« Happy Cosmos Day | Main | Links With Your Coffee »

Fry and Hitchens Debate the Catholics

A fun debate to watch. The Catholics don't exactly bring their A game. Hitchens could have done better with the 10 Commandment question he got, but they did do very well. The conclusion had me laughing loud enough that I had to explain myself. Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5



I thought the Catholics did quite well.

These particular Catholics just aren't the apologists trained in talking points who use the Bible as a "metaphor" like D'souza. As it's clear here, that's the only way Christians can debate and still keep their head above water.

Yeah, when Hitchens was asked the 10 commandments question I thought "here it comes!" but he was crudely interrupted. He clearly was building up to a Carlin-esque routine (with a Hitchens accent).

I think that the Arch Bishop had a better response to the 10 commandment question than Hitchens. The Bishop clearly pointed out that you do not need the church for people to have morals.

Hitchens didn't get to answer at all though. He was interrupted before the good part. He's "explained" the 10 commandments before, I kinda know what was coming.

He had just been talking about a "saint" torturing people.

That raises two immediate responses.

  1. How are we somehow less moral than torturing people for having their bible in the wrong language?

  2. That was a man of the cloth operating I assume in a religious monarchy. Why do you think the bible can be a bigger help to anyone than it was to that man?

Motion: The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world.

Tautology: A proposition that is true under any valuation of its propositional variables.

Catholic position: the Church is a force for good.

Opposition: the Church is a force for evil.

These opposing positions, I submit, can only be true if we are defining the Church as a single entity that can be contained, a tautology. In other words, as an "essence."

If we decide to take a more social scientific view, and one which denies the existence of essences altogether, then we are confronted with the reality that such a large institution cannot be limited to either good or bad, but exists and interacts with countless variables that shape and effect the expressions that it takes (such as liberation movements in Latin America or violent anti-abortion activists in the US, etc.).

It seems to me that a better question to ask is what are those variables, from the Church's founding until the present, that have encouraged or made inevitable those practices that we know are destructive?

Reformulating the question on these grounds would likely erase the opposition and denial from the Catholic side, who see and have experienced the Church as a force for good in their own lives and thus seek to defend what they "know" (subjectively) to be incorrect. In other words, take away the incentive for them to defend their own life-long beliefs and positive personal experiences, then you take away the confusion over "essences" and get down to the root of the problem: what does the Church need to do/reform so that it won't repeat its long history of falling prey to the nasty side of human nature?

This kind of format is sensationalistic, as it sets up a fight between opposing sides instead of encouraging a nuanced and intelligent exploration of these problems. While Hitchens makes many important points, he's as sensational as they come and, I suspect, turns as many people toward a narrow and even hateful view of "religion" as he does (legitimately) help to expose hypocrisy and tear down walls.

It's a one hour debate and it was a debate and not a discussion. It was more sport than an exchange of ideas. The two catholics came with more narrow and hateful rhetoric than Hitchens did. That surprised me. The Catholics came unarmed essentially.

Really the answer is they are both a force of good and evil. Any real accounting would have the evil ruling the day. Hard to argue otherwise.

"Really the answer is they are both a force of good and evil"

This was my view from the start. The church does good and does evil. Which would seem that logically they are a null force. Therefore, the church is not a force of good.

It is my opinion that the church is not necessary for the good that it does to be done, but I do believe that the bad it does is a result of the churches policies. For example, if priests were allowed to live natural lives instead of forced into celibacy then there would not be such widespread child rape.

While I don't disagree with your first point, it doesn't really address my critique. Why do these forums, which are among the most prominent and publicized on questions regarding religion, continuously set up dichotomies between "good" and "evil"?

My point is that it does little to move the conversation forward as it requires those on the Catholic side (in this particular case) to either admit that their institution is a force for evil, or, as they overwhelmingly did, put forward a one-sided positive spin that is defensive and based on their own personal experiences.

The best statement of the evening came from a guy in the crowd who identified himself as Catholic and was encouraged that the evening had shown that the Church was willing to face its many faults. While I don't think this was all that evident, the statement arguably got to the heart of the matter more than anything else did.

Here's a different question that Fry and Hitchens could have posed: Do you admit that the Church bears some responsibility for AIDS, violence, hatred, etc? If so, then how can we address this? If no, then why not? Does this approach not get to the heart of the matter better than "we are force for good"... "no, you are a force for evil"?

