Dan Dennett’s “eulogy” for Hitchens, “A lessons from Hitch: When rudeness is called for,” is up at the Washington Post‘s “On Faith” section. It’s about his experience with Hitch in a debate at the Ciudad de las Ideas conference in Publa, Mexico. I was that meeting, but had to leave right before the debate began. I’ll always regret that, for I missed my one chance to see Hitchens on the platform.
Dennett is known as the “nicest” of the Four Horsemen, but he sometimes regrets his lack of “rudeness” in debates. I’ll reproduce his last four paragraphs, for they ring so true:
We have all heard, endlessly, about how angry and rude the new atheists are. Take a good hard look at their work, at the books and talks by Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris, and you will find that they are more civil, less sneering, less given to name-calling than such religious apologists as Terry Eagleton or Alvin Plantinga or Leon Wieseltier. It is just that many people are shocked to see religious institutions, ideas, and spokespeople challenged as intensely as we expect banks, big pharma, and the oil industry to be challenged.
Of all the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” Hitchens was clearly the least gentle, the angriest, the one most likely to insult his interlocutor. But in my experience, he only did it when rudeness was well deserved–which is actually quite often when religion is the topic. Most spokespeople for religion expect to be treated not just with respect but with a special deference that is supposedly their due because the cause they champion is so righteous. Then they often abuse that privilege by using their time on the stage to misrepresent both their own institutions and the criticisms of them being offered.
How should one respond to such impostures? There are actually two effective methods, and I recommend both of them, depending on the circumstances: you can follow Hitch and interrupt (“Liar, liar, pants on fire!” or its equivalent). Or you can try something a little bit more diplomatic: You can call the person a faith fibber, my mock-diplomatic term for those who are liars for God. If you are sure your interlocutor is just another religious bully, go Hitch’s route: Call him a liar, and don’t stop until he stops. If you think your interlocutor may have been lured a little over the line of truth by otherwise commendable zeal, you can ask them if they aren’t indulging in a little faith fibbing. That works on occasion too.
The main point is this: Don’t let anybody play the God card in these discussions as if it were a “Get Out of Jail Free” card that excuses misrepresentation. Hitch would not hesitate to call out the pope, or Mother Teresa, or anybody else. Honor his memory by following his example.