Hitchens and Berlinski debate religion

September 20, 2010 • 12:08 pm

Instead of praying for Hitch today, let’s all enjoy watching him take apart the haughty David Berlinski.  Two weeks ago these guys debated the question “Does atheism poison everything?” in Birmingham, Alabama.  C-SPAN has just put up the link to the 68-minute debate; you can also see it, in 15-minute chunks, on YouTube).

UPDATE:  A reasonably good debate, though, after watching Hitchens in action in many of these, I didn’t hear many new arguments. Still, his eloquence remains a treat, especially in the question-and-answer session, where he said the following:

“[All religions] make the same mistake. They all take the only real faculty we have that distinguishes us from other primates, and from other animals—the faculty of reason, and the willingness to take any risk that reason demands of us—and they replace that with the idea that faith is a virtue.  If I could change just one thing, it would be to dissociate the idea of faith from virtue—now and for good—and to expose it for what it is: a servile weakness, a refuge in cowardice, and a willingness to follow, with credulity, people who are in the highest degree unscrupulous.”

Hitchens has the rare ability to utter words that, when reproduced on the page, are perfect prose.

56 thoughts on “Hitchens and Berlinski debate religion

  1. Poor Berlinski got severely battered. There were instances where he literally couldn’t utter a word of response. Hitchens is orders more eloquent and literate than this despicable apologist.

    1. Agreed. Once Berlinski got past what he had planned to say, he seemed to find it difficult to say much, while Hitchens remained eloquent throughout.

  2. Random survey question: which is more difficult to get through, Francis Collins’ The Language of God or David Berlinski’s opening statements here (does he really believe all of what he’s saying about what we don’t know scientifically?–this man’s seemingly willing ignorance is rather awesome)?

  3. I like the way his very first sentence resulted in a crazy laugh from the audience. A little rude, but good foreshadowing nonetheless.

  4. Well, clearly Hitchens wiped the floor with Berlinski, and then went on to clean out the loo as well! His very studied urbanity looked a bit fragile at the end.

    What always amazes me, though, is the amount of knowledge that Hitchens has right there, at his fingertips, all the time. If nothing else could persuade someone of the capriciousness of world and life, surely it is that such a light should be put out before its time, while so many fools remain.

  5. Berlinski quotes somebody almost every second sentence, that I think he has nothing of his own to offer. And once his sources were dismissed or ran out, towards the end, he ended up looking quite hapless and out of sorts. Looks like he wants to shelter religion because thats the nice, ‘gentlemanly’ thing to do, for he has no great belief of his own. But I think he is just being soft in the head.

  6. Why was that lady laughing hysterically just before Berlinski started talking? I would imagine that such things should be reserved for after his speech.

    I have to admit, I couldn’t really listen to most of his introduction. He’s such a gigantic windbag.

    But the sad thing is that his arguments all boil down to well known theist canards – I noted a god of the gaps, an argument from absolute morality, an argument from comfort to old grandmothers.

    Though they kinda ignored the whole “Atheism poisons everything” thing.

    1. That lady had probably committed some grievous offense as as punishment was forced to sit through a Berlinski talk and thus knew what was coming.

  7. Segment 4: Berlinski not giving straight answers.

    Why does he defend the Christian viewpoint? One obvious possibility he doesn’t even mention: $$$$

    Would he prefer to live in a secular vs. Islamic Europe – dodges the question, and attempts to rephrase the question into what he would do to change Europe, not one of personal preference.

    Lying sack of ****.

  8. A perfect display of contrast between Hitchens’ eloquence and Berlinski’s evasive obliquity (but this seems the best religion can muster for this dialog).

    I have to remind myself not to mourn Hitch’s passing while he’s still here doing such great things.

  9. Did the crowd at around 1:06:40 applaud the opinion that life was meaningless if Jesus was shown not to exist or did one of the speakers say something that the mic didn’t pick up? I can’t tell if the moderator was pausing for applause or to let someone speak. If it’s the former… how sad. If it’s the latter I’m wondering what was said. I hear something but I can’t make it out.

    1. Hitchens says “Don’t give up so easily” when the moderator says that his life would be meaningless without Jesus. I’m not sure if the audience was clapping to that or not though.

        1. Yeah, I’m really jealous of people that can come up with great zingers on the fly like that.
          I’d just fumble and say that their face is stupid

          1. Hitch has said that before to people who claimed that their life would be meaningless without god, it’s his standard comeback. Still good though.

  10. Hitchens is in fine form with an air of combative experience reminiscent of George C. Scott in “Patton.”

    Berlinski, on the other hand, looks like a Henry Winkler doppleganger with Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

  11. Egads… Berlinski isn’t much. I’ve gotten mostly through his opening remarks and, so far, it sounds like this:

    I had a cheese blintz, the chef messed it up; let’s kill 50,00 frenchmenm, ergo atheism spoils everything.

  12. Berlinski – unimpressive. Disrespectful of the audience by refusing to answer direct questions. Also too obtuse and verbose.

    Hitchens – impressive as usual with his knowledge and ability to cut to the heart of an argument.

