This old debate (which came up when I looked up Al Sharpton in response to Obama’s use of his name in contrast with James Dobson) is quite good, but Hitchens’ failure to take up Sharpton’s (repeated) invitation to raise things to a higher level is disappointing.
Sharpton repeatedly asked Hitchens to address the question of “god” in a more general and abstract way than by looking at the (often contradictory) claims of particular scriptures. I was impressed by his lack of any kind of fundamentalist attachment to such writings, and I think his emphasis on the idea of a personal god was both interesting and answerable.
It may be that many people experience some sense of “divine presence” in their lives more strongly than I do. And whether or not they feel it more strongly, they certainly identify it more definitely as something external to themselves. The important question implied by the title of Hitchens’ book (which was, after all, the proposition to be debated) is to what extent this “divine presence” really is something external or universal and whether or not its influence on our behaviour is greatly positive (or at least benign).
If when walking in the untracked woods I see a particularly beautiful tree, and later meet someone else who has had a similar experience, then we don’t know at once that it was the same tree we both saw. We can gain some confidence of that by comparing descriptions and describing what we remember of the paths we took, but for complete confidence we need more. For a tree, or any other real object, that extra confidence can be provided by having one of us mark it out in some way and having the other notice the effect of that change. But what way is there of confirming that the “god” experienced by Al Sharpton is the same as anyone else’s rather than being just a figment of his imagination? Just because our experiences are similar, or even identical, is not enough to infer that the gods we experience are in fact the same. Nor is the very strong feeling that they are the same enough to confirm that fact – especially as there are actually many divergent versions of that experience.
I would have very much liked to have Hitchens ask this and hear Sharpton’s response rather than have them just repeat their initial positions.
And then, with or without a resolution of the existence question, it would also have been useful to have Hitchens respond to the question of where the moral values (many of which they share) actually come from. He might well have said (as I would) that they “just” evolved as mental patterns which drive us towards behaviours which are advantageous to populations which share the genes which cause them.
But he did not.
And so Sharpton was unable to respond (as I might) that the extent of universality in a population of those instincts is the extent of universality of god and that its greatness is evidenced by its success in maintaining a successful population.
Hitchens might then have spoken of the lack of universality between different populations and beyond our own species (and of the apparent cases of maladaptive instances), and Sharpton have replied that the “true” god comprised only what was in common and effective, and that it extended beyond humanity because the moral concept itself was not dependent on its physical implementation in any particular brain or in the genetics of any particular species. And so on…
But it didn’t happen.