In March 2009 I attended the Christian Book Expo in Dallas in promotion of my then new book Finding God in the Shack (Biblica, 2009). While I had a successful seminar and book signing, the event was, on the whole, a disaster. The CBE had about ten percent of the number of visitors they were hoping for. Regardless, one event was packed that weekend, and that was a debate/discussion between Christopher Hitchens and five (count ’em, five) Christian apologists. This struck me as rather bizarre, and so I blogged about it. In fact, this humble post is my first blog post ever! A true collectors’ item.
I attended the Christian Book Expo in Dallas last weekend. While overall attendance was lower than expected, one event was nearly packed out with hundreds. The topic was a debate on whether the Christian God exists. The debate, which unfolded over two hours, included a panel featuring four Christian apologists (William Lane Craig, James Denison, Doug Wilson and Lee Strobel) against one atheist (Christopher Hitchens, author of god is not great), with one very partisan pro-God moderator (Stan Guthrie). In other words, it was essentially five against one.
The debate itself was fairly interesting, with the Christian apologists amassing at least ten separate arguments for the existence of God generally and the Christian God specifically. By contrast, Hitchens’ arguments were almost exclusively drawn from the problem of evil. In one particularly emotive moment, he referred to the horrific case of Elisabeth Fritzl, locked in the basement of her parents home for 24 years as her father descended the stairs to rape and abuse her literally thousands of times. As Hitchens put it, if there is a God then he watched from heaven for those 24 years with his arms crossed in an agonizing display of cosmic indifference. The problem of evil is undoubtedly the most serious objection any Christian will face to the existence and character of God and Hitchens is an able rhetorician for his cause.
It was clear however that he was simply not able to engage the plethora of arguments launched by his four (or five) adversaries on the platform. That said, I took away from the event not the conviction that Hitchens had been outgunned but rather that many evangelicals remain overly defensive in engaging intellectually with atheists and other skeptics. To pit five against one may ensure more time for the Christian perspective, but it also reinforces a “circle the wagons” mentality that undermines the credibility of Christianity while creating the suspicion that we have something to hide. Superior apologetics pays attention not only to arguments but to context and presentation. And ultimately the apologist must focus not simply on winning the argument but on winning the audience. With this emotional appeals and clever wit Hitchens may have done more damage that day than all five Christians and all ten pro-God arguments.