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Old 06-29-2010, 08:07 AM   #1
Single Serving Jack
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Collision: Hitchens vs Wilson docu

Hello again Ravers

I did a 'search' for this film but no results came back, anyone seen it? It prompted a very rare burst of actual thought from me, so I wrote it down. You'll all know this stuff of course and I've probably got some of it wrong. Are there any Christians left on here to comment? Anyhoo:



So, last night I watched again the excellent documentary 'Collision' which follows atheist writer Christopher Hitchens and pastor Douglas Wilson as they tour to debate and promote their joint book 'Is Christianity Good for the World?" which arose from a correspondence on that question. It's a great film and they both come across as powerfully intelligent debaters and even though they simply couldn't disagree more on the subject in hand, they also clearly respect and enjoy each other's company.

The debates that are shown in the movie focus on several aspects of Christianity and religion in general, but the one that appears the most and seemed to me to be the foundation of Wilson's arguments for his faith is morality.

Wilson's position seems to be this - there is an objective morality and it comes directly from God. Morality is a reflection of the true nature of God, and we all have a sense of morality because it was God that created us and gave us that moral sense (ignoring the fact that some don't have it at all, but I digress). So he rebuts the argument that Hitchens puts (and is fairly common I think) that Christians believe atheists are only able to be moral because of Christianity. Wilson argues that of course atheists can be moral (just as Christians can be immoral) but that the question is not if they can, it is why they (and any of us presumably) are moral, or rather have this apparently innate sense of morality. His answer is, as mentioned, that it is an innate part of God in the first place.

OK, now that at least makes sense on the question of whether atheists can be moral. Plenty of complete idiots think they can't and of course that's total nonsense and I was glad that Wilson didn't think that. Having said that, he brought up Stalin at one point as an example of an atheist's immorality but of course being an atheist says virtually nothing about a person's capability to be moral. An atheist could be the most generous and altruistic person you know, or they could be a psychopath. Same for Christians of course, and Wilson must know that Christians in history have committed atrocities in the name of their religion (and of course that it can be argued that Stalin didn't do what he did in the name of atheism, but his own form of dogma).

He also makes the claim that atheists can have nothing to say about the God-ordered genocide of the Amalekites in the Bible because "the universe doesn't care". Here he is claiming that an atheist has no reason for saying that an act is immoral because he has no foundation to base any particular moral opinions on. I see what he means - but of course I disagree with the conclusion and I'll come back to that - but as he does have a foundation for his moral choices (God) he can have an opinion.

The problem with that is, and to his credit Wilson has no problem saying this, is that he thinks the genocide of that particular group of people was morally correct because God had ordered it. It was God's will therefore - by definition - it was morally correct. That's quite an admission. Basically to the Euthyphro dilemma (Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?) Wilson is answering the latter. It is morally good because it is commanded by God. Fullstop, end of discussion. Which when you think about it is a pretty terrifying thing to admit you believe, and simply confirms Hitchens' assertion that with God, anything is permissible. As long as you can convince yourself (or someone with perceived religious authority can convince you) that an act is God's will, then by definition that act is moral. Presumably Mohammed Atta and his 18 accomplices believed something similar.

Wilson's argument against using rationality to decide on the God question follows on from his 'foundations' argument. To argue for rationality, he says, is to make a circular argument as you are using your premise (rational thought) to prove your conclusion (rational thought). An atheist would clearly object if he were to quote Bible scripture in an attempt to prove the inerrancy of the Bible, which is the same thing. Your choice of 'world view' cannot be justified by that world view itself. Seems like a strong argument to me really, and Hitchens isn't show to give any response to it. What occurs to me though is that surely you can use results to determine the validity (or not) of your world view? Maybe I am not using the word rationality in the same way as Wilson, but the greatest expression of human rationality so far achieved has to be the scientific method. It's not perfect but it's the best way of understanding the world we have. Most importantly, as ably illustrated by the xkcd comic strip - it works, bitches!

Doesn't the extraordinary success of rationality in science point to it being a pretty good world view? What achievements does the religious world view have to show in comparison? So maybe you can't philosophically argue for rationality by using rationality, but that argument then applies to ALL world views, religious included, and so surely judging by results is the best we can do. I know which side I'm on.

Of course by making that argument Wilson must then admit, and he does, that his world view is based on nothing but faith. Which I also find to be an almost incomprehensible decision. And leads me to another point that his discussion on morality brings up, which is this - if our sense of morality comes from God, if God's will itself defines morality and he gave us that moral sense himself - why do so many of God's actions and demands in the Old Testament seem so abhorrently immoral to us? How can Wilson decide that an act of genocide, which can only be seen as an immoral act by any sane person, is in fact a moral act when the very sense that he claims God gave him must tell him otherwise? There are countless examples in the Bible of God acting in ways that are clearly immoral to us - yet that shouldn't be possible if Wilson is right. Take the Book of Job, where God mentally and physically tortures a man to extremes to win a bet with Satan. Does he believe that because God acts in this way, those actions are morally permissible? He can't, of course, but why not when by his own admission what God wills is by definition moral? Bizarre. I have no doubt Wilson has complex and well thought out answers for all of this, but to me at this point it seems contradictory to say the least.

