Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Blair vs Hitchens, Religion vs Science

Last Friday there was a debate in Toronto between Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens. The motion was: "Be it resolved, religion is a force for good in the world". The hall was packed, and tickets had been selling at inflated prices. The theme obviously touched a popular nerve. And no prizes for guessing who was putting the case for each side.
Tony Blair is a well-known proponent of religion, while Christopher Hitchens is well-known for being part of the New Atheism movement, which believes it is now time for atheists to be far less accommodating about religion.

The debate, in effect, was religion versus science, and it obviously fascinates a lot of people – just as it did 150 years ago in Oxford, on 30 June 1860, when Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce had their famous debate about evolution to a packed hall of about 1000 people. In both cases there was a hard aspect between Mars and Jupiter: a fight (Mars) about beliefs (Jupiter).

Jupiter is where we look to see the nature of someone’s beliefs, and this planet figures strongly in the charts of both Hitchens and Blair. This is not surprising, as both men are known for having strong beliefs. This to some extent sets the lie to the atheistic crusade against religious belief, because the atheist position can be just as much a religious belief, in the sense of dogmatically held views about the nature of existence, as can the views of formally religious people.

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Tony Blair’s Jupiter is at the end of Taurus, conjunct Mars and the Asc in Gemini. So there is a strong Gemini/Mars influence to his beliefs: the battle (Mars) of good versus evil (Gemini/light and dark) about which he has talked quite explicitly. At the same time, Blair’s Jupiter is in an earth sign, so his beliefs are quite practical and in a way unsophisticated: he has set up a faith foundation to promote faith generally.

We don’t know Christopher Hitchens’ birth time, but he has Jupiter in Aquarius, square to his Sun and Moon. Much of his belief is influenced by the progress of science, which is very appropriate for Aquarius. At the same time, there is the square to his Sun and Moon, suggesting an ongoing inner struggle and evolution around his beliefs that is central to who he is. His beliefs are dynamic. This is in contrast to Blair, whose Jupiter has no hard aspects, suggesting that his beliefs are more of a given. Blair has a sense of certainty about God etc, and for him it’s simply a matter of putting that certainty into action.

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I think that Hitchens (who won the debate by a factor of two to one) can come across as more nihilistic than he is. I think that underneath the intellectualism he feels very deeply, and that the undeniable evils of religion upset him deeply – but he isn’t going to put it like that. Here is his concluding statement from the debate, which is anything but reductive and nihilistic:

“… the sense that there is something beyond the material, or if not beyond it, not entirely consistent materially with it, is, I think, a very important matter. What you could call the numinous or the transcendent, or at its best, I suppose, the ecstatic. I wouldn't trust anyone in this hall who didn't know what I was talking about. We know what we mean by it, when we think about certain kinds of music perhaps, certainly the relationship or the coincidence but sometimes very powerful between music and love. Landscape, certain kinds of artistic and creative work that appears not to have been done entirely by hand. Without this, we really would merely be primates.

I think it's very important to appreciate the finesse of that, and I think religion has done a very good job of enshrining it in music and architecture, not so much in painting in my opinion, and I think it's actually very important that we learn to distinguish the numinous in this way. I wrote a book about the Parthenon, I will mention it briefly. I couldn't live without the Parthenon, I don't believe every civilised person could, if it ... much worse than the first temple had occurred, it seems to me. And we would have lost an enormous amount besides by way of our knowledge of symmetry, grace and harmony.

I don't care about the cult of palace Athena, it's gone, and as far as I know ... the sacrifices, some of them human, that were made to those gods, are regrettable but have been blotted out and forgotten, and Athenian imperialism is also a thing of the past. What remains is the fantastic beauty ... the question is how to keep what is of value of this sort in art in our own emotions ... I will go as far as the ecstatic, and to distinguish it precisely from superstition and the supernatural which are designed to make us fearful and afraid and servile.”

As you have probably guessed, I am more sympathetic to Hitchens than I am to Blair. In a way, I don’t concentrate too much on what someone’s beliefs are: it’s how they come across as a human being that matters, and in that respect I find Hitchens much more impressive. Hitchens is humane (though I wouldn’t always agree with him) and still trying to work it all out, whereas Blair has found his answers and his certainty and identified himself firmly with what he sees as the good.

