Christopher Hitchens has made it his business to debate whomever will come forward. The first page of Google results lists a considerable roster: Al Sharpton, Dinesh D’Souza, Chris Hedges, Tariq Ali, Stephen Fry, Shmuley Boteach, Alistar McGrath, Marvin Olasky, and Douglas Wilson. As a rule, Hitchens wins every time. He argues with a proverbially acerbic wit, which deprives no audience of his signature meanness and promises personal insult more or less tailored to each opponent. His confidence never fails, and he makes no eye contact. Afterward, he rushes outside for a cigarette.
But what happens when Hitchens’s interlocutor doesn’t really want to argue?
So it went today at the “Big Questions conversation”—conversation, not debate—that the Templeton Foundation convened, by invitation only, at The Pierre Hotel in New York. It was moderated, albeit lightly, by the Washington Post‘s On Faith duo, Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn. Opposite Hitchens, Templeton provided Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, a kindly, elderly Catholic theologian once trained as a physicist. It began (after a fish and asparagus lunch) with the slogan of Templeton’s latest media campaign: “Does science make belief in God obsolete?”
As to be expected of vacuous Big Questions, more questions blossomed than answers. What is God? What is belief? Obsolete? Which science? And so on.
Soon, Albacete made clear that he is an admirer of Hitchens’s essays and his book, God Is Not Great. He never explained exactly why, but occasionally offered a Scholastic dictum, though in reverse: “Reason purifies faith.” Throughout, even after Hitchens’s worst jabs: “I am in full agreement with you.”
Hitch didn’t return the kindness. “I was told I was going to argue with a person of faith today.” And, incidentally, North Korea is better than Christianity because “you can at least fucking well die to escape North Korea.”
The dialogue with atheists, which Albacete’s fellow Catholic Michael Novak has recently called for, is dead in the water so far. (See my discussion of Novak’s book here.) Like Novak, the chief evidence Albacete cites for faith is personal experience, “like falling in love.” He doesn’t claim to see the blood of the cross in physics equations.
What was Templeton trying to accomplish by bringing up another punching bag for Hitchens? Well, all that came out free from self-defeat was Templeton’s Question. Albacete is a wimp, Hitchens is a bully, and a couple hundred opinion leaders go home satiated, pondering an ill-formed quandary.