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. Jacob

    God is not 'out there'... God is within you and those who deny that voice that resides within us all that is the voice of peace and love that has to power to transform the world if we only choose to listen to it. For those that wish to condemn Christianity, I suggest reading the T. Jefferson version of the Bible where he took out all the supernatural aspects of the religion and only focused on the philosophy of Christ. When you approach Christ from a logical and rational perspective, it is hard to deny that Christ had all the answers. Love conquers all. My heart goes out to those who have never in their life experienced love in its purest and most unconditional form. Sadly, too many parents in today's world fall short in this department and plant the seed of many of the world's ills. If we keep waiting for an external messiah to save us we will all be disappointed. It is in converting how we think from ego based to conscious based that the messiah resides. We continually want to defer power to government but the power of consciousness resides in We The People. You do not have to be a Christian per se to believe in God and the power of the human mind. We much choose love over over our inherent fear if we are to be a force in the world. http://www.awakentoconsciousliving.com. Peace.

    October 13, 2010 at 4:29 pm |
  2. brad

    Christopher Hitchens said "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.” Well, I hope that he can deal with any questions in private. Lots of people waiting around hoping he does or does not change his mind. Gotta admire his integrity.

    On the other hand, it's okay to change your thinking. A person can change from thinking of God as a tooth fairy to realizing that God is so vast the universe cannot contain Her and yet can be entirely present on the head of a pin.

    October 13, 2010 at 4:20 pm |
  3. BeegNeeg

    "Civilization without God has already led to mental illness. ..."

    Brad, if you believe God exists, how can there be civilization without God? It's God afterall, wouldn't God be everywhere... all knowing and all being and all that stuff?

    So, if there is a God, EVERYTHING... good, bad, ugly... can and should be directly attributed to Him/Her/It.

    October 13, 2010 at 4:19 pm |
  4. JohnQuest

    Pastor Evans, if my earlier post offended you I apologize, I'm certain a salty dog like yourself has no fear of challenging or thought provoking questions. I too have seen what men can do to each other on a battle field (USMC), that's one of the reasons why I don't believe in a loving, caring all powerful deity.

    October 13, 2010 at 4:15 pm |
  5. jobleaux

    I have always been amazed at the number of people that still believe in an invisible, supernatural man in the sky. And the Chritian god is one of the most ridiculous of all. Let's see – Christianity: The belief that a cosmic Jewish Zombie who was his own father and can simultaneously read the minds of billions of people, can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and elepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree. Otherwise, you'll be tortured forever by an invisible red guy with horns and a tail.

    It just boggles my mind how people can believe such utter nonsense.

    October 13, 2010 at 4:05 pm |
  6. Pastor Evans

    Pastor Evans doesn't run from anyone. I did 21 years in the U.S. Army to include combat duty in the middle east x 2. I'm returning a comment for all who don't believe in Jesus Christ. No matter how much you hate Him and don't believe in Him, He still loves you with an everlasting love!!! That's the God I serve. "Yet while we were in SIN, which we all were born into not by choice, Jesus died for us in order to save us to Himself for ever" That's real love!!! Amen!!!

    October 13, 2010 at 4:02 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @Pastor Evans

      Your assertion comes across as if it is *fact* I would then ask you.... How specifically do you know this..?

      And then you would say, because, the bible told me so... And then I would ask you... How do you know that the bible is *fact*.. And you would say because it says so, in the bible. See the 'circular logic'..?

      You are attempting to act as if what you 'believe' is.... *fact* when in reality, in relationship to your assertion... beliefs are *not* = to facts.

      October 13, 2010 at 8:52 pm |
  7. Dragosurfer

    To CNN: Why is my previous comment is awaiting moderation? Please Don't Censor me! Why would CNN Censor anyone?

    October 13, 2010 at 3:58 pm |
    • nord

      There is no rhyme or reason to it. Don't take it personally. I'm still trying to figure out why one of mine got flagged. There's a thread on it above.

