"P.G. Wodehouse once said that some minds are like soup in a poor restaurant — better left unstirred,” writes Douglas Wilson, pastor of Moscow, Idaho’s Christ Church, in his first correspondence with Christopher Hitchens. “I am afraid that I find myself sympathizing with him as I consider atheism.”
This epistle appeared on the Christianity Today Website in 2007, shortly after Hitchens — an avowed anti-theist and a columnist for Vanity Fair, Slate.com and others — published God Is Not Great. In the book, Hitchens argues that religion is not only a superstition derived from the “bawling infancy of our species,” but that over the centuries, it has done more irreparable harm than good. To publicize the book’s release, Hitchens invited religious leaders to debate him in forums across the country.
Douglas Wilson, a controversial conservative pastor and writer who has helmed the Moscow church since 1977, heard the call. What began as a series of exchanges on the Christianity Today site eventually became a book (Is Christianity Good for the World?), then a series of three debates in Philadelphia, New York and Washington, D.C., in 2007. Those debates have now become a 90-minute documentary called Collision, which premiered in New York and Los Angeles last week.
The film — which, rumor has it, will be screened in Moscow and Coeur d’Alene in the coming weeks — features snippets from the three debates but also behind-the-scenes conversations, stories and shared meals between the two.
Recently returned to Moscow, Pastor Wilson talked to The Inlander about dining, fighting and looking for common ground with one of the world’s most renowned atheists.
INLANDER: First things first: What exactly was the topic of your debates with Mr. Hitchens? The existence of God? The relative merits of religion?
WILSON: We were debating Christianity. Christopher wants to maintain that religion generally — and Christianity specifically — is positively harmful for everybody and to be rejected. I was maintaining that it’s to be accepted because it’s true. And, as a corollary, it’s not bad for us — it’s good for us. So a lot of the debate was me challenging Christopher on what foundation he had for making any of the claims he’s making. And he, for his part, was challenging me on the poor track showing that believers had over the years and the nonsensical narrative, in his mind, of why we would be here for 100,000 years, and then 2,000 years ago God says, ‘All right, enough of that, I’m gonna save everybody.’
What kind of relationship did you two develop? The traveling, the pub conversations, the behind-the-scenes footage — it strikes me as an odd buddy movie.
Yeah, it is. If you watch the film, it’s very much a strange “road…” buddy movie. I just got back from doing a few events with Christopher for the film release. And over the earlier part of this week, I had breakfast with him a couple times. We ate meals together, lots of time in limos going here and there. Behind the scenes, we get along famously. I really enjoyed his company.
You share a love for the British humorist, P.G. Wodehouse.
Yes. And there’s a chunk in the documentary that comes out where when we were having lunch together at King’s College in the Empire State Building in New York. Wodehouse came up and there’s a serious back and forth with us quoting our favorite lines to each other, sort of trying to top the other.
Aside from Wodehouse, what do you two agree on? Where do you find common ground?
First, Christopher’s a very clear writer. I appreciate his prose. I would say he and I are both lovers of the word, lovers of word-smithing. That’s something we have in common. He doesn’t have any use for political correctness, and neither do I. I find his willingness to be a contrarian refreshing. And I think that that’s in part why he and I are hitting it off. He appreciates the same thing, I think, [about me].
How does Hitchens compare to others you’ve debated?
I’ve debated a number of atheists, and some of them were as quick as Christopher is but none of them as witty and able to turn the point back on you as rapidly as Christopher can do. And Christopher can also run away from a point and nobody notices that he didn’t answer the question, because he’s being funny.
Just this morning we did The Dennis Miller Show. And I brought up a standard argument that I’d been using against him, that [in] an atheistic worldview, the universe is a time-and-chance place — just atoms banging together. But if that’s the case, we’ve got no reason to trust things like reason, logic or science, because it’s just atoms banging together. I consider it a knockdown argument. And I brought it up this morning, and Christopher just ignored it — just didn’t answer the question and started talking about Mother Teresa. But he can do it very smoothly and with great aplomb.
So, in the end, who won?
I think convinced atheists will think that Christopher carried the day, and convinced Christians will think that I did. But that’s the nature of these sorts of debates. You know, you’ve got an impartial panel of judges judging the diving competition in the Olympics, and the Romanian judges are handing out twos, and everybody else is handing out eights and nines. So there’s that element. [But] if you really, honestly went into the thing with an open mind, you would say, ‘Wilson surprised me by pulling off a more credible performance than I thought possible against someone like Hitchens,’ which I would count as a victory.
I think far more Christians are going to be satisfied with the ending of the film than atheists will be. It’s not quite a spoiler, but the very last scene in the movie is Christopher and me in a limo, and he’s telling a story about him and [Richard] Dawkins and some other people and how Christopher said, ‘If there was only one believer left in the world, and I could convince him, and then we’d be done and be over,’ he said, ‘I wouldn’t do it.’ And Dawkins said, ‘What do you mean you wouldn’t do it?’ And the whole audience is saying ‘What do you mean you wouldn’t do it?’ And he says, ‘I don’t know why I wouldn’t do it. It’s not just that I wouldn’t have someone to argue with, although that’s true. But I don’t know why. I just wouldn’t do it.’ And that was a very unsatisfying conclusion for a dogmatic atheist.”
I do think a fair opponent — a fair-minded atheist — would say that ‘Wilson held his own.’ After that, you’d have to go to the tight-scoring judges. n email@example.com
Moscow pastor Douglas Wilson