Christopher Hitchens and David Berlinski Debate on Atheism, God and Religion (2010)

Dandelion Salad

Note: replaced video June 25, 2016

Note: watch it on C-Span:

Christopher Hitchens Outwits David Berlinski in debate

Atheist vs Theist Debates on May 23, 2016


September 7, 2010

Who Would Jesus Bomb?

Image by Dandelion Salad via Flickr

David Berlinski (born 1942 in New York City) is an American educator and author of several books on mathematics. He is a leading critic of evolution within the intelligent design movement and author of several magazine articles on the topic. He is the father of the neoconservative journalist and novelist Claire Berlinski.

David Berlinski was born in the United States in 1942 to German-born Jewish refugees who had immigrated to New York City after escaping from France as the Vichy government was collaborating with the Germans. His father was Herman Berlinski, the noted American composer, organist, pianist, musicologist and choir conductor, and his mother was Sina Berlinski (née Goldfein), an American pianist, piano teacher and voice coach. Both were born and raised in Leipzig where they studied at the Conservatory, before fleeing to Paris where they were married and undertook further studies. German was David Berlinski’s first spoken language. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University.

According to his Discovery Institute biography, he was a postdoctoral fellow in mathematics and molecular biology at Columbia University, and was a research fellow at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria and the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques (IHES) in France. He has taught philosophy, mathematics, and English at Stanford, Rutgers, the City University of New York, the University of Washington, the University of Puget Sound, San Jose State University, the University of Santa Clara, the University of San Francisco, San Francisco State University, and taught mathematics at the Université de Paris. He currently lives in Paris.

He has written works on systems analysis, the history of differential topology, analytic philosophy, and the philosophy of mathematics. Berlinski is known for his books on mathematics and the history of mathematics written for the general public. These include A Tour of the Calculus (1997) on calculus, The Advent of the Algorithm (2000) on algorithms, Newton’s Gift (2000) on Isaac Newton, and Infinite Ascent: A Short History of Mathematics (2005). Another book, The Secrets of the Vaulted Sky (2003), compares astrological and evolutionary accounts of human behavior.

He is the author of several detective novels starring private investigator Aaron Asherfeld: Less Than Meets the Eye, The Body Shop and A Clean Sweep, and a number of shorter works of fiction and non-fiction.

Berlinski is a secular Jew and agnostic. A 2008 Slate magazine profile characterized Berlinski as “a critic, a contrarian, and — by his own admission — a crank […and] zealous skeptic, more concerned with false gods than real ones.” In that same article Berlinski said he “got fired from almost every job [he] ever had” before finding a career as a writer as—in the words of David Engber of Slate Magazine—a “maverick intellectual.” The same article characterizes Berlinski’s viewpoint as “radical and often wrong-headed skepticism represents an ascendant style in the popular debate over American science: Like the recent crop of global-warming skeptics, AIDS denialists, and biotech activists, Berlinski uses doubt as a weapon against the academy—he’s more concerned with what we don’t know than what we do. He uses uncertainty to challenge the scientific consensus; he points to the evidence that isn’t there and seeks out the things that can’t be proved. In its extreme and ideological form, this contrarian approach to science can turn into a form of paranoia—a state of permanent suspicion and outrage. But Berlinski is hardly a victim of the style. He’s merely its most methodical practitioner.” In Black Mischief, Berlinski wrote “Our paper became a monograph. When we had completed the details, we rewrote everything so that no one could tell how we came upon our ideas or why. This is the standard in mathematics.”

Hitchens often speaks out against the Abrahamic religions, or what he calls “the three great monotheisms” (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). In his book, God Is Not Great, Hitchens expanded his criticism to include all religions, including those rarely criticized by Western secularists such as Hinduism and neo-paganism. His book had mixed reactions, from praise in The New York Times for his “logical flourishes and conundrums” to accusations of “intellectual and moral shabbiness” (The Financial Times). God Is Not Great was nominated for a National Book Award on 10 October 2007.

Hitchens contends that organized religion is “the main source of hatred in the world”, “[v]iolent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children”, and that accordingly it “ought to have a great deal on its conscience”.

