We’ve Moved Beyond Christian Morality

by Luke Muehlhauser on November 8, 2009 in Debates,Ethics

i2hitchensfryRecently, there was an Intelligence Squared debate over the motion: “The Catholic church is a force for good in the world.” In support of the motion were Archbishop John Onaiyekan and MP Anne Widdencombe. Against the motion were Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry.

The audience voted on the motion before the debate began: 678 people were in favor of the Catholic church, 1102 were against it.

But after the debate, they voted again. What happened? A massive 410 people changed their mind from supporting the Catholic Church to being against it.

This is just one small debate, but I think it’s part of a larger movement. We humans have something to say. This is what we’re saying:

Church, we have moved beyond your ancient and twisted morality. We are better than that. We don’t need you to tell us what is right and wrong, because you’ve done a poor job of it.

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

ayer November 8, 2009 at 5:54 pm

This debate is good evidence that Christopher Hitchens (contrary to what some atheists have said) actually is a good debater–which means his devastating loss to Craig earlier this year indicates weakness in the atheist position, not lack of debating skill on Hitchens’ part.


Roman November 8, 2009 at 6:10 pm

Hi Ayer,

It could indicate that.

But there are many possible explanations for the success of Hitchens and Fry, not all of which include Hitchens being a good debater. For example the weakness of their opponents could explain their victory, or the success of Stephen Fry.

Or it could be that Hitchens is a good debater on the topic of whether the Catholic church is a force for good, but not a good debater of the topic of whether God exists.


Josh November 8, 2009 at 6:21 pm

“Or it could be that Hitchens is a good debater on the topic of whether the Catholic church is a force for good, but not a good debater of the topic of whether God exists.”

I think this is probably the case—I know that Harris’ main point is more about the fact that religion is bad, rather than whether or not god exists.


Alex November 8, 2009 at 6:28 pm

ayer: have you considered the possibility that Hitchens is just not acquainted with philosophy?


drj November 8, 2009 at 6:32 pm

Hitchen’s isnt a good debater – the couple times he’s performed adequately are the exception, not the rule.

He can have wondrous spurts of eviscerating commentary about religious topics – and when he is on he is really on – but again, it seems he’s more likely to dive headlong into meandering, off-topic, semi-coherent rambles, rather than to say something insightful.

Wishful thinking on Ayer’s part.


Mark H. November 8, 2009 at 6:38 pm

This is a different kind of debate from what Craig engages in. This is not about the logic in theological beliefs but a survey of the doings of the Roman Catholic Church. Craig debates what is logically possible or logically necessary given very few assumptions about whatever world we’re talking about. The actual universe we live in is almost totally irrelevant to the Kalam argument.

This debate was a historical argument about the Church’s role in world history. Historical arguments are what Hitchens specializes in. “God Is Not Great” is primarily about the evil actions undertaken by religion and the religious, not about God’s existence or the problem of evil. The outcome of this debate was an evisceration of one group of humans claiming moral authority over all others.

I have to say, the official Catholic policy on condoms in Africa is horrific, and the representatives of the church had nothing to say to defend it except to dismiss it as “sex talk.”


ayer November 8, 2009 at 7:55 pm

Roman: Or it could be that Hitchens is a good debater on the topic of whether the Catholic church is a force for good, but not a good debater of the topic of whether God exists.

If that’s the case, then Catholics could take the usual atheist line on Craig and say that the outcome of the debate was simply a measure of Hitchens’ superior debating skill, not the merits of the issue.


Hermes November 8, 2009 at 8:01 pm

Hitchens and Fry — both excellent debaters — had the easier argument to make yet were also very very well prepared.

I doubt many people would do well against them on this topic, though Widdencombe at best put a tourniquet on their wounded position while Onaiyekan actually added his own blood to the mix.

What made it worse is that both Widdencombe and Onaiyekan did not seem to be able to change their prepared statements and dynamically address the comments Hitchens and (especially) Fry made. Instead, W&O did exactly what H&F said they were going to do.

That said, someone with just the facts that H&F presented could have had either Onaiyekan’s or Widdencombe’s delivery and still won quite a few votes over what W&O could pull back to their position.


boagie November 8, 2009 at 8:57 pm

One thing that was apparent to me from the start was the Bishop was at a lanuague disadvantage and also neither on that side of the argument were in fact intellectuals. Perhasp very able people in many ways but intellectually it was a mismatch. On top of that the atheists were largely addressing the choir for the majority were already quite with them.


Bill Maher November 8, 2009 at 10:34 pm

ayer, I hate to say this dude, but you are full of it. All Craig winning a debate means is that Craig is good at debating. It has nothing to do with right or wrong. Did those 2 or 3 debates Craig lost mean that Christianity was wrong those 2-3 times?


Jake de Backer November 8, 2009 at 11:41 pm

Luke Skyblogger,

How do you find out about these debates? Perhaps a page could be devoted to upcoming atheist-science-philosophy related lectures, debates, conferences, etc. That actually sounds like it would be quite a time consuming feature to maintain but I just found out the annual atheist alliance conference with Dawkins, Harris and every major author who I’ve spent hours on YouTube viewing took place in Atlanta 20 FUCKING MILES FROM MY HOUSE and I had no way of knowing. I haven’t found any one website, which if any of you have please share a link, that keeps track of all this.

There’s got to be a better way,
T. C.


Hylomorphic November 9, 2009 at 12:37 am

Boagie, I’m not sure to what extent the bishop was at a language disadvantage. He certainly seemed to be using English with a good deal of facility. English is, after all, the official language of Nigeria. He may well be one of those Nigerians who either speaks it as a first language or nearly as well as a second language. Fluency with multiple languages is quite common in Africa.

