Hitchens vs Hitchens Debate - On God, War, Politics, and Culture

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In April, Center for Inquiry | Michigan, in partnership with the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at Grand Valley State University, hosted an historic debate between Christopher and Peter Hitchens. The brothers, long estranged and recently reconciled, had clashed before in print and on the radio. But this event marked the first time that they appeared together on stage, one-on-one, before a live audience, to debate religion and foreign policy.

And this was not just any stage. This stage was set in Grand Rapids, home to the world’s largest Bible publisher, a half dozen Christian colleges, world headquarters of both the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church of America, and Mars Hill — a church so large they actually bought a shopping mall to hold 10,000 churchgoers each Sunday. This stage was housed in ultra-liberal Fountain Street Church, a speaking venue over the years for the likes of Clarence Darrow, Susan B. Anthony, Hellen Keller, Margaret Sanger, Eleanor Roosevelt, Robert Frost, Alan Watts, Malcolm X, Michael Moore, and many others.

One wall of the sanctuary is lined with stained glass windows depicting traditional Biblical personalities. Windows on the opposite wall feature more enlightened figures such as Plato, Leonardo da Vinci, Roger Williams, George Washington, Desiderius Erasmus, Louis Pasteur, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and yes, even Charles Darwin.

It was on this stage that brothers Christopher and Peter Hitchens stepped out before an audience of almost 1400 people anxious to see sibling rivalry at its finest.

“Of all the places in all the world where I could have held what I think will be my last debate with my brother Christopher, Grand Rapids would have struck me as the least likely location,” Peter reflected later. “There is a very strong chance that this will be the last time we do this.”

Christopher Hitchens’ name is, of course, well known to many naturalists and super-naturalists alike. His positions on religion and the War in Iraq are often polarizing and have created admirers and detractors on both sides.

Younger brother, Peter, is a Londoner, and although less well known here in the States, is also an accomplished author, journalist, and media pundit in his own right.

James McIntyre, a fellow journalist and friend to both brothers, described them this way: “As individuals, they could hardly seem more different. One [is] a conservative, traditionalist, church-going Anglican; the other a liberal, louche, drinking-and-smoking atheist.”

Christopher, to be sure, knows how to rule the stage with a fierce and flamboyant erudition that could overshadow any younger sibling. But despite Peter Hitchens’ comparatively reserved demeanor and buttoned-up style, he displays a bit of Christopher’s acerbity and haughty charm when telling of the time that then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, told him to “sit down and stop being bad.”

The first blows of the evening were landed over the proposition “The Invasion of Iraq was wrong” with Peter winning the coin toss — and winning the audience’s allegiance for his position against the war. “I don’t want to make this too easy for myself,” Peter opined, “because it seems to me that it is actually a fantastically easy position to take.” And so it seemed to most of the crowd as Peter bemoaned “the rank stupidity of arguments in its favor” and recounted many examples to underline what he sees as the carelessness and callousness with which the war has been waged.

Christopher’s rejoinder in support of “the Mesopotamian War” was rousing, sincere, and laced with its own share of moral revulsion — at Saddam Hussein’s brutality and the world community’s complacency for so long. His boldness may have transformed into hyperbole when he proffered that “The liberation of Iraq… will stand…as one of the greatest decisions of American statecraft… as one of the things that [the American people] will be proudest of in the future than any decision we’ve ever made.” In the end, some audience members observed that it was the most brilliant defense of the war they had ever heard — all the while remaining unconvinced by Christopher’s arguments.

The final and most anticipated round of the brotherly brawl was over the proposition “God does not exist and he is not great”. “Okay, let me see,” Christopher began, “I don’t think it’s going to take 10 minutes to disprove the existence of God.”

After Christopher had “rehearsed” a number of arguments against God’s existence for the crowd, he went on to emphasize that, not only is believing in a “celestial dictator” absurd, but he’s “glad that it’s not true.”

Religion is, Christopher asserts, the desire for a tyrannical authority who can, indeed must, “subject you to total surveillance around the clock… and even worse, and where the fun really begins, after you’re dead — a celestial North Korea.” “Who but a slave desires such a ghastly fate?” he asks. “I’ve been to North Korea… It has a dead man as its president… Kim Jong-Il is only head of the party, not head of the government or the state. That office belongs to his deceased father.” What’s more, “It’s a necrocracy,” says Christopher. “The son is a reincarnation of the father. It is the most revolting, and utter, and absolute, and heartless tyranny the human species has ever evolved. But at least you can fucking die and leave North Korea.”


To hear Peter Hitchens’ response, watch the full debate below.

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