Christopher Hitchens: My Response to god is not Great

god is not Great by Christopher Hitchens

A Response

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts

Copyright © 2007, 2011 by Mark D. Roberts and

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A few hours ago I had the opportunity to debate Christopher Hitchens on the subject of his recent bestseller: god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. For three hours (including commercials) Mr. Hitchens and I stood toe-to-toe (electronically speaking) on the Hugh Hewitt Show, a talk-radio program. (Note: if you missed this program live, it will soon be available on the Internet. Check this website. Picture to the right: Christopher Hitchens holding forth.)

The specific topics for the debate were selected by Hugh, who moderated the program. Though he and I are friends, he did not tell me what the topics would be in advance. He and I both knew it was important for us to play fair in this debate (which meant, of course, that I way over-prepared, since I needed to be able to cover every possible topic raised by Hitchens’s book). Some of this over-preparation will now pay off as I begin to blog about god is not Great.

To be honest, I felt pretty nervous before the debate. Though I have some expertise in Christianity, and especially in the field of New Testament, and though I have been a pastor and adjunct seminary professor for many years, I am not one who regularly engages in apologetic defenses of Christian faith. Others are much better than I at such efforts (such as Dr. Craig Hazen and his Biola colleagues, including Greg Koukl and Dr. John Mark Reynolds. Prior to my conversation with Hitchens, I spoke with these three brilliant defenders of Christian faith, and am grateful for their counsel. It’s good to have smart, godly friends!)

My pre-debate nervousness was increased by the fact that Christopher Hitchens is a bright, well-educated, quick-thinking, widely-read, rhetorically-brilliant and dagger-tongued debater. Plus, for the last month he’s been going around the country sparing with religious and academic types about his book. By now his attacks and defenses will have been finely tuned for maximum effectiveness. Plus, there’s the fact that Mr. Hitchens speaks with a British accent, which means he’d sound better than I no matter the content of our presentations.

There is also the issue of the format. Talk radio, in most cases, is not well suited to careful, reasoned, extensive discourse. It’s much better for soundbites, which Hitchens cranks out in droves. But this makes it challenging to engage in logical discourse, especially when the issues are complex. One could easily win the argument, logically, but lose the war in terms of the impact on listeners.

I had hoped that both Christopher Hitchens and I would have done the debate from Hugh’s radio studio. I looked forward to the chance to talk with Mr. Hitchens face-to-face. Human communication is usually better this way, even in a debate format. Unfortunately, however, he preferred to call in his part over the telephone, which is common in the radio business. I can imagine that Christopher Hitchens is, by now, pretty tired of debating us religious folk. I don’t blame him for wanting to phone it in.

How did the debate go? Overall, I think it was fair and reasonably informative. As I think over my responses, I’d love to go back and change a few. By far the hardest thing about debating Christopher Hitchens is his tendency to throw out a lot of critical claims all at once. I found myself needing to choose which to pick up and which to leave on the table. This was frustrating, since I feared that one might assume I agreed with things I just didn’t have time to refute. My blog will give me the chance to be both clearer and more complete.

I mentioned a number of resources in the debate, and will put up links to these in case you want to track them down. Then I’ll say a bit more about the last resource on the list:

Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony

Owen Gingerich, God’s Universe

Francis S. Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief

N.T. Wright, Simply Christian

Elaine Howard Ecklund. “Religion and Spirituality among University Scientists”

Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus

I did not bring up the Ehrman book. Hugh did, I believe, because it figures prominently in god is not Great. Though there are many fine insights in Misquoting Jesus, I don’t generally recommend it because it has much that is distorted and unhelpful. In fact, I wrote a substantial critique of this book shortly after it was published.

In our conversation about Ehrman, Hitchens mentioned something he said in his book, that he chose Ehrman “on the basis of ‘evidence against interest’: in other words from someone whose original scholarly and intellectual journey was not at all intended to challenge holy writ” (p. 122). Apparently, Hitchens believed that Ehrman was still some sort of Christian or theist, albeit not of the fundamentalist stripe. Hitchens seemed taken aback when I noted that Ehrman is not a believer, but gave up his faith a long time ago. Hitchens said he would check this out.

In my off-the-cuff comments on Ehrman, I was essentially correct, though I got a couple of details wrong. I think I said that he lost his faith in grad school, and has been an atheist for three decades, and has during that time published literature opposing orthodox Christianity. After the debate I checked my facts, and found that Ehrman considers himself an agnostic, not an atheist. Moreover, given that he finished his PhD in 1985, it would be more accurate to say he’s been a non-theist for over twenty years, not thirty. Nevertheless, the fact that he hasn’t been a Christian for his entire professional and publishing life doesn’t make Ehrman a good example of “evidence against interest.” It’s obvious, especially in Misquoting Jesus, that Ehrman has plenty of interest in debunking Christian belief. He isn’t hiding this fact, even as I don’t hide the fact that I am a Christian and that this influences my thinking and writing.

My source of information about Ehrman’s rejection of Christianity is a little essay he wrote called “An Agnostic Reflects on Christmas.” There he explains how, even though he no longer believes in the message of Christmas, he is still touched by Christmas stories and celebrations, especially Christmas trees. Ironically, Bart Ehrman and I agree profoundly on this last point. I am also a big lover of Christmas trees, as I have made abundantly clear in past blogging. I’m happy to say that Ehrman and I part company on the truth of Christmas, however.

In my next post in this series I’ll begin to examine aspects of Hitchens’s case against God and religion, and why I believe this case is less than convincing.

Is Hitchens a Reliable Source of “Facts”?

Few books will divide the house more than god is not Great. Atheists will happily devour it; religious folks will find it most distasteful. My guess is that few books are more polarizing than this particular volume.

Yet I think I can say something about god is not Great that everyone can agree with: It is filled with purported statements of fact. Those who like Hitchens may be unhappy with “purported,” but surely they must understand that by using this word I’m not necessarily denying the truthfulness of Hitchens’s claims. I’m simply noting that god is not Great is filled with thousands of statements that appear to be factual.

The is worth mentioning because many books on religion and philosophy contain endless arguments and ideas, but not many so-called facts. Books like these are valuable, of course, but they are often hard to assess. Arguments and ideas cannot be easily tested as to their truthfulness. Claims of fact often can be check out rather quicly (but not always, of course. It’s a little hard to verify the fact of the Big Bang or the existence of quarks.).

For example, if I were to say that god is not Great offers several arguments that are valid and many that are invalid, which I do in fact believe, this thesis would take quite a bit of effort to demonstrate. That’s the main point of this extended blog series on god is not Great. But if I were to say that the cover of god is not Great is blue, this could be easily checked out. You could quickly disprove my purported statement of fact by comparing it with the data. And this comparison would not bode well for me, since the cover of god is not Great is quite clearly yellow. One might call it mustard or ocher or “bananaish” or some other variety of yellow, but blue simply won’t work.

The obvious fact that god is not Great contains many apparent facts, therefore, gives us an advantage in trying to evaluate its overall truthfulness. If Hitchens tends to get his facts right, then we would do well to pay close attention to his claims, even those that are not factual per se. He will have shown himself to be a reliable witness and a careful thinker. If, on the contrary, he gets many of his facts wrong, then we would rightly be inclined to doubt what he writes about many things and chalk it up to sloppy thinking.

