Turn to Your Left at the End of the Sky

Christopher Hitchens vs Jay Richards

[Update: If anyone has a link to the video/audio transcript please post in the comments]

Last night I attended the debate at Stanford between Christopher Hitchens and Jay Richards. The topic was “Atheism vs Theism and the Scientific Evidence of Intelligent Design” which I felt was a little too broad for a meaningful debate.

My heart at first sank when I saw Jay Richards. He has hair reminiscent of an early Abba member or a really blonde version of the BeeGees. He looked as though he had just put away his surfboard and strolled into the debate. Christopher Hitchens came slouching in making every effort to look like a disenchanted intellectual who is angry with the world but is sustained daily by his special breed of cynicism.

Christopher Hitchens opened for the first 14 minutes and unleashed his standard diatribe against ‘religion’. He seemed a little unprepared but is clearly a gifted rhetorician and quite capable of thinking on his feet. He didn’t say much new and his style was well captured by a later comment from Jay Richards: “A sneer is not an argument and insults do not constitute evidence”. His main argument was that if the world was designed by a creator, it was not a benevolent creator. He frequently resorts to this argument despite it clearly not belonging in a debate on Atheism vs Theism. (Just because one doesn’t like God, doesn’t mean God doesn’t exist).

Jay Richards had the floor for the next 14 minutes and presented the a rational, well-thought out argument for theism. He had 6 main points (and a seventh which he added later)

  1. Moral truth – we all know what it is, the question is where did it come from and atheism has no answer to that. This issue was half-heartedly contested by Hitchens and a question from the audience regarding an evolutionary explanation for morality.
  2. A finely tuned universe – basically a brief overview of the anthropic cosmological argument (every physical constant finely tuned for mankind and unlikely to have occurred by chance). Hitchens seemed to feel that the fact that the Andromeda galaxy will be obliterating earth in 5 billion years refutes this argument. Unfortunately his argument went along the lines of: “What kind of cruel god would allow this?”
  3. A beginning to the universe in a finite past – therefore something caused the universe which must be God. He used the phrase “resting point” for the basis of a theistic belief and asked what the basis for atheism was. This is a fairly strong argument. Granted, there are theories which postulate an eternal universe but those seem to be less accepted these days.
  4. Irreducible complexity – he didn’t get into details but cited the bacterial flagellum and asked why it’s obvious that Mt. Rushmore was ‘designed’. This argument obviously runs the risk of each instance of irreducible complexity being knocked down with subsequent research (a point which Hitchens noted). I spent many years doing research on genetic algorithms in computer science and this argument does accord with my experience of computer simulations.
  5. Materialism – the atheist, materialist philosophers all conclude that consciousness is an illusion and feel that this is problematic. For most people, a purely material view of the world leads to a conclusion which seems incompatible with experience. Obviously this is not a proof for the existence of God but Richards’ point was that our subjective experience is more consistent with a theistic philosophy.
  6. Free will – it’s incompatible with a mechanistic worldview. Hitchens’ bizarre response was that if free will was given to us then it can’t be free will.
  7. The origin of biological information (added towards end of debate). They touched briefly on the direction of entropy but unfortunately nothing conclusive from either side. (I’d like to challenge some of the atheists who really know their biology to read this book and provide a rebuttal to the main thesis of the book in the comments below.)

Richards ended with the question: which worldview (atheism or theism) best accomodates all the above observations?

Hitchens then had 4 minutes to respond and, to my mind, did not answer one of the points that Jay Richards had made. For the rest of the debate he attempted to generalize from particular observations (how can we think Mohammad really made a midnight ride into the sky on his horse, how can anyone believe in a God who demands that we kill our children (Abraham/Isaac), genital mutilation in the name of religion, to his point that God does not exist. Along the way he attacked Mormonism, Islam, Catholicism, etc.

Jay Richards maintained his composure admirably, was exceptionally well-informed on every topic while still being likeable, charitable, and theologically rigorous. 

Hitchens’ hubris appears to know no bounds. When asked whether he thought he was more intelligent than everyone else who believes in God he said: “Yes. And the polls suggest that I am too” (!)