      October 13, 2010 at 4:14 pm |
  8. Dave

    I do believe in a " God " or a " Creator "....or "Universal Consciousness " but anyone who has studied Christian History and the making of the Bible knows that Christianity is a man created myth that has grown over the centuries. The Christian version of God is a childish and primitive invention. The Bible is a book that no parent should allow their child to read, given the perverse and dark nature of it's writings....people need to mature in their understanding of God. I applaud C.Hithens however in educating people regarding Christianity.

    October 13, 2010 at 3:50 pm |
  9. Omdus

    Where was god on 9/11/01.

    October 13, 2010 at 3:47 pm |
  10. jeremy2345

    "Glen Beck says only Islam is bad... and Glen's a pretty smart guy, you have to be to have a radio show on the Fox network."
    lol kidding of course

    October 13, 2010 at 3:40 pm |
  11. Marcie

    If only we had apostles and a prophet on the earth today to help clarify what's truth. And if only we had a book that foretold EVERYTHING that is happening in the last days. Oh well, I guess I'll just lean to my own understanding.

    October 13, 2010 at 3:40 pm |
    • Jacob

      What if we could write a book that combines the thinking of all religions and non-religious folk alike and then applies it to the world in which we presently live in??? That's what we are doing through our website.

      Join us at http://www.awakentoconsciousliving.com.

      October 13, 2010 at 4:15 pm |
  12. ABC's

    @dt your ? "as far as the rest of the universe is concerned having no life? Well, it is reasonable with all our technological advances we would have heard something from out there by now. Right, Don't you think? We have a Satellite in Puerto Rico that does just that. and still nothing but silence.
    Not necessarily. Questions can also be linear. I have come to the understanding and have come to accept the fact that there is Someone so powerful, so magnificent whom never had a birthday or was created and has always existed.

    October 13, 2010 at 3:40 pm |
  13. Jacob

    What is God? It is a level of consciousness that arises when we are able to think beyond the level of our 5 senses. It is our human capacity to choose good over evil. We can come at consciousness from various angles and we can call it whatever we like, i.e. Holy Spirit, God, Buddha-nature, Supreme Being, etc. There is not denying even for the athest that the human mind has two voices contained within that are in constant tug of war with on another. The world we live in is largely ego based and thus all the ills that result from fear based thinking. We fear death, harm, failure, disease, etc. All of which can be overcome with surrender to consciousness. The world we live in is a mere reflection of our own conscious thinking working collectively. Change our thoughts and we can change the world. Read more at awakentoconsciousliving.com.

    October 13, 2010 at 3:40 pm |
  14. brad

    Somewhere along the evolutionary path, humanity must have realized that if he was going to survive he was going to have to behave along certain lines. Since "realizing" is a matter of consciousness and intelligence, how did it get there? From stupid matter lower than himself, or from a higher source? Compassion, for example, goes a long way toward helping us survive as a species. And yet where do we find compassion in nature other than in ourselves? At what point did man choose the higher (compassion) and overcome the lower instincts? To me it implies that an intelligence higher than us was involved.

    October 13, 2010 at 3:36 pm |
  15. kargo27

    ABC's arguement for God's existence is a sound one.

    I'll add to that. What gave me faith in a God was chemistry. I can't fathom how a particle such as a proton, neutron or electron, stays in existence. In the natural world, things degrade. Yet Newton's Law (I forget which one) says that matter is neither created nor destroyed. I don't understand how an electron, made of matter, doesn't degrade. Is it always the same size or shape? It would spin around the nucleus for infinity if protected from a chemical reaction.

    And every molecule in space has electrons that spin with perfect orbit, around the nucleus of it's atom. Countless (not really because matter is finite) electrons in their perfect orbits. What is keeping them in orbit? What is keeping them from from straying and flying around any other nucleus of any other atom? There is order here. This "order" holds chaos at bay.

    I can't believe that this "just happened." I can't believe, although it would be much easier to believe, that there is not a God, an intelligent Creator or Prime Mover. Something is missing in our universe which would explain how this all came to be and what holds it in place. This order in the universe, kept in check by these atomic/subatomic forces, really amazes me.

    I haven't even touched on the miracle of life, cellular metabolism, reproduction or the fact that we're sentient beings.

