity, multiplicity, trustworthy scholarly methodology and quantity and quality of textually ambiguous passages, the accounts of Christ stand up better than any other historical account, Christopher Hitchens. I don’t know how you can argue with that.
CH: Well, I don’t know how you can assert it, because you’re not comparing like with like.
MR: Well, what Hugh is talking about there is the manuscript evidence for the Gospels. And I think on that ground, we’re in pretty good shape. But something needs to be said, and I think I would agree with you, I wish there was better evidence for Christ. I do indeed. It would be convenient and helpful in a number of ways. If all we had to go on, we who are Christian, was the Gospel record, I think we could have confidence, but we would miss a lot. There is so much more for Christians that accounts for why we are Christian than that alone, and that needs to be thrown into the mix, I think.
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HH: Christopher Hitchens, I was struck in your book, and by the way, I hope you realize this is one of these interviews, I’ve heard you a few times, both the guest and the host have actually read your book closely.
CH: Well, that’s incredibly decent of you.
MR: Twice (laughing).
MR: Every word, twice.
CH: I do very much appreciate, and I’m very sorry I can’t return the compliment to Dr. Roberts, but I shall.
HH: Okay, now I was struck when out of the middle of nowhere come the Gnostic Gospels into your account, because it seemed to me unnecessary to anything that you were trying to prove. Why did you bring up the Gnostic Gospels? What point do you think they play in your narrative of discrediting religion?
CH: Well, because I was going on, I was clearing the ground for what I wanted later to say about the Koran, about the way in which a text is given authority by pruning the stuff, the garbage out of it, the discrepant bits, the contradictory bits, and so forth, making certain things canonical, discarding others, and because I was very fascinated about what I’d read about the Gospel of Judas.
HH: In the book, you write, “for a long time, there was incandescent debate over which of the Gospels should be regarded as divinely inspired. Some argued for these and some for others, and many a life was horribly lost on those propositions. Nobody dared say they were all man ascribed, long after the supposed drama was over, and the revelation of St. John seemed to have been squeezed into the canon because of its author’s rather ordinary name.” Mark Roberts, you’re a scholar of the Gnostic Gospels, and did you find the account compelling? Or did it clear the way for the subsequent point made?
MR: Well, you know, it reminded me of things that one can read from certain scholars. It actually didn’t remind me of what somebody who’s actually studied the Gnostic Gospels would much think about them. For one thing, the Gnostic Gospels almost have nothing that has to do with the actual life of Jesus. They’re filled with all kinds of theology which if you believe it, you would believe to be quite inspired, and if you don’t, you’d believe it to be quite silly. But they have virtually nothing to say about the historical life of Jesus. And so in that regard, they’re just not terribly helpful. Plus they were written at least, or on average, at any rate, a century later than the Biblical Gospels, so the Gnostic Gospels don’t really help us much at all, if our desire is to know something of Jesus. They’re fascinating in and of themselves, but more…
CH: The gospel of Judas has a lot about Jesus in it.
MR: Well, but you actually read that, and I appreciate that. You gave almost a page to it. But what it tells us about Jesus is, has absolutely nothing to do with what He did. It has some sayings of Jesus, and in language that almost 100% certain is nothing Jesus Himself would have actually said, because it sounds nothing like what a 1st Century Jew would say.
CH: Well, it did surely, it answers a question that is raised necessarily by the accepted account of the last Passover, which is this. Why is Judas considered to be a bad person when he’s only doing God’s will?
MR: I agree with you there. It answers that, because for the Gnostic, the physical body is bad and evil, and in the gospel of Judas, Judas is the one who is going to get rid of the physical body of Jesus. And so for the Gnostics, Judas is the hero. He got rid of the body so that the real Christ, non-physical Christ, could sort of be set free. And that’s why Judas is the hero. It does exonerate him. I’m not sure it does it in a way that has much historical persuasiveness to it.
CH: Well, you certainly have me there. I don’t think it’s historical at all.
CH: I mean, I think it’s another fabrication, but still, it makes a mystery a little less mysterious.
HH: But was…
CH: I mean, why do you think, I’ll put the question to you this way. I know you’re not a Catholic, but the Church of Rome waited until 1965, twenty years after the end of the final solution in Europe, to acquit the Jewish people of the charge of deicide, not some Jews, but all Jews. Why do you think it took them so long?
MR: Well, I think there, I’d want to take a page out of your book and say that human beings are insufficiently rational.
CH: (laughing) But it had been dogma preached very fervently for a long, long time in the name of someone who claims, you don’t support his claim, I don’t know on what basis you don’t, to hold the keys of St. Peter, and who shares a lot of your beliefs. Now I think I do know why, because we…if these events, or some version of it did occur, the certainty is that there a lot of Jews around. And if they’re told that they’re absolved of responsibility, then it becomes extremely difficult to say to the rest of the human race you were responsible for Calvary as well. That’s why they couldn’t let them go. That’s why this massive injustice was committed, not as an aberration of Christianity, but as part of its central teaching, for the greater part of its existence, and hasn’t been sincerely, in my view, repudiated.
MR: Well then, that is lacking. All I can say is on this count, I am with you completely that the anti-Judaism of much of Christian history is extraordinarily inconsistent with what Christianity ought to be. And you’ll get no defense from me. You and I are of common mind in thinking that’s terrible. I’d go the step further to say that it’s also terrible history, because when you look carefully at the Gospel records, you discover that the vast majority of the Jews were in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ death, were abhorred by it. They were upset by it.
HH: And is it inconsistent, is it inconsistent, Dr. Roberts, with the teachings of Jesus and the explanation of those teachings of Paul?
MR: Oh, extraordinarily so. So it’s one of the…I mean, there is definitely a problem, and I will agree that this a problem for Christians, that so many Christians have both thought things we ought not to have thought, and done things we ought not to have done. And obviously, that’s even more disturbing to me as a Christian, because I have a certain brotherhood and sisterhood with some of these folk. It’s a terrible mark on our record.
