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Review of Collision: Hitchens v. Wilson

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In a fascinating new documentary, director Darren Doane provides an in-depth look into a recent debate tour by Christopher Hitchens and Pastor Douglas Wilson. While it certainly has some clips from their debates, it also offers insight into what the two men are really like when they’re not on stage. There are clips of their debates, them being interviewed on TV, them joking around with each other, their private lives, and the director asking them about their personal beliefs. Although the movie jumps from one thing to another, it never seems disorganized. While a debate movie seems like it could be boring, I thought every minute of it was interesting. The movie does not include long speeches, but instead just focuses on the core of their arguments.

The subject of their debate is whether Christianity is good for the world. Pastor Wilson argues that it is since it is objectively true, beautiful, and good. Hitchens argues that religion is not good because of all the evil acts that religion has led people to do.

If you don’t want to know any specifics about what happens in the movie, stop reading this review now. It’s not like there’s any dramatic conclusion for me to spoil, like Hitchens converting to Christianity, or Hitchens and Wilson becoming lovers, but I just thought I’d warn you in case you don’t want to know any details about what gets said.

One thing that surprised me about the movie was how well Hitchens and Wilson seemed to get along with each other. They joke around with each other and also recite quotes by P.G. Wodehouse, an author they both admire.

Hitchens shows off his apartment in D.C. as well as his extensive library, much of which is taken up by books on religion. Throughout the movie, a number of people recognize Hitchens on the street and thank him for his work. Hitchens comments that given how much hate mail he gets, there must be an even greater number of people who recognize him but don’t say anything because they think he’s a dick.

But Hitchens remains somewhat enigmatic. Early in the movie he remarks that “I try and deny people their illusions.” He says that the idea that faith is a good thing needs to be repudiated "because the most faith based people in the united states on September the 11th 2001 were undoubtedly the people who high jacked those planes.” But later he admits to Wilson that if he could eliminate religion, he wouldn’t do it. He says it is not just because he’d miss having religious people to argue with, as he made it seem in the Four Horsemen discussion. He says, "I don't quite know why I wouldn't do it."

The movie also gives a glimpse into Pastor Wilson’s personal life. It shows him having dinner and praying with his family. It also shows why Pastor Wilson is actually a Christian. He says that while he believes the defenses of the Christian faith are sound, that’s not why he’s a Christian. He believes the reason he is a Christian is that it was a gift of God that his parents happened to raise him that way. I found it notable that Pastor Wilson did not say he thought the arguments for Christianity were sound, merely that the defenses of Christianity were sound. Even if it cannot be definitively disproven, that doesn’t mean that there are good reasons for believing in it.

While most of the movie was about morality, it also touches on the issue of truth. Pastor Wilson says that "We can't know anything apart from the revelation of God" and the fact that people can’t find God doesn’t mean that God can’t find them. Hitchens rightly points out that it’s a little contradictory to say that you can’t know God and also say that you know that he has revealed himself. If our reason is unreliable, then how can we know whether or not something is a revelation by God?

But Pastor Wilson also made an excellent point about the search for truth. He references G.K. Chesterton’s comment that the purpose of an open mind is to close on something. He sees it as self defeating to always have a mind that’s completely open. I agree with him, and this made me think about QualiaSoup’s excellent video on open-mindedness:
 


 
Hitchens made his usual arguments about the absurdity of biblical morality. Pastor Wilson responded by saying that it was indeed good for people to kill the Amalekites because God told them to do so. He then tries to turn this around by arguing that it doesn’t matter under atheism either because the universe doesn’t care what happens to Amalekites. But I don’t see why this matters. The universe is an inanimate object. I don’t care about what a rock thinks about murder, so why should I care what the universe thinks? It seems like morality had to be based, to some extent, on people. If there was no one else in the universe, what could you do that would be evil?

Pastor Wilson repeatedly criticizes Hitchens for critiquing Christianity by appealing to a shared moral sense without giving a firm grounding to his view of morality. While I think Pastor Wilson overreaches with some of his comments, I think his criticism is valid. Hitchens appeals to a shared moral intuition, but Pastor Wilson points out that sometimes our intuitions conflict. If we see it as good to conquer other tribes or countries, does that make it moral? Did the fact that people once thought slavery was a moral institution mean that it once was? Is there any reason to think that evolution would shape our moral sense to reflect any reality other than what would lead to the survival of our genes?

Hitchens responds by saying that humans have an innate sense of right and wrong and it seems silly to think that the Jews got all the way to Mt. Sinai thinking that murder and theft were fine until God told them otherwise. Like many atheists, Hitchens dodges the question. The issue is not how it is possible to believe in morality without God, for, as some religions demonstrate, it’s possibly to believe weird things without a good reason. The issue is whether there is a rational basis for believing that a given action is moral or immoral.

However, Hitchens correctly points out that things aren’t any better under religion. “Religious morality is just as relative, just as subject to evolution.” While religion used to say that sinners would burn in the fiery pits of hell, many of them have shifted to seeing hell as merely separation from God. Pastor Wilson defends Christian morality by saying that morality is grounded in the nature of God. However, as I pointed out in an earlier post, that doesn’t really help.  If God's nature does not fit some external standard of morality, then his nature is good merely because it is God's.  So then murder is wrong just because that's what God's nature happened to be, and you end up with an arbitrary basis for morality.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie and highly recommend seeing it if you get the chance.  The full video isn't online, but here's a clip of the first 13 minutes of it:


2 comments:
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Louis said...
February 24, 2010 at 10:19 AM  

You say "If God's nature does not fit some external standard of morality, then his nature is good merely because it is God's. So then murder is wrong just because that's what God's nature happened to be, and you end up with an arbitrary basis for morality."

But, if the external standard of morality does not fit some meta-external standard of morality, then the standard of morality's nature is good merely because it is the standard of morality's. So then murder is wrong just because that's what the standard of morality's nature happened to be, and one ends up with an arbitrary basis for morality once more.

But, if the meta-external standard of morality does not fit some meta-meta-external standard of morality, then the meta-standard of morality's nature is good merely because it is the meta-standard of morality's. So then murder is wrong just because that's what the meta-standard of morality's nature happened to be, and one ends up with an arbitrary basis for morality twice more.

I could easily go on.

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kadir karabaƟ said...
February 22, 2013 at 10:12 PM  
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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