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October 13th, 2010
07:00 AM ET

Hitchens brothers debate if civilization can survive without God

Editor's Note: CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor Eric Marrapodi files this report from Washington, DC.

Brothers Christopher and Peter Hitchens squared off Tuesday in a debate over whether civilization can survive without God. Christopher, the older of the two, is a renowned atheist thinker and author. Peter, the lesser known of the two, is a practicing Christian and also a well-regarded author.

Christopher Hitchens is going through a very public battle with cancer, a subject that came up often during the debate. Michael Cromartie from the Ethics and Public Policy Center, moderated the debate and mentioned Christopher, who lives in the District of Columbia, was attending in between doctor appointments. Peter Hitchens had flown in from England specifically for the lunchtime debate.

Christopher Hitchens arrived with a white straw Panama hat. Beneath the hat he has no hair, lost from cancer treatments. Though noticeably thinner, Hitchens did not seem to suffer any intellectual consequences from his treatment.

He argued civilization could survive without God and in many cases is surviving without God.

“There used to be a word which could be used unironically,” he said. “People meant what they said when they said the word Christendom. There was a Christian world. Partly evolved, partly carved out by the sword, partly defended by the sword, giving way and expanding at times. But it was a meaningful name for a community of belief and value that endured for many, many centuries. It had many splendors to its name, but it’s all gone now.”

He said that today, in “huge parts of what we might call the industrialized modern world, tens of millions of people live in a post-religious society. It’s hard to argue that they lead conspicuously less civilized lives than their predecessor generations.”

He added, “I don’t think it’s really true to say that we live less civilized a life than those of our predecessors, who believed there was a genuine religious authority who spoke with power.”

To further his point he added examples from his own life of interacting with people of faith.

“If you go around the provincial halls and public theaters as I do, whenever I can, and engage in belief and the believers you’ll find to an extraordinary extent an ethical humanism with a vague spiritual content. It’s extremely commonplace.”

He specifically pointed to two American examples: Reform Judaism and self-described American “cafeteria Catholics” who pick and choose aspects of their faith they find appealing. That, he argued, proved God, and to a larger extent organized religion, are unnecessary to continuing civilization.

His brother Peter took the opposite side. He was quick to clarify later in the event he was arguing from the perspective of Christianity and not from the perspective of all religions.

In Peter Hitchens’ remarks he described his time as a journalist covering the fall of Mogadishu and the crumbling of his boyhood neighborhood in England to roving thugs. He said both examples showed a massive decline of civilization, and he said the civilization we see today could disappear.

“The behavior of human beings towards one another has sunk to levels not far from the Stone Age,” he said.

In addressing his specific boyhood neighborhood, he asked, “How has this decline come about in civilization?”

“Well I think it has come about, a least partly, and I’m not a single-cause type of person, but at least partly there is no longer in the hearts of the English people the restraints of the Christian religion that used to prevent this type of behavior. I think it would be completely idle to image the two things are not related.”

He continued and drew a parallel to his argument with American and British society. “The extraordinary combination which you in this country and I in mine used to enjoy, and may for some time continue, of liberty and order, seem to me to only occur where people take into their hearts the very, very, powerful messages of self-restraint without mutual advantage, which is central to the Christian religion.”

While the two were on opposite ends of the spectrum when it came to the role and place of God in civilization, they did find unique common ground on Christopher Hitchens' cancer.

During the question-and-answer session, NPR Religion Correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty asked Christopher about the prayers of support he had received from Christians.

Hitchens responded, “Obviously expressions of solidarity are welcome and very touching to me. And whatever form they take.”

But he continued, “I do resent, always have resented, the thought it should in some way be assumed now that you [with a potentially fatal illness] may be terrified, or that is to say, miserable. Or as it might be depressed. Surely now it would be the ideal time to abandon the principles of a lifetime. I’ve always thought this to be a rather repulsive approach.”

His brother Peter jumped in right after in a show of support and said, “I also think it would be quite grotesque to imagine someone would have to get cancer to see the merits of religion. It’s just an absurd idea. I don’t know why anyone imagines it should be certain.”

The event was put on by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. It was billed as a conversation between the brothers and the press. As a result, no winner of the debate was announced.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Atheism • Christianity

soundoff (671 Responses)
  1. TheProdigal

    Who taught you love thy neighbor?

    December 16, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
    • AGuest9

      She did, but what she did would be considered statutory these days.

      December 16, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
  2. TheProdigal

    God is the source of all our morals. We are born with this and it is our choice to decide what we do with it. You ask can civilization survive without God. I think not. How can civilization succeed without God when it is God and only God that taught us how to love our neighbor. What does Atheism teach us? How can an Atheistic society teach us survival when there is no moral framework by which it lives by. You cannot contradict the system you disbelieve in. You live in a society that was framed By God yet you scoff of the idea of us needing it. Hypocrites!