    I was disapointed, however, that Hitchens allowed the equating of Secularism with Atheism in the question regarding whether Berlinski would prefer to live in a Moslem Europe or a Secular Europe.

    Secularism is not Atheism – you can be religious and a secularist or an agnostic and secular or atheist and secular. Part of the definition of Secular is not allowing one or more religions to dominate or determine government policy and actions (though this does not always occur in practice). Religion is still there, it is just left to be a personal activity. Canada, for example, is a secular society as religion is not allowed to dictate what people of other religions or no religion should do. But religion is not banned, as was implied in the question.

    I find it disturbing that many theocrats and their allies have been confusing people regarding these definitions because they want to move away from a secular society to a theocracy.

    1. Here’s part of the problem. I look up “secularism” at answers.com,

      1. Religious skepticism or indifference.
      2. The view that religious considerations should be excluded from civil affairs or public education.

      and irreligion is the first definition. When the majority of people use a word incorrectly, it’s hard to tell them they’re wrong.

    2. You make a good catch on this disingenuous re-definition of Secularism. The same must be said of his repeated mis-definition (or strawman definition) of atheism as being that “science has proved God does not exist.”

      You’re right: When the people who oppose us think “Atheists claim to be able to prove a negative, and secularists want religion removed from the world,” then it is no wonder we have a hard time engaging a meaningful discussion. The well of discussion has been pissed in.

  13. Very good showing by Mr. Hitchens, especially as the debate wore one when the distinction between rhetoric and actual knowledge asserted itself more predominantly.

  14. Berlinski: disingenuous, arrogant & evasive – but what struck me most was his insistence – twice – that morality depends on there being a great metaphysical (not metaphorical) stick, and some entity to wield it, and that without that stick we cannot be prevented from doing evil.
    One also gets a bit tired of the trotting out of a list of 20th-century massacres that ignores the massacres in Indonesia in 1965-66, for which the CIA bears some responsibility and whose purpose was ostensibly to root out Communists; I say ‘ostensibly’ because one of the main targets were Chinese residents, whatever their sympathies, and in Bali (that heavenly and peaceful place in New Age mythology – and you can meet plenty of the Western myth-mongers there) it led to the violent settling of old scores stemming from the Japanese occupation and the Dutch re-occupation, and in this process, I remember reading somewhere, a greater percentage of Balinese died than did Cambodians in Pol Pot’s reign of terror. (Percentage, not number, since Bali is a smallish island.)

  15. Main weak point in Hitchens argument is that he failed to highlight the known benefitial correlates of atheism, such as high correlation with nobel prices and membership in national academies. Lower poverty rates, higher literacy rates.

    The motion is very easy to undermine by simply pointing to the data. But I think Hitchens actually did the right thing (and what he does in any debate) and that is primarily make his point.

    Berlinski basically punted completely the moment open questions came up.

  16. Berlinski failed to support his own points, then in conclusion simply repeated the points he failed to support.

    No wonder he sat down so quickly!

    In Texas we have a saying that fits Berlinski perfectly, “All hat, no cattle.”

    Hitch, on the other hand, drove his points home with logic and supporting data. Marvelous! I pushed through all 5 segments just to hear Hitch speak.

    On the segment about Pascal’s Wager, Hitch examined it from a couple of points and drew a conclusion. Berlinski, on the other hand, said nothing!

    Perhaps most telling was Berlinski’s dislike, xenophobia?, regarding Islam. He ducked both questions regarding Islam, yet claimed, disingenuously, to be “objective.” No wonder he’s a DI fellow, he’s simply a liar. Objective my ass.

  17. And one other thing that came across is the sheer parochialism of people like Belinski: it is as though no religions other than the Abrahamic ones existed. Stenger in his latest book has some interesting observations on Buddhism and Taoism.

    1. Well, and I think that was the point that Berlinski drove home, against his own position, I might add, and not on purpose! What a moron!

      Asked where a secular, meaning atheist, I guess, or Islam Europe would be preferred, Berlinski had a brain freeze! Looked like he had sucked the sourest lemon through the smallest straw. Not a choice, he screamed!

      The question, obviously, as Hitch figured out, was a religious Europe, regardless of stripe, or not. Berlinski would have none of it. Christianity or nothing was his implied answer, contrary to his lie of being impartial. It was too obvious.

  18. While the religious irritate me and I have little respect for them, the lowest of the low is the atheist who thinks OTHER people should believe!! They’re saying effectively, “I don’t need god to be a good person but you you poor shmuck, are so weak and evil that without the threat of hell you would inevitably run amok and kill and rape without cease.” It’s absolutely disgraceful.

    1. I had never seen Berlinski before and this was precisely what struck me about him. He insisted on this idea of what compels us to behave or act morally. At the same time he made it clear nothing compels HIM to do so.

      As someone who had never seen Berlinski before I guess I was stunned to see someone argue that he doesn’t need God but other people do or else bad things happen.

      Granted I did read up a little beforehand and know who he is affiliated with, so I didn’t expect anything honest or consistent but that was particularly laughable.