CH: Well, it ought to be said, and I add it, that Maimonides, the great Jewish sage, thought it was one of the best day’s work the Jewish people had ever done, that the elders did exactly the right thing by putting to death this ghastly heretic and imposter.
MR: Well, that didn’t help much, did it?
CH: But, but, but, so I mean, I’ve no sympathy with Judaism, either. But it is said, is it not, that the Jews called for his blood to be on their heads and on their descendents to the remotest generation, and echo of the preamble to the Ten Commandments, where it is said that the sins of the fathers will be visited on their children. I do not regard this as moral preaching. Do you? Is it right to say that the sins of the father shall be visited on their children, and their children’s children? Is it moral to say that, let alone truthful?
MR: Well, I think it’s certainly truthful. Whether it’s moral depends on what sins, and the way in which it’s visited. I mean, I think it’s certainly truthful that my children, unfortunately, are going to carry on some of my own sins. Now I don’t think that’s moral. I don’t break it. I think that there are situations in which it may well be moral.
CH: No, no. That’s not correct. They may go on sinning, they’re doomed to, apparently. But they’ve got to suffer for yours?
MR: Well, I think that is…
CH: And their children’s children are going to be held responsible for your sins? That’s what it says.
MR: I think that is true that they will continue to suffer from my sin. I think the question of when it is moral for that to happen is not one that I could give a yes/no answer to.
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HH: I’m tempted to turn the page, but I don’t want to, because it’s the hardest part of Christopher Hitchens’ book, Dr. Mark Roberts, is when he goes to the Old Testament, and he finds some awful things, the murder of innocents, the slaying of enemies, the destruction of children, every one, down to the last person in the city. And he presents this as an indictment of the Judeo-Christian ethic. Is he right to do so?
MR: Let me say that I also find that to be one of the hardest things about believing the Bible to be God’s word. There are things in it that I find intuitively contrary to what seems to me to be right and wrong, and some of the things that he mentions are things I myself struggle with. My response is two-fold. First of all, I have been greatly helped by listening especially to Jewish writers and rabbis talk about some of that material, because there’s a lot of it that I don’t get as a Christian, and people who live within that tradition are able to make much more sense of it than I. That’s number one. The second thing I need to say, though, is that all of that has to be seen in two contexts. Number one, in the context of the culture of that time in history, and many of the things that we see as quite, perhaps, bizarre, or irrational, end up making a lot more sense when we understand that culture and the time. For me, the larger point is that what the Old Testament gives us is, as you might say, the beginning and the first chapters of the larger story of God’s work with us, of God’s Creation, of the brokenness of the world, of God’s effort to mend the world through a very unusual process, that is by entering into relationship with a people, and using people to help fix the world. Now there’s a part of me that thinks God wasn’t…I wonder sometimes why God gave us the ability to mess it up in the first place. That seems sometimes peculiar. If I were God, I don’t know that I would do that. But God, I assume, knows what’s best. But secondly, the idea that He’s going to use people to bring about the mending of it, and so it’s the larger story of the Old Testament that is for me what’s most important, in light of which, then, a lot of the things that seem curious, unexplainable, even offensive, can make sense.
HH: Christopher Hitchens, and one of the things that left me…
CH: You’re not going to go on and tell me that there is historical authority for the events described in the New Testament…I mean, sorry, the Old Testament.
MR: I think there is…
CH: You’re surely not going to do that.
HH: Well, you did. You said there was a kingdom of David, and you said that there was quite a lot of evidence for the later Israeli or Jewish kingdom.
CH: Yes, there is, but…
HH: But not for Moses.
CH: But it was a very much smaller kingdom than was thought, a very much more modestly sized one, and no evidence whatsoever for the captivity and the exile and the wandering.
HH: But that was actually one of the parts, I thought, was a little thin for you, Christopher, because the Jewish archaeological experts that you refer to have not been given access to the same places where their studies have been able to produce the evidences of David.
CH: No, but they had the strongest motive in the places where they could dig, for doing this, and the Sanai’s been gone over with a fine tooth comb by now, by a lot of other very highly qualified archeologists, and there just is no evidence for it at all.
HH: And as those of us involved in the discussion of WMD are like to say, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
CH: Ah, no, but with WMD, you can use the argument from design, because you were dealing with a regime that had possessed, and had used, and had a record of concealment of WMD, so there’s a very fair induction to be made in that case. Please, sir, that wasn’t very…
HH: So Mark Roberts, what do you say to his response?
MR: Well, the further we go back into ancient history…
CH: No, look. I have a question.
MR: Yeah, sure.
CH: Sorry, why does it matter to you to want to adopt these texts, these horrible texts as your own? Why don’t you just let it go? Why don’t you just say it’s a pity that St. Paul, in talking, I think, to the Galatians, says that we adopt all these books and these prophecies as our own, because we think they were vindicated? Why, how does that make human life better? How does it help us to be ethical? Why impose this extraordinary strain on yourself? You’re never going to be able to prove it, and you should be relieved.
MR: Never be able to prove the historicity…
CH: That there’s any authenticity, let alone any morality in these horrible old Jewish texts. Why adopt them when you could discard them?
MR: Well, I think it’s a bit of an exaggeration to say there’s no morality in them, but I would agree with your assertion. The further you go back in history, the harder and harder it is to come up with the kind of evidence you talk about. So you know, you can find an evidence of an ancient Jericho, and some scholars think they haven’t got evidence that a wall fell over there. But that still is minimal to the kind of confirmation that one could get from much more recent kinds of evidence.
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HH: Dr. Roberts, as we went to break, Christopher Hitchens has said why not just toss it off? You know, get rid of the Old Testament, or the Jewish scriptures, and you’ll be much more…Jefferson could get along with Jesus. Why not just leave it at that?
