Culture At Large

The great Hitchens debate: my reactions

Andy Rau

Last week, I was on hand to witness the great Hitchens vs. Hitchens debate, in which Christopher and Peter Hitchens clashed in a public debate about the Iraq war, God, religion, and other assorted topics. I've wanted to post something about the debate for a few days now, but have been trying to process it all and reach a verdict about how it went and who "won" the debate.

I don't have any brilliant analysis of the debate, but here are a few of my observations. I hope you were able to watch the debate either online or in person; and I hope they make it available online, because it was a fascinating exchange of ideas. Without further ado, then, my impressions of the debate:

  • The opening part of the debate centered around whether or not the US invasion of Iraq should be seen as a good or bad thing (Christopher supported the war; Peter opposed it). I won't delve into the politics of this question here on TC, but the exchange ended up (I thought) as a tie: both Christopher and Peter advanced their views eloquently, but neither of them offered up any particularly new arguments or insights.
  • The heart of the evening's debate was the lengthy back-and-forth over the question "Is religion good for society?" Christopher, a well-known atheist, argued that religion is a dangerous and evil force in society, while Peter (a Christian) argued that religion, and Christianity in particular, has been and continues to be a good thing for society. (Note that the debate was not about the question of whether or not Christianity is true. That question came up in the ensuing exchange, but the central issue of the debate was the broader question of whether religion is a Good or Bad Thing in general.)
  • Both Christopher and Peter are extremely eloquent speakers, and both were incredibly direct and blunt with their arguments. Neither hesitated to call out what they believed to be foolish or inadequate arguments presented by the other. Christopher in particular is very witty and charismatic; he's the sort of speaker who will have you smiling even as he rips into your deepest-held beliefs. (Even as he jabbed away at religion and Christianity, it was impossible not to admire his eloquence.)
  • Christopher's central argument in the debate was not what I expected. I expected the classic atheist argument: that without objective proof of God's existence, it's foolish to believe in God. But Christopher's primary objection to Christianity was more emotional: if you step back and look at God as he is portrayed in the Bible, he asked, would you really, honestly want that God to exist? The God that Christopher sees in the Bible is a tyrant, an omnipotent Big Brother who watches everything you do, stacks the deck against humanity, and condemns people to hell because they don't meet up to impossible standards. After comparing life under this God's rule to life in North Korea, he offered the evening's most memorable quote: "At least you can f***ing die and leave North Korea."
  • Peter, for his part, vigorously attacked the atheist argument that society would be much better off without religion. He criticized Christopher's utopian idea of a peaceful non-religious society, suggesting that such a society would lack any sort of moral basis upon which to base laws and ideas about justice and human rights. Pointing to the increasingly non-religious British society he lives in, he observed that the gradual removal of God and religion from mainstream British society is resulting in a darker, less civil, more violent society, rather than a happier, more peaceful one. And of course there were the obvious references to the 20th century's most famous attempts to create "godless" societies: Mao and Stalin. (Christopher strongly contested both of those examples.) Peter also scored some points by criticizing the vicious and glib tone that atheists seem to so often affect when talking about religion; and he challenged atheists to consider why so many people, faced with doubts and serious questions about religion, nevertheless choose to believe.
  • Christopher's arguments were hurt by his tendency to get carried away with his own rhetoric; he would start with fairly reasonable arguments, but he had a tendency to quite dramatically overstate his case. His arguments also require one to interpret God and religion in the worst conceivable light in every case. For instance, he continued to decry the "barbarism" of Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac even after Peter noted that it is equally valid to interpet that story as a condemnation of certain barbaric practices rather than as an endorsement of them.
  • Peter's arguments were hurt by two things, one under his control and the other not. First, he was in the unenviable position of having to defend very complicated issues in a very short period of time. While it's relatively easy to toss out a dozen barbed criticisms of religion in ten minutes, talking through and defending Christianity from each of those attacks is not the sort of thing one can do effectively in just a few minutes' time. It also makes for a less... exciting presentation. Secondly, there were one or two moments in the debate where Peter simply declined to respond to one of Christopher's challenges, claiming (not unreasonably) that doing so would be futile given Christopher's adamant beliefs. It's true that Peter had little chance of changing Christopher's mind, but there were a lot of people in the audience who would have benefited from a spirited response.
  • It's hard for me to choose a "winner" from the debate. Both debaters were eloquent and presented their cases well. This is one of those situations where if you agree with Christopher, you probably think he "won," and if you agree with Peter, you probably think he carried the day. Ultimately, I think Christopher came across as the debate's winner, at least partly because of his exceptional rhetorical charm and wit.

Those are just a few of my impressions from the debate. If you watched it and agree or disagree with me, I'd love to hear your thoughts. It was a real pleasure to watch, and I think Christians ought to salute Peter Hitchens in particular for putting forth a spirited and intellectually credible defense of the faith.

So—who else watched the debate, and what did you think?

Topics: Culture At Large, News & Politics, North America