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Collision: Is Religion Absurd or Good for the World?

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Last fall, we went on tour debating the topic "Is Religion Good For The World?" Our arguments were captured on film for a new documentary, Collison. Are our morals dictated to us by a supreme entity or do discoveries made by science and reason, make Atheism a natural conclusion? You decide.

Religion Is Absurd
by Christopher Hitchens


Religion will always retain a certain tattered prestige because it was our first attempt as a species to make sense of the cosmos and of our own nature, and because it continues to ask "why". Its incurable disability, however, lies in its insistence that the answer to that question can be determined with certainty on the basis of revelation and faith.

We do not know, though we may assume, that our pre-homo sapiens ancestors (the erectus, the Cro-Magnons and the Neanderthals, with whom we have a traceable kinship as we do with other surviving primates) had deities that they sought to propitiate. Alas, no religion of which we are now aware has ever taken their existence into account, or indeed made any allowance for the tens and probably hundreds of thousands of years of the human story. Instead, we are asked to believe that the essential problem was solved about two-to-three thousand years ago, by various serial appearances of divine intervention and guidance in remote and primitive parts of what is now (at least to Westerners) the Middle East.

This absurd belief would not even deserve to be called quixotic if it had not inspired masterpieces of art and music and architecture as well as the most appalling atrocities and depredations. The great cultural question before us is therefore this: can we manage to preserve what is numinous and transcendent and ecstatic without giving any more room to the superstitious and the supernatural. (For example, can one treasure and appreciate the Parthenon, say, while recognizing that the religious cult that gave rise to it is dead, and was in many ways sinister and cruel?) A related question is: can we be moral and ethical in our thoughts and actions without the servile idea that our morals are dictated to us by a supreme entity?

I believe that the answer to both of these questions is in the affirmative. Tremendous and beautiful things have been achieved by science and reason, from the Hubble telescope to the sequencing of the DNA of obscure viruses. All of these attainments have tended to remind us, however, that we are an animal species inhabiting a rather remote and tiny suburb of an unimaginably large universe. However, this sobering finding -- and it is a finding -- is no reason to assume that we do not have duties to one another, to other species, and to the biosphere. It may even be easier to draw these moral conclusions once we are free of the egotistic notion that we are somehow the centre of the process, or objects of a creation or a "design". Dostoevsky said that without belief in god men would be capable of anything: surely we know by now that the belief in a divine order, and in divine orders, is an even greater license to act as if normal restraints were non-existent?

If Moses and Jesus and Mohammed had never existed -- let alone Joseph Smith or Mary Baker Eddy or Kim Jong Il or any of the other man-made prophets or idols -- we would still be faced with precisely the same questions about how to explain ourselves and our lives, how to think about the just city, and how to comport ourselves with our fellow-creatures. The small progress we have made so far, from the basic realization that diseases are not punishments to the noble idea that as humans we may even have "rights", is due to the exercise of skepticism and doubt, and to the objective scrutiny of hard evidence, and not at all to faith or certainty. The real "transcendence", then, is the one that allows us to shake off the notion of a never-dying tyrannical father-figure, with its unconsoling illusion of redemption by human sacrifice, and assume our proper proportion as people condemned to be free, and able to outgrow the fearful tutelage of a supreme supervisor who does not forgive us the errors he has programmed us to make.

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Atheists Suck at Being Atheists
by Pastor Douglas Wilson

From the perspective of a Christian, the refusal of an atheist to be a Christian is dismaying, but it is at least intelligible. But what is really disconcerting is the failure of atheists to be atheists. That is the thing that cries out for further exploration.

