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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. George

    I will never forgive religion for the terrible thing they did to humanity: The Dark Ages.
    1000 years thrown away. The technology we would have right now. We would have terraformed Mars and have people living there and not be crammed in this planet. Unbelievable!

    October 13, 2010 at 5:42 pm |
    • TyrantsKill

      I recall a phrase that I hear all too often on these forums: The Bible was written by MAN.
      Ok, so who wrote our Science, Math, and History books? FAIL on all accounts

      Religion 10
      Atheism 0

      October 13, 2010 at 11:21 pm |
  2. ABC's

    Well, its been close to an hour later and 'DarthWoo' still has not backed up his statements with evidence. So much for his line of reasoning =( He almost had me believing what he was saying...

    October 13, 2010 at 5:39 pm |
    • DarthWoo

      How cute, because we all have nothing else to do.

      October 13, 2010 at 5:45 pm |
    • Respondez

      ABC's,

      My, you are impatient, aren't you? Perhaps that explains your affinity to Christian beliefs - all tied up in a nice package with a bow on top - instant answers to everything.

      October 13, 2010 at 6:42 pm |
  3. ABC's

    @DarthWoo
    Don't make statements without the evidence to back up your statement: 'replete with historical and scientific errors.' If you can list none you argument is baseless.

    October 13, 2010 at 5:23 pm |
  4. tomn8r

    wow! really, just wow. i read prolly half of whats here – and as usual, it's a split. in my humble opinion, there is no frikkin way this all happened outta luck, or chance. you'd have to be pretty simple-minded to believe that. it's waaaaaay too complicated for 'chance'. i've debated the 'god' issue my whole life, and here's the bottom line: for god so loved the world he gave his only begotten son, and whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life' – well .... i'm in.

    October 13, 2010 at 5:22 pm |
    • MikeMazzla

      LOL so let me get this straight..its too complicated to believe that over millions of years this world evolved..but its not too complicated to believe that one god did it in 7 days.LOLOL That is easier for you to understand and believe huh? Its because you are simple minded. To me it makes way more practical sense that there is no God and much easier for me to believe.

      October 13, 2010 at 5:50 pm |
    • TyrantsKill

      Simple-minded? Please. Time was man-made.

      October 13, 2010 at 11:23 pm |
  5. god-delusion

    you religious people are being duped and have been for over 2000+ years. gods were humans just like us, just way more intelligent. Every civilization has a deity that was responsible for daily activities. Anyone who says they have a relationship with god is pretty much delusional.

    October 13, 2010 at 5:17 pm |
  6. god-delusion

    I'm with Raison 100%, believing in the God-creator has stunted humans mental growth. History has it recorded since 2000 years that religions persecute anyone who does not believe in this so called higher power. I think you religious people are missing the largest point that has been ignored, ALL GODS WERE HUMANS, just way smarter than early man. Someone or people had to show we humans how the purpose of life and provided us with guidance. And I say people because most ancient civilizations had a god that came from the heavens, meaning multiple gods, not just one. Religions block the freedom to think freely because of the constant thought that an omnipotent spirit is constantly watching. Yet some of the world's most evil people in history were very religious and committed acts of evil in the name of god. This is what's currently going on in the Muslim world, they are committing acts of evil in the name of allah. We who are experiencing this terrorism from muslim extremist today, would have experienced a similar form of terrorism in the Jewish god name or christian god name. For over 2000 years most have yet to free themselves from religions and will continue to repeat a pointless cycle for the next 1000 or so years.

    October 13, 2010 at 5:13 pm |
  7. E0F0G0

    Darth Woo, All right, WHICH errors, precisely? And how do you know that the myths of other cultures weren't allowed to exist that they might recognise the truth when they saw it?

