According to Wikipedia, Douglas Wilson, who represented Christianity in this movie, is an evangelical theologian and pastor. Christopher Hitchens, on the other hand, who represented Atheism, is merely a gifted writer and reporter. Given this large discrepancy in the qualifications of these two candidates we should expect Wilson to demolish Hitchens and this is exactly what we find. No, that was not an error. Wilson outperformed Hitchens in terms of argumentation yet Hitchens was far more persuasive in his message - which, in my opinion, has been the strength of the New Atheist movement. Instead of getting bogged down in games of semantics and word definitions, the emphasis is more on persuading and getting others to agree.
The main question behind Collision was whether Christianity is good for the world or not. Douglas Wilson summed up this entire debate nicely when he stated
If Christianity is bad for the world, atheists can't consistently point this out, having no fixed way of defining "bad."And I agree. At no stage did Hitchen actually point out a coherent rationale for determining that Christianity is not good for the world, hence why I believe Hitchens "lost" the argument. Hitchens on the other hand presented a more persuasive argument because he was able to rely on our common societal moral to critique Christianity. Given the strong persuasive value we put on this societal moral - Hitchens was more persuasive.
Why then wasn't Wilson's message persuasive?
Wilson's problem is that the message he is promoting is not a popular modern message. He isn't promoting a liberal style of Christianity which tries to promote good in the world (works based salvation) - he is promoting a conservative Christianity which preaches the "Good News" as the solution to making the world better (faith based salvation). The entire argument is moot considering they will never agree to this difference. Hitchens looks at the effect Christianity had/has in a secular sense, that is to say, apart from it's truth claims.
Hitchens continuously evaded Wilson's requests to provide an account of morality under atheism. In the "Christianity Today" article which contains the series of letters which sparked the movie Collision, Wilson summed it up nicely when he stated
I am simply saying that a good person needs to be able, at a minimum, to define what goodness is and tell us what the basis for it is. Your handwaving—"ordinary morality is innate"—does not even begin to meet the standard.Without this basis, Wilson is quite right in concluding that Hitchens has merely his opinion, and what does this opinion matter anyway?
Wilson's made one argumentative mistake came when he tried to equate Atheism with mere molecules and chemical reactions (i.e. reductive naturalism). The reason this argumentation does not work is because Atheism is "only" a question of the existence of a god/gods. It is not necessarily a rejection of supernaturalism nor does it necessarily lead to nihilism or reductive naturalism despite the religious wish that it should. (One would have to make a positive argumentation to show god is required for supernaturalism, etc)
Another argumentative mistake Wilson made was to assume that if atheism cannot account for morality then this means that theism is correct. This, although being a seemingly popular and persuasive argument, does not hold water. The classic example I can think of is if we go back to 200 BC and ask the Greek's what caused thunder. The religious people would say "Zeus" and the non-religious people wouldn't have an answer. Does the non-religious answer mean that Zeus is the correct answer? No! It just means that the honest non-religious person just doesn't know, and as it turns out, neither did the person who believed in Zeus. The problem is that the answer Zeus would have been the much more persuasive answer (due to it's narrative).
Next post I will look at the post-movie discussion held between Rae and Midgley.