We can understand a cook who sets out to prepare a reduction sauce, having it simmer on the stove for three days. But what we shouldn't get is the announcement afterwards that he has prepared us a soufflé. The atheistic worldview is nothing if not inherently reductionistic, whether this is admitted or not. Everything that happens is a chance-driven rattle-jattle jumble in the great concourse of atoms that we call time. Time and chance acting on matter have brought about, in equally aimless fashion, the 1927 New York Yankees, yesterday's foam on a New Jersey beach, Princess Di, the arrangement of pebbles on the back side of the moon, the music of John Cage, the Fourth Crusade, and the current gaggle representing us all in Congress.

If the universe actually is what the materialistic atheist claims it is, then certain things follow from that presupposition. The argument is simple to follow, and is frequently accepted by the sophomore presidents of atheist/agnostic clubs at a university near you, but it is rare for a well-published atheistic leader to acknowledge the force of the argument. To acknowledge openly the corrosive relativism that atheism necessarily entails would do nothing but get the chimps jumping in the red states. To swallow the reduction would present serious public relations problems, and drive Fox News ratings up even further. Who needs that?

So if the universe is what the atheist maintains it is, then this determines what sort of account we must give for the nature of everything -- and this includes the atheist's thought processes, ethical convictions, and aesthetic appreciations. If you were to shake up two bottles of pop and place them on a table to fizz over, you could not fill up an auditorium with people who came to watch them debate. This is because they are not debating; they are just fizzing. If you were to shake up one bottle of pop, and show it film footage of some genocidal atrocity, the reaction you would get is not moral outrage, but rather more fizzing. And if you were to shake it really hard by means of art school, and place it in front of Michelangelo's David, or the Rose Window of Chartres Cathedral, the results would not really be aesthetic appreciation, but more fizzing still.

If the atheist is right, then I am not a Christian because I have mistaken beliefs, but am rather a Christian because that is what these chemicals would always do in this arrangement and at this temperature. The problem is that this atheistic assumption does the very same thing to the atheist's case for atheism. The atheist gives us an account of all things which makes it impossible for us to believe that any account of all things could possibly be true. But no account of things can be tenable unless it provides us with the preconditions that make it possible for our "accounting" to represent genuine insight. Atheism fails to do this, and the failure is a spectacular one. Nor does atheism allow us to have any fixed ethical standard, or the possibility of beauty.

It does no good to appeal to the discoveries made by science and reason, for one of the things that reason has apparently brought us is atheism. Right? And not content to let sleeping dogs lie, reason also brings us the inexorable consequences of atheism, which includes the unpalatable but necessary conclusion that random neuron firings do not amount to any "truth" that corresponds to anything outside our heads. This, ironically enough, includes atheism, and so we find ourselves falling out of the tree, saw in one hand and branch in the other.

Contrast this with the Christian gospel -- God the Father is the Maker of heaven and earth. He sent His Son to be born one of us; this Son died on gibbet for our sins, as the ultimate and final human sacrifice, and He rose from the dead on the third day following. Having ascended into Heaven and taken His place at the right hand of His Father, He sent His Holy Spirit into the world in order to transform it, a process that is still ongoing. Now obviously, this is a message that can be believed or disbelieved. But the reason for mentioning it here includes the important point that such a set of convictions makes it possible for us to believe that reason can be trusted, that goodness does not change with the evolutionary times, and that beauty is grounded in the very heart of God. Someone who believes these things doesn't believe that we are just fizzing.

You can deny that this God exists, of course, and you can throw the whole cosmos into that pan of reduction sauce. And you can keep the heat on by publishing one atheist missive after another. But what you should not be allowed to do is cook the whole thing bone dry and call the crust on the bottom an example of the numinous or transcendent. Calling it that provides us with no reason to believe it -- and numerous reasons not to.

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Here's the trailer for the new documentary Collision:

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"COLLISION" premieres Wednesday, October 28, 2009, 7pm & 9:30pm at Village Cinemas 189 2nd Avenue in New York City and Thursday, October 29, 2009, 7pm & 9:30pm at the Landmark Theatre 10850 West Pico Blvd. in Los Angeles.

The DVD is available exclusively at Amazon.