    October 13, 2010 at 5:08 pm |
  8. ABC's

    @DarthWoo
    Give an example of the Bible being 'replete with historical and scientific errors" please......You speak without evidence. you just make accusations..Please, clarify and reblog..thanks

    October 13, 2010 at 5:08 pm |
    • DarthWoo

      If you don't see the outright errors in the Bible from the start, you either haven't really read it, or you're willing to give way too much benefit of the doubt to it. Practically everything about the creation story is contradictory to even grade school science. The Earth was somehow created before all other astronomical bodies such as stars, and more importantly our own Sun. Humanity is created in far too close a temporal proximity to all other life, significant portions of which are demonstrably millions of years older than humanity. Speaking of which, the Bible can't even get its own chronology straight, as depending on whether you go by Genesis 1 or 2, humans were created either before or after other animals, and male and female were either created simultaneously or female second. Now that we've seen so much error in just one book, do we really need to drag this out?

      October 13, 2010 at 5:43 pm |
  9. JohnQuest

    Katherine, I think that is the world we live in, as sad and depressing as you seem to find it. Art, music, dance and so forth are for our benefit it adds to our joy in the human experience, no God needed. Not all suffering is due to man, we have no control of a tsunami (it could be argued that we choose to live on the coast).

    To say that you are only moral because of God is saying you are by nature an amoral person. the only thing stopping you from a life of crime is God, not that most of us feel bad if we hurt other people (even when they deserve it)?

    No one is naive enough to think that removing religion would solve the problem or war, pain or suffering, it will remove the largest obstacle to real peace among men. People will probably find another reason for killing and enslaving each another.

    If people were removed from the planet, I think the planet would be better off, don't you? Would you agree that we are doing more harm to the planet than good, if you do not agree please tell me one thing on the planet that is better off with us than without us? (Be careful how you answer, please remember your last comment, you might prove to yourself that there is no God)

    "Assuming no higher purpose, mankind can only be classified as a blight on the earth, like a virus, that no ecosystem on earth wouldn't be better without" (we are a blight on the earth, the earth is necessary for us, we are not necessary for the earth).

    October 13, 2010 at 5:05 pm |
  10. E0F0G0

    @dt5 and colin, q, So now we resort to mathematics and probabilities. WHAT science shows there is "very, very, likely there is no God"? I am married to a science professor at a world-class university, and I have worked with scientists. Yours is only one OPINION. You have no more scientific evidence than anyone else that there is no God. In fact, when one works out the mathematical probabilities of how this earth came to be, they show quite the opposite of your opinion. But I am sure you haven't looked at those stats. Would you all like a reference? There are volumes of it, both looking at the matter from a statistical and a legal, and a logical point of view. I'd be happy to refer you to authors both old and new.

    That's the REAL cop-out.

    October 13, 2010 at 5:04 pm |
  11. ABC's

    Santa Claus does exist? ...He's dead now.. a 300 pound Santa was subjected to g-forces 17,500.06 times the force of gravity traveling at 650 miles per second with 353,000 tons of toys for girls and boys. He and his reindeer team could not withstand the 14.3 quintillion joules of energy bursting into flames instantaneously. The entire team was vaporized within 4.26 thousands of a second.

    October 13, 2010 at 4:56 pm |
  12. dutchblitz1

    JohnQuest- How many people claimed to be eyewitnesses to the Easter Bunny, Santa, Baal or Zeus, as opposed to the books of the Bible claiming to be written by eyewitnesses to what they were writing about?

    October 13, 2010 at 4:47 pm |
  13. ABC's

    @JohnQuest
    Please, allow me to help answer your questions. 1) God has always existed. 2) There is pain and suffering because a wicked angel challenged God's right to rule over man. "God doesn't have the right to rule, we can do better." was Satan's accusation. Adam and Eve chose to disobey and listen to Satan. Since then, we who are their children grow up inheriting their bad, deformed DNA, get sick, and eventually die. But that Is not the way God had originally planed it. -That is why there is sickness and pain today. 3) Our purpose in the UNIVERSE is to take care of our planet and reflect back to God, his godly qualities as love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faith, mildness, self control. 4) The world works as if there is no God because there are few who are trying to live up to His standards of goodness and righteousness. Hope this helps with your ??'s

    October 13, 2010 at 4:46 pm |
    • Respondez

      ABC's

      "“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
      Then he is not omnipotent.
      Is he able, but not willing?
      Then he is malevolent.
      Is he both able and willing?
      Then whence cometh evil?
      Is he neither able nor willing?
      Then why call him God?”