This fact-checking approach seems to provide a fair and rational way forward in our effort to evaluate god is not Great. In fact, it keeps us within the realm of the rational and scientific, a realm that Hitchens almost seems to regard as the kingdom of God. Yet the plethora of purported facts in this book also makes such evaluation difficult. Why? Because this book contains so many different alleged facts concerning so many different subjects. Yes, religion is in the center of Hitchens’s target, but he tends to shoot with buckshot rather than a silver bullet. god is not Great contains page after page of ostensible facts having to do with history, culture, literature, philosophy, theology, and current events, in addition to religion. Thus it would be difficult for the average person to evaluate Hitchens’s claims without doing a whole lot of research for a whole long time.

Christopher Hitchens knows more about many things than I do. Right or wrong, his grasp of history exceeds mine, as does his knowledge of current events and even certain religions, mainly Islam. But there are a few topics in which I have greater expertise than Hitchens. Given his apparently naïve and curiously modernist view of human knowing, (“Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith.” p. 5), I may know epistemology (the philosophy of knowledge) better than he. Likewise with philosophical ethics. I am quite sure that I have much more knowledge of what it’s like actually to be a Christian than Christopher (whose name in Greek means “Christ-bearer” by the way). I’m sure he’d quite happily grant me this advantage over him. And I’m positive that I know the New Testament and the field of New Testament studies better than Hitchens. This isn’t a matter of boasting. One would hope that somebody with a Ph.D. in New Testament actually had a bit of expertise in the field. While Christopher Hitchens was traveling the world as a journalist, I was burrowed into the library at Harvard, studying ancient languages and documents, and reading more New Testament scholarship than anyone other than a scholar would find valuable.

Therefore, as I read god is not Great, wading through Hitchens’s rhetorically-charged version of many purported facts, I was especially attentive to his statements about the New Testament and related scholarship. Would he get these “facts” right? Would he say things that most honest scholars, no matter their theological persuasion, would affirm? If Hitchens scored relatively high in his truth score when it came to the New Testament, then I’d be inclined to believe him about other things as well. He would have shown himself to be a careful thinker, researcher, and writer. If, however, Hitchens scored low in his New Testament truth score, if he made obvious errors and biased misstatements, then I would tend to question his reliability about other statements of fact as well.

The bad news for Christopher Hitchens is that he gets a low mark for accuracy when it comes to his statements about the New Testament and New Testament scholarship. In fact, I found fifteen factual errors in this material. I also identified sixteen statements that show what I consider to be a substantial misunderstanding or distortion of the evidence, even though a few scholars might agree with Hitchens. That’s why I distinguish between factual errors and misunderstandings/distortions, in an effort to be clear and fair.

If my evaluation is anywhere near correct, this does not reflect well upon god is not Great, since the New Testament material comprises only about 6% of the whole book. How many other errors fill the pages of this book? I’ll let suitable experts answer this question. But the obvious implication of what I discovered is that Christopher Hitchens is not a reliable reporter of facts, probably because has not done his homework adequately. He is, after all, a brilliant man with an inquisitive and well-tuned mind. Given my evaluation of his errors in the field I know best, however, I’m inclined to question his statements of “fact” concerning many other things. And my disbelief is not a belief. It’s a reasonable conclusion based on the facts of Hitchens’s numerous mistakes and misstatements.

Of course for this conclusion to be valid, I need to show specifically where Hitchens makes errors in his treatment of the New Testament and New Testament scholarship. I won’t be able to do this responsibly in this post, since I’ve already put up more words today than most readers prefer in a single blog entry. I’ll begin to examine Hitchens’s mistakes tomorrow.

In the meanwhile, if you own a copy of god is not Great, why don’t you see if you can spot any errors. Most of them can be found in pages 110 through 120.

Hitchens Mistaken About a Date, a Name, and the Gospels

In yesterday’s post I said that I have found many errors in god in not Great by Christopher Hitchens. These errors have been in the area of my academic expertise: New Testament and New Testament scholarship. I’ll leave it to other experts to evaluate the accuracy of other portions of god is not Great. But I must confess that I was not impressed by Hitchens’s grasp of the material I know well, and that has led me to question his overall reliability as a source of “facts.”

I have found fifteen errors in Hitchens’s treatment of the New Testament, as well as sixteen misunderstandings or distortions. Some of the clear errors are not major in terms of content, but they reveal a kind of sloppiness that is unsettling.

Hitchens Mistaken on the Date of Jesus’s Birth

For example, Hitchens writes:

“This [year 2000 hysteria] was no better than primitive numerology: in fact it was slightly worse in that 2000 was only a number of Christian calendars and even the stoutest defenders of the Bible story now admit that if Jesus were ever born it wasn’t until at least AD 4.” (pp 59-60)

Nobody, to my knowledge, dates the birth of Jesus to AD 4. Every scholar puts his birth earlier than 4 BC (the date of King Herod’s death). The most likely date for Jesus’s birth seems to be around 6 BC. My guess is Hitchens remembered the “4″ correctly but not the era. A minor mistake, but an unsettling one.

Hitchens Gets Bart Ehrman’s Name Wrong

To cite one further example of this sort, Hitchens twice refers to the scholar Bart D. Ehrman as “Barton Ehrman” (p. 120, 142). To my knowledge, “Bart” is Mr. Ehrman’s full first name. So, unless he has a nickname unknown to me, it’s an error to call the man “Barton.” Again, this is not a substantial error, but it does suggest a distressing lack of accuracy. (It also leaves me completely unimpressed with the editing of this book. Authors make mistakes. I’ve certainly made plenty in my time. Good publishers have good editors and fact-checkers who catch mistakes.)

By the way, let me clarify something I said in the debate about Ehrman. He is a highly-regarded New Testament scholar, who has done some fine work. I once used one of his books in a seminary course I was teaching. I disagree with him at many points, but I respect his work. I do believe that Ehrman’s opposition to Christianity does color some of his arguments and conclusions, but no more that my own work reflects my Christianity. If you’re interested, in a new book that refutes Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus, check out Misquoting Truth: A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus” by Timothy Paul Jones. HT: Melinda at Stand to Reason)

At this point my criticis will no doubt say that I’m nit-picking, that the errors in god is not Great are insubstantial. My response, as one who has graded hundreds of graduate school papers over the years, is that you can almost always see the quality of a writer’s thinking in how he or she deals with seemingly insignificant details. ‘A’ papers generally get the names and dates right too. Sloppiness in small things is generally a precursor to sloppiness in larger things.

Hitchen’s Gets the Nature of the Gospels Wrong

So now to a larger “fact” that Hitchens gets wrong. He writes:

“However, he [Maimonides, the Jewish rabbi and philosopher] fell into the same error as do the Christians, in assuming that the four Gospels were in any sense a historical record. Their multiple authors–none of whom published anything until many decades after the Crucifixion–cannot agree on anything of importance.” (111)

There are two main problems with this statement. The first problem is calling it an “error” to “assum[e] that the four Gospels were in any sense a historical record.” Even the most skeptical of scholars see the Gospels as a historical record in some sense. Most famously, even the Jesus Seminar, which turned skepticism about the Gospels into a successful franchise, gave a historical thumbs up (red beads, actually) to some of the sayings and actions of Jesus in the New Testament Gospels. I don’t know of any credible scholar who claims that there is no historically reliable material in the Gospels. Ancient historians and classicists generally regard the Gospels as substantially historical, and regard the hyper-skepticism of many New Testament scholars as aberrant.