Hitchens also never tackles Wilson with the problem of evil and I would like to hear Wilson's response to that. Anyone with a clear thought in their head can see that there is an unthinkable amount of suffering and pain in this world that if God wished to could be prevented. Yet it exists, Wilson must therefore not have any moral objections to God's perceived inaction. Again a pretty scary thought.

Those are my thoughts after watching the film, I highly recommend it and you can also read the initial letters between the two men here.



So anyway, I doubt I'll have such a burst of waffle for some time so let me know what you think, and if you've seen the film - it really is good.

"I'd take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day" - Douglas Adams
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Old 06-29-2010, 08:25 AM   #2
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I just realised I forgot a whole extra bit I was going to add about the evolutionary origins of morality. Doh! That'll teach me to try and write coherently...

"I'd take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day" - Douglas Adams
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Old 06-29-2010, 08:56 AM   #3
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Wilson is wise to argue morality with Hitchens because I think H. is weakest there. I've heard H. try to argue in formal debates that morality is simply innate, which of course plays right into the hands of the god-wallopers.
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Old 06-29-2010, 09:17 AM   #4
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That's exactly what he does in their letters, and a bit in the film too - surprised he doesn't talk about potential evolutionary origins of morality, surely that's the comeback. Seems perfectly reasonable if not beautifully clear that evolutionary forces are responsible. We have a morality because altruism became evolutionarily beneficial at some point in our history. Once language and our increased cognitive powers come on stream that would just have enhanced it. Not sure where evolutionary science is on that though tbh. It's certainly at the very least an option, and so God becomes unnecessary. I wonder if Wilson would accept the possibility.

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Old 06-29-2010, 08:09 PM   #5
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A truly loving God would have arranged evolution to make the death of a human child by Leukemia painless.

"Those who most loudly proclaim their honesty are least likely to possess it."
"Atheism: rejecting all absurdity." S.H.
"Reality, the God alternative"
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Old 06-29-2010, 08:24 PM   #6
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There is a rumor that Hitchens was taken off a plane on a stretcher today. All of his forthcoming lectures have been cancelled, but no announcement on the cause.
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Old 06-29-2010, 09:17 PM   #7
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Is it possible that, even though none of the basis is real, Christianity is (or at some point was) a positive influence on the world because it had an effective set of morals and people followed them blindly because they believed in heaven? If not, is it possible that a well constructed religion could be, if only for the power of religion to influence stupid gullible people? (there are a lot of stupid gullible people!)
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Old 06-30-2010, 02:51 AM   #8
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I think it's probably a bit late in the day for Christianity to overall have a positive effect on us hoomans. It'd be easy enough to construct religion that was, as I think Sam Harris has pointed out.

The point I really find confusing is how Wilson and other Christians who believe like him that morality is a reflection of the very nature of God, and that our sense of morality is in itself a reflection of that, don't find it odd that much of what he gets up to in the OT is so completely beyond anything that could be considered moral. How can they square that circle?

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Old 06-30-2010, 07:45 AM   #9
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The point I really find confusing is how Wilson and other Christians who believe like him that morality is a reflection of the very nature of God, and that our sense of morality is in itself a reflection of that, don't find it odd that much of what he gets up to in the OT is so completely beyond anything that could be considered moral. How can they square that circle?
This is what centuries of theology have basically been about, IMHO. Trying to square the patently immoral stories of the OT with what people actually experience. The cause of a lot of cognitive dissonance, I'm afraid to say.
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Old 06-30-2010, 06:58 PM   #10
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I think it's probably a bit late in the day for Christianity to overall have a positive effect on us hoomans. It'd be easy enough to construct religion that was, as I think Sam Harris has pointed out.

The point I really find confusing is how Wilson and other Christians who believe like him that morality is a reflection of the very nature of God, and that our sense of morality is in itself a reflection of that, don't find it odd that much of what he gets up to in the OT is so completely beyond anything that could be considered moral. How can they square that circle?
They divide by pi. Which is 3. It says so in the bible.
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Old 07-01-2010, 06:44 AM   #11
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There is a rumor that Hitchens was taken off a plane on a stretcher today. All of his forthcoming lectures have been cancelled, but no announcement on the cause.
He got cancer. Fuck.
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Old 07-01-2010, 07:38 AM   #12
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Hm, shite. Get well Hitch.