Basically there were two messages: one hopeful; and one of despair (he mentioned sex and schadenfreude as his two purposes for living), futility and constant railing against a God who doesn’t exist. Atheism, to my mind, has always been deficient on the inspiration front and it seems a shame to spend one’s allotted time fighting the God you don’t believe in.

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January 28, 2008 - Posted by | Christianity, Philosophy, Science, Spirituality, Thoughts

23 Comments »

  1. Your bias becomes all to evident in the final paragraph.

    Comment by Lev | January 28, 2008 | Reply

  2. *too

    Comment by Lev | January 28, 2008 | Reply

  3. I have to agree with Lev.

    Comment by Inmate1972 | January 28, 2008 | Reply

  4. Mr.Hitchens!
    Don’t be desperate, thereis hope, check:http://www.familyfed.org and click on links then read the first chapter of the Unification Thought. Let me know how you like it.

    Comment by rydlp15 | January 28, 2008 | Reply

  5. Those 6 points make up the most rational, well thought out argument you’ve ever heard? Perhaps you should get out more.

    1. Moral Truth came from God? The Christian god? The Hindu God? The oneness of the Bhuddist cosmology? Were exactly did it come from? How do you know? It seems that atheism and theism are on the same ground here. No one knows where moral truth comes from.

    2. Did he add any new insights to the anthropic principle? If not, that isn’t much evidence of anything at all. We’re here; we know that. Not much research that can occur after that, really.

    3. You are assuming a beginning to the universe. Are you aware that there are theories of a yo-yo-ing universe which has no starting point? Even given a finite starting point, who exactly does that prove God created it? Perhaps we were created in a blackhole experiment gone wrong in another universe…there is no basis to claim God created the universe based solely on the idea that something had a beginning.

    4. IC is so vacuous as to be laughable. The entire idea rests on one principle–that the flagellum cannot–even in principle–be evolved. It has been shown–in principle–that the flagellum can evolve. Case closed. IC is bupkus.

    5. The fact that some people are uncomfortable with something fails to even be an argument–let alone a specific piece of evidence. I’m uncomfortable singing opera, that doesn’t mean opera doesn’t exist.

    6. Why?

    7. And?

    Comment by blipey | January 28, 2008 | Reply

  6. Do you know how I can get the audio of the debate?

    I can tell the bias of the posters by their comments. “ooohh”

    Comment by Brian | January 29, 2008 | Reply

  7. Christians are supposed to lead by faith. Not attempts at rationalizing the irrational. By doing so they are acting contrary to what they say they believe (not the only contradiction in Christianity)

    Good moral character is supposed to be proof of god in the real world. I don’t see anything within american christians that demonstrates a god living through them. They tend to be arrogant and simple minded. Qualities we all share at times.

    Comment by madmonq | January 29, 2008 | Reply

  8. Your very first comments regarding Hitchens reference “his anger at the world” and his “cynicism”. Clearly your mindset and perception are geared towards not listening to nor believing in anything Hitchens or any other atheist has to say. And that is no different from anyone else on the planet. It’s the way of the world and how we are all are basically programmed. So to say you have given him a fair hearing and the other guy a critical hearing is inherently flawed. There’s simply no such thing as objectivity. We all have our inherent biases. Your’s is towards christianity and the belief in a god.

