Reasons to Believe

Reflections on the Passing of New Atheist Christopher Hitchens (1949–2011)

Christopher Hitchens, author, journalist, and one of the “four horsemen” of the New Atheist movement, died December 15, 2011, of esophageal cancer. In his 2007 book God is Not Great, Hitchens argued that religions in general—and theistic religion in particular (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam)—are not only false but also harmful for human society. Ironically, Christopher’s younger brother Peter, also a journalist and a one-time communist, recently converted to Christianity. (See Peter Hitchens’ book in favor of faith entitled The Rage Against God.)

Known for his bold atheism and rhetorical flair, Christopher Hitchens debated a number of Christian scholars on the topic of God’s existence. On April 4, 2009, Hitchens debated philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig at Biola University here in Southern California. I attended that debate (as did my son Michael, 13, and daughter Jackie, 18, who both appreciated the rigorous exchange) and wrote the following review the morning after the event. In reflecting on Hitchens’ death, I offer this review as a glimpse into his debate style and arguments.

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Craig-Hitchens Debate, Biola University, 2009

The debate at Biola University between William Lane Craig and Christopher Hitchens was packed out last night. (Apparently, viewers around the nation also tuned in via various video streams.) As an adjunct instructor at Biola, I am proud that the school would sponsor such an intellectually stimulating event. Here I offer a few personal reflections on last night’s great discussion,

Hitchens: The Shotgun Approach

Looking over my copious notes from the debate it strikes me that Hitchens’ presentation lacked a logical structure and overall coherence. He did a poor job of defending his naturalistic, atheistic worldview (at times vacillating from skepticism to agnosticism to traditional atheism). In the end he merely pronounced that he didn’t need to defend unbelief. In his mind, theists have the entire burden to prove God’s existence.

Hitchens attacked religion (Christianity in particular) with his typical slash-and-burn approach. Instead of formulating extended arguments, he used emotive (emotionally laden) language and emotional appeals to the gallery. He selectively highlighted the failures of religion and presented Christianity in the worst light possible (unscientific, oppressive, unoriginal, hypocritical). In his shotgun style he threw dozens of half-developed criticisms against the wall. It seemed he hoped to “win” either by rhetorical flair or by fatiguing the audience with the sheer number of topics he addressed superficially.

It struck me last night how often Hitchens simply misunderstands or misinterprets arguments in support of Christian theism (especially the moral argument and the argument for Jesus’s resurrection). Then again Hitchens (like other new atheists) gives the impression that it would be beneath him to take Christian theism seriously by actually studying the arguments in its favor.

Interestingly, I thought Hitchens was fairly tame last night. In other debates and public appearances he has been outright caustic, even profane. He seemed to respect Craig to a degree intellectually and even seemed impressed by the charity Biola extended toward him. Overall, I think an important part of Hitchens’ appeal is his rhetorical skill and satirical shtick.

Craig: Intellectually Sophisticated

In contrast, William Lane Craig’s presentation was clear, organized, and informed. Presenting his five arguments in virtual syllogistic form in the notes was impressive. I especially appreciate Craig’s ability to present an intellectually sophisticated case for historic Christianity with real clarity. I thought Craig probably did as well as anyone could have at selectively rebutting some of Hitchens’ red herrings and misrepresentations.

I do differ with Craig on some of his views. As a card-carrying Calvinist, I thought Craig could have been more charitable to Calvinism (at times he seems to create a caricature of Reformed theology, even asserting that it is sheer “theological fatalism”). I think it would have been more magnanimous on Craig’s part if he would have said that all historic Christian (orthodox) traditions are essentially true, but that believers disagree with each other over important secondary issues. Instead he proclaimed, without qualification, that “Calvinism is false.” However, to be fair, he made these comments under duress as he was involved in a spontaneous and contentious cross-examination period with Hitchens.

Sometimes Craig’s Molinistic, Wesleyan-Arminianism strikes me as excessively philosophical in nature and lacking in convincing biblical and theological justification.1 But let me make it clear that I personally respect and admire Dr. Craig and have learned much from reading his prolific and insightful apologetics works.

I also disagreed with Craig’s claim that a worldview’s practical workability is irrelevant to its truth. I concede that workability cannot serve as a foundational worldview test, but I think that a worldview’s viability is based partially on whether it has exhibited relevant, practical, and workable results.

Therefore, I would have asserted that, in the twentieth century, tens of millions of people were murdered by the atheistic ideology of communism. Hitchens’ claim that the fascist ideologies represented in World War II were religiously based reflects a superficial understanding of these political-philosophical systems.

At the end of the night, Craig’s case for the truth of Christian theism struck me as much more 
coherent, plausible, and convincing. I like his cumulative case for God being the best explanation
for the meaningful realities of the world and of life.

1. For details on Craig’s Molinistic views, see Four Views on Divine Providence, ed. Dennis W. Jowers 
(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011). For a Reformed perspective on God’s knowledge and
providence, I recommend John Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2002). 

Subjects: Atheism