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. Electric Monk

    "Morality is something you do when no-one's looking"

    – Doesn't that statement mean that it is impossible for the religious person to be moral since they beieve that there's [i]always[/i] someone looking.

    P.S. The magnetic pole [i]does[/i] shift and move about – maybe the metaphor was better than intended?

    October 13, 2010 at 10:25 pm |
    • Inyourdreams

      @ Electric Monk
      Eating is something you do when you are hungry.
      Doesn't that mean that fat people who binge on pizza when they're not hungry are not really eating.
      Therefore fat people don't eat.

      October 13, 2010 at 10:40 pm |
    • Electric Monk

      Good point, except that it is (for a believer in an omniscient god) impossible to ever be in such a situation which, at best renders the statement practically meaningless.

      October 13, 2010 at 10:57 pm |
    • DarthWoo

      Although the show has been tanking in the ratings despite a lead-in from Glee, I do like one of the lines from the pilot of Running Wilde that seems applicable to morality:

      Doing good for nothing.

      October 13, 2010 at 11:01 pm |
  2. ABC's

    My argument was on how many years it took the Earth to be MADE, not how many Billion years old it is. There is a difference, For example, how many months is a fetus in a mothers womb, nine months average right? We do not start counting our Age until AFTER we are born. or, do you not understand?

    October 13, 2010 at 10:04 pm |
    • DarthWoo

      You've contradicted your argument here. You claimed that the Biblical creation myth could be reinterpreted to say that the 7 day creation period was actually 49,000 years. That story begins with heaven, earth and light on the first day, and by the sixth day pretty much everything is done, up to and including sapient humans. The seventh day was just rest. The entirety of recorded human history is just a blip on the grand scale of just this planet. Thus, the age of the planet is highly relevant if we go by the creation myth, for those seven days must encompass everything from the absolute beginning to the time when humanity was functionally sapient.

      October 13, 2010 at 10:16 pm |
  3. IceT

    "Can civilization survive without god?"
    That debate question is leading & onesided. The question as stated implies civilization is "currently" surviving with God so let's attempt to imagine "if" God didn't exist.
    How about phrasing a question that doesn't say one side is already true?

    October 13, 2010 at 10:03 pm |
  4. John

    I don't care for the "cut" of this video. It's too important to just show snippets. I think Finland is good evidence that you don't need religion to be moral.

    October 13, 2010 at 9:52 pm |
  5. ABC's

    you said: 'you have given up hope on the human race' Truth is we humans were not designed to govern ourselves.
    The creation was not created 'flawed' it became 'flawed'. To illustrate, A Car maker designed a great car and gives a Manual on how to keep it in good repair. But the owner drives it in mud, doesn't wash it, and does not change the oil. Is that the Car Makers fault? By no means, It is the owners fault because He/She did not follow the instructions in the Auto Care Manual. So, it it really correct to blame God?

    October 13, 2010 at 9:44 pm |
    • IceT

      If I were an omnipotent creator of the universe I would make a car that doesn't need self maintenance.

      October 13, 2010 at 10:10 pm |
  6. ABC's

    Actually, you are WAY off in your statement, when you said: "Nowhere in the Bible does it mention the day to year conversion rate until pretty late where in Peter the author tries to cover for the claim that Jesus would be making his return." The Truth of the matter is that there is a day to year conversion rate reported first in the Hebrew Scriptures ( at Numbers 14:34) When The Israelite s spied out the promised land for 40 days and came back with a bad report. God punished them for their lack of faith turning the 40 days spied out into 40 years of wondering in the desert. The CONVERSION RATE 'DAY FOR A YEAR' appears way earlier in the Bible. Possibly, you may need to revise your whole theory, just my honest observation.

    October 13, 2010 at 9:13 pm |
    • DarthWoo

      That is not even the same context or the same conversion. God was supposedly punishing the Israelites for their disobedience and whining. While the forty years for forty days may seem some arbitrary amount, it was also conveniently just long enough to make sure that the entirety of the current generation, who had all lived as slaves at some point, died off and a newer, more capable generation was up to bat. Nowhere in that context does it imply that God is saying that one day to him is one year to humanity, much less one day being one thousand years. You've gone far beyond grasping for straws here.

      October 13, 2010 at 10:03 pm |
  7. someoneelse

    Wow, some pretty big posts here. Religion is crap, always has been and won't always be (as it will die). Whether there is a God or not is another question, one that really doesn't need answering.

    October 13, 2010 at 9:07 pm |
  8. JT

    I am amused with Christians who believe that their belief in an existence in a god is the same as being Christian. How arrogant! You first become a theist. You then become a member of a dogma/cult/relgion because you were born into a Christian family.

