McGrath-Hitchens Debate

Here is a link to a recent debate on Christianity and Atheism between biochemist and theologian Alister McGrath and author Christopher Hitchens. Following are few comments on this important debate.

1. Christopher Hitchens is arguing against what is largely a caricature of Christianity. Few, if any, of his claims could be validly posed against historic orthodox Christianity. For example, early in the debate Hitchens indicates that he believes it immoral for a religion (Christianity) to implicate him in the actual death of Jesus of Nazareth. Well, okay. I’m not aware of any Christian teaching that claims anyone other than the Jewish temple establishment and the Romans were directly responsible for the death of Jesus. In Acts, Peter is quick to point a finger of blame, not at himself and everyone else, but at those whom he took to be responsible for Jesus’ death (2:36). If there are Christian sects that teach some sort of universal human responsibility for the death of Jesus, I’m not aware of them and I don’t take them to be representative of historical orthodox Christianity. Hitchens is attributing to the whole the alleged characteristics of some few parts. This is called the fallacy of composition and Hitchens commits it regularly. Someone needs to call the old chap on this one.

2. Hitchens also has a thoroughly inadequate understanding of Trinitarian Theism. This shortcoming appears on at least two occasions. First, he takes the idea that God would pour the punishment of all humanity on one human to be immoral. However, he never approaches the idea that this human is also God incarnate, the second person of the Holy Trinity. Thus, it’s not just about God dumping his wrath on some poor human scapegoat. The atonement involves God taking God’s wrath against humanity upon himself. In Christ, God himself mercifully becomes the scapegoat for humanity’s sin against God. Second, Hitchens reveals that he conceives of God in a deist framework. He likes to talk about whether or not God intervenes in the world to do various things. He doesn’t think of God as continually present in the world by virtue of his Holy Spirit. He doesn’t think of God as one who is near and longs to dwell in and among his human creation. Again, this stems from a severely lacking understanding of Trinitarian Theism on the part of Hitchens.

3. Hitchens also made the claim that religion is always looking for death as the way to leave this world and go to the next. He claims that religion is only interested in the destruction of the world. Hitchens, once again, here betrays the inadequacy of his understanding of the Bible and the Christian religion. Historic orthodox Christianity has held consistently that the Triune God has no intention of destroying this world. Rather, he will renew it in every way by flooding it with the glory of his personal presence. New creation is the message of the Bible from cover to cover. Death is always the enemy of the Living God. Christianity never sees the destruction or the death of the created order as the goal. Quite the opposite, Christianity envisages a world free from death and decay, a “world without end” as the Gloria Patri says.

4. I greatly appreciate the work of Alister McGrath and his willingness to engage people like Hitchens in public debate. However, McGrath often appears to be on his heels in these types of debates. He often deals with minor defensive points rather than going at Hitchens on the level of his inadequate worldview or on his gross misrepresentation of Christianity. Hitchens’ style of debate is one of shock and awe. He does not appear to be as interested in dialogue as he is in offending and demonizing those who do not agree with him. McGrath is much more of a gentleman and approaches the debate with a more dialogical tone. McGrath did claim that Hitchens’ atheism could not support moral/ethical claims. However, McGrath did not press Hitchens on this point. Also, McGrath, an historical theologian, certainly knows the extent to which Hitchens misrepresents historical Christianity. However, he did not go far in challenging Hitchens on these misrepresentations.

If Hitchens is to be debated successfully, someone is going to have to unabashedly say that he is wrong and that his assertions are based on misrepresentations. Further, the validity of Hitchens moral claims needs to be targeted as well. His atheistic worldview cannot sustain claims of morality.

I’d love to hear comments and reactions to the debate.

