Are you there God, and if so, will you please provide an emissary that can go head-to-head with Christopher Hitchens without getting spectacularly flayed?
That was the pertinent issue during yesterday’s “Big Questions conversation” at the Pierre Hotel, hosted by On Faith and the John Templeton Foundation. The luncheon pitted Hitchens, the anti-theist poster child, against Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, a physicist, theologian, and author of God at the Ritz: Attraction to Infinity.
Given the pro-God squad’s spectacular failure the last time it staged a debate like this, the buzz among the predominantly male and heavily tweeded crowd was, “Will Albacete bring his A game against a man known for his periodic disembowling of religious delegates?”
The answer, unfortunately, was a resounding no. While the monsignor presented a charismatic and sympathetic figure—his Isaac Hayes-esque vocal resonance was worth the trip alone—his arguments, if one could call them that, didn’t make it past a freshmen theology class.
Albacete’s strategy seemed to be to dance around his opponent—never has “I agree with you completely” been so frequently uttered by a Catholic priest to a hardcore atheist—and rely on his ecclesiastical gravitas to give credence to his chief points: that science and religion can co-exist; that human beings are biological creatures defined by faith; that religion and faith are separate entities; and that science has not provided sufficient proof that God doesn’t exist to squelch the belief that He does.
All of which could be sound claims if argued effectively, with cogent reasoning and specific examples to counter the obvious holes that Hitchens wasted no time presenting: The burden of proof rests on deists, not atheists, to prove there is a God; no scientific evidence exists to support the assertion that Jesus Christ was the son of God, or even existed; and the tenets of organized religion are nothing more than the “delusions” of humankind needed to sustain our desire for pageantry and meaning.
Rather than hit these atheist talking points head on, the Monsignor sputtered and evaded his way through the hour, clinging to an agenda focused on capitulation short of outright renunciation of belief. Religion, he admitted, has done “a lot” of harm, but “science has been [just] as misused.” When Hitchens accused Albacete of flippancy concerning the pain Christianity has caused despite the total lack of existential evidence, the priest responded: “I have seen evidence in my experience that Jesus Christ existed.” Excellent! An original point! So what was this evidence? Too bad we never found out—either he had no answer, or was unwilling to share.
It’s unfortunate that Albacete brought so little from his distinguished career and thoughtful writings, which demonstrate a commitment to open-minded discussion of an issue that has brought humanity to an impasse. Instead he seemed intent on emerging from the Upper East Side with his dignity intact, as well as besting the king of one-liners in a soundbite contest. A few highlights:
“To me, faith is the problem…it’s like trying to explain to your uncomprehending family why you’ve fallen in love with so and so.”
“You could substitute for Christ the Great Lizard, for all I care.”
“When I was looking [to woo] my women, I did not send them equations.”
“As I try to live a decent life…something extraordinary enters my life and moves me the way nothing ever has before. Was it what I drank? Was it the pizza? Was it what I’d been smoking? Most of the time, it is!”
So there you have it: It might be God, or it might be bad pizza. Lets hope the next champion of God (an imam perhaps?) that battles Hitchens is armed with a slightly more compelling response.