As much as I think Hitchens made a mistake in what he wrote about the Gospels as not being a historical record in some sense, I actually didn’t count this among the fifteen clear errors, because I was giving him a generous benefit of the doubt. However, the next problem is an indisputable error.

Hitchens writes that the “multiple authors” of the Gospels “cannot agree on anything of importance.” This is plainly wrong, unless, I suppose, we allow Hitchens to fill in the blanks of what counts as important. He might say that nothing of importance at all is addressed in the Gospels. (Later he will say that “Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, [religion] no longer offers an explanation of anything important.” [282]). Be that as it may, his point on page 111 is that the Gospels are full of disagreement, especially about the things that matter about Jesus, as the context makes clear.

This is simply not true. Though it is true that the New Testament Gospels show considerable diversity in their portraits of Jesus, they agree on many, many things, including matters that are most important both to the Gospel writers and to Christian believers.

In my book, Can We Trust the Gospels?, I devote two chapters to this issue. Chapter 8 is called “What Difference Does It Make That There Are Four Gospels?” Chapter 9 is called “Are There Contradictions in the Gospels?” I do not at all try to minimize the genuine differences among the Gospels. Any careful reader can’t help but see them, whether in the stories of Jesus’s birth or in the stylistic differences between Mark and John. In fact, the early Christians celebrated the unique qualities of the different Gospels. But I also show in considerable detail the extent to which all four Gospels agree on much of what pertains to Jesus, including the most important aspects of His ministry and message.

At the end of Chapter 8, I include a list of 33 key facts about Jesus that are found in all four gospels. I’ll mention about half of these points of agreement here:

• Jesus ministered during the time when Pontius Pilate was prefect of Judea (around A.D. 27 to A.D. 37).

• Jesus had a close connection with John the Baptist, and his ministry superseded that of John.

• Jesus’s ministry took place in Galilee.

• Jesus’s ministry concluded in Jerusalem.

• Jesus gathered disciples around him. (This is important, because Jewish teachers in the time of Jesus didn’t recruit their own students, rather the students came to them.)

• Jesus taught women, and they were included among the larger group of his followers. (This, by the way, sets Jesus apart from other Jewish teachers of his day.)

• The ministry of Jesus involved conflict with supernatural evil powers, including Satan and demons.

• Jesus used the cryptic title “Son of Man” in reference to Himself and in order to explain His mission. (Jesus’s fondness for and use of this title was very unusual in his day, and was not picked up by the early church. This is a hugely important point for the one who seeks to understand Jesus.)

• Jesus saw his mission as the Son of Man as leading to his death. (This was unprecedented in Judaism. Even among Jesus’s disciples it was both unexpected and unwelcome.)

• Jesus, though apparently understanding himself to be Israel’s promised Messiah, was curiously circumspect about this identification. (This is striking, given the early and widespread confession of Christians that Jesus was the Messiah.)

• Jesus did various sorts of miracles, including healings and nature miracles.

• Jesus was misunderstood by almost everybody, including his own disciples.

• Jesus experienced conflict with many Jewish leaders, especially the Pharisees and ultimately the temple-centered leadership in Jerusalem.

• Jesus spoke and acted in ways that implied He had a unique connection with God.

• Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem, at the time of Passover, under the authority of Pontius Pilate, and with the cooperation of some Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. (There are quite a few more details concerning the death of Jesus that are shared by all four gospels.)

• Most of Jesus’s followers either abandoned Him or denied Him during His crucifixion.

• Jesus was raised from the dead on the first day of the week.

• Women were the first witnesses to the evidence of Jesus’s resurrection. (This is especially significant, since the testimony of women was not highly regarded in first-century Jewish culture. Nobody would have made up stories with women as witnesses if they wanted them to gain ready acceptance.)

My list of Gospel agreements doesn’t even begin to tally up the less explicit but ultimately crucial agreements in matters of worldview. The Gospel writers share a common view of reality, one that includes a personal, creator God who has been active in human affairs, especially those of Israel, and so forth and so on. Someone from a culture not influenced by Judeo-Christianity would undoubtedly see commonalities that I take for granted.

As I read god is not Great, and as I’ve read other things Christopher Hitchens has written, it’s obvious to me that he has a good bit of familiarity with the New Testament Gospels. I’d even be willing to bet that he knows the Gospels better than many Christians. Thus I am at a loss for why he would say that they “cannot agree on anything of importance.” Even allowing for a good bit of polemical freedom, such a statement is so plainly wrong that it cannot but undermine the reader’s confidence in Hitchens’s reliability.

If would be perfectly fair for Hitchens to have said, “The Gospels agree on many things about Jesus, most of which are fictions, and all of which are rubbish.” Of course I’d beg to differ with the stuff that comes after “Jesus,” but at least it would be a fair point for him to have made. But it just isn’t right for Hitchens to say that the four Gospels “cannot agree on anything of importance.”

Thus I come to the end of my long discussion of the first three of Hitchens’s errors concerning the New Testament and New Testament scholarship. The first two are admittedly small, but suggestive. The third error is important enough to have merited lengthy analysis. In subsequent posts I’ll move more quickly through the other errors so as to get through this material in a reasonable number of posts. Nevertheless, in the interest of truthfulness, I have tried to be thorough and clear, and sometimes this takes more than a few soundbites.

Hitchens Wrong about Q, Hell (Twice), Nag Hammadi, Canon, and Tampering

In yesterday’s post I pointed out three errors in Christopher Hitchens’s recent book, god is not Great. In today’s post I’ll deal briefly with six more errors. I’ll finish up with the next six on Monday.

Hitchens Mistaken About the Nature of Q

Hitchens writes:

The book on which all four [New Testament Gospels] may possibly have been based, known speculatively to scholars as “Q,” has been lost forever, which seems distinctly careless on the part of the god who is claimed to have “inspired” it. (112)

Q is a hypothetical document invented by New Testament scholars to explain the complex relationships between the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Most New Testament scholars affirm the existence of Q or something like it, though quite a few find this hypothetical document to be unnecessary. (Hitchens would like the Ockham’s razor approach of these non-Q-ites!) I happen to believe that something like Q existed. If you’re looking for a more detailed explanation of what I have said so briefly, you can check out chapter five of my book, Can We Trust the Gospels? I’ll include here a chart that shows up in that chapter so you can see how the Gospels might be related to each other and to Q.

So what does Hitchens get wrong? Q is not the book on which all four [Gospels] may possibly have been based. No New Testament scholar believes this. By definition, Q contains that which almost never shows up in the Gospel of Mark, so nobody argues that Mark was based on Q. And, to my knowledge, nobody believes that John was based on Q either, though John may or may not have had access to another Sayings Source. Clearly, Hitchens does not understand the nature of Q.

I should also add, though I don’t count this among the fifteen errors, that nobody to my knowledge has ever argued that God inspired Q. The scholars who are enamored with Q tend not to think much in terms of God’s inspiration of the Bible anyway. And those of us who value inspiration don’t try to smuggle Q into the canon, though we regard it as a helpful source of Jesus’s sayings.

