Saturday 22 May 2010

Peter Hitchens and Adam Rutherford on Premier's "Unbelievable?"

Last week's Unbelievable? was a discussion hosted by Justin Brierley between Peter Hitchens and Adam Rutherford. It provoked me to respond, but I didn't want to do so hastily, and therefore resolved to listen to the broadcast again. Meanwhile MSP started a thread in the Premier Community Forum, so I posted my comment there, as follows:
I didn't know what to expect of this discussion, but I was keen to hear Adam Rutherford's views as his TV series last year on The Cell was very impressive, featuring J. Craig Venter, who was in the news today. (What Peter Hitchens will make of the news that scientists have created artificial organic life — if indeed they have — is anybody's guess.)

So, the discussion.

Peter Hitchens stated that Christians do not claim that there's no morality without Christianity. This may be true, but I've lost count of the number of times I've heard a Christian tell me that as an atheist I have no means of distinguishing good from evil. Lo and behold, Peter Hitchens then immediately repeated this baseless canard. In response Adam Rutherford instantly nailed the crude fallacy, but unfortunately without effect, for Peter Hitchens' infatuation with his faith appeared impervious to logic.

On the question of secularism, which Peter Hitchens vehemently decried, Adam Rutherford was careful to distinguish this from atheism, pointing out that secularism doesn't deny faith, it only claims that faith should play no part in government. Justin interjected that Peter Hitchens' view is probably that UK society has been founded on a very intimate relationship with the Christian faith. But that's not to say such an intimate relationship is necessarily a good thing. This is perilously close to the argument from tradition.

Peter Hitchens contended that Britain is a country founded on Christianity, and that its laws are based on Christian morality. He claimed that the source of authority for our government is, therefore, Christianity. Too bad his search for the source of morality stops with his faith. I would ask the question: "If morality in Britain is based on Christianity, what is Christian morality based on?" The answer, of course, is that Christianity bases its morality on the shared values built into humanity as a result of evolution. The morality of Christianity was not handed down from on high, whatever may be written in scripture to the contrary. It was based on what people already knew about moral behaviour. Unfortunately those notorious stone tablets introduced some weird pronouncements that continue to skew the moral sense of a significant proportion of the world's population today.

In response to Adam Rutherford's request for the exact identity of Christian moral authority, Peter Hitchens seemed unable to define "Christianity" in any manner that could be used as such an authority. It appeared that he aspires to an authoritarian state but is unable to tell us who or what — in practical, political terms — that authority might be. At this point the discussion veered off into other areas, probably as a result of Peter Hitchens' astonishing assertion that homosexuality is a marginal non-issue. "It's not if you're gay," was Adam Rutherford's understandable response.

Peter Hitchens next condemned divorce, on the basis (amongst others) that it left children without the backing of a stable family — presumably contending that a couple whose marriage has irretrievably broken down (with all the relationship problems such a breakdown would likely entail) can provide a better, more stable "family" than that provided by a single parent who has escaped from a bad marriage. This, of course, is just an example, but it illustrates the danger of generalised condemnation such as Peter Hitchens employed here.

Then came abortion, with Peter Hitchens claiming that killing babies was indefensible in all cases. Adam Rutherford attempted to ascertain if there were any circumstances in which abortion would be an acceptable alternative to adoption, such as a case where the mother's life was endangered by the pregnancy. Peter Hitchens asked for an example of such an instance (implying that he knew of none), and there's been one in the news this very week.

Adam Rutherford next tried to pin him down on what criteria he would use to determine whether or not a collection of cells could be described as a human being, and in response to a question from Justin he explained that science has no hard and fast rule stating at what point a fertilised egg becomes a "person". Peter Hitchens objected to the term "foetus" — claiming (in a spectacular invocation of Godwin's Law) that this was a classic dehumanising tactic. Didn't he realise he was doing the exact obverse in describing a fertilised egg as a "human person"? (In the light of UKIP's response to science questions put to political parties in the run-up to the recent election, it has been suggested that we should now refer to our breakfast eggs as "very small chickens".)

Until this point in the discussion Peter Hitchens appeared to be a fairly rational person who could reasonably support his strong views, but the few seconds of this particular exchange revealed him in his true colours as a Christian fundamentalist in favour of abstinence-only sex education (that is, no sex education at all): "I don't think it's the business of schools to teach people how to put condoms on hockey sticks and bananas." His subsequent rant clearly showed how his views on contraception are exactly aligned with those of Pope Benedict XVI. Thankfully Justin called a break.
The podcast of Unbelievable? is available in iTunes, or you can download the mp3 file directly:
To read responses to my comment above, as well as the rest of the thread, go to the Premier Community Forum.


  1. Good post. Especially "It appeared that he aspires to an authoritarian state but is unable to tell us who or what — in practical, political terms — that authority might be" - may I posit that that authority is Peter Hitchens?

    I'm no historian and would welcome a historians view on this but I question to what extent our laws are founded on Christianity? Christianity as we know it today is what we are told is Christianity, and one could separate the culture of the messenger of the time (in the Bible), and the messenger of Christianity through the Catholic (Constantine ie. Roman) church. Separate that from common law and the will of the people over time, convenient or expedient decision from various rulers and it's a bit of a mish mash I'm thinking. A sort of evolution?

    I just don't think it an accident that the 1662 prayer book that PH holds so dear almost exactly advocates the Roman view of women in society, yet Jesus Christ didn't seem to behave this way. So is it Christianity that PH holds so dear or a mysogynist paternalist society that is basically Roman law made palatable by Constantine?

    Divorce? Fred and Rose West: the married family.

    Abortion? Whatever the arguments for and against, men just don't seem to get one important point: until the baby is born it's part of the woman and she will do whatever she thinks best.

    Yes you can coerce and bully and even lock the poor woman up or strap her to a chair or threaten her with all sorts of nasty behaviour. I'm sure coercion happens, we know it does. But when that sperm entered her body it was a gift, not a loan. So if she decides she doesn't want the child, for whatever reason, you can help her and make sure it's done with medical assistance, or you can let her die in a backstreet. That is society's only choice.

    Women have to kill a child for various reasons; high blood pressure is common, depression, ectopic pregnancy and pre-eclampsia amongst others. To do so is invasive and horrible. I agree that abortion shouldn't be marketed as some easy contraception method but if doctors don't 'play God' then... how can we let women die? If we saw a woman drowing would we not stretch out a hand, or is it interfering with the will of God? But doctors are culpable in this discussion too - advocating aborting a Downs Syndrome child is common as is cleft palate I believe?

    I do agree with Hitchens re: sex education for a variety of reasons though I'm not an opponent of sex ed in school per se. I just don't like the way it's done today, or at what age.

  2. I was wrong - women don't have to kill a child, they sometimes choose to kill a child.

  3. Anon:

    One picks the morality one wants to pick. If it coincides with some "authority" or other, that's extraordinarily convenient. I got the impression that Peter Hitchens was trying to outdo his brother with the controversial statements, but he doesn't appear to have thought them through (or he doesn't care). For instance, when challenged as to what he would put in place of today's substandard sex education, he appeared to suggest that sex education was unnecessary. We know from the US experience that this doesn't work.

    The tricky issue is of course abortion, but while he condemned the use of "dehumanising" terms like foetus, he wasn't himself averse to using inflammatory language — claiming that this was what was applied to the Jews. Adam Rutherford did well to remain as calm as he did in the face of this rant, but the Hitchens bluster prevented him from getting a fair hearing for his carefully considered responses.

    Your point about the unborn child being part of the woman's body until it's born is well made; unfortunately this point wasn't made in the programme.