Christopher Hitchens died this week. I disliked his ideas and nearly everything he stood for. (I’m not meaning to disrespect the dead; he would want people like me to dislike him and say so.) In one important way, however, I owe him a debt of gratitude. He influenced me to start this blog and to formulate my own responses to the often shallow arguments put forth by him and his fellow New Atheist writers. He shook me out of my complacency about defending the Christian faith.
Not that I think I do the work of apologetics very well, but most of my fellow clergy (none of my blog readers, I promise!) don’t do it at all. They don’t seem to care about the ideas of people like Hitchens. For whatever reason, I do. Passionately. I think his ideas matter to many people—people who will never darken the door of a church. So I care about them, too.
Don’t get me wrong: No one comes to faith because of ideas alone. No one reasons their way into becoming a Christian. No argument by itself will cause someone to be a Christian. It’s a much deeper, more emotional decision (made possible by the Holy Spirit, of course). But arguments and reason do play an important role.
Regardless, I saw him in Atlanta in 2007 on his book tour for god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. As part of this tour, Hitchens had been going from city to city, staging debates about God and religion with whichever local believer his publicist could find to debate him. Often, these debate opponents were overmatched (Al Sharpton in New York? Really?) or unprepared for Hitchens’s aggressively derisive debating style—often confused for wit by his tour’s enthusiastic fans. “Oh, you thought this was going to be a fair fight?” Hitchens seemed to say. “It’s personal, and I’m going straight for the jugular.”
Sadly, Hitchens often took advantage of Christians’ well-meaning impulse to be nice, which they sometimes mistake for the virtue of kindness. Niceness is not a virtue, especially when debating someone like Hitchens. Sometimes, as the song says, you’ve got to be cruel to be kind.
Fortunately, Timothy Jackson, my Christian ethics professor at Emory’s Candler School of Theology, understood this distinction when he debated Hitchens at the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta. This time, Hitchens seemed unprepared. Not that there was much give-and-take. Hitchens rarely responded to what Jackson said. He was mostly reciting a script. Still, even he conceded a few weeks later on a blog that Jackson was, “by far” his best opponent. I’m sure he was!
This audio recording is from the second of two debates that day. I attended the first. I assume the second is similar, although Dr. Jackson told me in an email that both of them were a bit grumpier the second time around.
UPDATE: Now it’s on YouTube!