Grace and peace,


5 thoughts on “McGrath-Hitchens Debate

  1. Hi Erasmo,I want to respond to you. I think Hitchens’ challenge may not have been made clear to you.You say:Challenge:“Name me an ethical statement made or an action performed by a believer that could not have been made or performed by a non-believer.”Answer:“Do Not Harm yourself” Acts 16:28— What makes you think an atheist cannot act in a way that is self-perserving?This is not an action which “cannot” be preformed by a non-believer. This is especially clear if you stick to the concept of perform rather than beg the question and say… “An atheist can’t do it because atheist is self-harmful”That’s a logical fallacy.You then suggest: By Hitchen’s own standard we all have a duty to destroy our enemies, therefore, an unbeliever would have no reason to stop the jailer from hurting himself as St. Paul did. Any unbeliever would have waited for the jailer to kill himself and then escape to freedom.* This again is “untrue”. There are many atheists who act “altruistically” . In fact, it’s a non-believer from which we get the story of the “Good Samaritan”While some xians wouldn’t have helped the jailer…and while some atheist might have… …this example doesn’t live UP to an example of a kindness that an atheist COULDN’T at all do… And what about the Sermon of the Mount? what can be more counter intuitive than equating hate with murder? * Again, the test is not, is the act “intuitive” the question is, can the act be done.Can an atheist be loving?…answer, YES.Can an atheist life loving to level of considering hate a problem so strong it’s “equated” at least metaphorically with “murder”?Sure.However, allow me to speak for me and not try to put words in Hitchens’ mouth…I would say such a comparison is ethically bankrupt. Hate speech is not equivalent with murder.A rational system, approximated by our courts of law, makes it clear that the “punishment” for say liable/slander is less than that for “murder”.Again, you offer…Lust with adultery? * While I wholly reject your idea that there is an “ethical” benefit in avoiding “lust” (that is rather just some kind of anti-body, anti-human, and in my sense unethical attack on humanity)……but even if I were to ascribe to it some ethical level of value, athestist can and do resist lust(s).For example, ie, Buddhists are atheists and Buddhist monks are monastic and celibate. I’m going to step away from your statement that the act of the crucifixion is a moral act, because I don’t have any desire to attack your faith in this way.Cheers,Paulie Sabol


  2. Nate the Great, you suggest that belief in a g-d is necessary to have morality and more specifically, to have a “firm” right and wrong.There is a logical problem. Are actions absolutely moral and “g-d” reports them to us … or are actions absolutely moral because “g-d” does/allows/deems it?If g-d is the reporter, than there is an absolute morality “outside” g-d and thus…Hitchens could be moral “by accident”, by access to the “objective” standards/sours that g-d reports, and finally, by considering the messages without “faith” in the messanger.If g-d makes something “moral” by definition, then morality isn’t at all a “standard” in the classic sense.This is the same standard of the exposure of President Nixon when interviewed by Frost. Nixon suggested that something is not “immoral” (against the law) when the President does it.Hence, we have “moral” violence, “moral” sexual slavery, “moral” mutilation, “moral” theft by the people of “g-d” because they were told to do it.But in all sense, the “commitment” to a highly capricious “ethical norm” doesn’t seem to rise to even the level of ethical consideration you and I would have are “mere” humans.Warmly,Paulie Sabol


  3. I just saw the debate and found your comments right on target.I also think that Hitchens challenge can be easily meet.For starters I propose the following answer to the challenge:Challenge:“Name me an ethical statement made or an action performed by a believer that could not have been made or performed by a non-believer.”Answer:“Do Not Harm yourself” Acts 16:28By Hitchen’s own standard we all have a duty to destroy our enemies, therefore, an unbeliever would have no reason to stop the jailer from hurting himself as St. Paul did. Any unbeliever would have waited for the jailer to kill himself and then escape to freedom.And what about the Sermon of the Mount? what can be more counter intuitive than equating hate with murder? or lust with adultery? No unbeliever would make such self-damming statements; and certainly the greatest ethical action is that of God offering his life for our salvation; no unbeliever would die for his enemies!But, I guess that since Hitchens thinks it is immoral to love your enemies, he would reject this statement and action as immoralPoor Hitchens.God have mercy


  4. Mat, I agree with everything you say about Hitchens representations of Christianity but I think you are wrong on McGraths responses. I heard him speak in Bristol last night in a similar debate and saw the Geogetown debate on line. I think he is very careful to speak to his audience which is largely non-christian and in both cases mostly academic. He has a limited time to speak and wants to answer the ‘charges’ against all religion, not just Christianity. He tries to pick up on the ‘difficult to answer’ claims of atheists such as Hitchen’s and I think effectively nails them. In my mind to point out where Hitchens is wrong on Bible interpretation is ‘too’ easy and may be seen as avoiding the more general and difficult issues.


  5. Christopher Hitchens’s arguments are horrible. He attacks Christianity for being immoral, when he has no basis for morality himself. In an atheistic world, there can be no morality because everything is based off of convention. There is no ultimate good and no standard of right and wrong.


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