Hitchens, Sharpton, and God

The New York Public Library recently hosted a debate between The Reverend Al Sharpton and the journalist, author and gadfly Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens, in case you hadn’t heard, has recently mounted the increasingly crowded atheist soapbox — joining, most prominently, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett — with his book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. If nothing else, the title, at least, is bound to take a little heat off Dawkins, whose title for his own salvo, The God Delusion, seems by comparison an attempt at conciliation and bridge-building.

I’ve never been a fan of the race-baiting Sharpton, and I will confess a great deal of admiration for Hitchens, whom I consider one of our generation’s sharpest minds and most eloquent writers. But Sharpton, however you may feel about his attitudes and his public conduct, is a very intelligent man, and when I heard about the debate — after it had already happened — I was sorry to have missed the chance to see the two square off. I was able to find a video of the encounter online, however, and I had a chance to watch it a few days ago. The resolution being debated was the very proposition expressed by the title of Hitchens’s book.

I was impressed at how well Sharpton did against silver-tongued Hitchens, who, in addition to his sonorous British baritone and effortless command of language, had, in my opinion, the truth on his side. But Sharpton took a clever approach: whenever Hitchens adduced some ghastly example of cruelty, mercilessness, violence, rape, murder or other horror from the Bible — which is, forgive me, like shooting fish in a barrel — Sharpton responded by pointing out that while all this may be so, it was not relevant to the question of whether God was great, but applied only to this or that Scripture, or to some or other all-too-human religious teaching. Hitchens himself eventually admitted that he was surprised and discomfited to be pushing on such a lightly defended door, and while he struck heavy blows against most instances of organized religion and their sacred texts, he landed nothing on Sharpton, who kept with focused precision to the resolution under examination. I imagine Reverend Al took some heat from his own camp, later on, for letting Hitchens drag the Bible behind his vehicle for a solid hour without objection, but for the purposes of this debate he knew he had a good strategy, and he stuck to it. I think Hitchens would have done well to make an end run around Sharpton’s apophatic criticism by asking Sharpton to offer some positive evidence that God is, in fact, great; Sharpton mustered, as I recall, no other support for his own side other than to repeat the common, but irrelevant, argument for God’s existence that without God we have no foundation for moral behavior, which, even if true (it isn’t), has no bearing on whether God actually exists or not (and therefore, of course, on whether God is great or not).

The two men seemed, also, to like one another’s company more than I would have expected, and enjoyed some good-natured banter. You can see for yourself here. Well worth a look.

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  1. Andrew says

    The two men seemed, also, to like one another’s company more than I would have expected, and enjoyed some good-natured banter.

    I guess we can at least be thankful for this. I have not watched the debate but your description is interesting. I marvel at how fluid the defense of God is.

    Posted May 30, 2007 at 7:33 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Andrew,

    Do watch the debate, if you can find the time, if just to watch these two lively characters in action.

    Posted May 30, 2007 at 10:20 am | Permalink
  3. the one eyed man says

    Personally, I think Christopher Hitchens is a pompous ass who is eager to take the wrong side of any issue, and who combs over the bald spots in his arguments with invective and bluster.

    However, to refer back to a thread of several months ago: tomorrow night you can venture outside and see a blue moon.

    Posted May 30, 2007 at 10:33 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Hi Peter,

    Well, we differ about Hitchens, then. Not only do I usually agree with the positions he defends, I also think he supports his arguments with impressive erudition, and speaks and writes with rare eloquence.

    Thanks for reminding us about the blue moon!

    Posted May 30, 2007 at 10:42 am | Permalink