On your second point, I don't agree based on what I see as a logical fallacy--namely, that an institution that has been around for 2000 years, and has at least a billion actual adherents, can be reduced to one thing. If we are simply talking about the policies of Ratzinger, then maybe. But if we reduce the Church to anything and everything it has touched throughout its existence, then our problem becomes tainted. It kind of like saying the United States is a force for evil b/c of the likes of Cheny and Bush, rather than critically discussing the many pros and cons. Such an approach takes the mantel away from the Glen Beck's of the world to mount their defensive, and encourages a more refined debate on such things as media ownership, foreign policy, etc. Like the US the Church is as mixed as any tradition, and has blended with various other traditions and philosophies. My point is not to apologize for atrocities committed in its name (quite the opposite), but to suggest that we stay stuck in a stalemate when we frame the conversation on all or nothing terms.

About that "billion" figure. I was raised as Catholic, and still am among those "billion" individuals. They absolutely love that fake, inflated figure. Of all the "catholics" I know, few are "as atheist" as I am, but near all of them are "functional atheists" They don't live their lives according to anything the catholic church has to say, are astoundingly ignorant of church doctrine, don't give a shit about gays, etc.

The numbers are typically higher than 1 billion, actually, probably closer to two, though as you say, they are grossly inflated. I too was raised Catholic (am now secular), and would likely be included in that list.

It is interesting to think, from a social and psychological perspective, how and why the Church continues to resist certain changes amidst strong opposition. I'd argue that much of it has to do with perception and power. If they are seen to give in too much, then they loose credibility (a serious thing when we consider who their "guaranteer" of credibility is). In this sense, it would seem that the most effective way for them to adopt change is to find ways that they can do it on their terms. To save face, as it were. Otherwise, we get these all or nothing, good vs. evil divisions that are so common amongst Evangelicals in US., and create a pathological resistance to any kind of reason. Max Blumenthal's new book, Republican Gemmorah, deals with this problem nicely.

i don't know that any religion is really opened to a reasoned public discussion of its beliefs. They change when their membership is ready to leave, but they don't invite the Atheists in to discuss their immoral policies.

The guy in the audience was largely wrong. The folks onstage weren't facing their accusations. every one they ignored or dismissed out of hand.

I guess its a step in the right direction that they didn't call for hitchen's torture death and dismemberment.

I would say that the greatest value of Hitchens, Dawkins, etc., is that their arguments do tend to force certain institutions (like the Catholic Church) to confront and defend their ugly past (and present, for that matter).

For this reason, I don' think the guy in the crowd was largely wrong. On the surface, no, the Catholic panelists were not really facing the accusations, but this, as I have argued, was due in large part to the way the debate was framed. Take away the confusion between personal belief (i.e., it is good since it has been a force for good in "my life") and empirical fact (i.e., the Church has participated and often initiated terrible things), then we cut to the chase a lot easier.

The very fact that these debates are public and widely attended, marks a significant change from the past. Despite the many pockets of resistance to Enlightenment ideas (esp. in the US), they have become much more normative than in the past. In this sense, I think there is a collective learning process, where the force of reason does influence many individual members and even communities (of the Church, for example), which in turn has an effect on the institution itself.

In short, the very fact that representatives of the Church were there against a largely critical crowd, and were forced to defend their positions with good reasons (however much they failed), is progress. When you say that they cannot torture people anymore, this is as much a sign of our collective evolution than the evolution of the Church. The point here is that it's not just that they can't get away with it anymore, but that they, like all Western institutions, have evolved with the rest of society (however partially). I very much doubt that the majority of Catholics would approve of such things today as they live in "this" contemporary world. While much of what they say is backwards, I don't think it's fair to equate past practices, which most societies on earth typically shared, with those who are part of the institution today. It's kind of like saying that we are complicit in the slaughter of Indigenous Americas b/c we don't completely dissociate ourselves from the governments that carried it out. Like the Church, our governments have also evolved, however partially in some cases.

I don't think it's fair to equate past practices, which most societies on earth typically shared, with those who are part of the institution today.

I agree with your point, but isn't Hitchens accusing them of contemporary brutality in Rawanda. Isn't calling for the death of non-believers every bit as bad?