    October 13, 2010 at 9:02 pm |
    • IceT

      JT ... the problem is that most christians become christians first (at birth) and don't even know they are theists or what the word theist means. Ask the christian on the street, not the ones on here, the ones on here are smarter than most.

      October 13, 2010 at 10:18 pm |
  9. Zakky

    My reason for not believing in God is that in my 20 years on this Earth I have given up hope in the human race. Any God that makes such a flawed creation is not one I want to have any relationship with. We can't even agree not to kill one another. If there is a God I think he made a big mistake in creating us, I really see no point to existence in the first place. I would sincerely appreciate feedback..thanks

    October 13, 2010 at 8:46 pm |
  10. ABC's

    You need to rephrase that statement: Religion: a scam to get money, spread fear, and control the masses.
    Into this more accurate statement: FALSE RELIGION is a scam to get money, spread fear, and control the masses, etc, etc, etc....
    There is a BIG DIFFERENCE.

    October 13, 2010 at 8:00 pm |
  11. Teddy

    Civilization, with or without God, has the same inherent problem: humanity. Whether one compares Iran, which conceives of itself as a theocracy, or Communist Russia, which was atheistic, those with wealth and power exploit the poor and powerless. One may propose belief at the threat of death; the other may propose unbelief at the threat of death. It has little do to with belief or unbelief, and more to do with the corruptibility of human nature. No matter what form of civilization, humanity always finds a way to make someone else their enemy. This inevitably leads to the dehumanization of the "other" and eventually brutality. The problem is human nature not religion.

    The question of God's existence is another matter entirely. The effect of belief in God has had upon a society depends upon what god one chooses to believe in, and what conception of God one prescribes to. While Catholicism in the Middle Ages of Europe believed that Christianity should rightfully be spread by the sword, the Anabaptists, and their heirs, were the ones who originally proposed a separation between the church and the state. Both claim Christianity and belief in Jesus. Their contributions to society have been vastly different.

    October 13, 2010 at 7:55 pm |
  12. Ateo1979

    Whether or not God exists or not really is a waste of time to debate considering neither side can prove conclusively that their "truth" is THE truth. Until we're immortal via science, questions of what lies beyond death will plague our species. It's hard to fathom our consciousness just simply ceasing, therefore the idea of a soul (and God) will captivate our species. To simply call religion a mental illness verifies that those who say such have a mental illness of their own.

    October 13, 2010 at 7:47 pm |
  13. JJinCVCA

    Although I don't believe in god (of any kind), I do hold the view that it's possible that human societies can be built successfully without religious faith/belief/organizations, etc., and that such societies can formulate moral standards that arise out of common sense. I also hold the view that religous faith (of all kinds; past and present) arose as an evolutionary trait of our species; as our species became more complex we came to require certain traits in order to survive as a species into modern times, hence FAITH in a higher power. Agan, although I don't believe in god myself and do not require a belief in god to survive, I recognize (realistically) that our human societies have had a long tradition of religious faith, having grown out of our own complex minds, to the point that our society cannot in itself survive without religion having been built on the tenets of sucessive religious faiths. People do not believe in god because god is real....they CHOOSE to believe in god because their life depends on that subconscious sense of choice.

    October 13, 2010 at 7:45 pm |
  14. ABC's

    God has set a timetable to rectify the ills and all ills of society. God does care. Just be a little patient. What you want to happen God will do- He has made the promise.
    @ Darthwoo
    If you are referring to the IDEA that the Earth was created in 7-24 hour days. That idea is found nowhere in the Bible. However, it does say that a day with God is as a 1,000 years. So in light of this new evidence the Earth's creation could be several thousand years old for just one 'Day' with God. (In the Bible 7 Represents perfection the number 6 means imperfection, thus 666 equal Bad to the third degree,for example). So a 7,000 year long creative day x 7 days would equal 49,000 years to create the Earth. (I enjoy blogging in response to your ?s)

    October 13, 2010 at 7:25 pm |
    • DarthWoo

      Nowhere in the Bible does it mention the day to year conversion rate until pretty late where in Peter the author tries to cover for the claim that Jesus would be making his return rather soon (specifically in his disciples' lifetimes) by making up a convenient yet absurd conversion. In any case, even if we take 49,000 years as some solid number, that is but a tiny speck on a geologic scale. The oldest human fossils are estimated at nearly 200,000 years old. These are H. (really? I couldn't post that without getting flagged?) sapiens mind you, not any of our predecessors. That does not even begin to speak to the earliest fossilized life dating back into the billions of years ago. 49,000 years from the planet stabilizing to the emergence of humans? Not even close.

