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The silver age of freethought

"The silver age of freethought" Continued...

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

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.

Dictator vs. liberator

By Zoe Sandvig

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?"

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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