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Hitchens versus Haldane

Here’s the first of a ten-part series of YouTube clips of a debate between Christopher Hitchens and John Haldane, at Oxford, about secularism and faith in the public square.

Comments (4)

This will be like watching Brock Lesnar fight Pee Wee Herman. Isn't there a mercy rule that can be invoked to pull Haldane off Hitchens?

More Hitchens? At this stage in his career, I simply do not understand why intellectually serious people bother listening to this dillettante, except perhaps for the occasional burlesque performance. The man hasn't said anything particularly insightful or interesting in nearly a decade, and his once formidible intellect has ground to a halt, running now on a mixture of ethanol fumes and egotism. Next!

I've had a chance to see all of this debate, and I must say that Haldane does not particularly "shine" in this type of format, but let me clarify.

Haldane, of course, makes rational arguments. He is clear and dispassionate. He does not even begin to level an ad hominem attack at Hitchens (who is typically a seething cauldron of ad hominem nastiness), or at those whose worldview Hitchens represents.

Hitchens, on the other hand, comes across as bombastic. His entire "argument," to the extent that he makes one, is based on the authority of the reigning secular state, with its officially, legally sanctioned scientific establishment. We just are, he says, the products of evolution (and nothing more), because the scientists and the law courts tell us that this is so, and that's the end of the argument. And besides, he "argues," look at all the good that the imposition of secularism has done for Western Europe and North America.

His "argument," in other words, is largely authoritarian, with a bit of historical "fact" thrown in. It is also, as is true of all authoritarian arguments, mostly sentimental. Even so, he conveys an air of cleverness and he does, indeed, speak with the insidious wind of the current North American and Western European Zeitgeist at his sails. This, and not anything else, is what makes him an implacable foe in these sorts of debates. He is the voice for a large segment of our undercultured, passion-driven, contemporary Western humanity.

With this wind of ignorance, animosity, and authoritarian secularism pushing him forward, he is able to play to the Youtube crowd and to the vitriolic consumers of combox culture. He is most assuredly not boring. He is just right, in affect and air, for a culture of short attention spans and idolatry of the visual spectacle.

Haldane, by contrast, is scholastic and deferential to Hitchens's volatile temperament. He is not well-suited to making his case to a wider culture that is not trained to think in the measured and precise manner of scholastic philosophy. He comes across as long-winded and fidgety: (just see the youtube comments).

Guys like Hitchens have to be met with Augustinian passion and historical and cultural erudition, not scholastic arguments about first causes or ultimate grounds. One must not be afraid to engage with them in the war of ad hominem bromides, as Fr. George Rutler once did. Hitchens does not, as he shows in this "debate," care a wit about "grounding" his arguments. Like all positivists he is, again, largely authoritarian, and the way to defeat him is by superior rhetoric and morally convincing passion.

David Bentley Hart's approach would be much better in this type of setting. Hart speaks with the historical and cultural authority of a trained classicist -- whereas Hitchens has no discernable training in anything at all, except perhaps in the art of cocktail making.

With his training, Hart is better suited to address cultural and historical issues. And Hitchens always tries to bring the argument to that level. One has to dispute his ridiculous claims about history -- such as the one that Stalin was really a religious zealout and that Martin Luther King Jr. was really nothing more than a secularist. He speaks with a pseudo-authority on these issues, but he would not get by with that non-sense in debate with someone who actually deals more in the realm of history and culture than in pure metaphysics.

So, in sum, I guess what I'm saying is that we need both Augustinians and Thomists in this cultural battle that we face. Against Hitchens, a self-assured Augustinian public intellectual steeped in classical culture and modern history is required.

The analytical Thomists are at their best in debate with calmer, more rational materialists, men of the academy and of scholastic method, such as, I suppose, David Chalmers, who seems, contrary to a Hitchens, like a nice, rational, scholastically-inclined fellow.

And this, I would add, is why it is probably a good thing that the Roman Catholic Church no longer imposes a single theological school upon the whole Church.

Guys like Hitchens have to be met with Augustinian passion and historical and cultural erudition, not scholastic arguments about first causes or ultimate grounds.
You should read The Irrational Atheist (free download, pay-if-you-want). Its only flaw is that it made Prof. Daniel Dennett look better than he actually was. But it is very entertaining, up there with Prof. Edward Feser’s Little Yellow Book.

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