MR: Well, I would agree that it would make certain things easier. Interestingly, this was a great debate within 2nd Century Christianity, because there was man named Marcian who had been apparently an orthodox Christian, and then pretty much decided the Old Testament was much as Christopher Hitchens believes it to be, and he just cut it off, and he went into the New Testament, and he took out all the Old Testament references. And there was a major argument within the early Church as to whether one needs, in fact, to hang onto the Old Testament or not. The reasons I would give intellectually are that the Old Testament are, it’s the soil out of which the New Testament was grown. And you need the soil to grow the plant. The personal side of that, I think of a friend of mine named Gary, who grew up as an orthodox Jew. Some years ago, Gary became a Christian. And as I had been with him as his pastor, one of the things that astounded me almost initially was how much he, having his Jewish background, was able to get and to live the Christian life so much better than people who are Americans not coming out of a Jewish background. For example, Americans who become Christians tend to be incredibly individualistic. Gary intuitively got the fact that being a Christian is about being a member of a community. And so I would argue that his closeness to the soil that enables him to be a better believer.
HH: Christopher Hitchens, do you admire the work of Walker Percy?
CH: I’ve read a little, not a great deal. It didn’t encourage me to go on to the end.
HH: I bring him up, because he was asked once why he was a believer, and he said I’ll stop believing when someone can explain to me the Jews. And now there is a similar passage in your book by a different person, and in fact, there is that extraordinary story of a people formed by that account, as horrific as it is at some points, and as you say, evidence free in some others, but evidence filled in others. Does it not strike you that that is an extraordinary story to have come to the full circle, back in Jerusalem, where they are, were it not for the Divine Hand upon that people?
CH: Well, I mean, as someone who has some Jewish ancestry, and a Jewish daughter, and who is indeed very impressed by the survival of the Jewish people, and very committed to it, I can’t agree with you, no, because if there’s been a supervising hand, it’s been an extremely brutal one. It’s the reason I think why so many Jews, I think probably the majority now, are non-believers, are secular in one form or another, or atheist, and why the Jewish contribution to atheism has been so extraordinary, from Spinoza to Einstein.
HH: Mark Roberts, does that…go ahead.
CH: But there have been…I’ll tell you something. The rabbi, after the end of the Second World War, the revelation of the final solution, the shoah, the rabbis went rather quiet. They hadn’t got anything much to say about how this had happened, or whether God really had done it as a punishment for the exile. The rabbis who did think that rather kept it to themselves. That’s why this constitution of the state of Israel is as secular as it is. After the 1967 war, which is forty years ago, as you know, this week, a number of rabbis did start to get up and say a-ha, now we see the Finger of God, the Holocaust was all meant so this could happen, so that we could establish rule over Arabs. Well, I can’t imagine anything more evil being said, or stupid, I have to say.
HH: Well, I don’t agree with it, either. I don’t, in fact, attribute to God the Holocaust.
CH: Well, then don’t, please, don’t say that God is behind all these things.
HH: No, I…
CH: Why insult your deity by making him responsible for…
HH: I don’t think he’s responsible. I think there is free will in the universe, and that explains how come the Nazis, pagans that they were, went about their vicious ideology, and wiped out six million people, but that’s not my point. My point…
CH: No, no. What percent of the S.S. were confessing Catholics?
HH: I agree. I know that, and it’s in your book, but paganism, Hitler was not a Christian, Hitler was not a believer in other than Hitler’s own…
CH: He never repudiated his Church, Hitler.
HH: His Church repudiated him.
CH: No, it did not. The Roman Church issued instructions that his birthday was to be celebrated from the pulpit every year until the very end, as you know.
HH: I will simply stand by the point that Hitler is not a Christian, and I don’t believe you make that argument in that book, even.
CH: No, I don’t say he was a Christian in my book. I say that he didn’t repudiate it, and he certainly took great care to get the support of the Churches. But he wanted to replace everything with Aryan blood myths, and the worship of himself. That is certainly true.
HH: But we’ve run into one of his central points, Mark, which is…
MR: Well, I want to make a, I just want to say that I think one of the great ways in which…now Christopher, you may not like this, but in which Christopher Hitchens is a friend, a kind of a friend to the Church and to Christians. He forces us to deal with things that are hard things about faith. And as much as I’d rather not have to think about them, I am one that is in fact committed to finding the truth, to challenging the things I believe. And I think one of the things Christians need to do is to wrestle much more faithfully and honestly than we sometimes have with some of the sorry parts of our history, and the challenging parts of our theology, because I believe that that kind of wrestling leads us more to the truth. Now it may very well not lead us to the exact same truth that we began with. So be it. But I think that the questions that are being asked here, and the challenge to Christians to think, to use our brains, to be rational, to examine, to be unafraid of difficult questions, I actually see that as a service, and in that sense, I appreciate the challenge, even though I come to places where I say I’m not exactly sure how to meet it at this point.
HH: Well, there’s a magician’s trick in it, though, and the magician’s trick is, for example, Christopher Hitchens, when you say why would God allow Pius XI to die, and Pius XII to replace him, when the former is pro-Jew and anti-Hitler, and the latter is pro-Hitler and anti-Jew? And it’s, the magician’s trick is that God’s not involved in that, as He, as you want us, as you want your reader to believe Christians believe He is involved in that, and it’s not a fair portrait of Pius XII.
CH: Oh, no it’s not harsh enough. I agree. But it is, you probably don’t believe…
HH: No, I don’t.
CH: …but it is believed by Catholics that God picks his vicar of Christ on Earth.
HH: Yes, yes He does, and sometimes…
CH: And it is, therefore, of course I think it’s a nonsensical belief, but if it be true, then at the very eve of the Second World War, He decided to appoint a vicar of Christ who was pro-Hitler. That’s a lot to swallow, isn’t it? I don’t hold God responsible for these things, bear in mind. I’m not insulting Him, as you do. I’m not saying that He takes responsibility in these, and I don’t think there’s any such person. I free myself from this incredibly strenuous, impossible belief. But you saddle yourselves.
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HH: Mark Roberts, before we go to the third hour, one of the things I found inexplicable about Christopher’s book is that he wants readers who are not familiar with Christians to believe that everything is determinism, and that God is in fact a puppet master running it, and free will is the part that I found so missing from this. Your comment?