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Old 07-01-2010, 09:14 AM   #13
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Is it possible that, even though none of the basis is real, Christianity is (or at some point was) a positive influence on the world because it had an effective set of morals and people followed them blindly because they believed in heaven? If not, is it possible that a well constructed religion could be, if only for the power of religion to influence stupid gullible people? (there are a lot of stupid gullible people!)
Religion has no real content so, to have anything to entice people with, it hijacks what people already admire. Thus the clergy are characterized as trustworthy. Love is made an attribute of the Deity, Punishment for the evil behavior of others is promised, everything good is attached to the religion. Religion claimed that well-known moral principles belonged to it, it added a rew of its own and people found the package plausible. Who wouldn't follow a system in which murder, theft, adultery and greed were considered bad behavior? Just in case someone might question the value of religion, it claimed "justice" and wrapped the whole sordid affair in a package named "Without religion, there would be no morals."

Christianity is just one of the latest successful renegade versions of this sinister and self-serving philosophy.

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Old 07-01-2010, 02:09 PM   #14
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We all agree that Christianity is a negative influence, but let's try to break it down into pros and cons and try to quantify the belief structure.

Belief structure:
Text-based religion. There is one text (Christian Bible) which is held (by most Christians) to be divinely inspired. This text is poorly written by modern standards and contains factual inaccuracies, which are explained away or accepted as fact.

Monotheistic religion-There is a single god in Christianity who is sentient and human-like. He is often petty and of questionable moral character. Nonetheless, he is ascribed with all positive aspects, along with being able to interact on a large scale with the world if he so chooses. God is described as being just, loving, omnipotent, and omniscient.

Three part diety-Father, son, holy ghost, blah blah blah.

Central heaven/hell dichotomy-This is the core of the belief on the afterlife, and one of the main reasons people are obedient. Beliefs on the afterlife are based on something that most humans desire and which is completely absent from the physical world. In Christianity, the proposed afterlife destination is described as being eternal, and is polarized as being incredibly good for followers or incredibly bad for others/sinners.

Teachings of Jesus-Often skipped over in large part by power structures in Christianity, these teachings talk about things like being decent to other people regardless of who they are and feeding the poor/homeless.

Other teachings-OT laws, Book of Revelation, etc. Laws like "homos burn in hell" and "don't wear colored clothes" which are followed more or less depending on the person/sect. Often used as a basis for racism/sexism/homophobia/etc.

We'll do pros first, since they're shorter

1) Teachings of Jesus, if followed, lead to people being decent towards one another.

2) Centralized power structure can fund money towards charitable causes like feeding/clothing the homeless.

3) Communal structure helps create long-term interpersonal bonds.

Cons

1) Based on falsehoods.

2) Concentrates power into the hands of a few, often corrupt, individuals.

3) Provides solid basis for immoral action, such as racism or homophobia.

4) Centralized power structure gives significant political influence to the Church, which is often used to push forth laws limiting personal freedom, especially furthering racism/homophobia

5) Divinely inspired doctrine gives a huge resistance to change.

6) Divine backing of power structure gives fanatical following to high authorities, utilizable for committing atrocities.The question is, is it possible to get the positive aspects (people are more likely to do good things if the person they view as their moral leader tells them to) while eliminating the negative consequences? Is this possible? I think it may be.

Centrally, an effective religion could have the following tenets:

1) Minimal doctrine. Doctrine is inherently harmful. This doctrine should be as generalized as possible. Objective morals should be avoided. More general statements like, 'love thy neighbor,' and 'do unto others as you would have others do unto you,' would be better.

2) No diety. If there is a diety, no divinely inspired documents. Infallability limits change.

3) Central location with regular meetings of congregants. Meditation, moral discourse, communal means, physical activity, etc. could promote communal bonding. Centralized locations also allow for collection of charity funds.

4) Some reason for people to want to believe the loose framework of the religion. This would contain the core 'religious' beliefs of the faith, as opposed to moral beliefs. Ideally this would be something group focused, like 'humanity will go to heaven once we stop killing each other and establish world peace.' Naturally, this should not be an attainable goal, and should be open to some interpretation (perhaps once we stop killing each other and starving and establish world peace the world will become heaven?)

5) Some form of belief on the afterlife. While unlikely to exist, people are comforted by afterlife beliefs. However, the heaven/hell dichotomy is harmful, since people focus specifically on getting into heaven rather than on improving conitions on earth, which is our goal. Perhaps a karmic cycle pattern of reincarnation?

6) Lastly, there needs to be a firmly established need to seek knowlege and question premesis. Ideally, this would be taught at a young age, perhaps as a loose collection of fables. Entranched beliefs and confirmation bias are detrimental, regardless of what those beliefs are. Nearly everything should be allowed to change, with the only constants being the loose moral guidelines which try to guide people towards being decent towards each other.

Thoughts? Is this sort of thing possible, and would it in fact have a beneficial impact on society? If so, how could it be further improved? If not, what would make this beneficial?
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Old 07-01-2010, 02:12 PM   #15
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Fuck it - you edited too quick!!

Stop the Holy See men!
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