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."
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."
This was all a reversal from the golden age of freethought, which of course took place before brief periods of freethought in Russia and Germany became preludes to the worst tragedies the world had ever seen. Ingersoll's speeches emphasized history and science; theists countered him with revelation. He exuded optimism; his critics spoke of man's depravity and urged caution. In the King's College debate, though, D'Souza seemed cheerful throughout and Hitchens sarcastically grumpy.
Temperament aside, Ingersoll of the golden age had two advantages over silver age Hitchens. First, Ingersoll was fighting for secularistic liberty within an America where church and state were still interwoven. He took potshots at blasphemy laws: "An infinite God ought to be able to protect himself, without going in partnership with State Legislatures. Certainly he ought not so to act that laws become necessary to keep him from being laughed at. No one thinks of protecting Shakespeare from ridicule, by the threat of fine and imprisonment." The naked public squares of today do not afford Hitchens such easy targets.
Second, the golden age of freethought had the golden glow of peace and broadening intelligence that 20th-century war, genocide, and mass culture dispelled. Ingersoll orated about Science with a godlike capital S, declaring that when "the day of Science dawned," not only riches but "the development of mind [followed]. There is more of value in the brain of an average man of today -of a master-mechanic, of a chemist, of a naturalist, of an inventor, than there was in the brain of the world four hundred years ago." Many today no longer carry such disparagement of past wisdom and hubris concerning the present.
In the Q&A section of the Hitchens-D'Souza debate, a King's College student from Tonga stood up and said that before Christianity came to his part of the world, people in southern Pacific islands were eating each other. He asked Hitchens, "If you had arrived there first, what would you have offered us in place of Christianity?" Hitchens did not answer the question but expostulated against God because people were in misery for millennia before missionaries arrived.
Ingersoll answered such questions differently. He argued that belief in what the Bible declared was a blip on the way to the greater revelations of the late 1800s: "This century will be called Darwin's century. . . . Write the name of Charles Darwin on the one hand and the name of every theologian who ever lived on the other, and from that name has come more light to the world than from all of those. His doctrine of evolution, his doctrine of the survival of the fittest, his doctrine of the origin of species, has removed in every thinking mind the last vestige of orthodox Christianity."
Hitchens defends Darwin's doctrine of the survival of the fittest, of course, but in the 21st century, with our knowledge of how many have died because their neighbors declared them unfit, it's hard to do so with such exuberance.
Hitchens at Georgetown University last month debated Alister McGrath, Oxford professor of historical theology and author of Christianity's Dangerous Idea. Hitchens declared that Christ's atonement for sins was an immoral act, God is a sinister dictator, Christian repentance is masochistic, humans are little more than quasi-chimpanzees, and Christianity is similar to Marxism and Nazism.
McGrath politely attempted to counter Hitchens' attacks on Christianity one by one, finally asserting that God is not a "celestial dictator" but a "celestial liberator." McGrath's Oxford reserve, pitted against Hitchens' well-rehearsed vitriol, did not induce a standing ovation from the sell-out Georgetown crowd, but he did raise thought-provoking questions, including: "In a world where reason and science do not deliver what we once thought they did, on what can we base our lives if we are to know that we are truly living for the good, the beautiful, and the true life?"