Sunday, October 21, 2007

Character and Christianity -- D'Souza vs. Hitchens


How different the approaches to religion are at the event I attended last week and the one I’m headed to tomorrow.


Last week, an awards dinner hosted by Templeton Foundation-funded magazine In Character — which devotes the entirety of each issue to thoughtful essays on a single virtue, such as generosity or self-reliance — bestowed honors on writers who had addressed some virtue at length, including my fellow libertarian Wendy McElroy (who I had never met before), who wrote and spoke about a ham radio network used to bring messages “from Santa” to sick, immobilized kids at Christmas. I’m sure I’m not the only atheist in McElroy’s milieu, since a disproportionate number of libertarians (being rationalists and anti-authoritarians) are atheists — and the Templeton Foundation, by contrast, is very sympathetic to religion (even seeking to find areas of overlap between religion and science that I don’t think will ultimately turn up) — but placing things under the (to my mind) broader rubric of virtue made the usual nastiness over specific matters of doctrine fade away.

I don’t know McElroy’s religious views, if any — nor do I even know for sure the religious views of Dr. John Templeton (son of the organization’s founder) and his wife, both of them medical people to whom I spoke at the event about ACSH’s pro-science work — but I do know that no one present at the In Character event was likely to accuse someone on “the other side” of being callous and morally depraved. Obviously, regardless of differences in our descriptions of the cosmos, everyone present wanted the sick kids to be happy.


By contrast, both Dinesh D’Souza and Christopher Hitchens have said some pretty nasty things about atheists and religious believers, respectively — even though D’Souza has worked with enough libertarians that he, too, must know and like some atheists, while Hitchens has spoken admiringly of George W. Bush in the past and clearly understands that Bush is motivated partly by a sense of religious mission. It should be interesting to see, then, how negative their claims about “the enemy” get at the debate they’re doing tomorrow night (Monday, Oct. 22, 2007, doors opening at 7) under the auspices of King’s College, for free at the Ethical Culture Society at West 64th and Central Park West on the question “Is Christianity the Problem?”

When Hitchens is merely arguing that the supernatural claims of religion are unproven and thus very probably false, he has my full support, but I don’t pretend to be able to precisely gauge the far more complicated social impact of religion (though I think its dangers are often ignored in favor of its warm-fuzzy aspects). If a man tells me religion is the only thing keeping him from becoming an axe-murderer, I’m disinclined to deploy my best atheist arguments on him right then and there — but as hinted in my comments about the In Character event, I think the actual number of people for whom good feelings and virtue must be forged only through religion is small — I think Buddhists, ancient Romans, modern atheists, and indeed virtually everyone understands that a world of constant lies and physical assaults would be awful, and I think that if (if) self-proclaimed atheists behave badly in some ways in our society, it is more their rebel/outcast status in the current society than anything essential to their worldviews that leads to their alienation from some social norms.

D’Souza, by contrast, has argued that America should rein in its secular/permissive culture to avoid invoking further wrath from traditionalists abroad (that’s another complex social and strategic question that I won’t pretend I can readily answer — though I wouldn’t automatically bet against the power of rock n’ roll, consumerism, and sex to carry the day overseas against the hatemongering radical traditionalists) and, far more nastily to my mind, has argued that atheists are both arrogant and incapable of feeling deeply about or providing consolation after tragic events, such as the Virginia Tech massacre. That’s nonsense, as I’ve said before — but I’m not so much interested, for present purposes, in refuting the claim as in noting what it suggests about D’Souza’s mindset: the ever-popular and increasingly tiresome view that one’s enemies just aren’t fully human — go ahead and hate them, they don’t feel pain the same way we do.


It’s fitting for multiple reasons that the issue of attributing mental states to one’s opponents will be on my mind at the debate tomorrow:

•I’ll attend with girlfriend Koli, who happens to be a Virginia Tech alum and has often said she never thought she’d be dating a (reluctantly) registered Republican.

•We’ll be joined by Daniel Radosh and his wife Gina Duclayan, and Daniel and I covered a prior D’Souza-Hitchens debate (on affirmative action, with Hitchens making the memorable argument that regulations calling for larger bathroom stalls might benefit gays), as opposing left and right columnists for New York Press (I’ll use next month’s Book Selection of the Month entry in part to talk about those days and some of the other things in the pre-blog Seavey bibliography). This time, Daniel and I are both essentially on the same “side,” I think, favoring the anti-religious British leftist turned quasi-neocon, but due to Hitchens’ zeal may find ourselves leaning toward D’Souza on some subsidiary issues, if D’Souza is smart enough to avoid vilifying atheists — as I fully expect he will not be. (Daniel, by the way, has a book coming out next year about weird Christian pop culture.)

•The Ethical Culture Society building where the debate will take place also happens to be, I expect the record will show in the end, the only place where Todd Seavey ever attended church on a regular basis (very briefly), to demonstrate to my then-girlfriend Dawn Eden a willingness to hear religion’s side of things. This, as she very politely concedes in Chapter 18 of her book Thrill of the Chaste, was a tactical error on her part — not because I wasn’t willing to listen but because she had assumed that any decent person with an open mind and a warm heart could not fail to embrace religion once he did listen. This is the recurring mistake religious people make, only slightly better than D’Souza’s dismissal of atheists’ capacity for emotion: rather than admitting that they have failed to make their case, they assume that some sort of hard-heartedness or willful blindness on the part of non-believers is the only possible explanation for continued atheism (after all, does it not say, I assume, in Book whatever, Verse such-and-such, that all people of good will who listen for the voice of the Lord shall hear, etc., etc., and so on?).


