It may strike one as a strange pair to pit against each other: the two are leading religious sceptics, battling shoulder to shoulder against the forces of stupidity, misunderstanding and retardation of scientific progress – they generally tend to be on the same side. However I feel their styles when debating are very different and it’s worth making some comparisons. I’ve known about Dawkins and his struggle against insanity for a long time; I’ve read his books (well, got about half way through one of them to be precise) and watched some of his debates (specifically the one against Lennox) and have quite a good picture of him. I thought he was alone in this world until someone told me about Christopher Hitchens, another religious sceptic with similar aims, and have only recently taken the initiative to watch his debate with Boteach. The two debates contrasted starkly.
For one, the opponents were very different in nature. Dawkins had the misfortune to be debating against an apologist, a supposedly religious person who seems to have no real convictions about anything. Lennox was perfectly happy (I seem to remember) to agree the bible is … dubious in nature. Lennox is an adamant supporter of science. I seem to remember the two energetically agreeing with each other on some things, particularly where the acceptance of Science came in. Boteach on the other hand was amazing. The sheer incorrectness of his arguments amazed me. The fact that he was bold enough to make such ungrounded assertions in public amazed me – it was almost embarrassing to watch! Boteach is a creationist: in other words, he is an anti-scientist. His arguments about evolution were so warped, jaded and universally and categorically wrong that it made me cringe to have to listen. He also seemed to rest half his arguments on the fact that religion is a more palatable concept. What utter rubbish, and what joy it brought me to watch a master pick it apart in as pseudo-polite yet also gleefully rude manner as Hitchens. It also made Hitchens’ life a lot easier – picking apart arguments made by a jittering idiot is always easy. Believe me, I do it myself, though not quite as well.
The key difference between the two debates I think is the sceptics’ method of argument. Dawkins brought much science into it: he tried to use his knowledge of biology and physics to construct clear and rigorous scientific assertions to back up his arguments. I suspect it didn’t work so well for that debate – Lennox’s scientific leaning helped him get round the problem of having a stereotypical-religious-nutter image and he was able to discuss the science intelligently and make non-stupid points, part of the whole apologist guise. He also knew when to agree with Dawkins and which religious anti-science arguments to avoid (the ones which are clearly wrong such as those that attempt to dispute evolution). Dawkins’ book also draws heavily on current and past scientific research and his arguments are constructed intelligently from there. Hitchens on the other hand almost ignored science in his debate against Boteach. After all, as he said right at the beginning, he thinks it is so utterly clear religion is false that it’s pointless arguing over its verity; why bring in science? Instead he concentrated his energy on trying to prove why religion is pernicious, why be believes religion is actively harmful to the world and why it is outrightly contrary to everything human progress holds dear. Perhaps this is a better way of debating: the average religious nutter (Boteach included) will try desperately in an attempt to seem intelligent to find some loophole in science that creates a crack of uncertainty in which God may reside and at the same time dig for himself one heck of a hole in which to reside himself. Hitchens knew Boteach was going to make a stupid argument about science – why not let him introduce the incorrect pseudo-science and watch the show?
Another difference, certainly taking those two debates as examples, was the ‘niceness’ of our two heroes. Dawkins really did his best to be nice. He spoke fairly kindly about Lennox, was considerate when making arguments making an effort to confine his counter-arguments to the topic rather than making the other look like a fool. I was almost ashamed that he was too apologetic – he didn’t seem assertive enough. Lennox grabbed the wrong end of the stick when it came to faith – he completely misinterpreted the concept of what faith means and asked Dawkins whether he has faith in his wife, of which Dawkins really didn’t make much of a meal. Hitchens on the other hand was outrightly nasty right from the beginning, making the ensuing exchanges so much more interesting. He began with such a delightfully contemptuous tone that Boteach was enraged to the point of incoherence (maybe his incoherence was due to something else, who knows), and had such an obviously disgusted attitude towards religion that I really believe his anti-belief rubbed off on the audience. Even the title of his book, ‘the Missionary Position’, reflects the hilariously contemptuous nature of his methods of setting out arguments. His tone and hatred are truly in tune with mine (well, maybe not hatred) of religion. I really don’t see any reason to be polite about such things, and Hitchens really has the right idea as far as I’m concerned.
Overall I think I personally prefer Hitchen’s way of debating: loud and clear. Both clearly believe religion is pernicious, and quite rightly too. It’s damaging both mentally, physically and economically … but that’s for another blog post. Dawkins however attempts to intellectualise arguments too much. It is impossible to debate a true religious nutter by employing reasoning – the opponent simply will not understand. If he is convinced enough about the existence of God to debate against a sceptic he clearly has no concept of logic and as an utter inability to follow logical thoughts and mathematically accurate arguments, so why bother? But either way, I wish them both the best of luck in their anti-religion campaigns. Whatever the case, religion is wrong, stupid, pernicious, but above all, funny, and I’m glad both have picked up on the last one.