Hitchens Wrong in Saying that Only Jesus Mentioned Hell

Hitchens writes,

“This distinction [between the Old Testament and the New with respect to an ill-tempered god] is more apparent than real, since it is only in the reported observations of Jesus that we find any mention of hell and eternal punishment” (175).

Christopher Hitchens doesn’t like the idea of Hell. In this he is joined by many Christians, actually, including me. But we affirm the idea of Hell (in various forms and non-forms) because we find it taught in Scripture in many places. Jesus does mention Hell and eternal punishment, and in this Hitchens is correct (for example, Matthew 5:29-30). But the notion of Hell and/or post-mortem punishment shows up elsewhere in the New Testament (for example, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10; 2 Peter 2:4-10; Jude 7; Revelation 20:11-15).

Now I can just hear Hitchens laughing, believing that I have won the point but lost the argument. After all, he is an enthusiastic critic of the notion of Hell, and believes the whole idea of Hell gives good reason to reject both religion and God. My response to this would be three-fold:

1. I am not dealing now with the rightness or wrongness of Hell, but only with the rightness or wrongness of Hitchens’s purported statements of fact.

2. The biblical imagery of Hell, like biblical imagery associated with the apocalypse, should be read in context. Whatever Hell actually is, it may not be a literal lake of fire. The point of such imagery is, among other things, to help us to realize that what we do and think and believe in this life really matters, both for now and forever.

3. I expect that at some time in the future I’ll need to do some blogging on Hell. For now, if you’re wondering about what Hell is really all about, I’d encourage you to read The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis. This is also a wonderful book on heaven . . . a work of fiction that is full of truth.

Hitchens Wrong That Jesus Invented the Idea of Hell

Hitchens writes:

Not until the advent of the Prince of Peace do we hear of the ghastly idea of further punishing and torturing of the dead. (175-176)

Hitchens is right in part. The idea of Hell is not plainly taught in the Old Testament, but only hinted at (see, for example, Psalm 9:17). He also notes on page 176 that John the Baptist presages the notion of eternal judgment, fairly connecting John with the “advent of the Prince of Peace.”

But the idea of post-mortem punishment of evil-doers was not original to Jesus. We find this idea in Jewish writings that come from the time prior to and contemporaneous with Jesus. Many of these are apocalyptic in nature, and are not well known today. They would include: Apocalypse of Abraham 15:6-7; Apocalypse of Zephaniah 10:3-14; Sirach 12:9-10; 4 Ezra 7:75-101; Sibylline Oracles 1:100-103; 2:290-310. The precise dating of these books is difficult, but they show that Jesus was not unique among Jews of His day when He envisioned punishment beyond this life.

Hitchens Mistakes the Dating of the Nag Hammadi “Gospels”

He writes:

These scrolls were of the same period and provenance as many of the subsequent canonical and “authorized” Gospels, and have long gone under the collective name of “Gnostic.” (p. 112)

There is one nit-picky error here that I haven’t counted as a mistake. The Nag Hammadi documents are codices (ancient books) not scrolls. Sir Leigh Teabing made a similar error once, but I won’t go there now.

More to the point, the Gnostic writings were not “of the same period and provenance” as the canonical Gospels. Though there’s an open debate on the dating of the Gospel of Thomas, the likely dependence of Thomas on the New Testament Gospels places its composition later than the biblical varieties. (See the references below.) The rest of the Gnostic gospels were almost certainly written well after the biblical Gospels. Hitchens’s use of “subsequent” is particularly off base.

References for the dating of the Gospel of Thomas: K.R. Snodgrass, “The Gospel of Thomas: A Secondary Gospel,” Second Century 7 (1989-1990): 19-38; C. M. Tuckett, “Thomas and the Synoptics,” Novum Testamentum 30 (1988): 132-57; C. A. Evans, “Thomas, Gospel of” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, ed. Ralph P. Martin and P. H. Davids (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Pres, 1997) 1175-1177.

Hitchens Wrongly Describes the Debate Over the Inspiration of the Gospels

He writes:

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 the proposition.” (113)

Once more, it feels as if I’m back debating Sir Leigh Teabing. Though there were a couple dozen so-called “Gospels” that did not end up in the Christian Bible, there is little evidence of much debate about which Gospels to include and which not to include. What’s pretty clear is that the orthodox had their four Gospels, and the Gnostics had their many “Gospels,” and they didn’t agree which were authoritative. But there wasn’t much debate between Gnostics and the orthodox. And what there might have been could hardly be called incandescent. As to the lives “horribly lost” part, this is so fantastic as to be laughable, except I don’t think it was meant as a joke by Hitchens.

If you’re looking for a succinct discussion of how the New Testament Gospels made it into the canon of Scripture, I’d recommend Chapter 15 of my book, Can We Trust the Gospels? This chapter is entitled: “Why Do We Have Only Four Gospels in the Bible?” For a more detailed discussion, check out F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture.

Hitchens Repeats Mencken’s Mistake Concerning Tampering With the New Testament Documents

He quotes H.L. Mencken approvingly (“Mencken irrefutably says”):

. . . and that most of them [the New Testament documents], the good along with the bad, show unmistakable signs of having been tampered with. (110).

One can only wonder what Mencken meant, and what Hitchens thinks he meant. The most charitable reading I can make of this claim is that the scribes didn’t get every word of the New Testament manuscripts correct. But tampering suggests something much more sinister and intentional than this, at least in most cases. The fact is that the New Testament documents, including the Gospels, are better attested than any documents of the ancient world, a fact I defend in Can We Trust the Gospels? You can read the relevant chapter online, if you wish (PDF file).

The passage from Mencken, quoted by Hitchens, appears in the book Treatise on the Gods, which was published in 1930. Like Hitchens, Mencken was a rhetorically-clever opponent of Christianity. But, contrary to Hitchens’s claim, Mencken did not write “irrefutably” on the New Testament. Cleverly? Yes. Accurately? No. Irrefutably? You’ve got to be kidding.

Hitchens Wrong About the Census, Eyewitnesses, St. Paul, Scholarship, Gospel Truth, and Gospel Disagreements

So far I’ve shown nine errors made by Christopher Hitchens in his treatment of the New Testament in god is not Great. Today I’ll add six additional errors.

Hitchens Wrong About the Augustan Census

He writes:

There is no mention of any Augustan census by any Roman historian . . . .” (112)

This comes in an argument where Hitchens is attempting to show that Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus is “quite evidently garbled.” But what Hitchens says is not true. In the Annals of the Roman historian Tacitus there is a reference to a document produced under Augustus that contained a description of “the number of citizens and allies under arms, of the fleets, of subject kingdoms, provinces, taxes” and so on,” in other words, a census. (Photo to the right: An obelisk in Rome that Augustus used to celebrate his greatness, including his being the son of a god.)

But we don’t even need to go to a Roman historian to find evidence for the censuses of Augustus. In “The Deeds of the Divine Augustus” written by Augustus himself and published throughout the empire in 14 AD, we read of three censuses conducted under Augustus’s authority (in 28 BC, 8 BC, and 14 AD; see Acts of Augustus, section 8). If Augustus decreed a census in 8 BC, as he claims, it’s quite possible that this was the census described in Luke 2, which was not finished in Judea until a year or two later.