A critic of evolution, Berlinski is a Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, a Seattle-based think-tank that is hub of the intelligent design movement. Berlinski shares the movement’s disbelief in the evidence for evolution, but does not openly avow intelligent design and describes his relationship with the idea as: “warm but distant. It’s the same attitude that I display in public toward my ex-wives.” Berlinski is a scathing critic of “Darwinism”, yet, “Unlike his colleagues at the Discovery Institute, [he] refuses to theorize about the origin of life.”

Though the Discovery Institute portrays Berlinski as a scholarly writer and mathematician, Mark Perakh, a critic of the intelligent design movement, contends that Berlinski’s writings are not scientific, but popular, and that Berlinski “has no known record of his own contribution to the development of mathematics or of any other science.”

Berlinski, along with fellow Discovery Institute associates Michael Behe and William A. Dembski, tutored Ann Coulter on science and evolution for her book Godless: The Church of Liberalism.

Berlinski was a longtime friend of the late Marcel-Paul Schützenberger (1920–1996), with whom he collaborated on an unfinished and unpublished mathematical polemic that he described as being “devoted to the Darwinian theory of evolution.” Berlinski dedicated The Advent of the Algorithm to Schutzenberger.

In his 1996 article, The Deniable Darwin, published in Commentary magazine, Berlinski says he denies evolution due to the appearance “at once” of an astonishing number of novel biological structures in the Cambrian explosion, the lack of major transitional fossils transitional sequences, the lack of recent significant evolution in sharks, the evolution of the eye, and the purported failure of evolutionary biology to explain a range of phenomena ranging from the sexual cannibalism of redback spiders to why women are not born with a tail. In responding to Berlinski’s arguments, marine biologist Wesley R. Elsberry comments: “I personally like my ‘at onces’ to refer to events significantly shorter than ten million years.” Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education described Berlinski’s arguments in The Deniable Darwin as:

“. . . The content of David Berlinski’s article does not differ from more traditional creation-science material, though his tone is more genteel and his writing a lot more literate. . . . But true to the creation-science genre, his approach consists of constructing strawmen, then knocking them down with misinterpreted, faulty, or nonexistent data as well as carefully selected quotations from evolutionary scientists. . . .”

Berlinski appeared in the 2008 film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, in which he told interviewer Ben Stein that “Darwinism is not a sufficient condition for a phenomenon like Nazism but I think it’s certainly a necessary one.” He also says:

“It’d be nice to see the scientific establishment lose some of its prestige and power…Above all, it’d be nice to have a real spirit of self-criticism penetrating the sciences.”

In God Is Not Great, Hitchens contends that; “above all, we are in need of a renewed Enlightenment, which will base itself on the proposition that the proper study of mankind is man and woman [referencing Alexander Pope]. This Enlightenment will not need to depend, like its predecessors, on the heroic breakthroughs of a few gifted and exceptionally courageous people. It is within the compass of the average person. The study of literature and poetry, both for its own sake and for the eternal ethical questions with which it deals, can now easily depose the scrutiny of sacred texts that have been found to be corrupt and confected. The pursuit of unfettered scientific inquiry, and the availability of new findings to masses of people by electronic means, will revolutionize our concepts of research and development. Very importantly, the divorce between the sexual life and fear, and the sexual life and disease, and the sexual life and tyranny, can now at last be attempted, on the sole condition that we banish all religions from the discourse. And all this and more is, for the first time in our history, within the reach if not the grasp of everyone.”

His book made him one of the four major advocates of the “new atheism”, and an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society, Hitchens said he would accept an invitation from any religious leader who wished to debate with him. He also serves on the advisory board of the Secular Coalition for America, a lobbying group for atheists and humanists in Washington, DC. In 2007 Hitchens began a series of written debates on the question “Is Christianity Good for the World?” with Christian theologian and pastor, Douglas Wilson, published in Christianity Today magazine. This exchange eventually became a book by the same title in 2008. During their book tour to promote the book, film producer Darren Doane sent a film crew to accompany them. Doane produced the film Collision: “Is Christianity GOOD for the World?” which was released on 27 October 2009.

