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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. Jack

    Erik Erikson once said something like the ideal way to approach the world is thru a series of ethical values not thru an ideology. I hope Chris recovers and lives another 30 years in great health – but he does have an ideology – its very clear he's a skeptic. He's skeptic about the depth and power of love in the universe and in order to justify this impression or habit he created this silly atheistic front.
    I wouldn't doubt that Chris becomes a catholic before he passes – he keeps bringing up the church's name – like its knocking at his door and becoming hard to ignore. Love you Chris – GOD BLESS.

    October 14, 2010 at 11:37 am |
    • Raison

      @Jack

      I think your post is insulting. Your last name must be Ass.

      October 15, 2010 at 1:05 am |
  2. A pile of dung!

    Peter (theist) is still using compass for navigation. Helllllloo Peter, atheists, agnostic, Buddhists moved on & use GPS!

    Peter hinted that without god, he would have done more immoral things. Well Peter... that is why we have laws to punish those that commit crimes. So, in this case, your god is only relevant to you. Keep it to yourself & STFU!

    October 14, 2010 at 11:33 am |
  3. Freethinker

    The problem is concrete proof. Myself and other ancient alien researchers beleive that humans were created by an intelligent race of aliens and that early man viewed them as gods. This beleif was later converted to a monotheistic view by the church in order to standardize beleifs and control the masses.

    I think if concrete proof is ever broght to light, the initial reaction would be mixed with outrage, panic, and depression. Some would not let go of their beleifs, others would be angry, and others wouild feel hopeless. I beleive however that the majority of people in civilized countries do not cling to beleif in god so much as to do something drastic if proof was given that it was all a mistake. Lots of discussion, but no mass panic. The mass panic would come from thrid world countries where information is slow to imerge and beleifs are deeply rooted. I do not think the effect would be long lasting. It does need to happen though. We are heading for worse if religious extremism continues to grow.

    http://www.truthofalltruths.org

    October 14, 2010 at 11:26 am |
  4. A pile of dung!

    You can argue however you want but, of course, we'll survive!

    If we survived through the SUN god. What does that say about religions - hints... a pile of irrelevant dung!

    October 14, 2010 at 11:15 am |
  5. A pile of dung!

    "All" religions are one big pile of dung surrounded by sheep that pontificate about its virtue or lack thereof! Most are still trying to justify having eaten it!

    http://bit.ly/twitterybs (life is short; why bs?)

    October 14, 2010 at 11:11 am |
  6. David Johnson

    Good People! I would like to get your opinion on 2 exchanges between Frank and myself.

    If you have 5 minutes or so, please go to this blog and read the exchanges. Comment as you will.

    Thanks!

    https://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2010/10/13/songwriter-not-done-telling-the-story-of-your-life/

    October 14, 2010 at 9:51 am |
  7. Jimbo

    @TyrantsKill Complete strawman. nothing to do with fish what so ever.

    October 14, 2010 at 9:28 am |
  8. Phileas

    I always liked Billy Connolly's take on religion. I thought he summed it up quite nicely.

    "We are part of something enormous that’s too big for us too understand. We’ve been looking through the wrong end of the telescope for God. See those wee things that live in ponds, which are essentially a row of teeth, an a*s and two fins? Well, they don’t have a clue that you or I exist, because we're too huge for them to comprehend. Well, I think there's something out there (points skyward), that's too huge for us. We’re the leg of a chair. We’re a cup of tea. We’re something dead simple." (ad-libbed a bit for swearing).

    I think people get so hung up focusing on the minutia of religion, that they miss the bigger picture. God, if God exists, is far too big for us to comprehend. The world's major religions seem to be doing a good job of dividing people than uniting them. I personally don't reject the idea of some sort of higher being, but I'd sooner believe in the idea that we as humanity can help each other, rather than waiting around for the caretaker to come back from lunch and clean up our mess.

    October 14, 2010 at 9:20 am |
  9. Jimbo

    The question isn't whether we CAN survive without cod but rather, would we want to. I don't care what anyone says, there is no alterantive to cod. I can ssure you, the demise of this great fish will be quickly followed by my own.