    December 16, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
    • Dave J

      I don't need God to stop me from stealing, killing or coveting. I know what's right and what I want in my society.

      December 16, 2011 at 11:16 pm |
    • bill davis

      Atheism teaches us that we're the masters of the universe: we make the rules. Stop being dense, hypocrite.

      December 17, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • Kebos

      Ah, news flash. As a species of animal, we got here without a god. In fact the god of today who is part of the Judiasm, Muslim and Christian mythology has been floating around in the consciousness of mankind for a mere sliver of the time it has walked this planet.

      No, we got a good long way without a god and once the hindrance that religion puts on mankind has shriveled up and blown away, mankind will do much better than ever in binding into a single and humane fellowship.

      December 19, 2011 at 7:09 am |
  3. yannaes

    I am a Christian. I am very impressed by Christopher! I drew my conclusions about my belief in a Higher Being through several factors. Christopher drew his through several factors. I am impressed by Christopher because he stayed with his belief system through the end of his life and did not waver. How can one not respect one for taking a stance and being tenacious to the end.
    I respect his brother! I am sure they had many debates and discussions and he did not stand in judgment of his brother for his belief(s).
    So, to debate the existence or non-existetence of a Supreme Being will continue till' the end of time. I have had many acquaintances in my classes and peers of whom had different levels of thinking on this matter. We are in contact and I have the deepest regards for them as intellectuals and most of all human beings.

    December 16, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
  4. Somebody

    Peter Hitchens says there are a lot of things he would do it he didn't think God was watching. Then he is NOT moral.

    December 16, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
    • same Yaza

      Exactly

      December 16, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
    • bill davis

      Right! Which is why his brother is the intellectual giant.

      December 17, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • Kebos

      If Peter said that then his thinking has not evolved to where many atheists thinking has. It does not matter whether or not some boogey man in the sky is watching. When you have no religion but are a morale humane person then you are the best example of what mankind can offer. No crutch or devices to support your conduct. Just good morales for morality sake.

      December 19, 2011 at 7:13 am |
  5. Man

    What better topic is there to debate about than god or religion? All of our egos desperate for feedback, hoping that others find originality in our thoughts when in reality there is no such thing as original thought, mine included. That's why "proof" and evidence is so effective; it eliminates debate and inspires the evolution of a theory. We only have each other in this life. All of our accomplishments, differences, faults, and loves belong to no others than ourselves. The difference between a dead person and a living person is purpose. What purpose does a dead body serve other than to feed the earth? It matters not, in my opinion, if there is or isn't a god. At the end of the day, a person needs another person to confirm his or her purpose, not a god. Civilization by definition is made up of a group, all differing in opinion needless to say, and as long as those civilizations are reproducing they live on. When they stop reproducing, they cease to exist. I guess all this rambling means that without each other we are helpless, but with each other we are "godly." All I've ever witnessed is that as as long as time allows us to study its past, the "idea" of a god has been the sole protagonist to our separation. It is all a human knows. If humans do reach a change in civilization, it can be no better or worse than what we've already done and continue to do to each other.

    December 16, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • Kebos

      Well said

      December 19, 2011 at 7:15 am |
  6. dana

    Are the advances of civilization incompatible with survival; does civilization comprise a built-in self-destruct system absent in primitive society

    February 17, 2011 at 1:28 am |
  7. Joaquin Llewellyn

    Can be blogengine superior to blogger somehow? Ought to be because it's becoming more popluar of late.

    November 11, 2010 at 2:07 pm |
  8. Lee Oates

    I suspect that if the human species manages not to destroy itself through war or environmental degradation, and education spreads to all, and separation of religion and government remains, there will come a time when religious beliefs will wither and die a natural death. They will be quaint reminders of man's past ignorance and will have the same validity as the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus. People will wonder with amusement how we could have believed such rediculous stories.

    October 22, 2010 at 10:10 am |
  9. TYRANNASAURUS

    THE TRUTH IS THAT CIVILIZATION COULD SURVIVE BETTER WITHOUT RELIGION AND A FANTASY GOD THAT PEOPLE BELIEVE DOES MAGICAL THINGS...

    October 20, 2010 at 2:34 pm |
    • Noya

      Hello TYRANNASAURUS,
      Support your statement of truth, with some proof, may be scientific or otherwise, but it should acceptable one. Simply statement has no value.

      November 17, 2010 at 6:47 pm |
    • Somebody

      Noya: There has never been a situation where atheists have attacked a religious group, because that group was religious. However, the opposite has been done numerous times by numerous religions.

