The recent Christopher Hitchens vs. Alister McGrath debate? Yes, as a matter of fact I did see it—not in person, but on-line. One of my graduate students, who had thought about making the trip to Georgetown but then changed his mind, sent me a link, and with his (and other students’) interests in mind, I managed to sit through the video.

To be frank, I think debates of little value—at least as they’re usually orchestrated. True dialectic or elenchos, yes, which means zeroing in on the substance of relatively short statements and which includes the right to interrupt one’s interlocutor to request a definition or clarification and to point out inconsistencies, false assumptions, and so forth; but not the parallel monologues too often resulting from the formal protocols of such occasions.

There was entertainment to be sure in this face-off—all of it at McGrath’s expense. If you saw them in action, you know that Hitchens danced rings around his opponent, the atheist being by far the more erudite, engaging, persuasive, and witty speaker. McGrath’s nervous responses were almost never to the point, and the one (and only) time he had Hitchens in a corner—having asked him what sense moral obligation would make if men were mere higher primates “half a chromosome away from chimpanzees”—he allowed him to dance away from the problem with rhetorical flourishes about all the morally bad things religious people have done. Can no one really see anymore that you can’t get an ought from an is? Even Kant got that one right.

I was sitting there wondering: where is G. K. Chesterton, or C. S. Lewis, or even Peter Kreeft when you need them?

But then I thought, No: they probably wouldn’t do either. I haven’t read Hitchens’s recent book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, and I confess I don’t care to. But I came away realizing, yet again, that “only esoteric theses can satisfy the imperious logical needs created by the philosophic and scientific positions of the modern world” (Schuon).

Hitchens’s criticisms seemed more or less reducible to his inability, or perhaps unwillingness, to understand that anthropomorphic imagery in the Semitic scriptures is of a strictly upayic value. He reminded me of the students I alluded to in the talk I gave last year at the Sacred Web conference: “The Noble Lie“. Perhaps like them he has realized, however dimly, that a personal God conceived by believers as no more than the leading actor in a historical drama can’t really be God; if so, then of course he just needs a good dose of metaphysics.

I admit this is probably putting much too optimistic, and charitable, a face on Hitchen’s gleefully sarcastic and satirical efforts to bait believers. Nonetheless, whatever his own level of insight and whatever his personal motivations, it’s becoming clearer by the day that if there is to be a truly compelling response to the increasing number of atheist criticisms, it’s not going to be framed in merely theological categories.