Hitchens Wrong on the Eyewitnesses of the Crucifixion

In his denunciation of The Passion of the Christ, Hitchens notes that promoters said the film was based “on the reports of ‘eyewitnesses’.” (p. 111). Then he continues:

At the time, I thought it extraordinary that a multimillion-dollar hit could be openly based on such a patently fraudulent claim, but nobody seemed to turn a hair. (p. 111)

Nobody turned a hair because even the most skeptical of scholars believes that the accounts of Jesus’s death have some connection to eyewitnesses. The vast majority of New Testament scholars and classical historians believe that Jesus was in fact crucified under Pontius Pilate around 30 AD. This is found, not only throughout the New Testament, but also in the Roman historian Tacitius (Annals 15.44) and the first-century Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities 18.3.3). It’s would be incredible to believe that the reports of Jesus’s death were not based at least to some extent on eyewitness accounts. This is made even more likely by the fact that the Gospels actually show the followers of Jesus in a very bad light during the passion of Jesus. Most of them abandoned Him, not exactly the sort of thing that early Christians would have made up unless it were true. (For a recent scholarly treatment of the role of eyewitnesses in the development of the Gospel material, see Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony by Richard Bauckham.) Even if one wishes to argue that eyewitnesses had little to do with the stories about Jesus’s death, an informed scholar would never say that the eyewitness claim is “patently fraudulent.”

Hitchens Wrong About Paul and Women

One of the first things Hitchens writes about the New Testament is:

The New Testament has Saint Paul expressing both fear and contempt for the female. (p. 54)

This is one reason among many Hitchens brings forth as part of his “consistent proof that religion is man-made” (p. 54).

Conveniently, Hitchens offers no references for his claim about Paul’s “fear and contempt” for the female. He offers no references because there are none. Indeed, there are four places in Paul’s letters where he says something about women that we might find uncomfortable, especially if we fail to consider the context in which Paul was writing and thus read him anachronistically (1 Corinthians 11, 14, 1 Timothy 2, Ephesians 5). But in none of these chapters is there anything vaguely resembling fear or contempt. Elsewhere in his writings, Paul strongly affirms the value of women, their role as his co-workers (Romans 16), their empowerment for ministry along with men (1 Corinthians 11-14), their extraordinary right to remain single, apart from male authority (1 Corinthians 7), and even their authority over their husbands’ bodies, along with the husbands’ authority over their bodies (1 Corinthians 7:4). In Paul’s light of Paul’s own culture, his view of women was shockingly progressive. This helps to explain why women, even powerful and wealthy women, we’re drawn to the early Christian movement (Acts 17:1-12; Romans 16:1-2).

Hitchens Wrong About New Testament Scholarship

He writes:

The contradictions and illiteracies of the New Testament have filled up many books by eminent scholars, and have never been explained by any Christian authority except in the feeblest terms of “metaphor” and “a Christ of faith.” (115)

Christopher Hitchens appears to have read a bit of what is sometimes called “liberal” New Testament scholarship. Here you find an effort to hang onto some measure of Christian faith while rejecting the historical core of the Gospel (the ministry, death, resurrection of Jesus). Marcus Borg provides a popular example of such an approach.

But Hitchens, once again, writes confidently about that which he does not know. For one thing, it rather begs the question to refer to the “contradictions and illiteracies of the New Testament.” But if we interpret Hitchens as referring, for example, to diverse treatments of Jesus among the four Gospels, then he is simply wrong to say that no “Christian authority” has explained these except in terms of “metaphor” and “a Christ of faith.” Some of the finest biblical scholars of recent times have done this with academic rigor and care, including F.F. Bruce, Martin Hengel, Ben Witherington III, Craig Evans, N.T. Wright, Richard Bauckham, and Craig Blomberg, just to name a few. Now it’s certainly possible to argue that these scholars are wrong. But it’s certainly wrong to reject their efforts as non-existent.

Hitchens Wrong on the Nature of the Gospels

He writes:

Either the Gospels are in some sense literal truth, or the whole thing is essentially a fraud and perhaps an immoral one at that. Well, it can be stated with certainty, and on their own evidence, that the Gospels are most certainly not literal truth. This means that many of the “sayings” and teachings of Jesus are hearsay upon hearsay upon hearsay, which helps explain their garbled and contradictory nature.” (120)

Virtually every scholar I’ve read, including the most skeptical, would agree that the Gospels are “in some sense literal truth.” The proof is that virtually every scholar who says anything about Jesus of Nazareth bases his or her history on the “facts” of the Gospels. So when a scholar states that Jesus was crucified under the authority of Pontius Pilate, this scholar takes at least that part of the Gospel account as literal truth.

It’s hard to know what Hitchens means by saying that the Gospels, “on their own evidence . . . are most certainly not literal truth.” But whatever he means, this cannot be sustained by a close reading of the Gospels. Now, let me add, that very few scholars, including conservative Christians, would argue that the Gospels are merely literal truth. They believe there is something more in the text. They are literal truth shaped in light of theological conviction. This isn’t a new idea. The Gospel writers say this very thing (see Luke 1:1-4, for example).

The “hearsay upon hearsay upon hearsay” claim shows ignorance of the oral culture in which the Gospel traditions were passed down. It’s an anachronistic mistake. I would point Hitchens to Bauckham’s book, Jesus and the Eyewitness, and to Kenneth Bailey, Poet and Peasant Through Peasant Eyes.

Finally, I’d be the first to admit that the sayings of Jesus are sometimes hard to understand. But one who refers to them as “garbled and contradictory” has simply not taken the time to understand them. One can certainly reject Jesus’s teaching as untrue, but to criticize them as “garbled and contradictory” says more about the critic than about the teaching itself.

Hitchens Invents or Exaggerates Gospel Disagreements

He writes:

The scribes cannot even 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.” (112)

One wonders in what sense the items Hitchens mentions should be included among the so-called “mythical elements.” Usually “mythical” is reserved for things like the miraculous birth, the miracles, etc. Be that as it may, Hitchens invents or exaggerates Gospel disagreements.

For example, the Gospel writers don’t disagree at all about the Sermon on the Mount because that “sermon” only appears in the Gospel of Matthew. Luke has a similar “sermon,” sometimes called “The Sermon on the Plain” but it’s not the same discourse. Furthermore, if you look closely at the different Gospel accounts of the anointing of Jesus, the treachery of Judas, and Peter’s denial, you will see some differences. The story of Peter’s denial, for example, is found in Matthew 26:69-75, Mark 14:66-72, and Luke 22:54-62. The three accounts are very similar, both in English and in the original Greek. The major difference has to do with whether the rooster crowed once or twice. But this could hardly be an example of the Gospel writers disagreeing wildly.

Is Hitchens a Reliable Witness?

I have now shown fifteen errors in Christopher Hitchens’s treatment of the New Testament. (A stickler would note that I’ve actually identified more than fifteen if I count every single mistake in a an excerpt.) These errors fall within relatively few pages of the overall book, only about 6% of the total. As I explained earlier, I’m not an expert in many of the areas about which Hitchens writes, so I’ll leave it to others to assess his accuracy there. But fifteen mistakes in relatively few pages doesn’t impress me positively.