    Comment by inmate1972 | January 29, 2008 | Reply

  9. 1. Those 6 points make up the most rational, well thought out argument you’ve ever heard? Perhaps you should get out more.
    1. Moral Truth came from God? The Christian god? The Hindu God? The oneness of the Bhuddist cosmology?
    Ans: There is only ONE God.
    Were exactly did it come from?
    Ans: God always existed. There was no beginning, there will be no end. That is the definition of eternal.
    How do you know?
    Ans: Something called FAITH
    It seems that atheism and theism are on the same ground here.
    No one knows where moral truth comes from (FALSE)
    Ans: Moral truth comes from that which God put in each and every one of us. Since God is the great architect, then it comes from HIM. So, we DO know where it came from.
    2. Did he add any new insights to the anthropic principle? If not, that isn’t much evidence of anything at all. We’re here; we know that. Not much research that can occur after that, really.
    Ans: For thus saith the LORD that created the heavens; God himself that formed the earth and made it; he hath established it, he created it not in vain, he formed it to be inhabited: I [am] the LORD; and [there is] none else. ~Isaiah 45:18
    3. You are assuming a beginning to the universe. Are you aware that there are theories of a yo-yo-ing universe which has no starting point? Even given a finite starting point, who exactly does that prove God created it? Perhaps we were created in a blackhole experiment gone wrong in another universe…there is no basis to claim God created the universe based solely on the idea that something had a beginning.
    Ans: We don’t “assume,” we KNOW. There is a big difference. God has given you a discerning mind, it is sad what we use it for.
    4. IC is so vacuous as to be laughable. The entire idea rests on one principle–that the flagellum cannot–even in principle–be evolved. It has been shown–in principle–that the flagellum can evolve. Case closed. IC is bupkus.
    5. The fact that some people are uncomfortable with something fails to even be an argument–let alone a specific piece of evidence. I’m uncomfortable singing opera, that doesn’t mean opera doesn’t exist.
    6. Why?
    7. And?

    Comment by Angela | January 29, 2008 | Reply

  10. Angela,

    Do you know what hearsay is?

    Second point. Why did you stop at question 4? Is there not a bible verse about the bacterial flagellum? And I suppose you’re just conceding number 5?

    Comment by blipey | January 29, 2008 | Reply

  11. Where on earth are the MP3s of this debate. This is 2008 — what is so hard about recording it? Or are there other reasons?

    Comment by CN | January 29, 2008 | Reply

  12. Bias? Is one closed minded simply because one (correctly, IMHO) sees no hope or future in the locating the meaning of ones life in one’s own ego and one’s own wee wee? All it means is that one disagrees with Mr Hitchens rather narrow and pathetic view of his own existence. Both debaters are biased, and that’s why you have a debate. The rest of us can see how our own biases, opinions, etc, hold up under attack from someone who disagrees with us.

    I think that the arguments for and against IC are rather more complicated than what’s represented here, and I don’t think that that it’s been demonstrated (in any meaningful meaning of the term) that random mutations can incrementally produce a working flagellum or a myriad of other complex structures. It is at best an open question as to how these kinds of structures can evolve.

    I don’t think Mr Hitchens has any answers to what his opponent argued, but that’s not surprising given Mr Hitchens background. Those who are in a better position to respond to Mr Roberts tend to so so with dogma, so this is a discussion that will certainly continue.

    Comment by Vic | January 30, 2008 | Reply

  13. Hi all,

    Some comments:

    1) No one has ever read anything I’ve ever written on this blog so I banged out this entry to summarize the main points of the debate and was planning to add more detail later 🙂

    2) I have been waiting for someone to put up an audio/video recording of the debate so that I can link to it.

    3) Most of the 7 points above are open to rebuttal. I was hoping to hear some. The point is that Hitchens didn’t even bother.

    Comment by Veet | January 30, 2008 | Reply

  14. […] Turn to Your Left at the End of the Sky « Christopher Hitchens vs Jay Richards […]

    Pingback by Atheism and Violence « Turn to Your Left at the End of the Sky | January 30, 2008 | Reply

  15. […] Atheism a Religion? My post two days ago has been honored with some […]

    Pingback by Is Atheism a Religion? « Turn to Your Left at the End of the Sky | January 30, 2008 | Reply

  16. All of the comments on here seem to be confused about what is being argued here. It is a discussion (for the most part) of theism VS Atheism. Theism, as a belief system, does not necessitate buying into Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. Now, although Richards IS a Christian, that does not necessarily limit his arguments TO Christianity. Simply because other world views OTHER than Christianity could be applied to certain points does not disprove the point.

    Those 6 points make up the most rational, well thought out argument you’ve ever heard? Perhaps you should get out more.

