Foisted on His Own Leotard

Ah, Doug Wilson (no, that’s not him to the left there.) My admiration for him comes and goes like the tide. It is currently rising. Not sure why, but it just is. Must be the moon.

Anyway, Doug has written in response to the rise of the New Atheists and today I came across one of his blog entries in which he responds to Christopher Hitchens’ book God is Not Great. I haven’t read it and don’t plan to but from what Doug has said it sounds like Hitchens is taking a better approach than Dawkins and others. I mean, he’s still wrong, but at least it is a different approach. And so Wilson takes a different approach with him. While Wilson appreciates Hitchens’ literary style, he nails him on a glaring gap in the atheist argument: ethics. I totally agree with Wilson on this, how can the atheist tell me that religion is not just wrong but also a bad thing? What is “bad” based on? Here’s how Wilson sharpens the end of the stick before poking it in Hutchens’ eye:

An incoherent approach would go something like this: There is no God; there is no fixed standard of morality overarching all of us, and so we must all pull together and submit to the resultant fixed standard. I don’t get it either.

Simple and elegant isn’t it. What Wilson asks quite elegantly is So What? He enters into Hitchens’ world and then presses his argument against him. Who is Hitchens, or anyone else for that matter, to tell me that religion is good or bad? Hitchens must first assume that there is a good, an objective good, a good that transcends mere personal whims, a good that he can appeal to in order to determine that religion ain’t it.

But here’s where Wilson’s argument (apparently) won’t hold. Wilson seems to get “hoisted on his own petard“. Hitchens could answer Wilson effectively by pointing out that religion is bad by its own standard. Hitchens need not adopt an external standard of good and evil, he could simply point out that religion has not served its own lofty purpose. Instead of inspiring man to great good in their following after God or god or gods it has inspired hatred and war and other nasties. Hitchens need not adopt a theistic worldview to make his case. He probably does, I think that’s the only way we can really get ethics, but I don’t think his argument is necessarily defeated just because he does/did.

Wilson, not ninny himself, recognizes this and responds:

There is nothing in that approach that the prophet Amos wouldn’t be good with. But this is not what he is doing. He is assuming that Christians are offending against a standard that overarches believers and non-believers alike, and that standard is clearly obligatory on everybody.

I kind of think Hitchens would agree here. What he would say is that science is about truth and religion claims to express truth and look how miserably that works! Hitchens might be tempted to claim that religion’s truth is not good truth since it doesn’t “work.” I don’t know, never met the man, but that seems to be the kind of grog most post-modern thinkers are swilling these days so why not. Perhaps I’m being unfair. Whatever. What standard is Hitchens going to use to determine that?

We need to be aware of the tactics of the New Atheists. They are employing tactics they’ve learned from us fallen and sinful theists. Consider Penn Jillette. He’s eloquent, popular, cool, a loud mouth and an ardent atheist. He doesn’t have to present a persuasive argument, he is persuasive. Richard Dawkins present atheism with a certain amount of forcefulness and a British accent so he immediately sounds smart and right. Hitchens has polished writing. Julia Sweeney does a one woman show about how she abandoned a loving theism for atheism with all her sweetness and Midwestern charm. These folks present atheism in an attractive package from various perspectives. There’s something for everyone.

These new guys aren’t wishy washy about this stuff. They ain’t your father’s atheists. Carl Sagan was an agnostic, claiming that we can’t really tell if God is there or not. Albert Einstein seemed to have theistic leanings. Stephan Hawking seems to be agnostic or possibly even a deist. But the New Atheists are brash and bold. That actually makes them even easier targets. They’re making truth claims that science cannot back up with reproducible experiments. We’re not likely to see on a science exam “Define the universe and give three examples. Duplicate the steps necessary to begin with absolutely nothing and arrive at a complex system without being involved in it in any way.”

In the end, I declare Wilson the winner, Hitchens got “foisted on his own leotard” and Wilson walked away with only a minor wedgie. The New Atheists get “hoisted on their own petard.” (I totally knew what it means.)

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