      October 13, 2010 at 8:09 pm |
    • Peace2All


      Now you are reaaaaaaaallllllly stretching it. Most fundies believe the Earth is 6,000 years old. Now, you are getting a bit more, lets say creative..? Now it is 49,000 years..hmmm give or take...?

      Pretty much every scientist that has weighed in on the age of the Earth, is basing it around 4.5 Billion years old.

      So, maybe you need to adjust your math now to acc-o-modate your need for a 'god' to exist.

      October 13, 2010 at 9:01 pm |
  15. Alana

    Why all the bickering? If you don't believe God exists, then so be it. If you do, then so be it. We'll all find out in the end, won't we.

    October 13, 2010 at 7:10 pm |
    • Ateo1979

      The pompous blowhards on both sides of the table refuse to give up their pride in order to see things more rationally such as not giving a damn who believes what.

      October 13, 2010 at 7:52 pm |
    • DarthWoo

      The problematic nature of that attltude is that meanwhile a vocal minority of the believers will continue to use their beliefs, no matter how irrational, to spread fear and hate among the rest, while also attempting to deny rights and equality to those groups that it feels their beliefs portray as sinful.

      October 13, 2010 at 8:34 pm |
  16. TyrantsKill

    Oh, I'm sure Atheism has done a much better job in politics. Russia, China, and Nazi Germany have done a "great" job in the past and present (sarcasm.)

    October 13, 2010 at 7:07 pm |
    • DarthWoo

      The communist states practically turned into psuedo-religions with the party leaders as gods. There was no logical progression between atheism and the atrocities committed, it was primarily the greed of Stalin, Mao and others who began to see themselves as godlike in their own way. Note how the prevalence of their portraits was practically like idolatry. As for Nazi Germany...I don't think the motto Gott Mit Uns on their uniforms referred to some sort of fashionable winter accessory.

      October 13, 2010 at 8:13 pm |
  17. Chris

    You ask if we can survive without God when it is God who has us at each other's throats?

    October 13, 2010 at 6:51 pm |
  18. JustCurious

    Here is perhaps a dumb question – but I never hear anyone explain the origin of matter without a deity. Or even the origin of the vacuum of space. The existence of a span of nothing is something. Where could that come from? I recon that's old news and you can dispatch me handily – but I'd be interested in your thoughts. As for "Well, JustCurious, where in the heck did your deity come from?" . . . . .I pretty much rely on the notion that a deity, in its ontology, would have to be uncreated. Existing in eternity past. If it is created, then it is a creature and who created that? Anyway, the notion of an uncreated being who existed in eternity past seems impossible. Well, yep. Sounds like God to me. Thoughts. Tear me up. 🙂

    October 13, 2010 at 6:29 pm |
    • Eric G.

      @JustCurious: I believe Mr. Hawking has a book about that very subject available now. Not a dumb question, Hawking is beyond me most of the time too. That being said, just because I do not fully understnad a theory, I cannot insert a "god" where my understanding end and expect to be taken seriously. Also, it is not "space"... It's "space-time", and it is expanding.

      October 13, 2010 at 9:28 pm |
    • JustCurious

      Thanks Eric. Which book is it?

      October 13, 2010 at 10:00 pm |
  19. Jesus Manson

    Our "American Indian" Civilizations of the Western Hemisphere survived quite well for thousands of years without Jesus,Yahweh, Allah, Zeus, et.al.
    Our "god" was really a metaphor for the physical/natural phenomena of the world. Too many people have seen "Dances With Wolves" too many times and think they are experts on "Native" cosmological understanding.
    The Hitchins Brothers are having a Eurocentric conversation here. They are speaking to European-descent people about European-derived culture.

    October 13, 2010 at 5:55 pm |
  20. MikeMazzla

    Lets be real here. We all werent there when the world began so of course everything is just speculation. Although I would live to believe in the existence of God, common sense tells me of course there isnt. When faced with choosing between the existence of God or not, I merely just look at the evidence I have on hand ond obviously the overwhelming evidence points to the fact that there is no God. The evidence for there being a God is mostly doubletalk. Everytime something is disproved, the regligious find some crazy way to explain it. We all know the world didnt start 2000. 3000. 100000 years ago. We also know there is 0% chance that the world started with two humans who kep procreating because we know that is impossible. There is zero evidence of humans being around first but irrefutable evidence that animals where here way before humans. Like I said id love for their to be a God, but the educated practical side of me knows there isnt

    October 13, 2010 at 5:47 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.