    1. Moral Truth came from God? The Christian god? The Hindu God? The oneness of the Bhuddist cosmology? Were exactly did it come from? How do you know? It seems that atheism and theism are on the same ground here. No one knows where moral truth comes from.
    *
    See my intro from above. This argument is not trying to say WHERE moral truth comes from, it is comparing Atheism and Theism on equal ground and asking which makes more sense out of the idea that there is a similar idea of moral truth across all world views. One view seems to offer no rational source as to where this might come from. (it offers systems that could judge moral conduct, but not a reason to believe those systems are Correct or anything more than personal preference – on the level of a preference for chocolate cake) The other system, Theism explains that moral truth was consciously placed in our minds by a higher being. Your objection here both misses the point of the argument as well as the fact that Theism offers a reasonable possibility for where this concept came from. The fact that we do not know WHICH theistic system is correct is irrelevant to the argument. The question is simply Does Theism offer a rational answer to this question?
    *

    2. Did he add any new insights to the anthropic principle? If not, that isn’t much evidence of anything at all. We’re here; we know that. Not much research that can occur after that, really.
    *
    This does not really seem to answer the objection. The fact that the universe is finely tuned, which implies that something must have organized it that way is not really answered by “we are here.” I do not see how this objection follows from that argument,. If you would care to explain the logical progression, I would happily address it. Also, I fail to see what him adding or subtracting from the argument has to do with anything. If the argument is valid logically, then it needs nothing added or subtracted.
    I would also note that both Hitchens and Dawkins have, in private conversation, acknowledged the compelling nature of this argument (Reference Jay Richards interviewed in http://www.str.org podcast, week of 2/11/08)
    *

    3. You are assuming a beginning to the universe. Are you aware that there are theories of a yo-yo-ing universe which has no starting point? Even given a finite starting point, who exactly does that prove God created it? Perhaps we were created in a blackhole experiment gone wrong in another universe…there is no basis to claim God created the universe based solely on the idea that something had a beginning.
    *
    I am admittedly not familiar with the yo-yo universe, but it does not seem to fit with the conventional theories of the universe. Most conventional theories of the universe involve beginnings and ends because that is the way we understand the universe to work. Now, you are completely right that we could be the result of some sort of experiment gone wrong in another universe, but I would say that this would probably not be a blackhole experiment (because that would most likely be another universe with similar rules to ours, and thus presenting the same origin issue. I DO see it as possible that we are the result of some type of “alien” being which would most likely be a different type of being altogether, as it would have to have different universal rules. In other words, our universe makes the most sense within a system where it was started by some type of being that was OUTSIDE of the rules of our universe. Now, although a god is one possible explanation, some other type of higher being also seems possible for this argument, but really, that being would become ‘god.’
    *

    4. IC is so vacuous as to be laughable. The entire idea rests on one principle–that the flagellum cannot–even in principle–be evolved. It has been shown–in principle–that the flagellum can evolve. Case closed. IC is bupkus.
    *
    Once again, you ignore the argument. The argument as I understand it is not claiming that these things COULD not have occurred, but is asking what is more LIKELY. If I look at a boeing 747 airplane, I realize that it is theoretically possible for it to have been formed by a random tornado happening to place all the pieces together by random coincidence. I see the more LIKELY explanation that people somewhere PUT the 747 together. Your counter argument that it is theoretically possible for evolution to work does not actually deal with this argument. Is it theoretically possible that a higher being of some sort designed the state that things are currently in and influenced it to happen. Now, you could argue that Ohcham’s razor states that this argument is too complex, which would ACTUALLY apply to this argument. (I would disagree due to the fact that just as with the 747, design seems more reasonable, but I would be willing to hear the arguments of anyone who would actually care to make a reasonable point that deals with the actual argument.)
    *
    5. The fact that some people are uncomfortable with something fails to even be an argument–let alone a specific piece of evidence. I’m uncomfortable singing opera, that doesn’t mean opera doesn’t exist.
    *
    That is very true, which is why it was not forwarded as an argument. It was simply saying that the theistic world view seems to mesh more with our subjective desire for the way things want to be. Personally, if I held a materialist view, I would wonder why I had a subjective desire for things to be other than I believed them to be. However, as the argument said above, this was not a proof, simply a statement that theism allowed for a more consistently integrated world view in terms of belief and subjective preference for existence.
    *
    6. Why?
    *
    Although I do not know Richards’ position on this, I believe the argument would be essentially that a mechanistic world view is essentially a closed system. In this mechanistic closed system, everything is essentially a cause and effect action (because cause and effect is all there is) so all of our actions would be the undeniable sum of all the influences on us (which would be a combination of genetics and experience) Given the cause and effect nature of the universe, what we actually perceive as our free will (and probably even our thought and logic processes) are simply reactions to a set of external and internal stimuli. Very much the same way a dog pants when he is hot, we make choices based on a set of (admittedly MUCH more complex) stimuli. Plus, if you think about it reasonably, the mechanistic world view, by definition claims that everything is simply a mechanistic reaction to everything else. Free will, as an independent choice between multiple possible options, as dictated by personal desire, seems incompatible with that view, unless free will, as we understand it, is simply an illusion.
    *