MR: Well, two things. One is yes, that gets undersold, and so it’s as if God is responsible for everything, and I don’t know that that’s fair to the Christian understanding of God. The second thing that I found missing in the book was an understanding that the world is not the way God meant it to be. I mean, if you go to the…well, the argument from design, and finding a watch on the beach, the watch we find is a broken watch. It doesn’t work right. It doesn’t keep time the way it was meant to. And so much of what happens in this world Christians believe in anyway, is not what God intends, both because of human freedom, and because the world itself is broken. We also believe that God is in the business of putting the world back together, and that in fact, we’re a part of that business, and that’s part of why we’re here in the world. But minus that freedom, and minus the understanding of the brokenness of the world, God gets blamed for a lot of things like the so-called acts of God in my insurance contract that I’m not really sure are acts of God so much as acts of nature.
HH: And Christopher Hitchens, I want to be fair to you. That is what you attribute to God as sort of the puppet master.
CH: No, no, no. Actually, I’m sorry to have to say, and it is, I will say for the first and only time, I think you completely misrepresented what I write, and also what I think. I say it’s childish to blame God for things going wrong. It’s idiotic. If there was such a person, I’d have more respect for His majesty than to say He owes me an explanation. You know, if there’s a God, why have I got cancer? What a silly question. It would be, I wouldn’t have any idea why He would want that. I would just have to accept it. But I mean, I don’t, I do not go in for this game at all, and I don’t know why anybody does.
HH: I know you don’t, but I believe that the picture…
CH: But I mean, I am a bit astounded to find that we don’t think that God designed us and the universe, after all, or that if He did, He did it with such tremendous cruel ineptitude. I mean, again, it’s not my problem. I don’t think this way. As for free will, I think we have it, but I think we have no choice but to have it.
HH: What I was saying is not that you believe it, but that the portrait you put in of Christians is that they believe Christ is, or that God is in fact in charge of everything.
CH: Well, they invite these kind of…I mean, after all, did you not just say to me that if I contemplated the history of the Jews, I would have to see that God was planning everything for them? Well, I say that if you say that, then you’ve just accepted on behalf of a deity whose mind you appear to know, how, you don’t say, an enormous responsibility.
HH: No, you see in history an unfolding of a reconstruction effort that Mark Roberts was referring to, not one driven forward in every detail, but one in which that mystery of free will is allowed to operate.
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HH: I want to get to one of the big questions, the impact of religion on the 20th Century. Has it been a net positive or a net negative for human civilization, Christopher Hitchens?
CH: Why just this century? I’m sorry if I’m being dense.
HH: I’m just asking because now, we know more, we understand more, we have the benefit of better theology, better learning, and growth as human beings in the 20th Century. How’d we do as religious people versus non-religious?
CH: Well, when I think about the 20th Century, I suppose I think of so many of its unanticipatable horrors. I mean, we behaved worse in the last century, probably as a species, than we ever had before. And you know what examples I’m alluding to, I suppose. And the implication of religion in all of these was pretty, pretty gross. I’m thinking, I have a long chapter in my book about the role of the Church, for example, in supporting the rise of fascism.
CH: I don’t think they’re ever going to be able to, I frankly don’t think Christianity’s ever going to be able to live that down.
HH: Of course, we do have the neo-pagan Nazis, we have the atheist Stalin, we have the atheist Mao, we have the atheist Cuba, we have the atheist North Korea…
CH: Well, it’s not…I have a long chapter on that objection, too. In fact, this ought to come up now, wouldn’t it? I mean, it’s secular criminality.
CH: Well, I say in my book that’s…if the axis of fascism, almost entirely a Catholic movement, all the way from Spain to Croatia to Slovakia, concord that between the Vatican and Hitler that lasts until the very end, and continues to shelter Nazi wanted war criminals after it’s over, and help them to establish other dictatorships in South America, the Japanese, led by someone who actually was a god, not just a godly person, but a god himself, according to those who believed in him, who no doubt thought he was the fount of all ethics in Japan, and that there would be rape and pillage if people stopped believing in him. Turning to Stalinism, look, in 1917, in Russia, when the regime falls, millions of Russians for hundreds of years have been told that the head of their government is a person just a little below God. He’s the czar, the absolute ruler and owner of a country. He’s also the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. That’s the inculcation of servility and incredulity in the huge, uneducated population. If you’re Josef Stalin, who studied as a seminary student, by the way, for most of his life, you shouldn’t be in the dictatorship business if you can’t exploit a reservoir of servility and incredulity like that. He replicates it perfectly. There’s an inquisition, there are show trials to expose heretics, there are miracles, Lysenko’s biology, there’s the constant worship of the leader. Everything comes from the top, everyone has to say thank you all the time for the great benefits. It’s the replication of the same thing, and by the way, the Russian Orthodox Church continues to support him, which it did. If you want to point out to me a society that went into famine and dictatorship and mass murder and war and torture as a result of adopting the principals of Lucretius and Spinoza and Einstein and Jefferson and Thomas Paine, then we’d have a level playing field.
HH: Dr. Roberts, did you find persuasive Mr. Hitchens’ approach to the 20th Century where in fact he redefined all of the atheist regimes into being neo-religious regimes?
MR: Well, I must admit that did feel like that was a bit of special pleading, because it seems to be evidence contrary to his main thesis that religion poisons everything. Something poisons everything. I think we could be agreed in that. But to say that it’s religion, I think, isn’t getting the full nature of the poisoning, if you will. It seems to me that we can look for something else. And actually, I found within god Is Not Great a quote that I rather like, actually. It said past and present religious atrocities have occurred not because we are evil, but because it is a fact of nature that the human species is biologically only partly rational. Now to me, the partly rational doesn’t quite get it, but I think Christopher Hitchens himself if moving toward an explanation that sees the problems in this world as not necessarily stemming from religion. Religion, when it gets messed up with totalitarianism, when it gets messed up with partial rationality, religion can be turned to bad uses. Absolutely. Irreligious people the same. There is plenty of sin to go around on all side, and so then we begin to ask what is the deeper problem with human nature, and can we get at that somehow? And I think blaming religion, especially for Stalinism and Mao and stuff, seems to be twisting the definition of religion out of any kind of normal definition, dictionary mode.
