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DVD Review – Collision: Hitchens vs. Wilson

Recently, I watched the new DVD film, “Collision: Christopher Hitchens vs. Douglas Wilson.” The film follows the book tour of atheist Hitchens and fundamentalist Christian Wilson as they debate each other on the question, “is Christianity good for the world?”

Hitchens describes himself as an anti-theist in the film and makes the argument that morality came before Christianity and that morality is innate in human beings through the evolutionary process. Most of the time however, Hitchens talks about how great he thinks Wilson is for being such an unapologetic fundamentalist.

On the other side, Wilson spends much of the screen time talking about how atheists use Christian morality to criticize Christianity and how atheists have no moral grounding. He uses John Lennon’s famous song Imagine to argue that without belief in the Christian God, atheists should just do whatever they like. In fact, Wilson sets up the strawman that all atheists ought to be Stalin.

I found this film to be pretty one-sided and that Hitchens never really addresses any of Wilson’s attacks. I think that it is important to address those attacks and to criticize the Christian world view as immoral. Hitchens does spend a little bit of time on the later by criticizing the central Christian concept of vicarious redemption of sin, but he doesn’t really drive the point home nor does it stand out as the harsh criticism that it actually is. It seems a bit underplayed.

Wilson repeatedly attacks Hitchens for not having any moral grounding and then talks about how God is his moral grounding. Hitchens just sort of smirks, but doesn’t really discuss this in any detail. The fact of the matter is that Christians have no moral grounding either.

The fact is that God doesn’t ground morality at all and that all of us human beings have to continue in a long and hard intellectual struggle to understand how right and wrong relate to other human beings. Hitchens never states that there is no morality in a vacuum and that morality only exists because human beings have to interact with other human beings and the world around us. The fact that we as a species can think and reason is the very reason why we developed a moral sense.

Wilson does have a brilliant line of attack at one point in which he defends (against no one in particular) against the charge of circular reasoning. He states that his authority is the Bible and when asked why, he quotes a Biblical passage. Then he says that if we were to ask an atheist what his (or her) authority is, the atheist would say reason. Wilson then counters (to no one in particular) that he would ask why and the atheist would give his reasons which would amount to him quoting his Bible.

In other words, Wilson defends against the charge of circular reasoning by accusing atheists of using circular reasoning too. There are a few problems with this. The first is claiming that atheist use circular reasoning doesn’t make it logically valid for Christians to use circular reasoning. The second problem is that it sets up a false premise. The idea that everyone must have a singular authority or foundation for their world view is just a false assumption that limits our options. Third, reason isn’t an authority, it is a process. Wilson confuses the two when in fact it is apples and oranges.

In any case, I can see young fundamentalist Christians on college campuses using this argument and Hitchens never even addresses it in the film. I love Hitchens in debates and on Christian talk shows because he isn’t afraid to interrupt or cut off his opponent when they are trying to railroad him, but in this film, he didn’t do that at all. In fact, he was railroaded. I am shocked that he would continue to support this film in light of the editing.

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  • Azadeth

    Well that’s disappointing. No doubt Hitchens knows HOW to counter these silly arguments, so the reason why, according to you, he did such a poor job of it is beyond me.

    Having not seen the film, I’d like to propose that Hitchens praises Wilson for being an unapologetic fundamentalist because he (like me) is so sick of having to deal with the cherry picking, the baseless claims, and the sleazy dodges that characterize the “moderate” Christians. I certainly do appreciate the fundamentalists being frank and honest about what the bible says…and that they believe it anyway.

    Or maybe it’s his weird attempt at being nice, of not scaring away his challenger, who had to cooperate with him and vice-versa to a great degree.

    As I said, I don’t know. Just some speculation based on what I know of Hitchens.

  • http://www.myspace.com/diana_graves Diana

    I wonder if this was his attempt at being the morally reasonable nice guy…and he just came off as weak willed…though it could also have been altered greatly in the editing room…we may never know.

  • Jesse

    “The idea that everyone must have a singular authority or foundation for their world view is just a false assumption that limits our options.”

    There is an inherent problem with having more than one epistemological starting point. For one thing, how does having more than one, by implication to what you said, expand your options? Let us suppose you have two epistemological starting points. One is the view that our senses are reliable and that they give us knowledge. The second that logic processes apart from sensation give us knowledge. Empiricism and Rationalism, in other words. Whenever you reason from one, you do so at the expense of the other. Further, if you find that your senses have contradicted themselves (which they do), logic at this point does not “fill the gap”; it simply tells you that sensation is fallacious and untrustworthy. How are your options expanded, not just in that scenario, but in any? If anything, it makes fallacies a whole lot easier to pick out (which I do appreciate, by the way).

