Bloggingheads: Wright vs. Hitchens, part II

December 21, 2009 • 7:49 am

Bloggingheads.tv has put up the second part of the 77-minute dialogue between Christopher Hitchens and Robert Wright; the link is here.

The whole dialogue turns on Wright’s objection to Hitchens’s book subtitle: “Religion poisions everything.”  There’s no discussion, or virtually none, about whether or not the claims of religion are true; rather, H&W argue about whether faith is on balance a good or bad thing.   Here are some highlights (because I’m much more familiar with Hitchens’s than with Wright’s public assertions about faith, I’m concentrating on Wright’s points. Nor can I claim to be unbiased!):

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13:20.  Wright admits that religion is man-made.  H&W then discuss whether religion played a salutary role in the abolition of slavery and the attainment of civil rights in the ’60s.

22:40.  Wright seems to argue that because everyone has some irrational or unjustifiable beliefs, such as those involved in a secular system of morality, then religion’s irrational beliefs are o.k.

28:00 Wright seems to deny that religion intensifies the tribalism of humanity.

30:51:  Wright argues that religion doesn’t really exacerbate bad human actions:  “ I just think that people create whatever ideological justification they need — ‘ideology ‘defined broadly to include religion — for what they’re motivated to do by material, political, economic, or self-interested factors.”

32:00:  The big Stalin/Mao “atheists-are-just-as-bad-as-the-faithful” debate begins!  The fur flies thick and fast over the next few minutes.

42:11: Hitchens denies that religion really does make people behave better, asserting that they’d do so even without faith.  He reiterates his famous challenge about whether there are bad actions that only a believer could perform, and whether any good action performed by a believer could equally well have been done by an atheist.

51:45:  Wright waffles about whether or not the increase in morality over time gives evidence for God, asserting ” . . a. There is a moral direction in history, . . . and b. it has some of the hallmarks of purpose in a way that doesn’t necessarily imply the existence of an intelligent designer, conscious being, God.”  He has never specified, or even speculated, however, about where that “purpose” comes from if not from a supernatural being.

56:00:  H&W argue about whether religion plays a role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over land.

66:15:   More fur flies over Wright’s assertion that the terrible actions performed by religious fundamentalists, like Major Hasan’s murder spree at Fort Hood, are actually caused by American foreign policy and the disrespect felt by the faithful.  Wright claims that such actions are “invariably in response to some grievance that’s been inflicted on them [the faithful].”  Wright further asserts that he’s really not trying to assign blame here, but it’s palpably clear from his previous writings that he really has done so.

72:15:  Wright plays the elitism card, accusing Hitch of claiming that he’s smarter than the religious people he’s criticizing, and associating H’s atheism with “elitism”.  Hitchens responds eloquently, claiming that if religious people would stop trying to impose their views on the rest of society, he’d leave them alone.

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Is arguing that “your faith is damaging society” really being elitist? No more so than telling climate-change denialists that their stance will ruin the world.  The charge of “elitism” is simply another tactic in the religious/faitheist playbook (along with the “you’re mean and militant” trope) designed to make atheists shut up.

In the main, Wright ardently defends what Dan Dennett calls “belief in belief,” even though Wright himself doesn’t believe in God (at least, I don’t think he does, but he’s awfully eager to assure the faithful that the history of society instantiates a “higher purpose”).  Once again, I find this position both indefensible and condescending.  How can one deny the underlying factual basis for faith — the existence of a supernatural being, who for many people intercedes directly in the world — and yet still maintain that that faith in a nonexistent deity is a good thing?  For it is certain that if people really thought that there were no God, the practice of religion, beneficial or not, would vanish.

All the supposed benefits of faith rest on a bedrock assurance that the tenets of one’s faith are correct.  Who would pray if they knew that there was no one up there to hear their bootless cries? Surely the first requirement of living as a person in a difficult world is to distinguish what is true from what is fiction, whether or not that fiction be consoling.  We are not children.

35 thoughts on “Bloggingheads: Wright vs. Hitchens, part II

  1. Jerry: “All the supposed benefits of faith rest on a bedrock assurance that the tenets of one’s faith are correct. Surely the first requirement of living as a person in a difficult world is to distinguish what is true from what is fiction, whether or not that fiction be consoling.”