  19. In his closing comments Berlinski restates his 3 considerations, the second of which was that “Atheism is dogmatic”. And, presumably therefore, poisionous. Is this really the best kind of argument he (and other apologists) could come up with? What amounts to “Know you are, but what am I?” (Nyah, nyah optional).

    1. Yea, he didn’t really support that point too much. Just saying that theistic explanations have been laughed out of the classroom doesn’t show dogmatism, only that theistic are not/poor science. Denying a poor explanation continuously doesn’t show dogmatism anymore than denying that the Earth is the center of the solar system is dogmatic.

  20. Sorry for the double post–got interrupted and accidentally hit send. The main reaction I had after watching that hour-long debate was that were I ever to find myself in the uncomfortable position of facing Christopher Hitchens across the debating table, I would surely start praying to a god I don’t believe in to save me…

    His depth and breadth of knowledge is simply astounding.

  21. Berlinski has enough negative charisma to clear a room of thinking, feeling humans in a minute.

    He’s so obnoxiously condescending–I’m tempted to support his book tour! With enemies like this. . .

  22. As Hitchen’s body wastes away the light is burning brighter.

    An awesome performance by Hitchens and he totally owned Berlinski on the secular versus Muslim Europe question.

    For a strictly selfish point of view, I wish Hitchens would spend less time debating non-entities like Berlinski and more on creating fabulous prose.

    1. “An awesome performance by Hitchens and he totally owned Berlinski on the secular versus Muslim Europe question.”

      It was a total Princess Bride moment–Hitch literally picked up Berlinski’s sword and *handed it back to him*, with a couple of pointers, no less, about how he might use it to his advantage. Never let it be said that Hitchens is not magnanimous…

  23. Is it me, or does Berlinksi sound like Christopher Walken? If I didn’t know better, I would have thought this was an SNL skit, as the words coming out of his mouth are difficult to take seriously.

    Hitchens was in good form, as always. This is one of the few debates in which Hitchens appears totally unaffected by the drink, and as such, is very sharp!

    Unfortunately, many people take flakes like Berlinski seriously, and consider them as authorities on such matters. Somebody has to discredit such religious windbags, not for our sake, but for those who are more credulous.

  24. Was this a debate. Berlinski is not a supercilious twit, he is a wishy washy wet noodle. Hitchens very classy and did not waste his time rebutting Berlinski’s non-serious criticisms of Krauss and Hawking. The other side has to be represented for balance, and this is the best they can come up with, not because they are improving. They are lying shacks of sit.

  25. I find it ridiculous, completely, ridiculous that Hitchen’s failed to address the single most fundamental and functional point of Berlinski’s point; self empowerment and godlessness leads to the dehumanization of our fellow species.

    Hitchen’s was so busy sampling from his previous debates that he failed to progress to Berlinski’s emerging argument; I don’t know why, one would assume it was because Hitchen’s truly didn’t understand (much like a lot of posters here) how Berlinski wasn’t arguing that Religion has been a, and will continue to grow in isolated instances, or mass instances, a poison.

    But that in return, Atheism is nothing “but” a poison.

    There wasn’t a single instance of disagreement by Hitchen’s, he literally didn’t even address it, he was so busy parading against the religious history of the world (none of which Berlinski associates himself with) that he failed to discuss the realities of self worship and anti-theist values.

    Truly the most remarkable point was Berlinski’s quote about fleeing vs. searching.

    A truth that isn’t easily settled in the hearts and minds of those who are invested in their escape from the “terrible theist stranglehold” that encompasses the earth.

    Atheism is a poisonous social movement; history has proven this, the civilizations who upheld religious indoctrination (regardless of geography) were and still are head and shoulders above the rotting world of godlessness.

  26. Andrew, atheism is not a social movement or an ideology. You’ve been listening to Berlinski too much.

    How exactly does self-empowerment lead to the dehumanization of our fellow species (I suppose you mean species like cats and dogs)?

  27. I think Berlinski, as a thinker, has more to offer than Hitchens. “The Devil’s Delusion” was brilliant in my opinion. However, Berlinski’s “weakening” is due, in my opinion, to his lack of commitment. He is an agnostic and skeptic. Hitchens is an atheist and skeptic. In the end, Berlinski ran out of steam, because you cannot be a promoter of mere religiosity. That’s why he couldn’t commit when asked to choose between a secular Europe and a Muslim Europe. Agnosticism can critique atheism very well, but it can’t promote any particular religion. And in a debate where Hitchens himself seemed much less ambitious, and focused much more on his skepticism about everything than on atheism, what was there for Berlinski to disagree with?

  28. Hitchens repeated the same story he repeats every time, even if debating a different subject – the universe is very large, we are small and haven’t been here long, so why would a God do that?

    Then he proceeds to claim that all evil is done in the name of religion, and that which is done by atheists, if you look back far enough, there is a theist behind a tree.

    He is neither logical nor truthful. He is an evader. He evades his own position – that atheism is a belief that no god exists. He dishonestly describes it as refusal to accept a belief that God exists, which is agnosticism.

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