Christopher Hitchens, once again, provides the best example for a difficulty I see in the current debates between the religious and secularists. The fact of sound-byte style debating is spread well beyond any particular subject, and the worthlessness of it is generally acknowledged.
Acknowledged, that is, until one happens to agree with the slogan.
For example, take Hitchens’ famous statement: “Science flies you to the moon; religion flies you into buildings.” Many defend this claim on the simple ground that it is a factual statement. In the most literal sense, it is no less factual than the any number of equally silly statements (Such as “Religion invented the hospital; science invented the atom bomb.”). But there is simply no legitimate truth to be found in such comments.
As much as Hitchens and others (including religious debaters) have been praised for introducing bombastic, though technically true, statements into the discussion, I find this appalling. A literal truth which horribly distorts the reality of a situation, flares up tempers, and is accepted without any serious reflection by many is anything but helpful. How much more, then, is the plethora of statements which fail even the test of literal truth?
The only real value I find in these statements is the speed with which they reveal to me which individuals are crude enough in thinking to believe that science or religion, in the abstract, is somehow responsible for the act of every scientist, theologian, or politician that ever grabbed upon their labels.
There are many religious practitioners who don’t seem to have realized that not all atheists are actively opposed to the practice of religion. Likewise, there are atheists who haven’t realized that religious individuals are not automatically committed to the idea that religion, in the abstract or general sense, is good.
For this is how slogans work. They compress a vast and diverse group down into a caricature understandable by a small child. While there isn’t much hope that this form of debating will end, it is possible for us to oppose the technique when we see it. It will be this attitude, taken by countless people around the world, which may finally curb the idea that people can and should be persuaded without invoking them to think beyond a witty remark.