      - Epicurus

      October 13, 2010 at 6:10 pm |
    • civilioutside

      "But that Is not the way God had originally planed (sic) it." That statement is rife with contradiction in terms of what we're told about God. If God truly had planned for us a perfect existence free of disease and decay, and his plan was thwarted, then he is either not omniscient (having been unable to foresee the undoing of his plan and/or refine his plan in such a way that it would not be thwarted), or not omnipotent (being unable to rescue his plan once it was derailed) – perhaps he is neither. If, on the other hand, he is both omniscient and omnipotent, then his true plan could only have been for things to turn out exactly as they have (since he conceived the plan in full knowledge of what would result, and chose to enact it without refinements that would allow the so-called perfection to continue). Or... he doesn't exist, and things turned out fallibly because that's just the way the world worked out.

      October 15, 2010 at 3:32 pm |
  14. DavidR

    I'm taken aback at how much gullibility there is. I see things like "evolution is a fact ... transitional fossils". I would like to know how anyone can prove those were transitional lifeforms. I suppose the platypus is transitional. Let's be clear: similarity is not ancestry, and that's a common error made by evolutionists. It can just as easily be explained by a "common designer". The real problem is that evolutionists subscribe to philosophic naturalism instead of true science, where you follow the evidence wherever it leads. According to evolutionists, creation is ruled out on the basis that it is not philosophic naturalism.

    According to evolution, creatures evolve and become stronger and more fit for survival. I have to ask; why would that happen? Why wouldn't the opposite happen? Why wouldn't creatures become weaker and less fit to survive? Do the molecules in the creatures have awareness to the extent that they modify their structure for better survival? Why must creatures improve, which begs the question ... why would prey still exist? This notion about progressively becoming better is pure nonsense. In order for something to improve, it needs awareness. It needs not only to be self-aware but also aware of the ability to be better, and then change ... that wonderful "adaption" word they love. Why would a creature adapt? Why should it care about adapting? Why should it care about surviving? Even if it was aware, how does it alter its molecular structure in order to be better? "Single-cell creatures divide; there's your proof!" Why do they divide? Where did they come from to begin with? Do single-cell creatures come from nowhere and then divide?

    I love the answer to "what did the first living creature eat?" I find answers like "it absorbed nitrogen" ... where's your proof? Have we witnessed one of these creatures miraculously come into existence and feed? The reality is that the "nitrogen" answer is simply given in order for evolution to be a viable explanation, and not because evolution is true. In other words, most of the answers in favor of evolution are NECESSARY in order to evolution to be true, but there is no evidence for this.

    To end, let me explain it this way (and it's a true story): an evolutionist was asked, "which came first, the chicken or the egg?" His answer was: "the pre-chicken bird laid the egg that became the first chicken." That answer is necessary for evolution to be true, but the answer is not based on fact. It is not based on a fossil of a pre-chicken bird. These are the tactics evolutionists use. Unfortunately for them, I can disprove every and any one of their claims. No, evolution is nowhere close to being a fact.

    Norman Douglas put it best: "education is a state-controlled manufacture of echoes".

    October 13, 2010 at 4:45 pm |
    • Facts

      There is no evidence for the existence of any gods. All there are are endless fallacies and refuted logical arguments. Believe if you want to, but realize that it is nothing more than an opinion, with nothing to back it up.

      October 13, 2010 at 5:41 pm |
    • DarthWoo

      Your entire argument is completely flawed, and looks like it came from some fundamentalist leaflet. The most important point is that evolution does NOT have some sort of awareness that is guiding it. Organisms are not constantly improving in the way you fallaciously imply. It really does boil down to random mutations. These mutations, while mostly neutral and occasionally negative, will sometimes provide effects that tend to lead to increased survival in the organism, which thus allows it to breed and pass on those genes.

      There are even examples that have been observed in our lifetimes, despite the generally astronomically long time it takes for such changes to occur. Populations of lizards that have been separated due to various natural occurrences begin to take on differing characteristics. Humans have even managed to observe such change in a controlled experimental environment. A team researching various strains of E. Coli over the past few decades observed various changes in each general strain as the conditions for each were changed. In a rather surprising adaptation, the bacteria in one strain suddenly exploded in numbers, which was later found to have been caused by a genetic change that allowed them to consume a seemingly inert chemical found in their medium. Through extensive backtracking (they kept all previous strains) they found that it wasn't actually just one altered nucleotide, but that it had been two.

