Rudy Henkel (rudyhenkel) wrote,
Rudy Henkel

A Hitch in Hitchens: Observations From the Turek-Hitchens Debate

The following is my personal opinion.  It does not reflect the official position of any group with which I am associated.  If you were there, and disagree with any aspect of my assessment, please let me know in comments.

I’m starting this in the wee hours of the morning after returning quite a distance from a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Frank Turek. The debate was hosted by the United Secular Alliance at VCU (Richmond, VA.)  Under consideration was, "Does God Exist?," with a twenty minute introduction from each debater, followed by a five minute rebuttal, a chance to ask their opponent three questions, questions from the audience, and finally a five minute concluding statement.

Now, let me first say that I am a Hitchens fanboy.  I have watched every video of his debates available online, read an awful lot of his material, and have a huge amount of admiration for him.  Several members of Maryland Atheist Outreach, Beltway Atheists and DC Atheist Women can testify to the fact that I was giddy as a schoolgirl waiting for the event to begin.  I shook hands with, and talked to Hitchens for a minute or two afterwards, and I will likely not wash that hand for a week.  Bear all of this in mind when I tell you that Hitchens' performance was, at best, disappointing.

I'll summarize my thoughts on Frank Turek, before going into the details of my disappointment.  Mr. Turek is the newest model in a long line of suave Christian apologists.  His expanding business (in which he charges to teach kids how to defend their beliefs against atheism,) inevitably leads one to wonder how much of his belief is based on cynical moneymaking.  There is, however, no good reason to doubt the sincerity of his beliefs, despite him turning them into a business.  It cannot be denied that he has charisma.  He was well dressed and maintained a friendly, if occasionally condescending, attitude throughout the proceedings.  Some of his jokes fell a bit flat, but he came across as mostly earnest, even to someone who thinks his ideas are absurd.  If he is faking, then he is very good at it (at least to an audience, perhaps he's smarmier in personal discussion.)

Mr. Turek began by trying to warm up the audience with jokes that only his part of the crowd found humorous.  I should note that due to the last minute craziness of the seating arrangements, I ended up the only atheist seated in the reserved seating area for his guests.  This is awkward when you're the only one in that group not laughing.  This tendency towards partitioned laughter was to continue through the debate, with the addition of “amens” on the couple of occasions Turek said something trite about needing Jesus because we’re all sinners.    After about three minutes, he moved onto his arguments.

Turek's strategy was nothing that we haven't seen before: volume.  In this case, list off as many "proofs" of god as you can in the time allotted, and challenge your opponent to refute them all.  If your opponent can't, then declare them the loser.  These included the "something from nothing" (cosmological) argument, the "fine tuning" (teleological) argument and the "irreducible complexity" (teleological) argument.  (Use google fu if you are not familiar with these.)  I should note that Turek is a 2.0 Creationist.  That is to say he accepts the timescale of biological evolution that is part of scientific consensus, but he thinks God helped things along.  This means he has moved from an idea completely contradicted by science, to one that is just fatuous, extravagant and unnecessary.  He also added something at the end about how mathematics required God because it had absolute laws, or some such thing.  This moon logic is not like our earth logic, but perhaps someone took that bit seriously.

Turek also made the claim that objective morality was not possible without god.  He was very careful to state that he did not think one needed religion to *be* moral, only that one could not objectively justify it.    This seems silly on the surface, but it is actually quite a clever attack that can catch one unawares if you are not careful.  Turek implied that this was a further proof of god, but this is of course a non sequitur.  I'll talk more about responding to this claim in a follow up in which I will address some of the specific arguments.  In any case, this claim ended up being the centerpiece of nearly half the debate (if by debate, you mean two people talking at cross purposes.)


Now we get to my favorite: Hitchens.  To start with, Hitchens' appearance was somewhat concerning.  He wore the usual, tieless, unbuttoned shirt, and I do not begrudge him this at all, but he seemed, quite honestly, just slightly ill.  This is not a point against him, but it did not bode well.  Much more casual and damaging than his dress code was his attitude towards the debate.  I sympathize with him for having to deal with the same kind of people over and over but, to be frank, that is what he is paid to do.  Throughout the evening, through his demeanor and words, Hitchens gave off a vibe of “If you don’t already agree with me, you’re not worth the bother.”  Towards the end of the evening, he really seemed like he didn’t care about the debate very much at all. 


Hitchens was unnecessarily insulting at times (usually, I find him to be very necessarily insulting.)  The only point for presentation he earned, I think, is for humor.  Unlike Turek, Hitchens had a few lines that garnered a universal chuckle, (Genocide in a handjob was probably the evening's greatest laugh.) One joke was poorly chosen though: when asked by an audience member what gave his life meaning (or perhaps purpose,) he responded that it was delighting in the misery of others.  Those of us familiar with Hitchens knew this was a joke, meant to satirize the ridiculous question.  The theistic side of the audience, however, thought him to be quite serious (remember, I was right next to them.)  This did not endear him at all to the believers, and likely helped to falsely reinforce the negative preconception of atheists.


The real disappointment, however, came from the content of Hitchens’ answers.  Hitchens avoided answering a large number of the questions posed to him.  In fact, I cannot think of a single non-trivial question which he answered directly and to the point.  He did get around to some of them, though he took his time doing so.


What is particularly upsetting about this is that a lot of the questions were ones that Hitchens is quite capable of giving good, witty answers to.  I know this because he’s answered the exact same questions before, in previous debates. (I will do a follow up post going over some of the specific questions, the answers Hitchens has used in previous debates, and other possible answers.)


That is not to say that my hero did nothing right at all.  At the very beginning, he cleverly directed the debate away from a deistic god towards a theistic one, which he has much more effective arguments against.   Hitchens brought out his well used, and I think quite effective, rhetorical device using the timescale of human species to ridicule the idea of theism.  For an excellent display of this, watch from 16:00 to 19:20 of this little debate with Rabbi Boteach (actually, when you have time, watch the whole thing.)  He made, I think, a good defense on the point of how he had no burden of proof to explain the origin of the universe, since he was not making any claims about it.


Overall though, his arguments were a letdown.  When they were clever, they were often not on the point.  When they were on the point, they were often convoluted.  I had to let Christians walk away from that debate thinking that their point of view had won!  Again, the real tragedy is that I *know* Christopher Hitchens is capable of so much more than this (e.g. the Rabbi Boteach debate just linked to, or any other debate of his you can find on YouTube)


Afterwards, at the meet and greet, Mr. Hitchens was very open and friendly, if obviously tired.  I was quite honored to meet him, and thanked him sincerely, though I did not mention the debate.  He was gracious, and talked to me for a minute or two.  Had he shown more of that amazing grace during the debate itself, I think he would have gone over a lot better.


I do not know why Mr. Hitchens’ performance was below par for this event, nor will I speculate.  I have, however, been forced to put him on a slightly lower pedestal.  If this performance proves to be just a fluke, as I suspect it will, and he vindicates himself in future debates, I'll have no hesitation in moving him right back up.

The second part of my analysis in now up.

Tags: atheism, debate, hitchens

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