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!):
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.
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.