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Hitchens in “Conversation”

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.

8 comments on “Hitchens in “Conversation”

  1. Why is Albacete a wimp? Because he didn’t come out like a bully, wanting to pulverize and demonize Hitchens?

    Hitchens was clearly unprepared for Albacete and he was rendered impotent by the Monsignor’s temperament.

  2. Personally, I agree with you! My discussion of Novak’s book, linked to in the post above, makes clear that I am in favor of dialog, which is what Albacete is attempting. By speaking of Albacete as a “wimp,” I refer to how he came off compared to Hitchens in the overall performance. My sarcasm should be clear when I suggest that the “ill-formed quandary” came off free-from self-defeat. But maybe it’s not!

  3. Personal experience, yes. But what can you say to someone who discounts even their own personal experience? No wonder Walker Percy put aside demonstrating the existence of God and instead set about to demonstrate the self and its problems (Lost in the Cosmos). As Theophilous of Antioch wrote: “You will say to me, “Show me your God.” And I tell you, “show me first the man who is in you, and then I will show you my God.”

  4. Perhaps you can say, “We think about our personal experiences differently.”

    Thank you for visiting here! Also, thanks for the list of other posts about the event on your blog (the correct link is here).

  5. Thank you for the welcome! I’m interested in the range shown in your articles. I think I’ll be returning often.

    I wouldn’t say “we think about our personal experiences differently” – too weaselly for me. I prefer the plain spoken even when I disagree.

  6. I know what you mean. I was being a bit sarcastic. But I do think there is truth in that kind of “weaselly” talk. It could give the sense that there is more going on here than meets the eye. And it forces one to question whether our own personal experience is a trustworthy guide for what everyone else ought to believe.

    Glad you’ll be coming back. Always looking for more conversation partners here.

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