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Al Sharpton vs. Christopher Hitchens

Slate.com has the complete debate about religion between Al Sharpton and Christopher Hitchens at the New York Public Library. This is the debate in which Al Sharpton said of Mitt Romney “…those that really believe in God will defeat him anyway”. The whole thing lasts about an hour and a half so make sure you can dedicate some time to it.

I know it’s very easy to critique comments made by participants in this style of debate because the debaters are asked to come up with rebuttals to arguments on-the-fly while we have all the time in the world to review and dissect every word spoken I do want to make some comments about the debate. I don’t believe that I am making too much out of minor statements or reinterpreting them out of their context.

#1) Al Sharpton makes the excellent point that the misuse of god’s name or texts that purport to reveal god’s word and/or intentions is not an indication that there is or is not a god. In fact, Sharpton much to my surprise (and the moderator’s) does not go to any lengths to defend at a minimum the Bible or anything that purports to be The Revealed Word of God. I think Hitchens has a hard time making his points against that kind of argument since his book is primarily based on the absurdity of the Bible and it’s use. In fact, much of Hitchens’ arguments go to the idea that god as revealed by scriptures (Bible, Koran, Hadith, Book of Mormon) is a tyrannical god who is aware and interferes in the affairs of all men and that this view of god necessarily breeds religion that is also tyrannical and should be aware of and interferes in the affairs of all men. Although I will talk about this in #3 Sharpton’s version of god seems to be one of experience and not scripture. He’s says something in the Q&A period that he believes in god through his experience and that god reveals himself through the apparent order of the universe, I am paraphrasing but I don’t believe I’m missing the point. Sharpton’s deistic approach seems just as prone to moral relativism as Sharpton himself accuses atheists/humanists of being. Without a scripture what is Sharpton basing his moral philosophy on? What he (Al Sharpton) believes to be true? Al Sharpton believes that slavery is wrong. Based on what? Certainly not scripture. Sharpton believes what he believes because that’s what he believes. Hitchens book is an attack on the god that religion has setup and that that god is not great. I’m afraid this debate suffered primarily because each participant does not represent opposite viewpoints. They seem to be somewhat lateral never quite butting heads nor agreeing with each other for that matter.

#2) I do have to disagree with Hitchens characterization of Martin Luther King as anything other than a Christian minister. Hitchens is safe in pointing out that many of MLK’s beliefs come from a more humanist position and that MLK’s arguments for the equality of all men is not strictly biblical. Or more appropriately the case for the equality of man can be made from the Bible but so can the case for slavery and segregation to be upheld. I think there is a dishonest attempt particularly in secular circles of claiming MLK as their own. Sharpton is quite correct to counter Hitchens assertion.

#3) Hitchens makes some great points regarding the fact that what passes for the morals of today or at any given point in history has always been dictated by mankind and that whatever religious texts that are in fashion are used to support it. Just as the Bible was used to support slavery it is now used to condemn it (although it takes a special kind of reading for that). He futher makes an excellent (and humorous) point that it seems unlikely that up until the time that Moses came down from Mt. Sinai the Israelites thought that murder, adultery, stealing, lying and so forth were ok. Mankind had already figured out that these were bad ideas to the individual and societies/communities as a whole and should be regulated against. As as side, Karen Armstrong I believe argues in her book, A History of God,  that the giving of the Ten Commandments was more significant because of the “thou shalt not have any gods before me” type commandments than the almost unnecessary thou shalt not kill commandments, this is a great book and well worth the read but slightly off the topic. On the flip-side of this coin, Hitchens further argues that the social advances of today are a direct result of the Enlightenment, scientific advances and more specifically evolutionary theory. And that you are more often to find ridiculously backwards ideas (such as genital mutilation, subjugation of women, think burkas) in religious societies not more secular societies particularly those in Europe.

#4) The Q&A time is hilarious so stick around to about the 50 minute mark.

I leave with this quote by Steven Weinberg,

“With or without religion good people will do good things and evil people will do evil things….but for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”

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