    Yes, and yes.

    From your description of the debate, Wright seems to be treating believers as dumbasses who need their delusions to function anywhere nearly as well as clever folks like him.

    (Now to actually listen to it.)

  2. Let’s consider an example of what is purely a belief, not a belief about what is or isn’t factual. Some of us believe that human lives have intrinsic worth; some people do not. There are religious traditions and individuals, and non-religious traditions and individuals, on both sides when it comes to this topic (I suspect that is the case with all but a few of these arational sorts of beliefs; I’m not addressing here irrational beliefs, which can also be found in both religious and non-religious contexts).

    How do we assess such a belief in intrinsic human worth? I cannot think of a scientific approach that can test for the intrinsic worth of human beings. Chemical analysis won’t demonstrate it, I’m quite certain.

    But it does seem that, on the other hand, that it is perfectly rational to conclude that a belief system which affirms the intrinsic value of human beings doesn’t poison everything. And so to claim that a certain category of human belief systems ‘poisons everything’ is a dubious claim, whether understood metaphorically (as I assume was intended) or literally (not all religions put toxic substances in Kool-Aid).

    1. I used to see H’s subtitle as a provocative hyperbole. I prefer viewing this issue as the capricious temerity of belief systems versus a democratic value system subject to provisional amendments. The “hemlock” is more likely to arise in the former.

    2. James, I think you are assuming the word ‘poison’ denotes something along the lines of cyanide or hemlock. I see a lot of religion as being more like warfarin, a slow acting poison that, in the correct doses, might even be beneficial to some sick individuals.
      The assumption that we must look up to an improbable figure or figures who have communicated the rules of life to a select few is common among even moderate religions. Belief in this worldview can only be sustained by weakening our ability to question everything – THAT is the poison I interpret from Hitchens title.

      1. I think critical thinking skills can be a good antidote to all sorts of irrational ways of thinking (the ‘poison’ as you define it). But it seems that there are large numbers of people who WANT to be rational, whether religious believers or atheists, but who fail for whatever reason. An example that comes to mind is Bill Maher, whose movie asking some very good questions about religious belief then lapses into pseudohistorical falsehoods about Horus and Osiris; and apparently his skeptical approach doesn’t manage to keep him from buying into the anti-vaccination arguments. There are plenty of religious believers who seem open to revising their beliefs in light of relevant evidence and logic, but who have simply never had the evidence presented to them in a manner that is conducive to their education.

        We’re all inclined to think we’re being duly critical, and yet I don’t think any of us is fully capable of avoiding bias (although it is certainly worthwhile trying!). But I also don’t think that it is essential to being a freethinker that one abandon all convictions that cannot be proven by science.

      2. James F. McGrath wrote:

        We’re all inclined to think we’re being duly critical, and yet I don’t think any of us is fully capable of avoiding bias (although it is certainly worthwhile trying!).

        And it is that sentiment, more than anything, which faith opposes. Religion says that truth is not a worthwhile pursuit. Better to abdicate reason and cloak oneself in credulity. And it’s this willful blindness which works like a poison in the mind. Faith poisons everything. It’s a taint that clings to and spoils everything about religion. Even religions which purport to affirm the intrinsic value of human beings do so only in regards to their standing with a fictitious being.

        It’s either worthwhile to avoid bias or to embrace it, but you can’t do both. Faith embraces it. I oppose it, therefore I must object to all forms of faith.

    3. Beliefs in “intrinsic human worth” are not necessarily religious ones. In fact, the two largest religions teach that God is going to flush most people into down the infernal toilet into everlasting agony with no chance of return.

      On the other hand, it seems obvious to me from humanistic principles that other people’s lives have a similar value to my own.

      1. I don’t think anyone is arguing it(intrinsic human worth) is a religious idea, only that it and religion are in the same category of ideas, those not supported by facts. In our society people are not free to feel people have no intrinsic worth, any actions that would come from it are illegal!

      2. In our society people are not free to feel people have no intrinsic worth, any actions that would come from it are illegal!

