A couple of years ago I was given the opportunity to drive Alister McGrath to a speaking engagement. He gave an excellent lecture on Luther’s theologia crucis, a subject of which is he an expert. On the drive back to his hotel I asked him about his debates with various leading atheists. I asked him if debating the overtly arrogant Richard Dawkins was a frustrating experience. He said no, that Dawkins wasn’t actually that bad on a personal level. Rather, it was Christopher Hitchens who was much more difficult. “You see him with a glass of water on the lectern in a debate,” McGrath said, “Only it is not water in the glass.” Apparently as Hitchens imbibes he becomes more and more cantankerous, making the debate a less-than-pleasurable experience.
My perceptions about the New Atheists, however, are different. Because of his demeanor, I have very little time for Dawkins; his prideful tone is a complete turn-off. But I do enjoy Christopher Hitchens, even though I think his arguments against the existence of God are beneath his own intellectual abilities. Hitchens uses ravaging rhetoric when he skewers his Christian opponents, yet I don’t get the same visceral disgust as I do with Dawkins. Why is that?
The reason for this is that—at least as it appears to me—Dawkins’ arrogance is of the “How dare you question me??” variety, while Hitchens’ is more “How dare you question what I perceive to be self-evidently true?” In the latter case, Hitchens is vitriolic in the name of truth, whereas Dawkins is revolted at the idea that anyone would challenge him in is Oxford-donness.
Of course I don’t doubt that Christopher Hitchens can be just as conceited as Richard Dawkins. But at least his concern seems to be for the argument more than for his reputation. If that’s the case then I can respect that, even though I disagree with the content of his arguments (and think they’re weak and shallow).