Hitchens has been accused by William A. Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Liberties of being particularly anti-Catholic. Hitchens responded, “when religion is attacked in this country […] the Catholic Church comes in for a little more than its fair share”. Hitchens has also been accused of anti-Catholic bigotry by others, including Brent Bozell, Tom Piatak in The American Conservative, and UCLA Law Professor Stephen Bainbridge. When Joe Scarborough on March 12, 2004 asked Hitchens whether he was “consumed with hatred for conservative Catholics”, Hitchens responded that he was not and that he just thinks that “all religious belief is sinister and infantile”. Piatak claimed that “A straightforward description of all Hitchens’s anti-Catholic outbursts would fill every page in this magazine”, noting particularly Hitchens’ assertion that U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Roberts should not be confirmed because of his faith.

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007) is a book critiquing of religion by author and journalist Christopher Hitchens. It was published in the United Kingdom as God Is Not Great: The Case Against Religion.

Hitchens contends that organised religion is “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children”, and that accordingly it “ought to have a great deal on its conscience.” Hitchens supports his position with a mixture of personal stories, documented historical anecdotes and critical analysis of religious texts. His commentary focuses mainly on the Abrahamic religions, although it also touches on other religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism.

Chapter One: Putting It Mildly

Hitchens writes that, at the age of nine, he began to question the teachings of his Bible instructor, and began to see critical flaws in apologetic arguments, most notably the argument from design. He goes on to discuss people who become atheists, saying that some are people who have never believed, whereas others are those who have separately discarded religious traditions. He also asserts that atheists who disagree with each other will eventually side together on whatever the evidence most strongly supports. He briefly discusses why human beings have a tendency towards being “faithful” and argues that religion will remain entrenched in the human consciousness as long as human beings cannot overcome their primitive fears, particularly that of their own mortality. He ends by saying that he would not want to eradicate religion if the faithful would “leave him alone”, but, ultimately, that they are incapable of this.

Chapter Two: Religion Kills

In this chapter, Hitchens addresses a hypothetical question he was asked on a panel with radio host Dennis Prager: if he were alone in an unfamiliar city at night, and a group of strangers began to approach him, would he feel safer, or less safe, knowing that these men had just come from a prayer meeting? Hitchens answers,
” Just to stay within the letter ‘B’, I have actually had that experience in Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem and Baghdad. In each case … I would feel immediately threatened if I thought that the group of men approaching me in the dusk were coming from a religious observance. ”

He gave detailed descriptions of the tense social and political situations within these cities, which he attributes to religion. He has thus “not found it a prudent rule to seek help as the prayer meeting breaks up.”

Next he discusses the 1989 fatwa issued on author and friend Salman Rushdie by the Ayatollah Khomeini because of the contents of his book The Satanic Verses. He goes on to criticise several public figures for laying the blame for the incident on Rushdie himself. He also writes about the events following the September 11, 2001 attacks, describing how religion, particularly major religious figures, allowed matters to “deteriorate in the interval between the removal of the Taliban and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.”

Chapter Three: A Short Digression On The Pig

Chapter three’s full title is “A Short Digression On The Pig; or, Why Heaven Hates Ham”. Hitchens discusses the prohibition on eating pigs (“porcophobia” as Hitchens calls it) in Judaism, also adopted by Islam. Hitchens writes that this proscription is not just Biblical or dietary. He reports that even today, Muslim zealots demand that the Three Little Pigs, Miss Piggy, Piglet from Winnie-the-Pooh and other traditional pets and characters be “removed from the innocent gaze of their children.”

Chapter Four: A Note On Health, To Which Religion May Be Hazardous

In this chapter, Hitchens declares that religions are hostile to treating diseases. He writes that many Muslims saw the polio vaccine as a conspiracy, and thus allowed polio to spread. He goes on to discuss the Catholic Church’s response to the spread of HIV in Africa, telling people that condoms are ineffective, which, he argues, contributes to the death toll. He notes with examples that some in both the Catholic and the Muslim communities believe irrationally that HIV and HPV are punishment for sexual sin—particularly homosexuality. He describes religious leaders as “faith healers”, and opines that they are hostile to medicine because it necessarily undermines their position of power.