        Silly. They can believe anything they want, as laws do not touch on thoughts. Why does one need to believe in “intrinsic worth” to participate in society instead of simply recognizing that treating others well is generally in their best interest? There is no need to believe in “intrinsic worth” to obey laws and live as a part of society. I’m constantly baffled at how many people in atheist fora nonchalantly assume some sort of intrinsic worth to human life, or that something bad would happen if people do not recognize said intrinsic worth.

      3. And curse you, Russell, you said it so much better than I. You need to learn how to properly reply in place here, so I see your post before making mine!

  3. Wright continues to treat us to his special brand of middle-brow patronization via mystical subjectivity and appeal to culturally contructed psychological edifices.

    Thanks Robert.

    1. Not really, mikelioso.

      Some of us act out of natural human sympathies or natural (or socialised) kindness … not out of anything as dubious, metaphysical-sounding, and possibly incoherent as that some animals (members of the species Homo sapiens) have “intrinsic human worth” (whatever exactly that is).

      Some others presumably act out of fear of the law.

      Some of us support those laws because they are needed for social stability and because they have some effect in reducing suffering … not out of anything metaphysical-sounding like a belief in “inherent human dignity”. All sorts of common values can support laws against such things as murder, rape, and torture, and laws that establish and protect some kind of property regime.

      If “intrinsic human worth” is not exactly a religious idea, it is certainly quasi-religious, irrational, and totally unnecessary. Oh, and often misleading when it comes to real moral debates over such issues as abortion and stem-cell research.

  4. But surely the first requirement of living as a person in a difficult world is to distinguish what is true from what is fiction, whether or not that fiction be consoling.

    Alas, for many people the first action is to seek the protection benefits of a social group, while subsisting on the constructs of basic folkwisdom. Existentially, conformity is initially more important than risky truth-seeking behavior.

  5. Wright is essentially invoking the pragmatic fallacy — that a false belief is justified by its supposed good consequences. Talk about elitist! What he’s saying is that the masses are incapable of good behavior or happiness unless they believe in lies.

    Hitchens seems to be arguing with him on the merits of the case he is making, but I would not even engage him on that turf, at least not initially. I would first point out that he wishes to deprive people of true knowledge of the world because he thinks it’s for their own good. I have enough respect for people to tell them the truth and trust them to navigate the world as it is with fortitude and autonomy.

    1. If he were arguing that it’s useful and therefore true, I’d agree with you. But if we’re talking about whether a falsehood is good or bad for society, being pragmatic isn’t a fallacy.

      Now, whether or not religion is good for society is another matter…

  6. It was a little frustrating that around 70% of the discussion was over what I think is a misunderstanding of the “Religion poisons everything” line. Wright seems to think it means “all of the fruits of religion are bad — every single thing that religion has ever caused is bad,” meaning that he can simply point to MLK or someone who does charitable work because of their faith and “win” the debate. I don’t believe that is Hitchens’ meaning at all; my understanding is that “poisons everything” line means that religion’s (on net) negative influences infects every area of human life (science, morality, international relations). Even then it’s still a bit of hyperbole.

    It’s amusing to see Wright’s double standard at work. When a maniac commits a terrorist act in response to public policy X, Wright wants us to consider those deaths in the cost/benefit analysis of the merits of X, but when someone does something evil in the name of religion, it doesn’t reflect on religion, because “people create whatever ideological justification they need — ‘ideology ‘defined broadly to include religion — for what they’re motivated to do by material, political, economic, or self-interested factors.”

    And regardless of where one stands on the issues being discussed, I defy anyone to watch that diavlogue and conclude that Hitchens is the shrill, strident, militant, uncivil person. Wright was constantly interrupting, yelling “Christopher, can I talk?” even though Wright was already doing the majority of the talking, and generally behaving like an ass.

    1. I downloaded the mp3 of the dialogue and listened to about half of it before I accidentally switched it off. On trying to find the last place I had been listening to I clicked the ipod position line to various points during the talk and was amused to find that, out of five random points ALL of them started with Wrights exasperated screeching followed by Hitchens calmly telling him he was mistaken.

  7. A well-thought out empirically based position is properly considered to be smarter than succumbing to superstition.

    Doesn’t make the person smarter, necessarily, but there’s nothing any more wrong with saying that not believing in magical sky fairies is smarter (at least if you’ve actually thought it out) than believing in them than it is to say that accepting evolution is smarter than believing in one of the various forms of creationism.