HH: Christopher Hitchens, when you brought up the Rwandan horror, and frankly educated me on the Catholic connection there, which I did not know and found horrifying, I thought it was not fair, though, to leave out John Paul II’s efforts to bring down, successfully, along with Thatcher and Reagan, the Soviet Union, that if you’re going to indict religion, it may have poisoned many things, but it certainly didn’t poison Poland. It freed Poland.
CH: Oh, well, I think you’ll find, I hope you’ll find, I’m sure you’ll find, that I do say…
CH: …that I thought that John Paul II was an extraordinary human being.
HH: Yes, but…
CH: And in that respect, and in others, too, though terrible things to be laid to his charge, as well. By any standards, he was a great mammal. This might be the time to reiterate my earlier challenge, because we still have some time left. I still want to be informed of a moral preachment, or a moral action made by a believer that couldn’t be made by an unbeliever.
HH: I’m not sure that I know one.
CH: Because otherwise, you see, religion becomes optional. You can have a nice Pope, you can have a nasty Pope. You can have an honest priest, you can have a dishonest priest. You can have a fraudulent Church or a frugal and scrupulous one. But it’s just, it could just as well be a private belief. Now that’s unfortunately not really possible in religious terms, is it, because you have to believe there is a supernatural power to which you owe some duty. You make yourselves believe this. I still can’t understand why you’d want to.
MR: (laughing) Well, you know, let me say that there is a struggle for believers who are open-minded and seek the truth, and I don’t deny it. But let me try to answer your question with an action that I consider to be one of the most moral that I do as a human being, though you and I might disagree on that, and that is the action, I did it last night. When my son was going to bed, I got next to him and I prayed for him. I doubt an atheist could do that. To me, that is one of the most moral of things I do as a human being.
CH: Gosh. Well, I mean, I think it does as much good as aerobic dancing would do, frankly. I don’t mean to be rude, but I don’t see, I don’t see that it’s a moral action. You also seem to suggest that in some way by not praying for my children, I’m not as moral as you are.
CH: I’m not sure you meant to say that.
MR: No, let me be clear. I did not mean…
CH: It’s not really an answer to my challenge, is it?
MR: No, you can do many other moral deeds. You might get with your children in the evening, and tell them how much you love them, and that would be absolutely fantastic. All I’m saying is that you asked for a moral action that I could do that an atheist could not do with integrity. And for me, praying for my children before they go to bed is one of the most important things in my life, and I believe it to be highly moral, and I doubt that an atheist could do that in good conscience. So…
CH: I don’t say, please don’t misunderstand me, I wouldn’t dream of saying that it was an immoral action. But I must tell you what I think, which is that it is an irrelevant one. I mean, it isn’t of itself a good thing, and it isn’t an action, either.
HH: Well, that brings us to one of my propositions. The vast majority of people listening disagree with you on that, Christopher, and atheists have always been with us, they always argue passionately, you better than most, now, with a fine book that is entertaining. But on the other hand, Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life has sold 20 million copies, the Church in China’s exploding, Africa’s alive with Evangelical fervor, the Catholic Church in South America is thriving. And so by any objective measure…
CH: Islam is sweeping all before it as well, so it’s a great time to be faith based.
HH: Atheists…but atheists have failed again. With all of the arguments that you’ve always been able to martial, it just doesn’t work. Why is that, do you suppose?
CH: Well, I say in the book that religious belief is ineradicable. It’s innate….it’s not innate in all of us. There are a certain number of people who always have been born, and always will be, who now have to be taken seriously and can’t be silenced and burned and imprisoned and tortured anymore, for whom it isn’t possible to believe, of who I am, as you can see, one. But it is still, it’s a belief I have to resist, sometimes. You know, if we were sitting together and a huge, rusting frig fell out of the sky and hit only you, and left me alone, I would sort of think that was a bit of luck, though it would be a vile thing to think, wouldn’t it…
CH: …I couldn’t stop myself. And we’re afraid of death, and we seek for passions where none exist. One of the most awful things in the Bible, I used to think when I was a child, was seek and ye shall find. Of course you will if you seek, if you look for a pattern and you hope there’s a God, and you don’t want to die, and you hope an exception will be made in your own case. You’re very likely to become vulnerable to religion. But I mean, you have to allow me to be unimpressed.
HH: Mark Roberts, we’ve got a minute to the break.
MR: And Christopher, have you read N.T. Wright’s book, Simply Christian?
CH: No, I’ve not.
MR: You know, even before you read mine…
CH: It sounds like a very sickly title, I must say.
MR: (laughing) Well, it’s okay.
CH: It’s like Mere Christianity. I hate that sort of pseudo-modesty that Christians sometimes have.
MR: I appreciate that. You may not like the book, but it would be helpful in a couple of ways, because I think it would help you to get what Christians believe to be the larger purpose and story, and it might also help to explain whey there is this yearning in us for God, because we happen to believe God put it there.
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HH: I want to go now to the Anthropic Principle, because a number of people asked me to bring this up in the course of preparing for this. Mark Daniels wrote it requires greater blind faith to believe that the universe has just happened into existence than to believe an intelligent being created it. I was written to about Robert Rood and James Trefil, astronomers who believe that when you look at the twenty unique characteristics of the globe, that it could only have been fulfilled in, actually, it should never have happened, even in the trillion universes, and the 100 billion stars, and each of them so magnificent as the Creation, and so delicately balanced. And I go to the Bill Bryson book A Short History of Nearly Everything, that when you’re done reading brief cosmological history, Christopher Hitchens, it really does take an extraordinary amount of indifference to accident to come to the conclusion that we’re just here because of an accident.
CH: Well, it doesn’t involve believing just in an accident. I mean, there was an extraordinary event that brought the universe into being, which the word big bang, originally invented by Professor Fred Hoyle, was originally designed to scorn that idea, to make it sound silly. But in fact, it’s now pretty much accepted. I just have to refer you again, I think, to Victor Stenger’s book, which has a much closer engagement than mine does with the sciences. And it seems to me, though, that the really unbelievable thing, the thing that cannot be believed, is that we on this very tiny speck of a planet in a solar system that has otherwise only dead planets, and the death of which we can all anticipate almost to the hour, the heat death of our known universe, that it’s on the very, very edge of a whirling, unimaginable space with other galaxies, that we are the point of all this creation. It’s just not possible for me, at any rate, to believe that.