    You sound a bit naive to say the least regarding the accusation of “circularity” in Christianity. The inevitability of “circularity” in any philosophical system /should/ be common knowledge (and it does not violate a law of logic). Axioms cannot be demonstrated. Your starting point is just that, /the place where you start/. If you “prove” it by anything, you are just showing that whatever you “prove” it by is your starting point. Empiricism as a philosophical system starts with the presupposition that knowledge can be attained through sensation. Rationalism as a philosophical system starts with the presupposition that knowledge can be attained through application of the laws of logic. Christianity as a philosophical system starts with the presupposition that the Bible is the only source of knowledge. Deductions are made /from/ the starting point, or at least attempted. The reasons why one comes to accept a certain starting point is a different issue all together, but one of which Christianity does have an answer for.

    “The fact is that God doesn’t ground morality at all and that all of us human beings have to continue in a long and hard intellectual struggle to understand how right and wrong relate to other human beings.”

    But of course, Christians would quite disagree with you, at least as far your assertion that God is not the foundation for morality. I would grant that there is an intellectual “struggle” of sorts, but that is only searching the revelation of God, the Scriptures, to find what is moral and what is not. Many worthy theologians such as Calvin, Warfield, Murray, Owen, Watson, Clark (Adam and Gordon), the Hodges, etc. have done excellent work upon this subject.

    Also, it could be noted, that your “relating” of morality with other human beings through the philosophy of evolution will get you nowhere. Evolution cannot even assert that logic has any real application in the world. You beg the question when you say “Christianity has no ground for morality” because you are presupposing to know what is “moral” when that is the subject in dispute. Any statements regarding what is moral will only result in arbitrary notions on your part that do not stem from your philosophy, for if they did, ideologically you could not oppose Stalin, which presumably you do by implication. Why? Because you cannot, either from logic alone, sensation, or evolution come up with universal norms that bind all men. Your attempts at such an endeavor will be much looked forward to.

    • http://www.dangeroustalk.net Staks

      You said a mouthful there Jesse and I will do my best to address those points. You aren’t by any chance a young fundamentalist Christians on college campus, are you?

      There are two main issues here I think.
      1. Epistemological starting point.
      2. Moral grounding.

      If there is another that I left out, let me know.
      Let’s start with the first. Wilson claims that the Bible is his epistemological starting point and that atheists have reason as their epistemological starting point. I don’t think atheists necessarily have to have any one epistemological starting point at all. I think that limits our options. You mentioned Empiricism and Rationalism and I have been to a seminar or two where fellow philosophers have gotten into some knock down drag out arguments over these two positions. But from my observation, we can use both and have a continual interplay between them. I also don’t think there needs to be an epistemological starting point to begin with necessarily.

      Wilson’s use of the Bible as authority is different in kind from the use of either Empiricism or Rationalism. The Bible is a thing and Empiricism and Rationalism are not things. The Bible is authoritative, but Empiricism and Rationalism are not authoritative, they are ways of thinking not authoritative guides for what to think.

      Now let’s move to morality. I will keep this part kind of short and yet kind of long at the same time. I have already wrote a far amount on the subject so rather then re-inventing the wheel so to speak, I will just post the link:
      Is there moral grounding without God?

  • Darren Doane

    Thanks for taking the time to review the film. As the director of the film I wanted to let you know that both Christopher and Doug had final edit approval on the film. Both were allowed to add or subtract anything they felt was not in context or was not explained. Both signed off (having made changes) on what is the final film. Thanks again for reviewing the film.

    Darren Doane

  • Jim

    You state that reason is not an authority but a “process.” This is nonsensical as the atheist appeals to reason to justify his worldview. By definition it is the authority to which he appeals. Wilson’s argument that a consistent atheist need not concern himself with morality is airtight. I find nihilist atheists much more consistent than atheists like Hitchens who pontificate on just about every issue and personality.

    • http://www.dangeroustalk.net Staks

      First, not all atheists do appeal to reason. Atheism isn’t a religion. I have met atheists who have no desire at all to be reasonable. But Humanist atheists do appeal to the process of reason. Reason is not however some authority in the same way that the Bible is an authority. Reason is a process. Now you could argue from the Kantian position that our reasoning is a function of our brain and that it has no objective meaning outside of humanity and I would not dispute you on that. However, just as our vision is not limited to what our eyes alone can see, our reason does seem to allow us to reason a world outside of our own human faculties. Of course it only seems that way to us humans and we have no way of knowing if that is the case objectively. But I don’t think we can, so we have to settle for what is objective to humans and what we can reason with our reason to understand the world. If the world is objectively radically different, then we will never know it and it becomes a difference that makes no difference. We all could be living inside something’s computer program or something’s dream. But based on our limited reason, there is no reason to believe such things.