.- Writers Dinesh DâSouza and Christopher Hitchens brought their polemics on religion and atheism to a debate Monday evening at the University of Colorado at Boulder before a sold-out crowd of 2,050 in the campusâ Macky Auditorium.
DâSouza, a Catholic and author of the book âWhatâs So Great about Christianity,â argued that Christianity is the foundation for many common values such as scientific inquiry and respect for the individual. Additionally, he asserted that Christianity proposes the best answer for bridging the chasm between man and God.
Hitchens, a prominent atheist and author of the book âGod is not Great,â argued that religionâs influence is largely bad for the world. He said religion makes otherwise good people do bad things, forestalls human thought, and limits human responsibility.
The debate, moderated by Denver radio talk show host Dan Caplis, was sponsored by the St. Thomas Aquinas Center for Catholic Thought, an intellectual outreach program of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder, Colorado. The event centered on the theme âWhatâs so Great about God? â Atheism vs. Religion.â
Father Kevin Augustyn, pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish, prefaced the debate, saying, âAs Catholics, we are not afraid of intellectual debate. Faith and reason are not opposed to each other.â
DâSouza opened his initial argument by stating he would debate on âthe ground of reason alone.â He listed what he believed to be important to all people, including atheists: concern about the idea of the individual, science as an autonomous enterprise, the equal dignity of women, the abolition of slavery, and compassion.
âChristianity brought these values into the world,â he argued, claiming that slavery was abolished in Christian societies between the fourth and tenth centuries.
Modern science, he said, was âfaith-basedâ in that it was rooted in Christian assumptions. We presume that we live in a lawful, rational universe whose external rationality is mirrored in our own minds, presumptions nourished by Christianity.
âIt is no accident that modern science developed in Western culture,â he said.
DâSouza then argued that the universe was âfinely tuned for life.â Imagining that the physical settings of the universe could be altered by a control board, he argued that an infinitesimal change to one constant would render an inhabitable universe impossible.
He also proposed that despite natural constraints, âin some way, man is free from fixed laws.â Man is placed between two distinct domains of âthe way we areâ and âthe way we ought to behave.â
âYou might do well to consider living as if there is a God, because ultimately that will make you a better person,â he suggested.
Hitchens opened his comments by half-jokingly saying that he does not value compassion and quite enjoys crowing over the misfortunes of others.
He began his argument by ridiculing the popular idea that the absence of religion would cause moral chaos. If Jesus and Mary or any other religious figure were proved âentirely mythical,â he questioned, âwould you really look at your neighbor differently? Would you then become a thief, a rapist?â
If atheism were correct, Hitchens argued, âwe would be in precisely the same place we are nowâ in considering what our duties are towards others and why we are here.
He then claimed that religion, by holding that a revelation from God has happened, suppresses these questions by holding that it is only necessary to live up to religious commandments. This makes personal responsibility meaningless and attacks mankind in âour deepest integrityâ by saying we have no knowledge of good and evil.
This is also the âorigin of totalitarianism,â Hitchens claimed.
He further accused the God of Christian belief of making us sick and commanding us to be well, suggesting this view of God is âvery incompetent, very vicious, or very cruel.â He questioned why God would redeem othersâ suffering only by taking away sins, and not by going to jail or becoming sick for them.
DâSouza responded by arguing that without Christianity âwe would be a very different civilization,â noting that only Western, Christian-influenced countries appear to rush to help disaster victims across the world. He cited an Indian proverb from his youth which says âthe tears of strangers are only water.â
Hitchens then raised the raised the questions of why Christianity should be considered superior to other religions, such as Islam.
DâSouza replied by noting the disconnect between âthe way things areâ and âthe way they ought to be.â This can be explained by supposing a chasm between the âhuman levelâ of existence and the âdivine level.â In DâSouzaâs view, Islam and Judaism hold that this chasm may be closed by mankind building a âladderâ to climb to God.
Christianity, however, declares this project âwonderful but impossibleâ by teaching that the chasm âhas to be closed from the other sideâ through God entering the world in the person of Jesus Christ.
Hitchens responded by attempting to equate Mohammedâs claims to be a prophet with Christian claims that Christ is an emissary from God, while DâSouza countered that Hitchens neglected to consider the place of Christâs divinity in Christian theology.
Other topics raised in the debate included the existence of natural rights, the historicity of the Gospels, the reliability of the first Christian witnesses and the nature of Catholic teaching on the salvific necessity of Christ and the Church.
DâSouza also described how he had first met Hitchens after the latter penned an essay in the left-wing magazine The Nation supporting legal protections for the unborn.
Hitchens then explained that he finds it âextraordinarily objectionableâ to exclude the âoccupant of the wombâ from the human family.
Following the debate, CNA spoke with Father Augustyn. He said it was an âexcellent debateâ with both speakers doing âvery wellâ on their positions. In his view, DâSouza countered and âunmaskedâ some of Hitchensâ âunfairâ and âselectiveâ comparisons of religions.
âAt the same time, Christopher Hitchens is a formidable opponent. Heâs very witty, very sharp, he makes good points, and he brings out audience participation. I donât think his arguments hold water, but I think he is a good debater.â
The St. Thomas Aquinas Center has scheduled follow-up sessions to discuss the debate in campus classrooms on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings. Father Augustyn characterized them as apologetics or âquestion and answerâ events.
He reported that the debate had been streamed via live video to another building housing 300 viewers, bringing total attendance to more than 2,300.
âThis is the largest event weâve hosted in our history,â Father Augustyn said, appealing for more partners to assist the parish ministryâs evangelization mission on campus.