But if Hitchens were a witness in a trial, a trial to determine whether God is great or not, and whether religion poisons everything or not, and if, after testifying for the prosecution, the defense was able to show that a small part of his testimony was filled with errors, then this would surely discredit him as a reliable witness. Some mistakes show up in the best of books, no doubt. But 15 mistakes in so few pages is unusually bad. Thus, ironically, I find myself with no option other than to treat Hitchens’s claims about “facts” with the sort of skepticism that he applies to the New Testament Gospels. He has not shown himself to be the kind of careful writer whom I can trust to be truthful.

Some of Hitchens’s Misunderstandings or Distortions, Part 1

In my last three posts I’ve shown that Christopher Hitchens, in his book god is not Great, makes fifteen errors in his discussion of the New Testament and related scholarship. As I explained, this undermines my confidence in him as a reliable witness in other matters, those where I lack academic expertise. When Hitchens purports to lay out the facts of Western history, or Islam, or Judaism, or . . . is he generally accurate? I can’t be sure.

There’s another problem in Hitchens’s treatment of the New Testament in addition to his errors. This concerns what I’ve called “misunderstandings or distortions.” These have to do with statements that, though they might not be wrong in the strict sense, so misrepresent reality as to be just about as bad as outright errors. I counted sixteen (or so) of these misunderstandings of the New Testament as I read god is not Great. And, once again, I’m focusing only on areas of my own scholarly competence.

Given what I’ve written already, I’m not going to deal in detail with all of these misrepresentations, since this would be extremely tedious both for writer and reader. (No doubt someone will comment that what I’m writing is already extremely tedious. Point taken in advance.) In today’s post I will mention and comment briefly upon a few of them. A few others I’ll pick up tomorrow. The others will have to wait in line for treatment sometime later.

Hitchens Exaggerates the Differences Among the Gospels

Here are two examples of such exaggeration, though there are others:

Matthew and Luke cannot concur on the Virgin Birth . . . (p. 111)

Most astonishingly, they [the Gospel writers] cannot converge on a common account of the Crucifixion or the Resurrection. (p. 112)

First of all, it’s disingenuous to use the verb “cannot” in this claim, which seems to suggest that the Gospel writers actually got together and tried to come up with a common account but just couldn’t do it. Whether they could have agreed or not Hitchens cannot know.

But even if he had said only that the Gospel writers do not concur on the virgin birth or on their treatments of the crucifixion and resurrection, this would be an exaggeration. Matthew and Luke both affirm what we call the virgin birth in no uncertain terms. But they narrate the story from different perspectives, with Matthew focusing on Joseph and Luke on Mary. Difference does not equal disagreement.

Similarly, the diversity in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s death and resurrection doesn’t detract from fundamental agreement on the main points, and even some of the surprising details (like the prominence of women in the resurrection narratives). If the four Gospels told exactly the same story in exactly the same way, what do you think are the odds the Hitchens would deride this as collusion? Methinks he’s a hard man to please when it comes to religion.

Hitchens Misunderstands What It Means to Be a Christian

He writes:

The best argument I know for the highly questionable existence of Jesus is this. His illiterate living disciples left us no record and in any event could not have been “Christians.” since they were never to read those later books in which Christians must affirm belief, and in any case had no idea that anyone would ever found a church on their master’s announcements. (p. 114)

If this is the best argument Hitchens has for the “questionable existence” of Jesus, then we who believe that Jesus existed can be reassured. Here are some brief reasons why:

• Almost every scholar of New Testament and ancient history believes that Jesus existed.

• It’s quite possible that the disciples of Jesus (those who were with Him in the flesh), did write or influence two of the Gospels (Matthew and John).

• I’ve never seen a definition of “Christian” that requires belief in the biblical books per se. In fact, followers of Jesus were first called “Christians” (the Greek word christianoi means “Christ people”) before the Gospels were even written (see Acts 11:26).

• It’s quite likely that some of Jesus’s first disciples did in fact read some of the books of the New Testament, at any rate, though this hardly made them Christians.

• The disciples of Jesus not only heard Jesus talk of perpetuating a community (we call “church”) after His death, but also they were in fact the primary church planters.

I’ll continue this examination of Hitchens’ misunderstandings tomorrow.

Some of Hitchens’s Misunderstandings or Distortions, Part 2

Yesterday I began looking at some of the many misunderstandings found in Christopher Hitchens’s book, god is not Great. Today I’ll examine a few more before I press on to further considerations of the book.

Hitchens Oddly Derides and Distorts the Teachings of Jesus

He writes:

But many [of the teachings of Jesus] are unintelligible and show a belief in magic, several are absurd and show a primitive attitude to agriculture (this extends to all mentions of plowing and sowing, and all allusions to mustard or fig trees), and many are on the face it flat-out immoral. The analogy of humans to lilies, for instance, suggests–along with many other injunctions–that things like thrift, innovation, family life, and so forth are a sheer waste of time. (“Take no thought for the morrow.”) This is why some of the Gospels, synoptic and apocryphal, report people (including his family members) saying at the time that they thought Jesus must be mad. (pp. 117-118)

Some quick responses:

• Admittedly, the teachings of Jesus are sometimes challenging. Yet the person who claims that the teachings of Jesus are unintelligible is telling us more about himself than about the teachings of Jesus. By design, Jesus’s sayings are not simple. But unintelligible? And absurd? Perhaps to Hitchens. Probably not to Jesus and those who have actually tried to understand them.

• The “primitive attitude to agriculture” comment makes me laugh. Indeed, Jesus used illustrations from His world, which in fact had a primitive attitude to agriculture. It’s called effective communication. Had Jesus instead spoken of irrigation and tractors, I fear Hitchens would have criticized Him for showing off.

• The claim that some of Jesus’s teachings are “flat-out immoral” deserves careful scrutiny. Who would you choose to be a judge of what is moral? Jesus? Or Christopher Hitchens? Now before you vote for Hitchens, please note that his example of the immorality of Jesus’s teachings is based on a serious misinterpretation of Jesus’s meaning. From a passage where Jesus is teaching people not to worry, Hitchens thinks that Jesus is somehow against “thrift, innovation, family life, and so forth.” His textual proof is “Take no thought for the morrow,” which appears in Matthew 6:34 in the King James Version of the Bible. In fact, the verb translated four centuries ago as “take no thought” means “do not worry” (Greek, merimnao), as is seen in every modern translation I consulted. If Hitchens had made an effort to understand what Jesus was actually saying, then he’d be relieved to know that Jesus doesn’t oppose sensible preparation, just anxious preoccuption.

• It’s highly unlikely that people thought Jesus was mad because of His primitive agronomy or encouragement not to worry. Jesus was thought to be mad for much greater reasons, largely His proclamation of the kingdom of God. Hitchens shows no indication that He understands what Jesus actually did proclaim as the center of His message.

Hitchens Finds the Commonplace Shocking

He writes:

Overarching all this is the shocking fact that, as Ehrman concedes: “The story [in John 8 of the woman caught in adultery] is not found in our oldest and best manuscripts of the Gospel of John . . . .” (122)

First, Ehrman didn’t have to concede anything. He was quite pleased that this story wasn’t in the early manuscripts of John because this fact seems to support Ehrman’s anti-Christian argument. More importantly, there is absolutely nothing shocking about this whatsoever. Christians have known for ages that this story was not in the early manuscripts of John. Every modern translation of the Bible that I have seen puts this passage in brackets and adds a comment indicating it’s uncertain history. I wonder if Hitchens has read a modern translation of the Bible. If not, such an exercise would at least help him to understand that which he intends to criticize before he misspeaks.