    October 14, 2010 at 9:17 am |
  10. Derek

    Lord have mercy on us – we are such fools.

    October 14, 2010 at 9:09 am |
  11. JJinCVCA

    God does not exist.

    Those who believe in god and adhere to the tenets of their chosen religion are under the mistaken belief that an "atheist" is someone who CHOOSES not to believe in what religious people hold as undeniable, unquestioned truth (that god exists even if you don't believe in god) ...when the reality is that an atheist is someone who's realized, logically, that god never existed in the first place...that god is not required to live life to the fullest...that god is not needed in order to have and to adhere to moral standards (because morality transcends religious faith....)

    People who are religious are perpetually trapped by an overwhelming need to PROVE that god exists when in fact no proof exists...because no one, not even scientists, can neither prove nor disprove what doesn't exist in the first place.

    Religious people should stop trying to PROVE that god exists to everyone else and realize that god only exists as they CHOOSE god to exist.

    October 14, 2010 at 5:15 am |
  12. Steve

    Just incase nobody has mentioned it, the poles DO shift.

    October 14, 2010 at 4:05 am |
  13. sam

    Thomas Paine: ' the way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason'.
    Man created his various g-ds; various g-ds did not create man.
    Delusional people should seek help – from a human not the fictional sky daddy.

    October 14, 2010 at 3:43 am |
  14. Ryan

    Hey Peter, Newsflash what you described as morality HAS in fact changed significantly over time AS DOES magnetic north. You failed twice in one argument.

    October 14, 2010 at 3:05 am |
  15. Simon

    Everyone is, of course, welcome to their particular religious beliefs, and are free to worship in any way that doesnt hurt or impinge of the rights of others. However, given that most countries have a mix of religious faiths, the only thing that transcends it all is secular reason and science.

    Pray to your god(s), just don't attempt to affect public policy, education, or law with passages from your particular holy book. This is for your own protection, as well as the protection of others.

    October 14, 2010 at 1:37 am |
  16. Fiona

    That " good point " postnwas a reply to someone up the thread. Somehing is buggy here.

    October 14, 2010 at 12:42 am |
    • Simon

      Yes, it appears the blog has gone screwy – check the dates.

      October 14, 2010 at 1:47 am |
  17. Fiona

    I cannot believe it! I post a carefully composed and well considered reaction to the article and video clip featured here, and my post is deleted. Yet the moderator allows several other posters to go way off topic and rant from their personal soapboxes. So much for free speech and intelligent discussion. I won't waste my time here any more.

    October 14, 2010 at 12:36 am |
    • jonah of arkansas

      boohoo

      October 14, 2010 at 12:37 am |
    • DarthWoo

      You need to make sure that your post does not contain various flagged words or letter sequences contained in otherwise innocuous words. As my prime example, since I often post in various civil rights related articles, you cannot simply type the word "consti...tutional" without the ellipsis. This is due to the fifth through seventh letters being the slang for a part of female anatomy. It is flagged by CNN and WordPress' quite ancient moderation algorithm, and sets an entire post for moderation for the mere presence of any such word. There is a very long list of such words.

      October 14, 2010 at 10:03 am |
  18. ABC's

    @DarthWoo
    Take it slowly, and please do not use any 'superior wording'. Use simple language, there is no need to get fancy. I've noticed that YOU are bunching up three different events and putting them all on one 'day'. Don't get the day's and events confused. We CAN USE GOD'S OWN conversion rate/timetable "A DAY FOR A YEAR' TO FIGURE THINGS OUT. He himself tells us quite plainly in the Bible that we should understand that and apply that info in our lives.

    YOU SAID: " 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."

    Let's break it down: A day to God is as a thousand years. God does not operate the Human 24 hour/ 7 day a week scale. He does things in 1,000 year increments. And can act in an instant. That fact is repeated time and time again in the Scriptures. ((Genesis 2:17; Genesis 5:5 (Adam died within the 1,000 year 'day'. Because God was speaking from His Timetable, not Adam's) We can use the Bibles 'day for a year' to figure out things of Biblical importance, that can be our touchstone as it were).