    I challenge all athiests/agnostic brothers and sisters to pick a topic such as those I listed or something similar and pick them apart down to the minute details, break them down to the cellular or atomic level and ask youself "how can this 'just be'?"

    When I do that it points to a Creator because nothing else I can come up with makes sense.

    October 13, 2010 at 3:28 pm |
    • Fiona

      Nope! Not Newton, but Julius Robert Mayer. And it was ENERGY he was talking about. So if energy cannot be created or destroyed, and all matter is energy, it is not true "things degrade" in the natural world. They are *converted* into other forms of energy. Your body, will convert into a lot of carbon, some water, and various elements. The electrons and protons you mention, and subatomic particles, and the dark energy that is theorized...all are energy that is, was and will be, forever and ever, amen.

      October 13, 2010 at 6:14 pm |
  16. Holly in Houston

    Morality is doing what's right regardless of what you are told.

    Religion is doing what you are told regardless of what is right.

    October 13, 2010 at 3:27 pm |
  17. dwighthuth

    There are few religion's on this planet that have not been used the sword to both conquere and defend more so conquering than defended. Why is that? The reason being if only one religion is present on the planet then any notion of what someone else might say is the reason for being would be labeled as Satanic or going against what the majority wants to believe as a whole which is always forced on a person through the use of various and numerous tactics of both physical and psychlogical methods.

    Religion has to prove that their god created all and when they say that they have proof that their god created all the only question that they need to be asked is "Who created your God if your God is all knowing and tells you everything?"

    October 13, 2010 at 3:26 pm |
  18. nord

    Anybody know how the moderators work on this site? One of my comments has been "awaiting moderation" for a half hour. Is this random, or have I brought this upon myself through some unintentional foray into political incorrectness?

    October 13, 2010 at 3:19 pm |
    • Kingkong

      there are moderators who are "Atheists" hahahaaha. they wont let this comments and yours be visible on CNN.

      October 13, 2010 at 3:22 pm |
    • nord

      Actually, I think the moderator just woke up. Look below, and we're starting to see things showing up from early this morning. You should see mine by dinnertime.

      October 13, 2010 at 3:27 pm |
    • brad

      I suspect how the moderators work. It"s like starting a fight in a bar and slipping out the back door. It always works on the religion page.

      October 13, 2010 at 3:27 pm |
    • DarthWoo

      No conspiracy here. It's just a frustratingly ancient moderation algorithm that automatically blocks any posts that contain anything from a list of flagged words. For example, if I wish to type Constltution, I must do so with that intentional misspelling because a sequence of three letters within might be construed as slang referring to a part of female anatomy.

      October 13, 2010 at 3:33 pm |
    • Respondez

      Raison put a long list of the goofy words on the Yoga for Christians article.

      October 13, 2010 at 3:36 pm |
    • nord

      I don't see a red-flag word in the post. Nothing that hasn't appeared in other posts. Are there combinations?

      It's a puzzlement.

      October 13, 2010 at 3:43 pm |
    • DarthWoo

      I had to reword a post earlier for the mere presence of the word "rav-age", as in to pillage or destroy. I think you can discern the three letter sequence in there that would, if taken alone, raise a red flag. Unfortunately, there mere presence within another completely unrelated word is what causes the moderation. Since there are so many three letter words that can be flagged, it's sometimes hard to pick them out to edit.

      October 13, 2010 at 3:56 pm |
    • nord

      They really need smarter nerds.

      October 13, 2010 at 4:09 pm |
  19. ABC's

    okay one person at a time
    @jon ..No, "Christians" should not kill each other or any other person for that matter.
    @Doug ..The Truth is- I do know the reason why this planet is here: Here in this exact 23.4 degree orbit, 93 million miles away from the Sun. Do you wish to know or, do you think "I'm just crazy?"

    October 13, 2010 at 3:17 pm |
  20. HJA

    Believe what you want. My problem is if we disagree don't slam me because I think differently. You are you and have a right to think as you do. I have the same right. Kick back and have a cold one. It will all get sorted out when we die.

    October 13, 2010 at 3:12 pm |
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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.