On September 7, 2010, Fixed Point Foundation sponsored its eighth major debate and our third in Birmingham, Alabama. The participants on this occasion were Dr. David Berlinski and Christopher Hitchens. The topic of the debate was this: Is a purely secular society preferable to a religious one?
Berlinski, an agnostic, mathematician, and author, was to take the position that a society absent a Judeo-Christian influence is not the kind of place where most of us would want to live. In his very clever book The Devil’s Delusion, he argues precisely that. Author, journalist, and atheist, Christopher Hitchens argued the opposite position. It is his belief that “religion poisons everything.”
The event, held at the Birmingham Sheraton, drew some 1,200 people from across the country. Also in attendance were 60 Minutes, C-Span, Atlantic Monthly, Associated Press, and The Birmingham News. Fixed Point Foundation sponsors events that are exclusive to Christians to be sure, but in an event of this type it is our purpose to attract people from various religious (or irreligious), economic, professional, and ethnic backgrounds to hear thoughtful discussions on issues of faith and culture. That this was achieved in spades was evidenced by what appeared to be several hundred atheists in attendance.
It would be difficult for me to summarize the debate or, for that matter, to characterize it as much of a debate at all. (Click here for more info on questions this debate raises.) Berlinski often seemed unwilling to challenge many of Hitchens’s assertions. Indeed, he was at pains to minimize the differences between their positions. Given that David lost much of his extended family in the Holocaust-a deed engineered by one of the most vicious secular regimes in history-this was a very curious thing to do. During the Q & A, he dismissed a couple of the questions as irrelevant and surrendered the balance of his time to Hitchens. Hitchens, for his part, was as baffled by this conduct as I was. He tried to provoke Berlinski to abandon his apparent apathy and fight. Failing that, Hitchens then endeavored to bring me, the moderator, into the discussion!
Evaluating the event from the perspective of debate content, it was, to put it mildly, disappointing. In this respect, it reminded me a bit of the first John Lennox-Richard Dawkins encounter. Instead of embracing the opinions he had expressed in his book The God Delusion, Richard back-peddled throughout most of the evening. The effect was something like a boxing match where one man mostly absorbed blows while delivering few of his own.
Why sponsor an event featuring an agnostic and an atheist? It was our hope to demonstrate that these are questions of importance to everyone. After all, whether a given society is with or without religious influence affects people of all persuasions, not just Christians and atheists. In retrospect, we are still left wondering if only Christians and atheists feel passionately about these issues, because the agnostic position was not well represented.
Nevertheless, the event was invaluable for its insights. There were a number of atheists in the crowd who jeered, mocked, and interrupted the proceedings. In fairness, it should be noted that this was not true of everyone. On the contrary, we received several kind emails and comments from atheists, some of whom expressed their embarrassment at the behavior of their fellow unbelievers. But that many did conduct themselves this way and, in addition, should write to us with such venom, is significant. It begs the question that was the subject of that night’s debate: Is a purely secular society preferable to a religious one? As an atheist woman near the front of the auditorium cackled like a witch at the beginning of the debate, it was as if she was unintentionally helping those who were undecided answer the question. Does anyone want to live in a society full of people like this? I wondered. I don’t.
I also think that the evening was jarring to many Christians who had no idea that there were so many people who have such a hatred for the mercy of Jesus Christ. One person, writing to us after the debate, summed it up well:
Mercy, in their minds, is weak and dumb. It is like that scene from Schindler’s List, when Schindler tries to convince the Nazi general who shoots Jews for target practice that mercy is as much an exercise of power as is execution. After attempting mercy, he finds it ill-suiting and returns to his random killing. It just made me sad to think that what I treasure so highly, [they] find repulsive. I guess what they don’t understand is how much God loves them. That is why God offers mercy, only because he loves us each so much.
Christopher Hitchens is suffering from esophageal cancer and traveling is understandably hard on him. I offered to drive him from his home in D.C. and he accepted. That we are friends has surprised many. (Indeed, after the story of his cancer, this seemed to be the subject of greatest interest to the media.) Some time ago we had agreed to study The Gospel According to John together, and driving from D.C. presented the perfect opportunity. He read chapter one aloud as I drove and explained its meaning. For hours we discussed the claims of John and the Person of Jesus Christ. In contrast to his public persona, he was respectful and perhaps more persuaded of the Bible’s sophistication than he would care to admit.
At one point during the debate, Christopher playfully referenced our private conversation: “If I was to tell Larry that the Jesus who is so real to him is in fact or could be proved to be only a fictitious person, a mythical individual, it would have to ruin comrade Taunton’s day. Not just his day – his life.” As I said, the remark was made playfully and without hostility, but he meant it.
At the time he said it, the (so-called) debate was in full swing and it would not have been appropriate for me, the moderator, to comment. At the end of the debate, however, I no longer felt restrained by protocol and thought that a simple, strong response was in order:
Fixed Point Foundation is a Christian organization and unashamedly so. Christopher has said that it would ruin my life if I were to learn that Jesus Christ was just a figment of my imagination – and that of millions, indeed billions, of other people as well. To that I must confess that he is correct. It would ruin my life, because it would suggest from our perspective that this life is in fact meaningless; that it’s a hoax, a sham.
Some among the atheist contingent practically hissed in response. Here they were, bathing in the worship of their hero, and I had the nerve to ruin it by mentioning Jesus Christ. Our Lord was right: “And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake.”
And this brings me to my final observation. Many of the atheists in attendance did not seem to realize what they were doing. It may be summarized in a word: worshiping. The very thing that Christopher Hitchens loathes – mindless adherence to a doctrine or person-they unconsciously indulged without reservation. It was sad and pathetic.
Why the Lord has us do these things is seldom immediately clear to me. Such is the case here. But He did lead us. I am pleased with the hard work of our staff, the quality of the event, and the opportunity to make that one statement to a nationally televised audience. Perhaps it was God’s purpose to awaken Christians to the realities of the world around them. I hope those Christians who were present left the Sheraton with their nostrils full of the stench of a culture in decay. May it move them to action. Not political action, but the action characteristic of a people who take their Christian faith seriously and seek to be a kind and gentle influence in a society where civility is being rapidly replaced by hatred. Life in the world outside of the Family Life Center is very different from life on the treadmill within it, and it is time that many Christians realized it and engaged.
In an article entitled “Unanswerable Prayers” in the October issue of Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens writes of his cancer and those who have offered to pray for his recovery. He quotes me as saying to him: “We are, to be sure, concerned for your health, too, but that is a very secondary consideration. ‘For what shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his own soul?’ [Matthew 16:26.]” There was a great deal more to the discussion, but that this is what lingered in his mind pleases me. They are the words of our Lord. They are the words of life. May we not lose heart in repeating them and boldly proclaiming the hope that is found only in Jesus Christ.
Copyright 2010 Larry A. Taunton