      December 16, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
  10. Hugh

    These comment sections almost inevitably result in age-old arguments that show respect neither to the atheist or the theists.
    ...A note to some:
    1. Learn about the consequences of determinism for morality
    2. Look beyond caricatures of atheism or religion
    3. Realise that there are both 'ignorant' theists and atheists
    4. Not everyone has the capacity to understand the intricacies of many of the atheist or theist arguments, many of which are misrepresented by either side

    October 18, 2010 at 4:16 am |
  11. Noya

    Since the creation of this universe and resulting civilization, there are two groups, believers in God or theists and non-believers in God or atheists. If there is any God, we should be able to speak to this invisible power 'God'. All those who claim in existence of God and speak to this Powerful energy, (or claim to be speaking and getting answers or advice from this Ever Living God) are the real believers. All other groups who have a faith in His existence, but have never spoken to their God, are just followers and not real people of Faith.
    Human intellect and science of today can either prove that there is a God or can also prove, there is no God. Both Hitchens brothers are using human intellect to solve the enigma. This is a difficult problem to be solved by human intellect. I request readers to solve a simpler problem. Find the difference between a Living Human Body and a Dead Human Body. What is short of Dead Human Body. I will be glad to give my illiterate answer. My answer is God is missing from the Dead Human Body. If you support my answer, that God is always living in our body, whether we believe in Him or Not. We have to find a way to make Him speak to us at least. If we can speak to Him (invisible Power in our body, the God) He will certainly tell, how to get rid of Cancer from our body. Why, because He (GOD) created this wonderful machine, Our Living Human Body.
    If you disagree with my answer, ( the difference between a Living Human Body and a Dead Human Body) you are welcome to offer your scientific answer, if any.
    Religion or Faith only teach us how to find the God and How to talk to Him. Any faith which can lead us to talk to God, we will certainly believe in Him. This Faith will be called a Living Faith. Any Faith or Religion which cannot take us to Talk to Him, the God, is a dead Faith, just like Dead (Human) Body. This is a personal experience, just as Faith is a personal matter or personal belief. When we find our God, we can talk to Him, we can get guidance from Him, a good civilization is born. You have to find your Living Faith, your Living God and Obey the Living God, to remove all ills from your Living Body.

    October 17, 2010 at 10:54 am |
    • Somebody

      You do not understand the nature of Faith. Faith demands belief, despite evidence. Noone who has "faith" that a god exists has ever spoken to their god. Anyone who has spoken to their god no longer has "faith," because they KNOW that their god exists. Faith = lack of knowledge. Once knowledge is gained, faith disappears.

      What is missing from a dead body is the chemical process that keeps a living body alive.

      December 16, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • bill davis

      you're an idiot

      December 17, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
  12. Laura

    What did the outcast angel Lucifer ever really do wrong beyond challenge god's ultimate authority? And what is an infinite ultimate authority except a celestial dictatorship? We don't tolerate dictators amongst our own here on planet Earth, why are we tolerating absolute dictatorships within our religious ideals?

    What would you do to an adult child, that your gave everything you had, your love, time, money, made him vice president of your company, gave him your house, your cars, and he thanked you by spitting in your face. Mayby he even decided he wanted to be you, and remove you from out of his way?
    Would you kick him out? Would you take back all you gave him? God kicked him out, but he never took back anything he had blessed him with. He was Gods favorite angel, before he fell. Just goes to show what pride and greed can do. Given the situation I just presented to you, would you ca,, yourself a "dictator"?

    If the judeo-christian God exists, he doesnt' deserve praise as he is inherently immoral by all standards we human beings measure ourselves against. Why are we to make exceptions for deities? Religion is a weakness in the individual and collective human mind. It's an inability to confront inconvenient displeasing truths about the nature of existence and mortality.

    You are wrong, he deserves ALL our praise and then some. He is immoral I won't even waste my breathe to comment on, particularly when you throw in what we measure ourselves against Just what do you think you got that from? God created evrything and everybody, so I wold classify him as in the same boat with "other dieties" None of them EVER did what he did and continues to do, because they are all dead and he is ALIVE!
    Mayby religon is not so good in itself, but a personal relationship with Jesus is not in that category.

    Religion deflects a degree of pain and fear felt by people who cannot face it bluntly themselves. It is false comfort. Ignorant bliss over painful enlightenment.
    Again, organized religion has its bad points. God is not religion.
    I am a Christian and I have a wonderful life, do not fear death or where I am going, for my God has made me promises and based on that I can live a life full of joy, even in sorrowful times. I have no fear, as his perfect love casts out all fear.
    Peace to you!

    October 15, 2010 at 8:57 pm |
    • Somebody

      God sacrificed himself to himself to save his creation that he could have saved in any other way, since he is omnipotent. If it happened, then it was a pointless sacrifice, and means nothing.

      December 16, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • Somebody

      Are you schitzophrenic? You alternately argue for and against god in alternating sentences.

