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Customer Review

on September 27, 2008
This book reproduces an insightful and spirited recent debate between Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson over what Dostoevsky called the Eternal Questions: What is the real nature of the universe in which we find ourselves? What are the ultimate bases of reason and ethics? Are there any ultimate sanctions governing human behavior? Though Hitchens is always worth reading for his quick wit and frequently surprising arguments, unfortunately in this debate he does not come off at his best. While graciously conceding that Hitchens has clean hands, Wilson wielding a very fine knife shows that Hitchens, sad to say, doesn't have any hands to begin with.

Hitchens is of the view that the universe is the accidental consequence of swirling particles, claiming that his reason has led him to this conclusion. Wilson, in the style of C.S.Lewis, points out that if the world outside Hitchen's head is given over wholly to such irrational chemical processes, the world inside Hitchens' head can be no differently composed, and that what Hitchens refers to as "rational argument" has been "arbitrarily dubbed" so.

Similarly, if there are no ultimate, objective standards in ethics, then despite Hitchens rhetorical maneuverings, what follows is what Dostoevsky's Ivan pointed out long ago: there is no "good" or "bad for "everything's permitted." Hitchens' "fulminations" against assorted zealots are, as a result, also merely arbitrary.

To dispute the necessity of a God behind the Big Bang, Hitchens, with unusual complacency, rests his case on the principle called Ockham's Razor, the argument that it's bad logic to multiply entities. The problem here is that Ockham's Razor is at best a rule of thumb, never a guarantee of a royal road to truth in any particular case.

On the other side, the weakest part of Wilson's case, in my view, is his failure to address the idea that the necessity for ultimate sanctions does not lead to the existence of a particular God, much less the God of Christianity. His arguments in the present debate end, in fact, at a considerable distance from either conclusion, though Wilson seems unaware of this shortcoming.

Both men agree that it's possible in behavior for a person to be a righteous, ethical atheist. What is missing in their presentation here, however, is what can be found in Shakespeare's addition to the ending of the pagan story of King Lear. It will be remembered that the character of Cordelia is so ethically fine that Elizabethans would have dubbed her a "natural Christian." She is murdered, almost gratuitously, at play's end, and her distraught father cradles her broken body in his arms, a pieta whose meaning has yet to make any sense in the world of brutal men. The play's argument, I'd claim, supports Hitchens in his view that one can be a fine person without a Redeemer God yet on the scene. It also supports Wilson in his sense that ethics are not enough to make life bearable, since very often "the virtuous miscarry and the wicked prosper." If there is no Redeemer - though ways can be found to hedge on this - ultimately there is no Justice, and in Paul's words "we are the most miserable of creatures." Human life becomes mere history, filled with bad luck but lacking any meaningful, tragic dimension. How much interest one has in the need of a Redeemer rests finally on how much poignancy one senses in existence.
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