Thousands attend Boulder debate on atheism and religion

Thousands attend Boulder debate on atheism and religion

Christopher Hitchens / Dinesh D'Souza
Christopher Hitchens / Dinesh D'Souza


Writers Dinesh D’Souza 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 campus’ Macky Auditorium.

D’Souza, a Catholic and author of the book “What’s So Great about Christianity,” 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 “God is not Great,” argued that religion’s 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 “What’s so Great about God? – Atheism vs. Religion.”

Father Kevin Augustyn, pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish, prefaced the debate, saying, “As Catholics, we are not afraid of intellectual debate. Faith and reason are not opposed to each other.”

D’Souza opened his initial argument by stating he would debate on “the ground of reason alone.” 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.

“Christianity brought these values into the world,” he argued, claiming that slavery was abolished in Christian societies between the fourth and tenth centuries.

Modern science, he said, was “faith-based” 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.

“It is no accident that modern science developed in Western culture,” he said.

D’Souza then argued that the universe was “finely tuned for life.” 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, “in some way, man is free from fixed laws.” Man is placed between two distinct domains of “the way we are” and “the way we ought to behave.”

“You might do well to consider living as if there is a God, because ultimately that will make you a better person,” 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 “entirely mythical,” he questioned, “would you really look at your neighbor differently? Would you then become a thief, a rapist?”

If atheism were correct, Hitchens argued, “we would be in precisely the same place we are now” 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 “our deepest integrity” by saying we have no knowledge of good and evil.

This is also the “origin of totalitarianism,” 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 “very incompetent, very vicious, or very cruel.” He questioned why God would redeem others’ suffering only by taking away sins, and not by going to jail or becoming sick for them.

D’Souza responded by arguing that without Christianity “we would be a very different civilization,” 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 “the tears of strangers are only water.”

Hitchens then raised the raised the questions of why Christianity should be considered superior to other religions, such as Islam.

D’Souza replied by noting the disconnect between “the way things are” and “the way they ought to be.” This can be explained by supposing a chasm between the “human level” of existence and the “divine level.” In D’Souza’s view, Islam and Judaism hold that this chasm may be closed by mankind building a “ladder” to climb to God.

Christianity, however, declares this project “wonderful but impossible” by teaching that the chasm “has to be closed from the other side” through God entering the world in the person of Jesus Christ.

Hitchens responded by attempting to equate Mohammed’s claims to be a prophet with Christian claims that Christ is an emissary from God, while D’Souza countered that Hitchens neglected to consider the place of Christ’s 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.

D’Souza 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 “extraordinarily objectionable” to exclude the “occupant of the womb” from the human family.

Following the debate, CNA spoke with Father Augustyn. He said it was an “excellent debate” with both speakers doing “very well” on their positions. In his view, D’Souza countered and “unmasked” some of Hitchens’ “unfair” and “selective” comparisons of religions.

“At the same time, Christopher Hitchens is a formidable opponent. He’s very witty, very sharp, he makes good points, and he brings out audience participation. I don’t think his arguments hold water, but I think he is a good debater.”

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 “question and answer” 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.

“This is the largest event we’ve hosted in our history,” Father Augustyn said, appealing for more partners to assist the parish ministry’s evangelization mission on campus.