Two days ago I posted a critique of Peter Hitchens’s views on evolution (he doesn’t accept it). One reader warned me that Hitchens would undoubtedly see that and reply, but I didn’t believe it: why would he mess with a small fish like me? Unfortunately, Hitchens is one of those splenetic people whose internal rage is sufficiently strong that he cannot resist replying to criticism, especially from an atheist. I long ago learned the lesson of not engaging with critics unless there was a possibility of enlightening some third parties, for such engagement is futile. And if I did so, I’d spend all my time replying to the vitriolic posts about me on religious websites, as well as the deranged ravings of gun nuts cursing me on YouTube.
As my reader predicted, P. Hitchens could not resist, and sent a comment that I, instead of burying in a thread, will reproduce here. It was sent under his own name (give the man this: he’s no coward), and here it is in full:
Once again, we see here the visceral hatred, rage and intolerance of the atheist fanatics (and of the sad and embarrassing hero-worshippers of the Christopher Hitchens fan club). This, of course, is caused by their own lack of confidence in their faith, though they lack the candour or even the self-awareness to admit it *is* a faith. The mildest doubts are treated as dreadful heresy, and the death of the supposed heretic is openly desired (and that desire is then sneakily denied when it is pointed out). No serious person argues in this spite-filled, spittle-flecked fashion. Do grow up.
Here’s my response:
Dear Mr. Peter Hitchens,
As with many religious people who despise atheism, you have spent your time concentrating on the tone of my article (which, by the way, is much milder than the invective I regularly receive, without complaint, from religious people) rather than dealing with the substance of my criticism, which was far more extensive.
Let me remind you of the falsehoods you spread about evolution, which do not constitute “mild doubts” in the eyes of anyone who understands evolution.
- You criticized Darwin (and implicitly, modern evolutionists) for suggesting that whales might have evolved from swimming bears. Yes, that was incorrect, but the fact is that whales did evolve from terrestrial mammals—deerlike instead of bearlike ones. And you “forgot” to add that we now have a series of transitional fossils from terrestrial mammals to modern whales,. That, by the way, addresses your second lie:
- You claimed that microevolution occurs but does not cause substantial evolutionary change (“macroevolution”). Tsk, tsk, Mr. P. Hitchens—you should know better. In fact, I suspect you do—at least if you’ve read enough about evolution to consider yourself qualified to criticize it. I gave some evidence for the continuity between micro- and macroevolution. You ignored it.
- You claimed that the Piltdown Man hoax shows that scientific findings are unrealiable. As I noted, the hoax was uncovered—by scientists—within a few decades. The theory and fact of evolution have been massive for over 150 years, and continue to grow and solidify.
- You argued that Intelligent Design (ID) doesn’t specify a designer, implying that it’s not a religiously-based theory. Anyone who knows ID knows that that claim is a sham. The Great Designer is the Christian God (aka Jesus and the Holy Ghost).
- You claimed that evolution is “a theory about the distant past, witnessed by nobody, based upon speculation, not upon observation.” As I showed, that, too, is false. Evolution is based on far more than speculation; it rests on mountains of evidence, observations and fulfilled predictions. I wrote a book about this evidence. It’s called Why Evolution is True. Read it.
- You argued that science hasn’t “proven” evolution. That’s not our job. Our job is to find the best explanation for natural phenomena. Science is not in the business of uncovering absolute, immutable truths—that’s the futile aspiration of religion. Do you understand that—or anything about how science works?
- You argued that there is evidence for adaptation, but that’s not “evolutionary change.” In fact it is. This shows again that you don’t understand even the most rudimentary claims of evolutionary biology.
- You claimed that the implication of evolution is “plainly atheistical, and if its truth could be proved, then the truth of atheism could be proved. I believe that is its purpose, and that it is silly to pretend otherwise.” If the purpose of studying evolution is to prove atheism, why are a fair number of evolutionary biologists religious? If you claim that we’re all out to dump on God, you don’t know biologists at all. Most of us don’t care about your god: we want to understand nature. If our findings make god’s existence less likely, then so much the worse for him—and you.
- You characterize acceptance of evolution as a “faith.” Wrong, of course. We accept evolution because there is irrefutable evidence for it. Your imaginary Anglican god, in which you have real faith, is supported by no evidence at all. Faith is in fact belief in the absence of evidence.
These are just some of your claims that I answered. But instead of defending them, you choose to concentrate on the “rage and intolerance of the atheist fanatics.” To paraphrase your brother, when the tone-trolling begins, then you know that the other side doesn’t have an argument.
Yes, I was angry at your ignorance: it is a terrible crime that someone of your education and intelligence spends his time not only attacking one of the best-supported scientific theories we have, but spreading untruths about it. That harms the public understanding of science. I doubt that you would tolerate such a tissue of lies and ignorance when it comes to your political journalism. Do your bloody homework!
Two other points. Your comment about the “sad and embarrassing hero-worshippers of the Christopher Hitchens fan club” is a rich mine for psychologists, but I’ll leave the mining to others. Let me just say that atheists are not at all a “worshipping” fan club of your brother. Many of us have taken issue with his views, including those on the Iraq war, as well as his attitude towards women and his contempt for believers. Atheists don’t “worship” people; we admire them, while recognizing their flaws. And your brother, whose memory you besmirch with that remark, was an admirable man in many ways that you are not. For one thing, he knew a hell of a lot more about evolution, and wouldn’t embarrass himself in public with the dreadful ignorance of biology you parade in your pages.
Finally, I do not wish for you to die, and never did. That would cause terrible grief for those friends and family that you have, and I would not wish for that. What I said was this, “If I were religious, I’d say that God took the wrong Hitchens.” When that was misinterpreted by a reader as meaning that I hoped you would die, I explained my comment as I meant it: if we had to choose between having you or your brother with us, I’d choose Christopher. That clarification was not “sneaky,” but honest. Yet you impugn it as yet another reason to attack the “rage and intolerance” of atheists. It’s almost as if you wish that I wish you could die, so you could further rage on about our tone. Well, how about trying to engage our arguments—not only our arguments against god, but for evolution?
It is you who should grow up, Mr. P. Hitchens—intellectually. Do some research about evolution, but first remove your religious blinders. As all journalists know, you have to understand a topic before you express opinions about it. And put away your childish things, which include that Anglican faith.
I guess Peter Hitchens will be reading this, as well as the comments. If you want to add your own response, please do so. But I ask that you be civil.