Hitchens Misunderstands the Nature of Jesus’s Resurrection

He writes:

This supposed frequency of resurrection [in the New Testament] can only undermine the uniqueness of the one by which mankind purchased forgiveness of sins. (143)

One might argue that the frequency of resurrections in the New Testament actually strengthens the case for their historicity, but for obvious reasons Hitchens doesn’t go there. What he misunderstands is the unique nature of Jesus’s resurrection. The other people raised from the dead were raised to ordinary life. We have every reason to believe that, after their coming back to life, they lived ordinary lives and died like everybody else. Jesus’s resurrection was in a unique category as the beginning of resurrection to life in the age to come. Jesus’s resurrection body was different from other bodies, as is seen from the Gospel accounts and 1 Corinthians 15. None of this proves that Jesus actually rose from the dead, of course, or that His resurrection purchased forgiveness of sins (which, by the way, was more about His death than resurrection). But it does show that Hitchens simply does not understand what the writers of the New Testament believed about the resurrection of Jesus.

Interim Conclusion

I’m going to stop examining Hitchens’s misstatements now, though I could keep on going for a long time. I think it’s obvious that he simply doesn’t “get” Jesus or the New Testament writings very well at all. His grasp of the New Testament reminds me of my grasp of the Grand Canyon. I’ve seen it, but only from an airplane. From that perspective, the Grand Canyon looks like a bunch of reddish ruts in the ground, and that’s about it. It doesn’t look that big or that impressive. Plus, from a plane I’ve never seen any evidence that it was carved by a river, or that people hike it, or that it’s worth more attention than a quick flyover. I might be inclined to say that the reality and beauty of the Grand Canyon have been greatly exaggerated by confused people who aren’t to be believed, and therefore I will never go out of my way to visit it on the ground. But if I were to say this, I’d be telling you more about my inexperience, indeed, about my own foolishness, than about the Grand Canyon itself.

Why Does Hitchens Ridicule His Opponents?

Christopher Hitchens is an engaging writer, a master of clever rhetoric. Please understand that I’m not using “rhetoric” here in a derogatory manner. I respect the person who is a master of words, and, to be sure, Hitchens is such a master. To be completely honest, I envy his ability with language. I’m glad that the Decalogue doesn’t prohibit the coveting of your neighbor’s rhetorical skill, otherwise I’d be sinning right now.

In my last two posts I’ve shown, however, that sometimes Hitchens seems to let his language run away with him. Exaggeration, in measured doses, can accentuate one’s point. But when it distorts reality, then it isn’t especially helpful for the reader who seeks truth and not just entertainment. In the end, I don’t think it helps the writer, because discerning readers will tend to dismiss his claims as bombastic, whether they’re true or not.

Yet as I read god is not Great – two times, actually – I was concerned, not only about an over-indulgence of hyperbole, but also about a consistent tone of ridicule. I’ve got to believe that even someone who loves this book would agree that it’s full of scorn for religious people. Let me cite a few examples:

[Concerning religious furor over the year 2000] The occasion was nothing more than an odometer for idiots . . . (p. 60)

Augustine [one of the theologians most highly regarded by Christians] was a self-centered fantasist and an earth-centered ignoramus. (p. 64)

[Concerning the notion that certain places are holy] the ostentatious absurdity of the pilgrimage (p. 6)

Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago. . . .” (p. 7) Not good news for us preachers!

[Religion] comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance, and other infantile needs). (p. 64)

[Re: alternative views of how the universe was created] “creationist” stupidity (p. 78); the stupid notion of “intelligent design” (p. 85).

All attempts to reconcile faith with science and reason are consigned to failure and ridicule for precisely these reasons. (p. 65)

Perhaps such attempts will fail, and Hitchens is right. But why does he consign them to ridicule? Why does it help to make fun of people who see to reconcile faith with science and reason? Why not take them seriously enough to engage their ideas and show, in a scientific and reasonable way, why they are wrong? Hitchens admits to a great respect for science. But science doesn’t advance human knowledge by ridicule, but rather by careful investigation and logical examination. So again my question: Why are such attempts to reconcile faith with science and reason consigned to ridicule? (Photo to the right: A bit of the most recent Harvard Divinity Bulletin)

Ironically, a few days ago I received the latest edition of the Harvard Divinity Bulletin. (The Spring 2007 edition is not yet up on the website, but will presumably become available here at some time in the future.) The cover story focused on recent efforts among Harvard faculty to engage in cross-disciplinary studies of science and religion. It was entitled: “A Confluence of Opportunities To Bring Science and Religion Together: Several Harvard projects try to discover a middle way of debate, stressing synthesis rather than dogmatic opposition.” The article included some excerpts from a lecture delivered by Martin Nowak Professor of Mathematic and Biology at Harvard. He said things like:

Science is no replacement for religion because we are interested in many questions which are not scientific. For example, what is the purpose of my life? Where do I come from? Where will I go? Everybody has these questions either consciously or subconsciously.

Scientists should admit that science does not provide any evidence against well-formulated theology. On the other hand, religion should not oppose scientific progress.

Now Christopher Hitchens is surely welcome to disagree with Professor Nowak and to show that his points are wrong. But is it rational, scientific, or moral for Hitchens to ridicule this man? If so, why? If not, why does Hitchens claim the right to do so?

Throughout most of my experience in life, substantive arguments don’t need scorn. Arguers only stoop to such tactics when they realize that their arguments aren’t good enough to prevail. You can see this writ large over the face of American politics these days. If you can’t beat your opponent with logic, start tearing down your opponents character, intelligence, or whatever. Ridicule is the weapon of last resort for the debater going down to certain defeat. And, I’m sorry to say, in our culture ridicule often carries the day.

I was concerned enough about the prevalence of mockery in god is not Great to use up my one chance to ask Christopher Hitchens a direct question in our debate on the Hugh Hewitt Show. Here’s the interchange:

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.

Well, I suppose one could write such a book, but it wouldn’t sell nearly as many copies at Hitchens’s more provocative tome.

My problem is not with provocative language, with clever rhetoric, with incisive arguments, even when they’re directed at me. My problem is with ridicule, with ad hominem attacks upon people with whom one disagrees. I would argue that ridicule rarely accomplishes anything other than making people upset. It almost never helps the person with whom you disagree to listen to what you’re saying. And, at least in my book, ridicule is almost always an immoral act. Moreover, I’d bet that you don’t even need a religious basis to see that ridicule, especially when talking about that which people hold most dear, is wrong.

Yet I’m willing to argue this case against ridicule a bit further. I’ll pick up the thread tomorrow.

Will Rhetoric Like That of Christopher Hitchens Make the World a Better Place?

Yesterday I began to express my concerns about Christopher Hitchens’s tendency to ridicule people with whom he disagrees, especially people of faith. I explained that, in my experience, a debater resorts to ridicule only when he or she realizes that rational arguments won’t prevail. I also suggested that scorning people almost never helps them hear what you are saying. I ended by suggesting that ridicule is, in most cases anyway, immoral, and that most people would sense this intuitively (a curiously Hitchensian moral argument on my part).