Chapter Five: The Metaphysical Claims of Religion Are False

Hitchens begins this chapter by saying that the strong faith that could stand up to any form of reason is long gone. He compares the popular knowledge of the world in Thomas Aquinas’ time to what we now know about the world. He uses the example of Laplace — “It works well enough without that [God] hypothesis” — to demonstrate that we need not God to explain things; he claims that religion becomes obsolete as an explanation when it becomes optional or one among many different beliefs. He concludes by averring that the leap of faith is not just one leap; it is a leap repeatedly made, and a leap that becomes more difficult to take the more it is taken: which is why so many religionists now feel the need to move beyond mere faith and cite evidence (all of it either false or specious) for their beliefs.

Chapter Six: Arguments From Design

In this chapter, Hitchens writes that Abrahamic religions are used to make people feel like lowly sinners, encouraging low self-esteem, while yet at the same time leading them to believe that their creator genuinely cares for them, thus inflating their sense of self-importance. He says that superstition to some extent has a “natural advantage”, being that it was contrived many centuries before the modern age of human reason and scientific understanding, and discusses a few examples as well as so-called miracles.

He then discusses the design arguments, using examples such as the human body wearing out in old age as bad design. He writes that if evolution had taken a slightly different course, there would be no guarantee at all that organisms remotely like us would ever have existed.

Chapter Seven: The Nightmare Of The Old Testament

Here Hitchens lists anachronisms and inconsistencies in the Old Testament, and writes that many of the “gruesome, disordered events […] never took place.” He writes that the Pentateuch is “an ill-carpentered fiction, bolted into place well after the nonevents that it fails to describe convincingly or even plausibly.”[15] He points out, for instance, that when Moses orders parents to have their children stoned to death for indiscipline (citing Deuteronomy) it is probably a violation of at least one of the very commandments Moses brought down from God. He observes that Moses “continually makes demented pronouncements (‘He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord’).”

Chapter Eight: The “New” Testament Exceeds The Evil Of The “Old” One

Hitchens first connects the book of Isaiah in the Old Testament with its prediction that “a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son” (see Isaiah 7:14), pointing out where the stories converge, Old Testament to New. Comparing the Testaments, he considers the New Testament “also a work of crude carpentry, hammered together long after its purported events, and full of improvised attempts to make things come out right.” He points out that, while H. L. Mencken considered some of the New Testament events to be historically verifiable, Mencken maintained that “most of them […] show unmistakable signs of having been tampered with.”

Hitchens also outlines the inaccuracy in Luke’s attempt to triangulate three world events of the time with Jesus’s birth (viz, the census ordered by Julius Caesar of the entire Roman world, the reign of King Herod in Judea and that of Quirinius as governor of Syria, see the Census of Quirinius). He further relates that there is no record by any Roman historian of any Augustan census, and that, although “the Jewish chronicler Josephus mentions one that did occur—without the onerous requirement for people to return to their places of birth”, it was undertaken “six years after the birth of Jesus is supposed to have taken place.” In addition Hitchens notes that Herod died in 4 BC, and that Quirinius was not governor of Syria during his tenure.

Hitchens refers to The Passion of the Christ as “a soap-opera film about the death of Jesus […] produced by an Australian fascist and ham actor named Mel Gibson”, who “adheres to a crackpot and schismatic Catholic sect”. In Hitchens’s view, the film attempts tirelessly to blame the death of Jesus on the Jews. Hitchens claims that Gibson did not realize that the four Gospels were not at all historical records, and that they had multiple authors, all being written many decades after the Crucifixion — and, moreover, that they do not agree on anything “of importance” (e.g., the Virgin birth and the Genealogy of Jesus). He cites many contradictions in this area.

from the archives:

The Case For The Creator: A Journalist Investigates Scientific Evidence That Points Toward God (2006)

The Case for the Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus (2007)

Isaiah 53: Who is Isaiah speaking of in this chapter? by Lo + Aviad Cohen: Hooked On The Truth

Jesus: Man, Messiah, or More?

