A 'Collision' Of Beliefs: Atheist Vs. Theologian Last fall, journalist, literary critic and proud atheist Christopher Hitchens went on a debating tour with Pastor Douglas Wilson. The topic: "Is religion good for the world?" They filmed their debates and edited them for a new documentary, Collision, which opens next week in selected cities.
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A 'Collision' Of Beliefs: Atheist Vs. Theologian

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A 'Collision' Of Beliefs: Atheist Vs. Theologian

A 'Collision' Of Beliefs: Atheist Vs. Theologian

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  • Transcript

GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

It was a philosophical battle for the ages. On one side, the journalist, literary critic and avowed atheist Christopher Hitchens. On the other, Douglas Wilson, an Evangelical theologian and pastor of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho. The topic: Is Christianity good for the world?

The two men launched a debating tour together last fall, and the result of those confrontations is a documentary called "Collision." It opens in New York and L.A. this week, and will also come out on DVD. Both men are with me.

Christopher Hitchens is in our studios here in Washington, welcome.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS (Journalist; "Collision: Christopher Hitchens vs. Douglas Wilson"): Nice of you to have me.

RAZ: And from Northwest Public Radio in Pullman, Washington, Pastor Douglas Wilson.

Welcome to the show.

Reverend DOUGLAS WILSON (Pastor, Christ Church, Moscow, Idaho;"Collision: Christopher Hitchens vs. Douglas Wilson"): Good to be with you. Thanks for having me.

RAZ: Christopher Hitchens, the two of you went around to debate this issue: is Christianity good for the world? You were never really meant to answer that question. I mean, you answered and Pastor Wilson answered it, but you were never meant to come to a conclusive answer, right?

Mr. HITCHENS: Well, I'm not sure that Pastor Wilson would say that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HITCHENS: I think he thinks there is a conclusive answer. My view is that there are no such things as conclusive answers, that…

Rev. WILSON: Except that there is no conclusive answer.

Mr. HITCHENS: Except there is no conclusive answer - that those who are sure at a time where we know so much more but about so much less, if you see what I mean. We know more than we used to, but we know now how much we don't know as well, that I think there's no role for faith, or no useful role, of any kind and certainly not the Christian one.

RAZ: Pastor Wilson, you don't think religion is absurd, obviously, but you think that atheists like Christopher Hitchens aren't very good at being atheists either.

Rev. WILSON: Right.

RAZ: Why not?

Rev. WILSON: The argument that I would present there is that Christopher, for example, just said that he didn't see any role for faith. Well, I would want to say that because we're finite, and we all have a limited starting point, it's not a question of whether we have faith; it's what we have faith in. And so, Christopher, I think, has faith in the role of scientific inquiry, rational inquiry. He has faith in that process. And without assuming that process, he can't demonstrate the need for using that process. In short, he has faith or confidence in - that that is going to be better than the alternative.

I have faith in God. Everybody who's finite and limited has to have an axiomatic starting point. And that presupposition, that axiomatic starting point, is your faith position. And Christopher is as much a man of faith as I am.

RAZ: Christopher, a man of faith.

Mr. HITCHENS: Well, you know, this is, I think, a slightly last-ditch argument that's becoming fashionable now among Christians is to say that people like Richard Dawkins and myself are fundamentalists, that we're believers, if you like, almost that we're a church. Absolutely not so. I mean, we don't have an authority to whom we can refer things.

You're only as good as your last contribution or your last piece of research or your piece of argument. There are many things about which we disagree. I mean, atheism is compatible with any other world viewpoint, from nihilism to fascism. It doesn't commit you to anything.

RAZ: Christopher, can you appreciate in any way the power of religion, the usefulness of faith as a way to sort of find order in life, even if you choose not to take part?

Mr. HITCHENS: Oh, certainly. I mean, one of the reasons this argument never becomes tedious to me is because I have a great respect for religion and for the role it's played in the evolution of the human species. I mean, it was our first attempt at cosmology, at philosophy. It was, in many ways, our first attempt at literature.

I can quite see how people felt that faith was necessary at a time when they knew so little. But I think that we've now begun to - it might be condescending to say outgrow it - but to transcend it.

RAZ: Douglas Wilson, you talk about God in this film as an objective truth. Don't you mean a subjective truth?

Rev. WILSON: No. I mean, if it were just a subjective truth, then I'm not able to get outside my own head. That means that a subjective grounding for religion is no more good for us than, say, to take hallucinogenic drugs. I could have a light show inside my skull, behind my eyes and between my ears. But that subjective reality is worthless, ultimately, unless there's a correspondence between what I'm experiencing subjectively and an objective reality out there.

Consequently, I don't believe that we can reduce it to just subjective experience without tumbling ourselves into a swamp of relativism.

RAZ: Christopher Hitchens, do you believe in a force, something that Pastor Wilson might call God and something that you would not call God, that can explain what we're doing here and what sort of exists beyond this universe and in the cosmos?