I want to press the moral point a bit further because I’m deeply concerned about the state of our world and the extent to which ridicule and its cousins are hurting us rather than helping us. Even if Christopher Hitchens is right that god is not great, and that religion poisons everything, I’d propose that his tendency to belittle people will not make the world a better place. And if those who agree with him follow suit imitate his example, this will make matters even worse.

When I asked Hitchens about this in our debate on the Hugh Hewitt Show, he said:

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.

I admire this honest and straightforward answer. But the question is whether one ought to be such a polemicist or not, especially when dealing with touchy issues like religion. To put it differently, when you survey the religious conflicts in our world today, when you take seriously the tinderbox of religion, do you really think we’re helped by polemics, or would another approach be more helpful? Is it best to get people’s attention by putting them down? The word “polemicist” comes from the Greek word polemos, which means war. So I ask: Will the world be helped by more warlike words?

I am not saying that we should just all be nice and pretend as if we all agree about matters of religion. I’m not an advocate of Rodney Kingism, wondering why we can’t all get along. If you’ve read my last several posts on god is not Great, you know that I’m perfectly willing to take on someone’s ideas and to criticize those ideas. But I try to avoid ad hominem low blows. And when I make them, which I do at times, I repent and retract.

Why have I chosen to engage in respectful discourse rather than ridicule? To be sure, I’ll own that it comes from my Christian convictions. Silly as it may sound to some folks, I try to love my neighbors and my enemies even when I’m debating them. (For the record, I do not consider Christopher Hitchens to be my enemy. In human terms, he may want to disabuse me of my faith, but at least he won’t blow me up. And in Christian terms, human beings are not the enemy.)

Yet I have chosen the way of respectful discourse, not only because it reflects my faith, but also because I’ve found that it works better in practice. It fosters better understanding of all sides. It helps me to learn things I haven’t learned before and would be unable to learn if I were too busy blasting away at my opponents. And, get this, respectful discourse sometimes helps my opponents in arguments to actually hear what I’m saying and, in some instances, even to be persuaded by it. If I call somebody stupid, he won’t hear a word I’m saying. If I speak with somebody respectfully, she just might listen.

I resolved to try and be a respectful interlocutor years ago when I was an associate pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. I had invited Dallas Willard to speak to a group at the church. Willard was (and still is) a Professor of Philosophy at USC, and one of the most brilliant people I have ever met. He was also a Christian who spoke on matters of faith to church groups. Willard gave a fantastic lecture, insightful and challenging, yet clear enough for lay people. His content was serious but he didn’t take himself too seriously. (Photo to the right: Dallas Willard)

Following the lecture we had time for questions. A person from my church raised his hand and asked one of those questions that makes one cringe. It was an embarrassing and self-serving question, one that wasn’t so much a question as an attack on what Willard had just spent 45 minutes teaching. The question came close to an insult, actually. “Here I’ve got one of the smartest men in the world speaking to my church,” I thought, “and he’s got to deal with this sort of thing.” I was mightily embarrassed.

But before I had a chance to fret, Willard responded to the question. His answer was straightforward and fair. He didn’t seem to mind repeating things he had already said. He didn’t seem bugged by the insinuation of the questioner that his ideas were foolish. More striking to me was the manner of Willard’s response. He treated the questioner with kindness and respect. I watched as the questioner stopped being defensive and started listening for the first time to what Willard was saying. I also saw how other people in room, many who sensed the tension of the moment, relaxed enough to start engaging with ideas rather than with raw emotions.

At that moment I resolved to try and be like Dallas Willard, which, given my own history of headstrong, prideful argumentation, wouldn’t be easy. For over twenty years I’ve tried to “be like Dallas,” in my speaking, in church business meetings, when I teach seminary, when I blog, and even when I do debates on the radio. Though I’ve failed in this effort many times, I haven’t stopped trying. I only wish I were as smart, mature, and kind as Dallas Willard. Yet, lacking these qualities is no excuse for not trying to emulate his example.

I don’t doubt that Hitchens’s tendency to call his opponents “stupid” and to label a highly-regarded theologian as an “ignoramus” helps to sell lots of books, just like he said to me. And I expect it does get more attention than a respectful and reasonable approach. But I’m just not convinced that the world is any better off with more ridicule-filled books or with more people paying attention because derision is more interesting than respect. Would that we could learn to disagree about ideas without disparaging each other. This, I believe, would in fact make the world a better place.

The Curiously Unscientific Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens loves science. Rightly, he understands that science has enabled human beings to understand our world in astounding ways. In many ways he sees science as replacing religion in human experience. For example, he writes: “Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, [religion] no longer offers an explanation of anything important” (p. 282).

Scientific inquiry is noted for its effort to be objective, to study the data carefully, to put aside prejudice, and to seek the truth, whatever it might be. (Yes, yes, I know some scientists don’t do this, but the best ones try, and with considerable success.) One can approach life scientifically even if one is not studying natural phenomena. You see this sort of thing among anthropologists, for example, who study tribal peoples through careful observation, seeking to “get inside the heads” of peoples quite different from themselves in order to make sense of their particular customs.

One of the things I find curious about Christopher Hitchens is the contradiction between his love of science and his unscientific approach to the study of religion. To be sure, he has gathered some data about religion, most of it having to do with religion’s failures and oddities. But absent from god is not Great is anything like a scientific approach to religious phenomena.

During my interview with Hitchens I said, more than once, that it seems like he and I inhabit alternative universes. I said that because, among other things, his view of what Christians believe and experience is so contrary to my view, and I’ve been a practicing Christian for 44 years. For example, in one place Hitchens writes that believers claim, “Not just to know, but to know everything” (p. 10). Now even allowing for a good bit of hyperbole, this statement reflects nothing of my experience as a believer. I do claim to know certain things, but I freely admit the fallible nature of my knowledge. Has Hitchens ever spent any time with thoughtful Christians (or other religious folk) who wrestle openly with matters of faith, who sometimes struggle with doubt, and who freely admit their own ignorance? If not, I could introduce him to dozens of such people. Moreover, I can’t even begin to think that I know more than a tiny percentage of what can be known. Know everything???? If Hitchens thinks this is what the average religious person claims, then he knows little about the average religious person, at least in my experience.

One of the more biting reviews of god is not Great appreared in the Washington Post. It was written by Stephen Prothero, a highly regarded scholar of religion, the author of Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, and the chair of Boston University’s religion department. Near the end of his review Prothero writes: “I have never encountered a book whose author is so fundamentally unacquainted with its subject.” Ouch!

On the way to earning my PhD in New Testament, I did a MA in the study of religion. I had the privilege of learning from some of the finest scholars of religion. They represented a wide range of religious traditions, including agnosticism. These people had devoted their lives to the careful, objective, and critical study of religion. They were more than willing to accept the premise that sometimes religion is harmful. In fact, several of my professors were particularly unhappy with my breed of Christianity (evangelical). But in all of my years in graduate school, not once did I hear even one professor come anywhere near the claim that “religion poisons everything.” This particular claim stirs up emotions and sells books, to be sure. But it reflects an utterly biased approach to the study of religion, something that plainly contradicts Christopher Hitchens’s love of science. His writing would have far more credibility and, in the end, much more to contribute to the world, if he would take the time actually to understand actual religious people. Of course then he couldn’t truly claim that religion poisons everything, because he’d know that this simply isn’t true from any sort of objective, scientific perspective.