16 thoughts on “Christopher Hitchens and David Berlinski Debate on Atheism, God and Religion (2010)

  1. Pingback: Alain de Botton: Religion for Atheists, interviewed by Chris Hedges « Dandelion Salad

  2. Pingback: The Hour: Chris Hedges on Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris (2008) « Dandelion Salad

  3. Pingback: Hitchens vs. Hitchens – Christopher and Peter Hitchens Debate (2008) « Dandelion Salad

  4. Pingback: Christopher Hitchens, Once Vidal’s Dauphin, Now Cosmic Stardust! by Sean Fenley « Dandelion Salad

  5. Pingback: Hedges on Hitchens + Christopher Hitchens and Chris Hedges Debate (2007) « Dandelion Salad

  6. Pingback: Is God great? Christopher Hitchens vs John Lennox Debate (2009) « Dandelion Salad

  7. Pingback: “The Big Bang as God’s plan”? by Gunther Ostermann « Dandelion Salad

  8. Pingback: Creation Is A Scientific Fact « Dandelion Salad

  9. how can the case be closed when Hithens not only supported the Iraq war , but wants to bomb Iran . Hitch for all his brilliance and erudite charm is just another fundamentalist imperialist , seeking to expand and police the world . and if you dont think that is true read the entire body of his work like i have over a period of 25 years.

    • I never said I entirely agreed with him! He’s British afterall…

      Case is only closed because scripture can’t ‘evolve’, can’t accommodate knowledge, therefore easily and always repeatedly & endlessly obsolete & defunkt.

      • interesting divergence in thought in reference to these men’s view of Nazism . The Nazi’s did employ a form of social darwinism that they got from the 1920’s euthanisia projects in long island NY.
        Nat Hentof wrote a whole thing on this called ”Useless eaters”.
        Nazism cannot be understood without first understanding that it is a throwbakc to the fundamental greek axiom ”Mna is the measure of ALL things”.
        this is what Berlinksi was getting at. when you have nothing higher than yourself , and you become an idol unto yourlsef , here come the ovens .

        • Protagoras was a proponent of agnosticism.

          (Could you stop making me google stuff please? Nobody reads anymore…)

          Apparently the Nazis didn’t like Mexicans either…

        • hahahahaha ! Protagoras came off in his Sophistry as agnostic and relativistic , but Socrates exposed him to be an absolutist when they verbally clashed .

          Socrates asked him ;”so you dont believe in absolutes ” ? and Protagoras answered ”i dont ”. and Socrates says ”are you absolutely sure that you dont believe in absolutes ?” so Portagoras was caught in a contradiction .

          the Sophist saying ”Man is the measure of ALL things” ran contrary to Socratic and Platonic thought .

          the new Atheism is nothing ore than the old greek axiom , and we will never truly understand Nazism , Communism , and all the other isms in the 20th century until we understand the absolute deception of that axiomatic statement .

        • you obviously have not read herbert spencer . nor understood ayn rand , or for that fact ..nancy reagan …social darwinists to the max.

  10. Well that’s a giant leap up the ladder of intelligence from the clerical, ecclesiastical crap from strobel!

    The superior intellect of Hitchens is overwhelming, even sober & undergoing chemo.

    Before discounting M-theory Berlinski should probably read the book. The debate is not atheism vs religiosity or faith, it’s the absurdity & brutality of abrahamic monotheism, specifically judeo-christans vs islam vs anything & everyone else.

    As a secular jew, he should know better. “It’s a big tent”, eh David? Anything to be liked… (there’s a sleaze in my culture that is nauseating).

    Religion NEVER supplied a ‘moral calculus’ against evil!” Religion won’t ‘oblige’ anyone to behave. Damnation failed, deal with it. Evil isn’t interested in the carrot nor the shtick.

    Hitchens: We would be able to think so much more clearly about the moral questions that confront us…” without this CULT”. Go Chris!

    Hitchens is brilliant for identifying totalitarianism as interchangeable with theocracy (thought I came up with that on myself…)

    Gladly Abrahamist apologists, as this debate shows, are now intellectually degraded and undermined so thoroughly that their utterly obsolete proponents (at least those 2 or 3 individuals in the whole history of abrahamic hoards who actually think before palling around with beliers) must now fight for even the scraps of scriptural religiosity before they can even begin promoting their various brands of messianic terrorism, their idiology of damnation by their ruthless, vengeful, psychopathic nationalistic fictitious nazi in the sky.

    The Neanderthals are not in Genesis?
    Case closed.

Comments are closed.