Mr. HITCHENS: That force would be the dialectic, which in reason doubts science and inquiry. I thought you were going to ask about another kind of force. I mean, I think that there is in us, equally innate, a desire for the numinous and the transcendent. So you might say the ecstatic, the things that express themselves in the form of music, love, art, architecture and so forth. And religion can claim a great deal of credit in, so to speak, stirring and cultivating that impulse, but I think that impulse is with us whether we believe it's a supernatural one or not.

I think a great cultural task is actually to come to terms with our need for the transcendent, for the numinous, without prostrating ourselves before gods that we've, ourselves, made.

RAZ: But is there something - I mean, how do you explain what makes us all different? I mean, are we simply a mash of tissue and nerve endings, or is there something that animates all of us, what some people call a soul?

Mr. HITCHENS: We are not just a mass. We are a fairly highly evolved outcome of a very, very long - very haphazard, very cruel process, which, as you know, eliminated 99.9 percent of all the species ever present on Earth. I won't say created. It's a very haphazard and capricious creator at work if there is one doing this, which I don't believe, of course. But we have a certain amount of cognition at the end of this process. We know how to laugh, we know how to think, we know how to fear, and we know we're going to die.

RAZ: And it's just because we're programmed that way.

Mr. HITCHENS: Not really a program. That's as far as evolution has yet brought us. Sir Martin Rees, professor at cosmology at Cambridge University, says that by the time - we're about halfway through the life of our sun. And when that sun goes out, those who watch it happen will not be humans. Whatever creatures there will be will be as close - about as close to us as we are to amoebae.

RAZ: Doug Wilson, I was struck by watching this documentary that it wasn't really about finding common ground. I mean, Hitchens thinks Wilson is wrong and Wilson thinks Hitchens is wrong. Is that about right?

Rev. WILSON: Yeah, I'd say that's right. We both disagree on a fundamental issue. And one of the things that's refreshing about talking to Christopher is he's not trying to split the difference all the time, where either if what Christopher is saying is correct, then I'm not just misguided, I'm wrong. And if what I'm saying is correct, then Christopher is wrong. The reason the thing - the DVD is titled "Collision" is because we're not trying to split the difference. Christopher wakes up in the morning knowing what he thinks, and as do I.

RAZ: So it's really not about convincing the other person.

Mr. HITCHENS: No, it's about learning from the disagreement.

RAZ: Mm-hmm. And so, I guess in the end, you'll simply be judged at the gates of heaven. You'll both be standing there and you'll find out who's right and who's wrong.

Rev. WILSON: If we're standing there at all.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HITCHENS: Well, that's - and see, I'm not sure it's as zero-sum as that because the Christian account of it would leave no room for a reward for the person who honestly didn't believe. But it implies that there would be a reward for someone who pretended to believe in the hope of a reward.

Rev. WILSON: Actually, I could correct half of that. The Christian faith does not hold out any hope whatever to the hypocrites or the poseurs, the people who just have purchased fire insurance and who want to go up to the pearly gates and then pretend that they can buffalo God. Well, God searches the hearts. So the hypocrites are not given any hope. If you read Jesus and his denunciations of the hypocrites, they were his worst enemies.

RAZ: So, Pastor Wilson, is there hope for Christopher Hitchens? Is there a possibility you may meet him in heaven?

Rev. WILSON: Oh, certainly. God is the God of all grace. And the Apostle Paul, who wrote the majority of the New Testament, was much more ferocious in his opposition to Christians than Christopher has ever been until God knocked him off his horse.

But the point is that Christopher is not going to be accepted by God maintaining what he's currently maintaining. So there's not a mush, split-the-difference sort of thing.

Mr. HITCHENS: And for a moment, I thought I was copping a plea there. I knew you'd have to remind me of that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rev. WILSON: Well, so the point is it doesn't do any good to throw it all into this big benevolence vat and make all religions and all beliefs and so forth the same. So I'm not trying to do that at all. At the same time, Christopher and I get on very well on a personal level. But both - part of it, I think, it's because good fences make good neighbors. And we both understand that the other person really believes what they believe.

RAZ: Mm-hmm. At the end of this documentary, or around the end of it, Christopher Hitchens says something that was very interesting. You were asked whether - if you had the opportunity to eliminate the last religious person on earth, you wouldn't do it…


RAZ: …you wouldn't pull the trigger.

Mr. HITCHENS: That's quite right, not just because it would leave me with no one to argue with but because, as I began by saying, religion is an enormous part of the achievement of human culture. And it was our first attempt to make sense of the world, and so an engagement with it is absolutely necessary for one's own education and for the maintenance of tradition.

Rev. WILSON: And if you flip it around, if I were confronted with the last unbeliever on Earth, and I had the option of persuading him, converting him -I'd baptize that guy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Christopher Hitchens and Pastor Douglas Wilson's new film, "Collision," opens in New York and Los Angeles this week and will be available on DVD as well.

Christopher Hitchens, Pastor Wilson, thank you so much.

Mr. HITCHENS: Thank you, Guy.

Rev. WILSON: Thank you.

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