I was rather excited that this film got a theatrical release, because I’d heard about it a few weeks ago and it was pretty much going straight to DVD. But Dendy Newtown brought it out for one night (albeit courtesy of a church in the area who sprung a Q&A on us after the film was over).
The story behind this documentary is that Christopher Hitchens, the prominent atheist – an Englishman residing in Washington DC – wrote a book a few years back called God Is Not Great – Why Religion Poisons Everything. From what I understand, in 2007, he invited any religious people who wanted to debate him to come and have a go. Many people have, and for most people who are unprepared, I think he’s pretty much eaten them alive.
Somewhere in the middle of all this, in 2007, a Reformed pastor from a place called Moscow in Idaho (how bizarre is that?) called Douglas Wilson, decided to take Hitchens on and so the two men had an online debate on www.christianitytoday.com. It’s also not mentioned anywhere, but Doug wrote a reply to Christopher’s book called God Is. How Christianity Explains Everything. Anyway, they collected the back and forth debate into a small book called Is Christianity Good For The World? and then someone got the smart idea of sending the two of them on a debate / book launch tour.
This film is a documentary that covers those three days on the road. For 90 minutes, we watch them debate, sign books, drink beer, ride in taxis, ride in limos, debate, followed by more conversations in cars. And somewhere in there they got a helicopter ride as well.
Considering that there were about three two-hour debates in there (from what I could work out watching the film), there is no way in 90 minutes, you’re really getting the full weight of either of their arguments. And the filmmakers don’t try. Director Darren Doane deliberately steered the film away from being about getting one message across or another and instead tried to make it, as much as possible, about the conflict between the two men. (This does lead to some slightly corny slo-mo scenes where Hitchens and Wilson are filmed in split screen, with gangster rap over the top, to make it look like Theists In Da Hood. But as one friend told me, at least if gave your mind a brief rest before the next round of debating took off.)
What of the arguments themselves? I’ll let you track the film down for yourself – you can get it from Amazon.com – to see the full thing, but as far as I could tell, Christopher Hitchens was arguing the case – most of the time – that Christianity (or religion in general) was just an extra crutch people were trying to use to prop up morality (which could exist quite fine on its own) and that, in fact, it had produced quite the opposite. (You’ll hear the killing of the Amalekites mentioned on quite a few occasions.) I’m sure if we’d seen more of the debate, we’d have come across other objections such as Christanity being unscientific, relies on the supernatural, etc.
Douglas Wilson, on the other hand, was using what’s known as a “presuppositional” argument. He’s right up front in assuming that there is no such thing as neutrality, there’s no “neutral” platform to stand on and engage with facts – instead you have a set of preconceptions. So he’s quite comfortable with believing the Bible is true, and then building his entire worldview around that. The rest of his argument was then pointing out that, if you adopt a certain set of assumptions, you have to live by them. For instance, if you believe, as an atheist, that everything evolved by chance and that there is no rhyme and reason to why we’re here, then you can’t really have any set reason for assuming objective moral standards. You can make some up, to make your life easier, but there’s no reason that they should be true for everyone in the whole world – if we’re all random bits of protoplasm.
Which turned out to be the chink in Hitchen’s armour. It started to clog up the last 30 minutes of the film, but Wilson seized onto the fact that Hitchens kept wanting to use moral terms against Christianity (“It’s a wicked cult”, etc) without giving any justification for his morals (apart from that we “intuitively feel” that certain things are right and wrong). That’s still not likely to convince somebody to become a Christian (human nature is that we like to have justice, but we don’t really like the idea of a God breathing down our neck that we have to answer for), but for me, it’s enough that I could never be an atheist. I couldn’t live with the level of uncertainty that they have to have.
I don’t know that you’d claim that anyone “won” the film, but I would say that Hitchens probably carried the argument for the first hour of the film, because he’s a very good public speaker. Wilson, on the other hand, seemed to be thinking of so many things at once, that his thoughts would come out a bit fast and furious. Also, because Wilson makes no bones about assuming that the Bible is true, when he starts talking about something like Jesus prophesying the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD, I’m sure it would have sounded quite foreign to non-Christian ears. (Hitchens’ body language at that point certainly conveyed that he felt like he was stuck next to the village idiot.) However, over time, this becomes a bit of a strength, and we watch (especially in the non-debating moments) as Wilson is actually teaching Hitchens things about the Bible that he never really knew before.
The last scene of the film is also quite an interesting one, albeit it for no other reason, than it proves yet again that alcohol brings thing out that we cover up in our everyday conversation. I won’t spoil it for you, but it shows that there may be other things going on that are underneath the level of the positions being argued.
To finish, the best thing about this film was simply that I got to get together with a bunch of friends on the Christian side of things and on the atheist/agnostic side of things and have great conversations afterwards. That doesn’t happen very often in our polite, Aussie society where religion and politics are off the table, so I was very grateful to Hitchens, Wilson and co. for the opportunity to have the discussion.
4 1/2 out of 5.