There's something about Christopher Hitchens that makes him a less grating personality than some of the other celebrity atheists of the moment. Nevertheless, I've noticed an interesting pattern: When discussing his many debates with believers during his book tour for God is Not Great, Hitchens depicts himself as delivering the irrefutable argument or teasing out some breathtaking concession from his debate opponent or having to endure some lesser mind.
The reality is usually more complicated than that.
This pattern became especially clear in an interview Hitchens granted to Jennie Rothenberg Gritz of The Atlantic's website.
Consider how Hitchens describes a three-hour debate with Presbyterian minister Mark Roberts, which took place on The Hugh Hewitt Show:
I debated a guy named Mark Roberts, Hugh Hewitt's choice of pastor. Hewitt is a major Christian broadcaster and he said, "I'm going to put up a champion against you." I said, "Bring it on!" So I asked this guy, Roberts, "Do you believe St. Matthew when he describes the crucifixion and says all of the graves of Jerusalem opened and all the corpses walked around greeting their old friends?"
And he answered too quickly. He said, "Yes, I do, of course I do. I'm a Christian -- I have to believe it." But he added, "As a historian, I'm not absolutely sure." I said, "Thanks for that. I must say, it's the most incredible answer I ever heard."
The guy spent half the time saying that a great deal of what I wrote in the book is right. Several of them have done that. Which is enjoyable.
Looking at the transcript of that debate, Roberts is not as flummoxed or defeated as Hitchens implies:
CH: Well, I mean, you force me to press you. I mean, do you think that at the time of the Crucifixion, the graves in the greater Jerusalem area opened, and many of the dead came out and walked the streets? That's one account.
CH: It's not sustained, but you do think that happened?
MR: It's in Matthew's Gospel.
MR: As a believer, I think it happens. If I put on my historian hat, I say this is one Gospel, one witness to this. This makes it again, now speaking as a historian, historically unlikely. As a believer, I believe it. What I'm talking about is ...
CH: I find it absolutely flabbergasting, because among other things, that surely degrades the idea of resurrection by making it commonplace.
MR: It degrades the idea of resurrection ...
CH: If it can happen to ... if just the graves had opened and anyone can get up and walk around, what's so special about the proposed resurrection of the Nazarene?
MR: Well, you know, it's even worse than that, because Christian theology holds that every person will be resurrected, so we've thoroughly degraded it.
(In his interview with The Atlantic, Hitchens takes pride in having to explain to a Catholic talk-show host the difference between Mary's immaculate conception and Jesus' virgin birth. In the debate on Hewitt's program, Roberts had to explain to Hitchens that New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman has not considered himself a Christian for a few decades.)
Similarly, Douglas Wilson is reduced to a "weird guy" who speaks mostly of soda-pop bottles when debating whether people must believe in God to live moral lives. (Their six-part debate begins here.)
Perhaps most astonishingly, Hitchens seems to believe that most people now agree with his argument that Mother Teresa was a fraud who should burn in Hell:
When Mother Teresa said abortion and contraception were equivalent to murder and were the greatest threat to world peace -- nobody could have said anything with such wicked consequences! She tried to demolish the only cure for poverty that we know for sure exists, which is the empowerment of women. I'm not particularly a feminist, but if you get women off the animal cycle of reproduction and give them some say in how many children they'll have, immediately the floor will rise. And if you throw a handful of seeds and some credit to these ladies, the village will be transformed in a couple of years.
Mother Teresa spent her entire life trying to make that impossible. I would say that millions of people are much worse off for her efforts. On an Irish radio show on a recent Sunday morning, I said, "I wish there was a hell for the bitch to go to." You couldn't have said that a few years ago. You would have gotten a terrible pasting for it. But now, everybody knows it's true. They see through this stuff.
The interview provides a good glimpse into Hitchens' personality, including his contrarian resistance to some atheists' preferred designation of Brights:
Now a disagreement I've had with Dawkins -- whose work is incredibly important to us all -- and with Daniel Dennett, too, is about whether atheists should rename themselves as "brights." I disagree with this completely because it exactly materializes what believers think of us, that we're some sort of snobbish elite. And it has the further implication that you have to be smart to see through religion. I know for certain that that's not true. Many, many people are made -- as I am -- unable to believe. They just can't bring themselves to do it.
I think people are naturally revolted by obscurantism and obfuscation. For whatever reasons, at any rate, there have been many times in history where mass movements of people have burned the churches down. People who were quite unlettered would think, "All of this is quite untrue."