HH: Mark Roberts, when my correspondents point out that the Earth being fit for habitat requires the number of stars in the planetary system, the parent star birth date, the parent star age, the parent star distance, the parent star mass, surface gravity, axial tilt, all these other things, does that increase or decrease your belief?
MR: Well, to the extent that I understand it, and I need to confess that I am quite limited in my understanding of that kind of science, it certainly increases…
CH: Well, that makes two of us.
MR: Well, it increases my belief.
HH: Well, I’ve got it down.
MR: Okay, so at least somebody here knows what it is.
CH: You can’t possibly say that you derive your faith from it, can you…
CH: Because Christianity comes from a time when people thought the sky was bowl, and they had no idea that the Earth was round, or that it revolved around the Sun instead of the Sun around it. Indeed, Christianity threatened with torture and death anyone who tried to investigate the subjects you’ve just been presenting us with.
MR: Yes, in not one of the happy chapters in our history. I mean, let me point to another book that I found to be quite helpful. It’s by Owen Gingrich. Owen Gingrich is an astrophysicist at Harvard. He actually taught there when I was a student there, though I didn’t take a class from him. We would eat lunch in the same place. He wrote a book called God’s Universe. It’s Harvard University Press, a fairly small book, talking about how he as an astrophysicist is also a man of faith, a Christian, and how that makes sense. And he says a couple of things I think you can find interesting. One is that when he looks at the utter unlikelihood of human existence, that that does increase his faith that there is some sort of a God behind all of this, but also, and this is where I think it’s interesting in terms of Christopher Hitchens’ recent comment, he chides himself from thinking that we’re the whole purpose, that human beings are the whole purpose of it. He says as a Christian who needs to be humbled before God and as a scientist, there may well be other life in other places. To me, it’s instructive, because it shows how a great man of science, who’s scientific understanding vastly, vastly exceeds my own, actually allows him to be more convinced in his religious faith, and to do it in a very rational and sane and open to science way, that I find very appealing. I think one of the things I would want to say myself is that the extent to which in the history of the relationship between religion and science, Christianity has often opposed scientific inquiry. Much of that I find very grievous, and would agree with Christopher Hitchens that that was a sorry thing.
CH: You see, suppose that you could infer a Creator who’s interested…sorry, suppose you could infer a Creator or an intelligence from these calculations, which is a hypothesis that so far when tested has proved to be inadequate, but suppose, let me grant it to you. All your work is still ahead of you. That doesn’t suggest in the smallest degree that He’s interested in what happens to you or me.
HH: I think that’s correct, and you would have to look for evidences of His plan revealed to humankind.
CH: Yes, and I just think our cranial capacity isn’t up to that.
MR: No, I would agree with you that, that gets us to a place…
CH: So why claim to know things you can’t possibly know. I keep asking you, I will keep asking you, why do you impose this extraordinary burden on yourself?
HH: Because you found those evidences, I would say…
MR: Well, because…
CH: Well, you better…you should publicize them better. They haven’t penetrated yet.
MR: Yes. I would say that what you’re saying is why hang onto these things that are hard to believe and defend? And my answer is that I have to be intellectually honest and try to be faithful as a thinker, that I simply can’t lop off of my faith those things that I find inconvenient or difficult to understand, that it’s a matter of…and you say well then, why hold onto the faith in the first place? Because the faith in the first place, to me, makes ultimately the most sense of all things, and because of something that I realize you would have a hard time agreeing with, but what I would also say is my experience of God. I realize you don’t think I’ve had an experience of God, but I…
CH: No, no. I think you have.
CH: I wouldn’t dream of doubting that you think you have. But I don’t think you could make it real to anybody else.
MR: Well, as a…all I can say is as a pastor, I…
CH: I don’t think that people who report seeing UFO’s and so on are lying. I think they did, I think they really do think they saw them. I just do not think we’re being visited by such craft.
MR: My experience, and again, this gets to my particular experience as a pastor, is that it’s not an easy thing at all to help somebody else to experience God as reality, but that if I am as faithful to the truth as I can be, if I seek to live it out as faithfully as I can, that actually, that can help people come to experience God in a genuine way as well. If I didn’t believe that, I sure as heck wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.
HH: And Christopher Hitchens, you believe people are deluding themselves when they believe they have experienced God?
CH: Well actually, I was a friend of a bishop of the Church of England, a very decent and gentle man called Hugh Montefiore, who converted from Judaism to become a Christian, who became a very senior figure in the Anglican Church, because of a personal visit that he had from Jesus Christ when he was one of the few Jews at a Protestant boarding school. And he wrote a book also saying that the conditions for life on this planet seem to be so extraordinary, that the knife edge balance on which we live, that it testifies to the Divine, and I don’t, I can’t say that old Bishop Hugh was lying when he said he’d had a personal visit from Jesus. It did change his life, he acted for the rest of his life as if it had happened.
HH: On that point, we will return, because that’s very interesting. Is that in the book, Christopher? It’s not in the book, is it?
HH: You didn’t include that in the book, did you?
CH: No, I probably should have done.
CH: It’s a very interesting book that he wrote, but he’s worth Googling.
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HH: I now bring up a point sent to me by Randy Elrod who blogs at Ethos. He wanted this proposition to be put out there. An understanding of the existence of something greater than ourselves gives us the ability, as Dostoyevsky states in The Brothers, to not only live, but to live for something definite. Without a firm notion of what he is living for, man will not accept life, and will rather destroy himself rather than remain on Earth. And of course, he is one of the great Christian mystics, Christopher Hitchens, but do you believe that man absolutely must have some understanding of something larger than himself, meaning God, or that it becomes meaningless and insane?
