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The silver age of freethought

Religion | The devastating results of the "golden age of freethought" have made today's defenders of atheism, like Christopher Hitchens, grumpy

Issue: "Reinventing Hillary," Nov. 17, 2007

NEW YORK CITY-Atheistic books are selling ("Backward, atheists", June 30), but so are debates between atheists and Christians. Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, debated last month-before packed houses in Washington and New York-Oxford professor Alister McGrath and author Dinesh D'Souza (What's So Great About Christianity). But none of this is new in American history: Hitchens' best-known predecessor, Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899) sold out auditoriums throughout the last quarter of the 19th century, in what became known as "the golden age of freethought."

"Freethought" included atheism, agnosticism, and some left-wing political -isms as well, and had the backing of publications such as the Boston Investigator, the (New York) Truth Seeker, the (Kentucky) Blue Grass Blade, and the (Texas) Iconoclast. Ingersoll, a colonel in the Civil War and the attorney general of Illinois until he became the golden mouth of atheistic rhetoric, was blunt at times but generally a cheerful warrior who preferred beckoning to ranting. "I am simply in favor of intellectual hospitality," he declared as he traded ideas with listeners.

This silver age is different. In his King's College debate with D'Souza (tkc.edu/debate), Hitchens went for the jugular right from the start: "Christianity is masochistic, as well as partly sadistic. It attacks us in our deepest integrity. It says that you and I wouldn't know a right action, wouldn't be able to derive it or a right thought without the permission of a celestial dictatorship that guards us while we sleep, that can convict us of thought crime, that supervises our every waking moment, that is in fact the origin of totalitarianism, and that will continue to judge us and persecute us and supervise us even after we were dead."

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D'Souza argued the opposite, declaring that Christianity undermined dictators and brought into the world "the idea of individual dissent, the notion of personal dignity, the idea of equality, the idea of compassion as a social virtue. . . . If you look at the world of Athens, which is to say Greece and pre-Christian Rome, you discover civilizations where women were treated very badly, where human life didn't count for a whole lot. The Spartans notoriously would leave the feeble child on the hillside to see if it was still alive in the morning. The great philosophers of Greece and Rome viewed these incidents with equanimity-it is only from Christianity that these things that had been uncontroversial for a long time become controversial for the first time."

Hitchens blasted away at how those who give thanks to God are "condemned to live in this posture of gratitude, permanent gratitude, to an unalterable dictatorship in whose installation we had no say. Some of us refuse this on moral grounds, as well as on the grounds that the story is a fairy tale, made up by fallible and opportunistic human beings. Christianity offers something horrible-vicarious redemption. You are told that by applauding a human sacrifice, a particularly cruel and revolting one, that took place before you were born to fulfill a prophecy in which you had no say, that it condemns you either to punishment in sin if you don't accept it, or if you do accept it offers you the chance that your own sins can be forgiven you."

D'Souza said from the start that he would not enter into a theological debate: "We have from the atheists' side a belligerent attack on theism and specifically on Christianity. I want to try to answer this attack by using the same tools of reason and skepticism and science and evidence that is the banner under which the atheists march. In no way, this evening, will I rely on Scripture or any kind of theology to make my points. I'm going to focus entirely on reason and evidence."

The result was an asymmetric debate. Hitchens blasted away: "Christianity requires of you compulsory love, as well as compulsory fear. You have to simultaneously love someone, you're commanded to love them and be frightened of them at the same time. This is no way to teach morals. Second, you're told not that you might get a second chance but that all your debts can be paid. [Payment by another] should be rejected by anyone with any self-respect. So the vicarious redemption by human sacrifice is an immoral preachment with very immoral implications, as is compulsory love coupled with compulsory fear."

D'Souza did not explain substitutionary atonement but looked at the positives of Christian culture and compared negatives with the enormities of atheistic practice: "At the Salem Witch Trials 18 people died. The Spanish Inquisition over 300 years killed 2,000 people. Try to compare that to the crimes inflicted by atheist regimes not 500, not 1,000 years ago, but within our lifetime. If you look only at the big three-Stalin's Russia, Mao's China, Nazi Germany-you have within the space of five decades over 100 million casualties. So, atheism, not religion is responsible for the mass murders of history."

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