Here is Hitchens early in the debate:

Once you assume a creator and a plan, it makes us objects, in a cruel experiment, whereby we are created sick, and commanded to be well. I'll repeat that. Created sick, and then ordered to be well.
And over us, to supervise this, is installed a celestial dictatorship, a kind of divine North Korea. Greedy, exigent, greedy for uncritical phrase from dawn until dusk and swift to punish the original sins with which it so tenderly gifted us in the very first place.

However, let no one say there's no cure, salvation is offered, redemption, indeed, is promised, at the low price of the surrender of your critical faculties. Religion, it might be said, it must be said, would have to admit it makes extraordinary claims, but though I would maintain that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, rather daringly provides not even ordinary evidence for its extraordinary supernatural claims."

Hitchens’ 2007 book God is Not Great is an all-out attack on religion. He thinks that science and reason are what should guide us. But then there is his statement at the end of the debate, starting: ”the sense that there is something beyond the material, or if not beyond it, not entirely consistent materially with it, is, I think, a very important matter.” This seems to contradict the trend towards scientific materialism in his thought. Sure, science can find places in the brain for wonder, awe, love etc, and one of its strengths lies in demanding evidence for claims. But the sense of something beyond the material, or not entirely consistent with it?

I think he’s probably in a bit of a fix that a lot of us find ourselves in. You can’t deny the claims of science, and its increasing ability to find a biochemical source in the brain for every human faculty and experience. I think that is to be welcomed, because it constitutes an increase in knowledge and understanding of ourselves. And yet, some of the time at least, we feel there is something else.

Hitchens is dying of cancer. Maybe that is why he allowed himself that extraordinary and unscientific claim at the end of the debate.

But maybe it’s a fix we’ve always been in, because organised religion is just as good at killing off the sense of wonder and openness and transcendence, through its insistence on a fixed and narrow and authoritarian metaphysic, as is science.

I think the real issue is authoritarian belief systems. We have known nothing else in the West for at least 1000 years. First it was Christianity, now it is Science. It is their intolerance that shuts out the magic and transcendence, rather than the systems of belief in themselves. Science can be every bit as intolerant to its rivals as Christianity can be. And Science has the power of the state behind it when it needs to enforce its claims, just as Christianity had.

But even without that, the exclusive claims of Science get into our heads from an early age, just like those of Christianity used to, and it can take a lifetime to get them out again. And ultimately it is not an evil system that is out to get us: science as an authoritarian belief system is simply a reflection of a collective need for certainty. It is because people en masse need simple certainties that we have these systems.

So I think it misses the point to argue about whether Science can explain everything, and where is the room for magic and transcendence in that? It is motive that needs to be looked at. Once you recognise the authoritarian nature of science as a collective endeavour, and take back the power it wants to have over you, then there is plenty of room for everything.

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Dany said...

Well said, Dharmaruci.

I've just come across your blog and have greatly enjoyed reading the posts.

freeforall said...

Excellent article Dharmaruci!

Christina said...

Good piece - some very complex ideas. I had to read it twice.

The idea that we are born "sick", as Hitchens puts it, and then need to be cured, is deeply entrenched in our culture. Even people who have rejected mainstream religion, often see their life journey as one towards "healing".

It's interesting to see, in this light, that Hitchen's Chiron is in Sagittarius, the sign of religion, and Blair's is in Capricorn, the sign of authority.

Anonymous said...

If you can bear to listen the cloying mucus issuing from Tony Blair, here is the whole debate in 9 parts on YouTube:
Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NNxss3IQluQ&feature=related
Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bZ3IsS1ZJ-k&feature=related
Part 3: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KRZ92RpHtgo&feature=related
Part 4: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jyJy4gSIAWI&feature=related
Part 5: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AiqJuPf8tpE&feature=related
Part 6: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OcdUrufzXzk&feature=related
Part 7: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lns2g-PJHg8&feature=related
Part 8: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zfCfw1qMifQ&feature=related
Part 9: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XZ2kkn6hz8E&feature=related

Paul (Jones)