CH: Well, I think we do probably need something on the order of the transcendent in our lives, and I think humanism fulfills these needs, incidentally. I mean, if you say that for you, as for me, the beauties of science, the consolations of philosophy, the study of literature is the source of ethical and moral questions, that’s enough for most people’s lifetimes. And to turn away from this, and to say well, I’d rather go for the ancient texts that come from the childhood of our species is first, I think, to refuse a wonderful offer, and second, it makes it impossibly arrogant for the questioner to assume that that’ll make you behave better. I mean, surely, he knows that many people are absolutely convinced that there’s a God greater than themselves, are convinced that that God is telling them to do evil. The example you just gave of people who have personal experiences that must be considered valid must be valid for everybody in that case. In that case, it is true that the archangel Gabriel told the prophet Mohammed what to do. It was…it seems to have been very convincing to him and to many other people. Do you accept the validity of that or not?
HH: No, I don’t, and that…
CH: Do you accept that Louis Farrakhan can get people off drugs by faith?
HH: No, I don’t. And that’s why Mark Roberts, this is his biggest challenge…
CH: Are you impressed? Well, how do you accept it for one and reject it for another?
HH: You have to, Mark Roberts, I’ll leave that question to you, because it’s a question of choosing between many competing claims as to Divine guidance.
MR: Well, this is where Christopher Hitchens and I would, though, I think, end up in different places, agree that one of the things we desperately need is open-mindedness, clear thinking, the ability to ask difficult questions, to test our own hypotheses. You got to study with Karl Popper, I understand, and that would be the thing I envy of you, having studied philosophy of science in my undergraduate days, and Popper was rather a hero there, that we need to…I don’t take at all every testimony at face value as true. I think we’ve got to examine it, look to see if it’s true, test it. I believe that in my own way.
CH: Well, how, there’s no standard for doing that, though, is there? It’s the most subjective possible thing, and actually, you don’t get terribly reassured, do you, if someone comes up to you in the street and says I’m on a mission from God, and he’s given me some instructions, that why does that not delight you if someone comes up and does that?
MR: Well, because I happen to believe that sometimes people are on a mission from God, and sometimes they think they are and they’re not, and it’s not necessarily a good thing.
CH: You know, well, I’d love to be with you the next time someone says that…someone comes up to both of us and says they’re hearing voices, and it’s God. You’re going to throw your arms around him and say you, too? What luck.
HH: But generally…
CH: I don’t think so. I don’t know why I don’t think so, but I just don’t.
MR: I actually spend quite a bit of time with people who have claims for various kinds of religious experiences, and what I do is I listen to them, I try as best I can with the tools I have and the understanding I have to discern the extent to which what they are saying is true or not, and you’re right. You’ve said is that a difficult thing to do? Is there some absolute standard? I don’t believe there is. But I do believe…
CH: No, there isn’t. You couldn’t believe, it wouldn’t be a matter of belief, would it? It would have to have something to do with proof.
MR: Well, yeah, so…
CH: Just a tiny little bit, a smidgeon of evidence here and there wouldn’t kill, would it? There isn’t any. That’s the thing.
CH: It’s just, you can’t, you don’t judge people by what they think of themselves. You’d be a immoral if you did.
HH: You do judge them how they, you do judge them by how they live, though.
CH: You’d be failing them by not saying look, I’m really sorry, man, but I think you’re in trouble and you need help.
MR: Well, that is actually, I have said that to different kind of people, because of course, schizophrenics also believe that have religious experiences when in fact…
CH: Indeed they do.
MR: …they desperately need help.
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HH: Mark Roberts, early in the show, you said that Christopher Hitchens does not seem to inhabit the same universe you do when it comes to the religious people that you know. And the conversation we just had about people walking up and talking to…reminded me of that comment, because that’s not really how religious people live in my experience. It’s not…and they’re not poisoned. They’re out doing good things and living extraordinarily humble but service-filled lives. And I think maybe that’s where the disconnect comes between the portrait we get out of god Is Not Great and your portrait.
MR: Well, I think if one looks at the things that religious people have done throughout history, and even throughout the world today that are not good, one comes up with a certain view of what religion must be that’s very different from the average experience. And here, I can’t speak for all religions. I can speak for what I know, I can speak for myself and my congregation of people whose faith in God is a prime motivator of goodness. I think of recently some folk from our Church went down to an orphanage in Mexico, and some of the folks fix bicycles, and some of the folks worked on teeth, because we have a couple dentists in the Church. And they did that not just because they’re good humanists, they did that because they’re Christians, and they feel that that is what they are to do for their faith, in their response to God. Now as I look at that, it is very hard for me to see how that poisoned anything. It seems to me that that greatly enriched something, and helped people’s lives. And so I guess I’m willing to say that sometimes religion poisons things. I am looking for the side that says and sometimes it doesn’t.
CH: Very well. Well, since you’ve both been kind enough to read my book, you, I don’t expect you’ll remember every bit of it, but you will grant me that I spend some time describing my encounters in Northern Uganda with people who are…
CH: …there in a selfless way, trying to repair the damage done by…
HH: The Lord’s Army.
CH: …the horrible religious…
CH: …Christian group called the Lord’s Resistance Army. And I say well, which of you is really the faithful one? I mean, to me, it doesn’t matter, because there are very large numbers of people who do that kind of work all over the world, and I’ve met them, and can introduce you to them, who do so for its own sake, for the sake of their fellow men, for their brothers and sisters. And they don’t demand any Divine warrant, and they’re not suspected of proselytization, either.
HH: Christopher, question for you…
CH: Now, so any…it’s like in my original challenge. You have to name an ethical action that an atheist couldn’t take.
HH: But I have a question for you…
CH: There are millions of unbelievers who do charitable work. I don’t say charity poisons everything. But in order to say that confronted with, say, AIDS in Africa, that that’s bad, though P.S., it might be God’s punishment…
HH: A question for you, though…
CH: So I mean, and B) though AIDS is bad, with condoms are worse, and must be forbidden, for a really foolish, wicked thing like that, you need to be a person of faith.
HH: You have read the Gospels, so you know what Jesus teaches, and you then go to Uganda, and you see what the Lord’s Army was taught, and you see what the people trying to repair the Lord’s Army is taught. Which group is acting in conformance with the actual teachings of Jesus as you read them?