    7. And?
    *The explanation here is as inadequate as your objection to it, so I really cant comment*

    Comment by Chris | February 13, 2008 | Reply

  17. Christians can’t be trusted to tell the truth. They reason FROM conclusions, not TO conclusions. That’s why I’d love to see what really happened that nght. I’ve heard both men speak, and while Richards is bright enough, Hitchens probably as a good forty IQ points on him. Chances are, Hitchens kicked his butt in the first round and spent the rest of the evening trying to stay awake.

    Comment by BT | March 18, 2008 | Reply

  18. BT,

    Be careful what you wish for; you might get it. Atheists who attended the debate were angry at Hitchens for not even trying to present an argument.

    When the audio becomes available, listen closely and ask yourself whether Hitchens even tries to make an argument.

    Comment by Tim | March 21, 2008 | Reply

  19. Excellent review! Where can we find the debate online?

    Comment by Joshua A. | August 6, 2008 | Reply

  20. So far I haven’t been able to find either video or audio online 😦

    Comment by simplelight | August 7, 2008 | Reply

  21. […] and he struggled in his previous debate with Dinesh D’Souza, (video here). Hitchens was even worse in his debate against Jay Wesley Richards, whose Ph.D is from Princeton […]

    Pingback by William Lane Craig to debate Hitchens, Carrier « Wintery Knight Blog | March 16, 2009 | Reply

  22. I am not in agreement with Christopher Hitchen’s Athiest be-liefs however that doesn’t nessassarily mean i agree with
    Jay Richards Theist arguements either.Although i am a theist
    i find persons such as Mr. Richards repulsive and repugnent-
    look them up-because the very notion of using a faith based
    belief system to justify your own personal interpretation
    of what that system does and/or doesn’t entail runs counter to every theist belief system on earth{see “The Perenial Philosophy”-Aldous Huxley}Only someone as sequestered in the world of academia could believe he know’s it all to the degree that Mr. Richards does.Now he has turned his theism to the defense of capitalism with the claim that the majority of the populace misunderstands the symbiosis of
    Capitalism and God’s will.What planet does Mr. Richards live on? Lasse-affair capitalism and religion live more cozely on american soil than any other time or place in the history of mankind! I’ll take Hitchen’s cranky but at least highly intelligent rambleings over Richard’s brand of of self-serving ivy league clap-trap anyday.Richards brand of lunacy has no place in any intelligent conversation on
    theology or economics-because he is an ignoramus on both subjects.It’s time to sit down and shut up Mr. Richards.You’ve wasted to much of our time allready.Did i mention he’s a blithing idiot-because he is and i wouldn’t want to leave that out.

    Comment by Pete Holly | May 17, 2009 | Reply

  23. It’s “In which you don’t belive”, and he wasnt fighting the god, he was fighting human stupidity and irracional beliefs.

    Comment by Anon | August 20, 2012 | Reply


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