    Glen Davidson
    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

  8. I am still boycotting blogginheads so I will not listen to this part either.

    From what is reportedly said above, it appears that Wright is still wrong about nearly every stance he takes. His pronouncements are getting more bizarre as time passes and he is further out of touch with reality.

  9. “How do we assess such a belief in intrinsic human worth?”
    It can’t be done, because it doesn’t make sense. What’s “intrinsic” supposed to mean? Let’s say you are the only person on Earth after nuclear extinction. What’s your “intrinsic” value?

  10. I recommend to all Bruce Hood’s ‘Supersense: Why we Believe in the Unbelievable’. It’s a funny, brilliant and thought-provoking little book that, instead of supposing that believers willfully refuse to see the light (although, in the case of many strident fundamentalists and such as Robert Wright, with his sentimental disingenuousness, the supposition is not entirely off the mark), examines the phenonema of belief and superstition, and largely succeeds in explaining why they exist.

  11. About 55 minutes in, they start discussing whether the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is “religious” in nature. Apart from the obvious hopelessness of Wright’s position, I’m confused by his claim that appealing to the Bible as a “historical” document is somehow not a “religious” claim. Hitchens keeps saying “but it’s not a historical document”. Exactly! What is Wright smoking?

  12. Wright does believe in (a) God, he’s a deist, by his own admission. A deist who seems to believe that his God had something to do with the evolution of humanity and its morality. Which would actually make him a kind of generic theist. Puts a whole different perspective on his defense of religion, doesn’t it?

    1. I wasn’t aware that Wright had said anywhere that he was a “deist.” Could you point me to the source?

      1. Right after the bit you quote at 51:45, Wright continues, “I think it has some of the hallmarks of purpose in a way that doesn’t necessarily imply the existence of a conscious designer/intelligent being/god–could be that there is a god who set it in motion in a kind of deistic way, but my view of history is materialistic and doesn’t appeal to intervention or anything. In any event, I believe that there is a moral direction to history… so maybe I’m religious even though I’m agnostic on the question of whether there is some being behind it all.” [emphasis added]

        That sounds like an admission that he is a weak deist or a weak agnostic leaning deist.

      2. In any event, I believe that there is a moral direction to history

        What does that even mean? How does he define moral? The most charitable way I can interpret it seems like a bastardized version of the Naturalistic Fallacy, too.

        – History has directed us towards our current beliefs.

        – We believe ourselves to be moral (or at least,more moral than those earlier in history).

        – Therefore, history has a moral direction.

        Pure and utter tripe. He says he’s “agnostic on the question of whether there is some being behind it all”, but saying “there is a moral direction to history” is already assuming agency as morals do not exist in a vacuum.

        Generic theist defending religion, indeed.

  13. 20 minutes in and Hitchens leaves Wright dumbfounded.

    Wright: “I’m not saying religion is a prerequisite for good or courage or anything else. You’re the one with the subtitle ‘Why Religion’ or ‘How Religion Poisons Everything’.”

    Hitchens: “Ya, and I’ve explained why I think that’s so. I think it’s an attack on our integrity. It says that we are playthings of the supernatural, that we are excused of our own responsibility, and we wouldn’t even know right from wrong if it wasn’t for divine ordination–revelation. I think [if it were true] that makes us contemptible. It makes you a slave right there, and if you’re a slave, then all the pleasures of art, which religion has contributed to, music, which it’s contributed to–so all of these things are transient because you are by definition an unfree person. So, I believe that the crucial emancipation that every individual in every society ought to make (has to make) is from religion. There. I’ll say it all again if you like.”

    Wright: [*Sputters and whines while trying to form a coherent thought as the truth of what Hitchens said sinks in.*]

  14. Small correction to Hitchens dialogue: “the crucial emancipation that every individual in every society ultimately has to make is from religion. There.”

  15. Christopher Hitchens at about 10:58:

    There is no society ever been known where perjury and theft and murder are highly prized.

    Er, actually, the modern Republican party has two of those down – as does the global warming denialist movement.

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