The Outspoken Atheist versus the Catholic Convert

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Monday, November 29, 2010

The Outspoken Atheist versus the Catholic Convert

It won't be broadcast on BBC World until January 1, 2011, but the word is already out on the debate on Friday, November 26. It was between the fit Tony Blair, the former prime minister of the United Kingdom, and writer Christopher Hitchens, one of the "new atheists" (along with such others Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris) who is in chemotherapy for late-stage esophageal cancer.


Staged in Toronto by Canadian gold-mining magnate Peter Munk, the clash had been billed in terms of a heavyweight boxing match. As Philip Sherwell of The Telegraph put it, it was "the polemicist verses the politician, the sceptic versus the statesman, the outspoken atheist versus the Catholic convert."


And apparently, Hitchens won not by knockout, but by decision.


The resolution that was debated? 


"Religion is a force for good in the world."


This was a good resolution for Hitchens to debate.


As has been noted by others, such as David Bentley Hart, there are really only three arguments being made by this new group attempting to popularize atheism. The first two are easily addressed, for they are based on category mistakes.


The first (epitomized by the writings of Richard Dawkins) claims that empirical science is better able to explain human existence than religious faith. This is a fairly significant category mistake, for science has very little to say about "existence." The mistake of this argument is that it thinks the question of "existence" is the result of various causes that led to our current order of things. In truth, the very possibility of the existence of those causes is an ontological question (a question of "being"), not a causal question.


The second is that there are no rational grounds for belief, and thus believing (in God) is contrary to reason. Again, this is a category mistake, as the nature of any argument for belief is in keeping with the nature of the thing being believed. Once the nature of the truth claims being made are understood epistemologically, this argument falls quickly to the wayside.


The third argument is that religion has been bad for the world. That the history of, say, Christianity wars against its own claims. This is more than just hypocrisy; they believe that the perceived evils of Christian history flow from its very principles. 


Due to the fallacies of the first two arguments, this is the only one (by default) worth debating.


Hitchens seized his opportunity and launched into a litany of religious crimes: religious parties blocking the Middle East peace process; the Northern Ireland Troubles; Roman Catholic teachings on condoms in regard to AIDS in Africa and Islamic extremists.


Blair responded by acknowledging the evils done in the name of religion, but countered with the good that has been done in the name of faith.


All well and good, but Blair seemed to lose the night by not going further on the matter. "It is undoubtedly true that people commit horrific acts of evil in the name of religion," Blair noted. "It is also undoubtedly true that people do acts of extraordinary common good inspired by religion." 


But that's as far as Blair went. He should have gone further. In truth, this is a matter of getting history right, and the new atheists are not particularly good historians. Good polemicists, but not good historians.


As I wrote in my book Serious Times, "In the ancient world, the influence of Christians acting as salt and light brought a stop to infanticide, ended slavery, liberated women, and created hospitals, orphanages and schools. During the medieval era, Christianity kept classical culture alive through the copying of manuscripts, the building of libraries, and the invention of colleges and universities. In the modern era, Christians led the way in the development of science, political and economic freedom, and provided what is arguably the greatest source of inspiration for art, literature and music."


All to say, if you want to discuss whether Christianity has played a positive role in the development of civilization, it's good ground for the Christian who knows her history.


But that's still not the best argument against the new atheists - it's simply the only one of their arguments worth debating.


The best argument is one that Sherwell noted "went undiscussed throughout the session;" it was the obvious issue of "Hitchens's health, his views on mortality and his resolute determination that there will be no deathbed conversion - despite the flood of unsolicited prayers he has been receiving."


In other words, Blair should have not only brought up more of the past to refute the only argument atheists have worth debating; but also the future of the only life the atheist has to live.


James Emery White




"The convert and the atheist at war over religion," Philip Sherwell, The Telegraph, November 28, 2010, online at


David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press, 2009).


For more on the true nature of Christianity's impact on history, beyond Hart's book (which focuses primarily on the first five centuries of Christian history), see Alvin J. Schmidt, Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization (Zondervan, 2001), as well as the writings of Rodney Stark, particularly The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (Random House, 2005).


James Emery White, Serious Times.


The Outspoken Atheist versus the Catholic Convert