I’ve met a number of native Africans who spoke English as a first language with an accent not too different.

Jack, this particular debate was advertised in Britain for some time. I’ve been waiting with eager anticipation for someone to put it on YouTube.


lukeprog November 9, 2009 at 1:08 am


I once had a post that catalogued upcoming debates, but it took too much of my time to keep it updated.


Rhys November 9, 2009 at 2:47 am

This is the kind of topic that Hitchens is a master at: “Is religion a force for good in the world?” this kind of topic requires a good knowledge of history, and a gifted knack for riling the audience in your favor with short sharp rhetorical outbursts. Craig however, is a 8th Dan in debating the stricter question “does God exist?” which is much more philosophically demanding and requires a solid foundation of logic and philosophy of religion.


lukeprog November 9, 2009 at 2:53 am

What is “a 8th Dan”?


Mark H. November 9, 2009 at 3:40 am

It’s a rank in competitive Go, similar to Grand Master in chess.


lukeprog November 9, 2009 at 3:44 am

Oh, lol, I suck at that game.


vjack November 9, 2009 at 4:05 am

I tend to think that anything which encourages critical thinking about religion is going to have this sort of effect. It is an encouraging sign indeed.


ayer November 9, 2009 at 5:47 am

Bill Maher: ayer, I hate to say this dude, but you are full of it. All Craig winning a debate means is that Craig is good at debating.

Are you then saying that all Hitchens winning a debate means is that Hitchens is good at debating?


Bill Maher November 9, 2009 at 7:36 am


yes, that is exactly what it means. It in noway disproves God.


ayer November 9, 2009 at 7:46 am

Bill Maher: yes, that is exactly what it means

Ok, but then you are fundamentally disagreeing with Luke’s post on this debate, which is fine


Paul November 9, 2009 at 10:12 am

ayer: This debate is good evidence that Christopher Hitchens (contrary to what some atheists have said) actually is a good debater–which means his devastating loss to Craig earlier this year indicates weakness in the atheist position, not lack of debating skill on Hitchens’ part.  


I haven’t watched the debate referred to in the above quote but I have seen one or two of Hitchen’s others debates. In my experience Hitchen’s goal does not appear to be to refute the philosophical arguments. Rather that even if the conclusions from the philosophical arguments were true that humanity would be better advised to actively resist the type of God being argued for.

So does he lose? Probably but that is not really the fight he is actually fighting. Whether he is violating the agreement between the parties of the debate I don’t know.


JMauldin November 9, 2009 at 11:39 am

The Hitchens versus Craig debate was silly, the two have nothing to do with each other. WLC was once again dispatched to put out a fire utilizing his time tested and Jesus approved sophistry and Hitchens’ hubris once again lead him into a trap.

Craig argues for the logical possibility of the existence of God with very little emphasis on historical application and Hitchens argues for the negative application of Christianity on the world. I know it seems to be the consensus that Craig whooped up on Hitchens at Biola but that was WLC’s home turf – with crowds there to cheer on their hero. In response to Hitchens’ point about heaven watching with folding arms, WLC informed us that population is the key and the Roman empire was the perfect conduit for God’s message. Of course, this only seems reasonable to people who need an explanation for the classic “what about the people who never heard of Jesus” problem.

Put him in Oxford debating Hitchens with the resolution “Has Christianity Been Historically Good For The World” and we’ll see a different outcome. What a stupid debate that was.


Rhys November 9, 2009 at 1:20 pm

I’m inclined to agree with this statement ^^^
Craig is no slouch when it comes to history though, so it would still every close.


Naumadd November 9, 2009 at 7:01 pm

As always, the question is never really whether “god” exists, but whether or not those who claim a “god” exists actually have any factual or logically-consistent argument to support their claim. As is pointed out many times, if you claim there is a silver teapot full of magic beans orbiting the planet Saturn which will one day fall to Earth and erase the phenomenon of death for all life, the rational default assumption for others is that such a thing does NOT exist until such time you provide adequate proof and logical argument to win them over to similar or same belief. They need not provide proof the teapot doesn’t exist, they need merely show the weakness or absence of your “facts” and the illogic of your argument. They need only show that you have no reasonable warrant to believe what you do and have provided no cause to demand they agree with you.

The default position is that there is no “supernatural”, no “god”, until those who believe such a thing have genuinely shown reasonable cause to think otherwise. If your argument is such it could be used also to support believing an absurdity such as the silver teapot of magical beans, you perhaps ought to rethink your argument.

Certainly, you can believe what you wish, but before you have warrant to demand others believe the same, you must give them genuine reason to do so beyond your personal wishes. Theists and other mystics have failed thus far to provide that genuine reason.


Lee A. P. November 11, 2009 at 6:50 pm

Craig only accepts certain debate topics that he thinks he can slyly defend. Its always the broad defense of “rational warrent”: based on mans gap of knowledge God belief is rationally warrent. Based on Jesus historians, Jesus’ story is “rationally warrented”.

Its a big pussy way out.

An I have a big feeling he and Plantiga are actually YEC’s, who just keep their views to themselves in order to keep from embarrasing themselves in the acsdemic world in order to keep hurling their evangelical message to their masses.


JakeH April 16, 2010 at 2:51 pm

I simply find it troublesome where religion is heading. All world religions were founded on our need to comprehend a world we knew absolutely nothing about, but now we know a lot of it which basically throws religion in the dustbin of failed sciences. We know that our imaginary friends are not pushing the sun around the heavens every day, or that seizures are caused by demon posession, or any other nonsense. I think this is why modern Christianity today has become at its core so desperate and cultish. Its not a way to understand the world anymore, and all that is left is all the arrogant, powerhungry, violently opressive baggage that has been there for so long.


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