Sometimes, even when the other side would really, really like to see things your way, you just haven’t made your case. Or as Oliver Cromwell, not himself the most tolerant fellow, wisely said: consider that you may be wrong. More important, for current purposes, consider that even if you’re right, you may still seem completely wrong to even the most generous of listeners. Rarely does someone see the truth and choose to believe something else — I’m not even sure if that’s technically possible, absent some sort of self-hypnosis or amnesia, though people can certainly be stubborn.

But whether you’re Cromwell, al Qaeda, Dinesh D’Souza, Karl Marx, or, it sure helps fuel your own sense of righteousness if you can convince yourself the other side is deliberately ignoring the plain evidence you’ve placed before them and opting for wickedness. Then one need have no qualms about destroying them utterly — though that never quite works out well, and they have a tendency to start questioning your good will at that point.


Koli said...

I’ve known a lot of Republicans — being from Virginia and more lately, Wall Street — and believe me, I’ve had my reasons for anticipating that I’d never date any!

But what makes you think those reasons come from assigning a “mental state” to Republicans (beyond what’s reasonable to conclude about people’s values based on their own stated values)? What makes you think you know my reasons at all?

You make a statement about my mental process in deciding whom to date, in a post decrying the practice of attributing mental states to others!

Todd Seavey said...

Well, dear, it seems to me that when it comes to dating, you — and I would think, most people — are not just trying to gauge policy outcomes (unless one’s planning to date the prime minister as a service to humanity or something — and I’m not that powerful [YET] and you are very warm-hearted but not _that_ self-sacrificing) but to determine whether the other person is kind-hearted, means well, can be trusted to be nice instead of vicious, etc.

And so, unsurprisingly, it seems to me that your wouldn’t-date comments have usually been inspired not so much by concern that your hypothetical GOP fellas would actually cause a 5% increase in the poverty rate or whatever but that they are just nasty, blackhearted people who want the poor to suffer so that they can laugh at them while sipping martinis and objectifying oppressed women.

There’s a difference between saying “I couldn’t date a hateful, callous person” — which is surely attribution of a basic mental state/emotional attitude — and saying, for instance, “I couldn’t date someone whose misconception of how bond markets work, if turned into official public policy, would make it much harder to fund irrigation projects, with possible increases in food prices resulting, to the detriment of poor populations,” and saying the latter sort of thing is much rarer, with good, common-sense, amateur-psychological reason, I think.

Koli said...

Again, a mountain of assumptions about what I mean when I say something! All the while accusing others of this type of claim to mind reading.

Contrary to your suggestion, 1) a “5% increaes in poverty” based on policy or (2)”blackheard people…” etc. are NOT THE ONLY TWO POSSIBLE reasons I might have for my dating preferences.

I don’t believe I’m obligated to explain (on your very public blog) what my very personal reasons are for not wanting to date a certain type of person. But my choice not to explain doesn’t mean you get to be authority on what’s happening inside my head.

Todd Seavey said...

And that, I readily concede, must always remain to some degree a mystery.

Christopher said...

Get a room.

elizabeth said...

Hey, Todd! Did you get in last evening? I told Rick we should let you cut in with us, but he said you were with a pack of people. I did not want to get beat up. Hitchens was good in his opening segment, but he was pretty pathetic afterward. He kept arguing like a liberal, and D’Souza is a darned good debater.

Todd Seavey said...

Koli and I (and Daniel and Gina) did indeed get into the debate, as did at least a few other people I recognized, such as Penguin Books’ Bernadette Malone Serton, ABC News’s Kristi Kendall, and WSJ’s John Fund.

I suspect we’d all agree D’Souza made some fallacious but very effectively demagogic or college-debate-point-scoring arguments, while Hitchens seemed to indulge in too many tangents and mumbled seeming-evasions.

And I told Daniel that Hitchens seemed to do a worse job of staying on the supposed topic — whether Christianity (not Islam) creates problems — though Daniel said he’s OK with changing the parameters of a poorly-structured debate, or as he put it: “Kobayashi Maru.”

When a debate ranges across millennia of changing cultures and differing standards, it’s pretty hard to give a single utilitarian verdict on everything that was done or ought to have been done in all that time — but D’Souza’s _epistemological_ arguments against atheism were juvenile and at times shocking (he _really_ can’t think of reasons the human brain might find natural patterns explicable without recourse to God infusing the world with Reason, like something out of…well, Hegel??). Despite Hitchens’ generous comments about D’Souza, I really have to wonder sometimes whether D’Souza believes some of his own arguments or merely deploys them for strategic gain (amidst a receptive King’s College audience full of young Christians).

And I know that sounds like I’ve just contradicted the admonishments above to assume your opponents’ motives are the best — but D’Souza makes that much harder than a lot of other public figures. And note that I’m still not saying he’s a _jerk_, just that he may be a debater first and believer second or third.

In the end, though, D’Souza’s the one — regardless of the ostensible debate topic — making the bizarre, unproven claim — that there is a God — against whom the Hitchenses of the world are not really obliged to say anything more than “Why, why, why should we believe this ridiculous, fanciful, utterly evidence-free claim?” And if the best D’Souza can do is say “Well, you can’t absolutely prove I’m wrong,” I have an invisible bridge to the moon to sell him, an army of intangible monkeys who’d like to live in his house, and an aura-realignment I can give him at 50% off.

Todd Seavey said...

Here’s video of another Hitchens debate — this time against a real theologian — under the auspices of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, if you’re interested:

Tod Steward said...

I am trying to reach Bernadette and cannot find her. I knew her from 1994 up until she married (the first time???) when we all kind of lost track of her. Do you have an e-mail for her? Thanks!

Todd Seavey said...

I don’t, though perhaps her former bosses at Penguin could forward a message.