    Okay, lets start. What was made? The Earth was already made BUT was NOT ready for sustaining Life, so what had to happen? Genesis 1:3 tells us- that God on 'Day One' God made Light. So for some 7,000 years God made Light
    Day Two: God Created what we would call our Atmosphere, (Genesis 1:6) It did not have one, it needed one, so it took another 7,000 years to do so. (Now, 14,000 years)
    Day Three: God caused dry land, Seas, and vegetation to appear on the Earth. (Genesis 1:9,12 )That took another 7,000 or so years to do so. (Now, 21,000 years )
    Day Four: God caused Sun light and Moon light now penetrate the Earths atmosphere another 7,000 years (28,000 years)
    Day Five: God created Sea creatures, land creatures and flying creatures another 7,000 years (35,000 years)
    Day Six: God created Man and Woman (Genesis does not say That Day Six has Not Ended) another 7,000 years (42,000)
    Till now, almost 7,000 years later. So for some 49,000 years + years this planetary object was floating in space. Which Scientist estimate Billions of years.

    The SEVENTH DAY you claim, has NOT started yet.
    This teaching is probably quite different from what you have heard. Other problems as you claim 'the Bible' is rife with historic and scientific inaccuracies." can be explained away so as to arrive at the proper understanding.

    October 13, 2010 at 11:56 pm |
    • Electric Monk

      49,000 v.s. 4,540,000,000 – yeah the bible really gets close to the real number when read very generously? Only about 453,951,000 years out.

      October 14, 2010 at 2:41 am |
    • DarthWoo

      It hardly seems worth arguing over this anymore, as you have demonstrated that you are taking Biblical scripture as literal and inerrant. Thus is the problem with fundamentalism and why we cannot afford to elect lunatics like Christine O'Donnell to any level of public office that has any influence on our educational systems. Everything you just argued contradicts not only all of scientific theory and observation, but depending on which chapter of Genesis you read, contradicts itself in the order things happen. You say "explain away," but what you are really doing is trying to twist reality to fit scripture.

      October 14, 2010 at 10:00 am |
    • Freethinker

      You need to do some research into the history of the Bible. Genesis was taken from other sources in sumerian writings and was changed by the church from the original writings.

      I think you would be one of those pepople who panic when the truth comes out.

      http://www.truthofalltruths.org

      October 14, 2010 at 11:29 am |
  19. Jerry

    I find Peter Hitchens' statement regarding something to the effect that there are many things he would do if he did not believe in God to be astounding in how it reveals his true weak character. It sounds as though only a fear in whatever he believes is God is the only thing holding him back from doing lots of "bad" things. That is an incredibly weak form of morality. Real morality would be an atheist who does good because he or she is a civilized member of the human family and not because he or she fears God. I live the highest moral life I can live because I believe "even though it gets hard at times" that all humans are a member of my extended family and I really believe in supporting my family. I believe all FEAR based religious traditions are false and serve only to control the masses and if there is such a thing as GOD it is quite simply the life force of the universe and there is no "Big Man" in the sky playing games with humans. No special people or nations hold the secret. All are without a doubt equal! Some are just more ignorant as the above feedback clearly exposes.

    October 13, 2010 at 10:54 pm |
  20. Sorusayin

    Leaving God and religion out of this...Are we saying that me have our own morals...we know right from wrong, good from bad? Where does that come from? Does not each brain entertain and act on good and bad? Why does one man do good, another bad? We cannot say its our upbringing, some had no upbringing to be taught. So, does that person only do bad, as he was not taught good? What made him be bad, did he decide it? Or, was it circ-u-mstance that caused it?

    Mayby he wasn't punished or corrected, and has no fear or understanding that things done wrong, have consequences? The how can we hold him accountable> or don't we?

    October 13, 2010 at 10:47 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.