      December 16, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
  13. Laura

    @JjinReligious people should stop trying to PROVE that god exists to everyone else and realize that god only exists as they CHOOSE god to exist
    Thats your opinion.We know he exists. Someday, you will be likus.
    Ok...tell them to stop asking us to "prove" it then.

    October 14, 2010 at 10:54 pm |
  14. ABC's

    Psalms 10:4 says the "WICKED ONE according to his superciliousness MAKES NO SEARCH. All his ideas are: "There is no God." Wow, that says a lot.

    October 14, 2010 at 2:45 pm |
  15. ABC's

    @DarthWoo's comments are baseless. He provides no evidence to back up the accusations and statements he proclaims.
    Why listen to such a person who thinks so much of himself and that He is not even able to give the specifics.
    He cant even back up what he says with evidence. He doesn't fool me. I can see right through his false knowledge.

    October 14, 2010 at 2:26 pm |
  16. uos_spo6

    Let's pretend The Biblical outlined God does exist, it's still all a bunch of work play nonsense. Ideas like salvation and damnation serve no meaning outside of the religion they exist within. It's an entire circle jerk system of rationalization (or lack there of). Why is God good? because he said so himself? Jesus died for our sins? Some sins are ok in Gods name? It makes no sense to anyone but someone who chooses to emotionally invest in the nonsense themselves.

    What did the outcast angel Lucifer ever really do wrong beyond challenge god's ultimate authority? And what is an infinite ultimate authority except a celestial dictatorship? We don't tolerate dictators amongst our own here on planet Earth, why are we tolerating absolute dictatorships within our religious ideals?

    If the judeo-christian God exists, he doesnt' deserve praise as he is inherently immoral by all standards we human beings measure ourselves against. Why are we to make exceptions for deities? Religion is a weakness in the individual and collective human mind. It's an inability to confront inconvenient displeasing truths about the nature of existence and mortality.

    Religion deflects a degree of pain and fear felt by people who cannot face it bluntly themselves. It is false comfort. Ignorant bliss over painful enlightenment.

    October 14, 2010 at 2:01 pm |
  17. oneStarman - Walla Walla, WA

    THE ANSWER SEEMS TO BE 'NO' – We as a Civilization are on the edge of a cliff of our own building. The GREED and SELF CENTEREDNESS that is so Characteristic of the Modern World is leading to its own EXTINCTION. The September Scientific American had a chart which, among others – gave our chances of annihilation from Catastrophic Global Warming as 1 in 2 – either it will happen or it will not. The difference would be from an ethical restraint that values more than our own desires

    October 14, 2010 at 1:47 pm |
  18. Marc

    The answer to whether or not civilization [u]can[/u] survive is actually very simple. Yes. As long as there is enough time and willingness to do something, it can happen. (In other words, the only things that can interfere with something happening are time and free will.) But I understand that is not what the question is trying to address.

    In actuality, we are wondering [u]will[/u] civilization survive without God. My answer to that question would be 'It depends." It depends on whether or not like-minded people find each other. Civilization does base itself in a belief system, a system shared by a significant number of people. This belief system establishes order. In some ways it establishes a future, which is then shared by the group. Civilization, I might say, is simply people working together toward that future.

    I would contend that God is not the glue that holds the belief system together. I believe our morals define our belief system, and so as long as our morals survive, civilization can survive without God.

    October 14, 2010 at 1:36 pm |
  19. ABC's

    Where is the Evidence to back up your claims?
    The Truth is: YOUR STATEMENTS ARE MERE WIND. You have no provided NO evidence or proof what so ever that the Bible is 'rife with historical and scientific inaccuracies'.

    Therefore, my conclusion is your argument and line of reasoning is Faulty and is Baseless. and you present yourself as a 'know it all' - Cheers!

    October 14, 2010 at 1:32 pm |
  20. ABC's

    I am still waiting for your to back up your statements with evidence. Where is the Evidence to back up your claims?
    The Truth is: YOUR STATEMENTS ARE MERE WIND. You have no provided NO evidence or proof what so ever that the Bible is 'rife with historical and scientific inaccuracies'.

    Therefore, my conclusion is your argument and line of reasoning is Faulty and is Baseless. and you present yourself as a 'know it all' - Cheers!

    October 14, 2010 at 1:31 pm |
    • joe

      For those who believe, no proof is nessecary. For those who do not believe, no proof is sufficient.

      December 18, 2011 at 3:37 am |
    • i wonder

      joe
      "For those who do not believe, no proof is sufficient."

      An omniscient "God" would know exactly what proof is sufficient for each and every one of us. An all-caring one would provide it.

      If you had proof, you would not need faith. I'll bet that you would miss your fantasy, right, joe?

      December 18, 2011 at 4:03 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.