And also Hitchens wasn't condemning them for the torture, he was condemning them for making the torturer a Saint in modern times.

Fry also points out that they point to "saving souls" as part of their "good". In part they claim to do this by knowing the true path of the lord. He also points out that if slavery and torture were just caused by human error in the past, they really have no evidence they are in the right now.

Just to clarify, I was commenting on your point regarding torture, not Hitchens:

I guess its a step in the right direction that they didn't call for hitchen's torture death and dismemberment.

Regarding Rwanda, it is my understanding that the conflict between the Tutsie's and Hutu's was as much an ethnic conflict, with rather explicit racist overtones regarding defective genes and such. The Church played a role, no doubt, but taking "religion" out of the picture does not make the problem go away. Given the situation, a particular religious body may have a positive, negative, or neutral effect. The same religion that participates or commits atrocities can also be the bearer of the highest standards of justice. My point is not a relativistic one, but rather to suggest that religion cannot be reduced to doctrine or a single authoritative institution. Once it goes out into the world it participates in spheres of multiple meaning and thus produces wildly different results. As a meaning system, religions like Catholicism have both a unifying and a divisive effect. People across cultures can be seen as brothers and sisters through this "link" and of course they can also demonized for being outside the fold.

I have no contention with your last point, as I don't believe in God and thus don't believe that any beliefs are infallible. But again, it's a double-edged sword. Despite the nasty side of missionary activity (which I have a hard time accepting today unless any attempts at conversion are completely put aside), there have been many missionaries who have done great good, often defending natives against conquistadors and fellow missionaries. Batolome de las Casas treatise, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies is a good example of this, as is the film The Mission. While I'm recommending films, Canadian feature Black Robe is a great indictment of the absurdity of missionary zeal, based on the novel by Irish writer Brain Moore.

Sorry for the lengthy reply... I have to learn brevity.

Really the answer is they are both a force of good and evil.

Regarding this, I love Sastra's analysis at Pharyngula:

The Catholics are at a serious disadvantage in any public debate about whether they do good in the world, because the only type of "good" that will count must meet secular standards. They can't plead that they have their own special understanding of reality which makes condemning homosexuality or discouraging the use of condoms the right thing to do, so they merit special rules. They can't whine about how their religious sensibilities must be respected, so don't criticize what makes sense only to Catholics. They can't insist their morality is above that of the world, and therefore they get to use their own yardstick.

Which would seem that logically they are a null force.

How many soup kitchens equals one aids epidemic plus several centuries of oppressing women?

I made that point only to say it isn't an either or question, but a caparison of the quantity of good vs the quantity of evil. Hitchens and fry did so well because the acknowledged the good but dismissed it as tiny in comparison.

The Church folk denied any evil existed and alluded to vague good and soul saving. They weren't believable.

The Catholics got creamed in that one.

FYI Red, the links need to be changed for part 4 - and 5 for continuity, because the link you've given for part four is missing the last minute of Fry's argument. Here they are

Part 4 -

Oh, now you want me to figure out how to edit?

Well now. If you'd clipped out Ann Widdecombe part of the argument, it wouldn't have been a loss. Since you inadvertently clipped out Fry, YES! It'd be nice if could figure out how to edit it :) (Just Kidding. Thanks for the links Reed)

If the church is the victim of human nature like any other institution then how can it claim divine foundation?

Imagine a world in which 1000 years of european warfare did not have religion as a motivational force.

Imagine a world in which the scientific, mathematical and medical discoveries of "pagan" natural philosophers had not been burned or scrapped off of their vellum pages to be covered with gibbering hymnals.

Imagine a world in which thousands had not been subject to judicial murder by a straight-faced church for the crime of witchcraft or for being a jew or for owning a translation of the Bible.

What would you have left? You'd have a world where people still find comfort in one another, still find goodness in their own hearts, still oppose evil in the world and have many fewer incentives for protecting and projecting the evil in themselves.

Church in general, the Catholic church in particular, has been a far, far more pernicious, corrosive and perverted source of evil than the window-dressing of it's public face can conceal.


Support this site

Google Ads

Powered by Movable Type Pro

Copyright © 2002-2017 Norman Jenson


Commenting Policy

note: non-authenticated comments are moderated, you can avoid the delay by registering.

Random Quotation

Individual Archives

Monthly Archives