      Prey, just like predators, adapt to their environment and to their counterparts. If a predator manages to completely overwhelm its prey population, it starves and dies out. Likewise, if prey has no predation, it will likely overpopulate and begin to starve as it overwhelms its food supplies. It can occur and has occurred, particularly through disruption by humans. Just look at Australia and rabbits.

      October 13, 2010 at 5:59 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      If it wasn't for massive gullibility, religion would not continue to exist! Evolution does not have all the answers, but it does not require the suspension of logic, physics and rational thinking that believing in religion does. And as someone pointed out elsewhere, your believes are almost entirely a result of where you were born and what your parents taught you – not because they are inherently true. THERE ARE NO GODS – NOT EVEN JUST 1 – NO SATAN EITHER...

      October 13, 2010 at 7:12 pm |
    • civilioutside

      The most frustrating part about having the evolution versus creationism argument is the realization that nearly every time I've encountered arguments against evolution they are founded on an almost complete misunderstanding of what the theory actually has to say about how living things evolve.

      October 15, 2010 at 3:18 pm |
  15. Jessica

    You don't need religion to for civilization to survive. Follow the Golden Rule and every thing will be alright...

    October 13, 2010 at 4:43 pm |
  16. R.G.Erhart

    Glad to see Chris is still in there pitching.

    October 13, 2010 at 4:43 pm |
  17. Dragosurfer

    A public debate on the existence of God. This is a great first step to the realization that there is no god in the Judeo/Christian/Muslim sense. There might be hope for humanity yet.

    October 13, 2010 at 4:38 pm |
  18. IceT

    If horses had Gods, their Gods would be horses!

    October 13, 2010 at 4:38 pm |
  19. Katherine

    I can't speak for everyone, but I know that there are a lot of recovering alcoholics and addicts that would still be drinking and doing drugs without a "higher power". Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has had little success with addiction and virtually none with PTSD.

    I can also say, that if "mankind" is truly the best there is and this life is all there is (what a depressing thought), I see no reason to care about "Global Warming", starving children, world peace, etc. Why should I? This would be my one an only chance to live. Any moral values or ideas of right and wrong would be nothing but fabricated concepts to keep society in line. Nothing but illusionary constructs. All art and science would be nothing but intellectual masturbation and futility.

    I believe Solomon said it best, "Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you die." The majority of us will be forgotten as if we never lived in 3 generations. Even the most illustrious among us will probably be entirely forgotten in ten thousand years (a relatively short amount of time given the length of our planet's history)

    I know my life would be entirely different if I truly believed there was no God. I would be using my gifts to benefit myself and my family exclusively not my community. I certainly wouldn't be giving away 10% of my income. That's assuming I'd even be alive, since secular humanism has absolutely nothing to offer the suffering whatsoever except to tell them that ultimately, their suffering is random, meaningless and pointless (as is all of life) and that we're nothing but a collection of cells with no intrinsic value.

    Raging atheist love to blame "religion" for the worlds ills, but since they don't believe in God, they must realize that every evil deed committed in history has been committed by a human being (religion being nothing but a red herring). So, let's say you take "religion" out of the story. Can anyone be naive enough to believe that without that construct, mankind will be transformed into noble characters? And you guys call us delusional!

    So while you formulate the great benefit to society by persecuting and destroying all forms of religion, seeing as militant atheists are at least as intolerant as the worst of the Evangelical fundamentalists, you might want to keep in mind, that I'm probably not the only person out there that feels this way.

    Assuming no higher purpose, mankind can only be classified as a blight on the earth, like a virus, that no ecosystem on earth wouldn't be better without.

    October 13, 2010 at 4:30 pm |
    • nord

      So, is religious faith an addiction?

      October 13, 2010 at 4:44 pm |
  20. jeremy binns

    "Glenn Beck says only Islam is evil" He must be right because he is a very smart guy and you have to be to work at Fox news........lol

    October 13, 2010 at 4:30 pm |
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About this blog

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.