CH: Well, I would say, I’d have to say both.
HH: How could the Lord’s Army be acting in…
CH: I’d have to say both. Well, the Lord’s Resistance Army says that nothing will be okay in Uganda until everyone agrees with the Ten Commandments.
HH: Jesus does not teach that. Mark Roberts, does he?
CH: No, that Jesus doesn’t, no.
HH: That’s what I asked.
CH: But Moses does.
HH: I was asking in the teachings…
CH: And you adopt Moses as one of your heroes.
HH: I was asking as you assess the teachings of Jesus, and those two camps in Uganda, one is teaching Christ’s love, and one is not. That’s why I’m saying…
CH: Who comes to bring not peace but a sword?
MR: But in its context, one has to understand what that means, and it’s not quite fair to throw that. Who’s the one who said that his followers are to be known by their love? And that’s the more consistent and more easily understood of…
CH: So we need Divine permission for love? Excuse me?
MR: Excuse me?
CH: Who needs Divine permission for love?
MR: I don’t know that any of us need permission, but it certainly helps…
CH: Or to be told to love? Isn’t it rather odd to be told to love? It’s always seemed bizarre to me.
MR: Well, you know, from my point of view, it’s extraordinarily helpful, because I…
CH: Ordered to love, I don’t, it’s…something is quacky there.
MR: Well, we need to understand and appreciate…
CH: And ordered to love others as much as you love yourself and your loved ones, now that’s, by the way, making an impossible commandment of people, making a command that can’t be met. Therefore, you can always accuse people of falling short of it, you can always find them guilty.
MR: I could accuse you of recently listening to one of my sermons, because I agree it’s an impossible commandment. The good news for Christians is that God helps us, and that’s what we believe, to live that which we on our own could not.
CH: So you think all this is directed at you?
MR: Excuse me?
CH: You think all this is directed at you? You think the universe is designed with you in mind?
MR: No, I think the universe is…
CH: Incredibly, in the guise of modesty, that seems to me an extraordinarily arrogant statement.
MR: I don’t know that I’ve ever thought that or believed it.
CH: Well, will you promise me to think about it at least once?
MR: Yes. I believe that the universe is designed with much greater things than me in mind, and that God has enlisted me to help in His work of bringing the universe back into order. Is that a…
CH: Gosh. Well, I must say, you have a very high opinion of yourself.
CH: I think you’re a pretty decent chap also.
MR: If in…
CH: But I think that’s a very, very extreme idea.
MR: If thirty years ago, an American man was drafted into the Army, I don’t know that that person would rightly think he had a high opinion of himself.
CH: Oh, so you’re conscripted into this?
MR: Well, we use called, but conscripted…
CH: I mean, I just never know with which proposition I am arguing.
MR: Conscripted if you wish, called is usually what we prefer.
CH: Uh-huh. Onward Christian soldiers. Well, that has a wonderful history.
HH: We’re rapidly coming to the conclusion of this. Mark Roberts, did you have any questions for Christopher Hitchens?
MR: Well, only in that the harder parts of your book for me were the places where you rather ridicule people of faith. Now sometimes, you ridicule people of faith that I also agree with you are thinking and doing things that are virtually worth of ridicule. But I wondered why you do that when it seems like you’re going to lose the opportunity to influence some of the very people you would want to influence.
CH: Ah, well, it’s just the way I am. I mean, I am a polemicist, if you like, and one has to get people’s attention first of all.
MR: Well okay, that’s fair.
CH: And that may sound to you as it somewhat slightly sounds to me as a vulgar answer, but it is the truth, right? One can’t write a book saying God is not that brilliant.
HH: (laughing) I guess you couldn’t.
MR: No, I appreciate that. That is a good answer. The only thing I would say is that I think some of what is good in your book will get lost because it’s hard to be told that I’m stupid.
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HH: Thank you to Christopher Hitchens and Mark Roberts for spending so much time with us today on the Great God Debate. Christopher Hitchens, any final thought here?
CH: Well, yes. I might have had another one, but I can’t let Dr. Roberts’ last observation go uncommented upon. I most certainly do not say that he’s stupid, and I say in my book that many people of high intelligence and fervent conscience have been devout believers. I say that I think the belief is stupid and unfounded and false, and potentially, latently, always wicked, because it is both servile in one way, and arrogant in another. And that’s why I dare to say that it’s ab initio, a poison. But I certainly do not say of people who have faith that they are dumb. Isaac Newton was practically a spiritualist. Alfred Russel Wallace, who did a lot of Darwin’s work for him, had weird, supernatural beliefs as well. These things are compatible with high intelligence and great morality. But we would be better off if we left them behind.
HH: Mark Roberts, your concluding thought?
MR: Well, perhaps I took it too personally the line that says, “Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago,” given that two days ago, I stood up and spoke words that I’d hoped were intelligible, noble and inspiring.
MR: But let me say something. I think this is important to say, and I haven’t said it. One of the great things I appreciate in Christopher Hitchens is he is a man of high morals. And I think any Christian or other religious person who doubts or denies that misses the point, and I share with him much of his outrage at evil in the world. I share, I admire his willingness to do things like provide a sanctuary for Salman Rushdie, or to speak out against certain features of Islam in a day when it is risky to do so. I share his outrage over many of the abuses, for example, the abuse of children within the Church, and probably even feel it more deeply, because I’m a part of at least that larger Church. One of the things I appreciate about Christopher Hitchens in his writing is his moral stance. The thing that I believe is that if one has a faith basis for morality, in fact, there is even greater warrant. One can make greater arguments for saying that others must join in them. I realize that he disagrees with that, but I am grateful that he hasn’t fallen into some swamp of relativism. And in fact, there’s a high moral calling that I think all people, religious, non-religious, ought to take seriously and be challenged by, and I need to say that I appreciate that in him and in his book.
HH: Christopher Hitchens, always a pleasure. We look forward to talking, good luck in your book tour. And Mark Roberts, thank you, sir, continued good luck with the luck of Can The Gospels Be Trusted.
End of interview…finally.