Walnut Creek- Patch.com
The Lesher’s Newsmaker Lecture Series continues with a debate about faith, God and miracles.
By Lou Fancher
February 17, 2011
The Lesher Newsmaker debate Wednesday night between Christopher Hitchens and Dinesh D’Souza at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts ended in a crescendo when Hitchens, who has been diagnosed with stage IV esophageal cancer, answered a question about how the very real prospect of death has affected his spirituality.
“It has increased my contempt of religion and my hatred for the sadistic part of the religious,” he answered, adding that “it’s your last chance” comments from strangers were “a disgusting practice.”
Along the way to the evening’s dramatic pinnacle, Hitchens, a renowned author and atheist, and D’Souza, a best-selling author and influential conservative political analyst, kept the debate civil, even respectful.
But anyone expecting D’Souza to “go easy” on Hitchens because of his illness, (or anyone believing D’Souza’s stance as a Christian would mean he would be “soft”) would have been surprised.
Responding to questions posed by moderator Brent Walters, a professor of comparative religion at San Jose State University and host of KGO Newstalks’s Sunday morning show on religion, D’Souza adamantly countered his debate competitor’s position on reason, science, the expanding universe, miracles, morality and sin.
Hitchens, with scholarly muscle and tremendous wit, gave as good as he got, which brought new life to the question, “What’s So Great About God?” The two have debated questions of faith, Christianity and the existence of God in venues on both sides of the Atlantic over the past few years.
Walters invited the two men to share their “parallel views that at times intersect at very few points.” He asked: “How have your views developed since birth and what has shaped them?”
Hitchens said religion is a simple proposition. He told the story of a nature teacher who was “a pious old trout with a heart of gold” but doubled as a Scripture teacher. Ten-year old Hitchens listened to her explain that grass was green because it was restful to the eyes and God was good because he made it that way.
“I thought, that’s [expletive],” Hitchens said, to much laughter. “It was only a short step from there to atheism.”
“If you want to see a normal person behaving very badly, you can expect them to say, ‘I’m doing God’s will,’ ” he added, handing the topic to D’Souza.
“I get an eerie feeling being up here with Christopher Hitchens after his announcement of having cancer,” D’Souza began.
Bluntly stating that we’re all going to die and there’s either something after life—or not—D’Souza, who was born in Mumbai, India, said the origins of his faith reached back generations. His grandfather told him the family was Catholic because of the “Portuguese Inquisition” and Indians who flung themselves into religion to escape the caste system.
“I call it Crayon Christianity,” he said of his beliefs as a young boy. As an adult, D’Souza said he has found a way to bring faith and reason together, but laments that “faith gets battered by acid currents of skepticism.”
Walters asked D’Souza and Hitchens to define God.
“God is omnipotence, omniscience … all extended into infinity,” D’Souza responded. “He is author of the universe, creator and judge. Jesus is a part of God–a divine ambassador. Faith is the jump you have to take when reason ends.”
Hitchens took a less personal approach, first describing God as a “universal author” evidenced in the natural world, then adding that God is an “involved father type” who just won’t quit.
“No, I don’t want an all-loving father who won’t give up on me,” he said. He called religion a “tyranny of the mind” and God a “celestial dictator.”
“Has belief in a divine being assisted or prevented humans from advancing in culture and understanding?” Walters asked.
D’Souza said reason and science are faith based and posed a question of his own: Where did the idea of equal rights come from?
“Our rights come from our creator,” he said.
As expected, Hitchens said it was no more true that God gave everyone equal rights than that he gave special rights to kings, a historical position church leaders once took. Religion was people’s first attempt to make sense of cosmology, biology and health, he said, finishing his point by saying religion has had a “retarding effect on human thought and endeavor.”
Talk turned to the Scriptures, with D’Souza emphasizing that enduring principles should be distinguished from culture-specific practices when examining biblical texts.
Hitchens said the idea of miracles was at the root of most religions.
“If you appear to see all the rules of nature suspended, especially in your favor, you can expect it is false,” he warned.
D’Souza defended miracles such as the Garden of Eden’s talking snake. He said they show us the contrast between a God-directed and a human-directed world.
“Any religion that is designed to outrage and terrify children isn’t one I admire,” Hitches responded.
Debate about sin and morality led D’Souza to conclude: “Our positions are so close, I have to pull myself away from what you are saying. Neither of us know what happens [after death]—it’s a leap of faith to choose to believe or not.”
Hitchens, undeterred by his partner in the debate, showed faith of a certain kind—in human beings.
“There’s an inner voice,” he said. “In a world dominated by fear and chaos, people manage to keep their heads. If we didn’t have solidarity, we would not have lived this long. It’s not divine; it’s evolutionary consciousness.”