Top Atheist debates his faith author brother

Can Civilization Survive Without God?
A Conversation with Christopher and Peter Hitchens

— The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life invited brothers Christopher and Peter Hitchens to address the question of whether civilization needs God.
Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life
Read entire article here, excerpts below

Christopher is the author of more than 10 books, including his recent memoir Hitch-22 and the best-selling manifesto God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. He is a contributing editor to The Atlantic and a columnist for Vanity Fair. He has written prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper’s, Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement and The Washington Post. In 2007, he received a National Magazine Award for his work for Vanity Fair.

Peter is the author of four books including The Abolition of Britain, a major seller in that country, and the recently published The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith, which he wrote to counter Christopher’s book, God Is Not Great. A British journalist, author and broadcaster, he currently writes for The Mail on Sunday, where he is a columnist and occasional foreign correspondent, and is a contributor to (among others) The Spectator, Prospect, Standpoint, The Guardian, The New Statesman and the American Conservative. Once an atheist, he attributes his return to faith largely to his experience of socialism in practice, which he witnessed during his many years reporting in Eastern Europe and his nearly three years as a resident correspondent in Moscow during the collapse of the Soviet Union. This year, he won the Orwell prize for journalism for foreign reporting.


Good afternoon and thank you all for coming. And a special thanks to Christopher and Peter Hitchens for being with us today. I’m Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. We are a project of the Pew Research Center, which is a nonpartisan organization that does not take positions on issues or policy debates — not even on the question of the existence of the Almighty. This event is part of the Pew Forum luncheon series in which we bring together journalists and important public figures for serious discussions on topics at the intersection of religion and public affairs.

Our format at these events is really very, very simple. We ask our guests to speak for about 10 minutes or so. Then we invite the rest of you to join in the conversation. I should point out that this event is on the record and we are taping it. And our friends at CNN, as you can see, are also videoing it. So just be aware of that.

At this time, I would like to introduce Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who is an advisor to the Pew Forum. Mike did all the heavy lifting in pulling the panel together, and so for that, he gets the privilege of moderating this event.

We have a few out-of-town journalists listening in via conference call, and I would like to welcome them as well. Those of you on the call who would like to take part in the discussion — and we encourage that — please e-mail your questions. We’ll make sure to work your questions into the queue.

Again, it’s great to have all of you here and via phone with us. We welcome you to the Pew Research Center. Mike, over to you.

MICHAEL CROMARTIE, ETHICS AND PUBLIC POLICY CENTER: Thank you, Luis, and welcome ladies and gentlemen. If you have a bio right in front of you, which I know you do, I am not one of those moderators who then turns around and reads that bio to you. I think that you know why you’re here. You know both these men by reputation, and their biographies are in front of you. What I would like to do, though, is just give an anecdote or two about our speakers.

Christopher, as many of you all know, has a new book out now called, Hitch-22: A Memoir. I went back and looked at some reviews of the book, and I thought I would try to find something in the reviews about Christopher. In The New York Times, the reviewer highlights Christopher’s great capacity for friendship. He’s very moved by the fact that in this autobiography Christopher has such wonderful things to say about his lifelong friends. In fact, the reviewer says, “He is also devoted to friendship. Hitch-22 is among the loveliest paeans to the dearness of one’s friends … I’ve ever read. The business and pleasure sides of Mr. Hitchens’s personality can make him seem, whether you agree with him or not, among the most purely alive people on the planet.”

Then in another review in The New York Times, the reviewer says this: “The truth is, by Hitchens’s standards, his examination of how he and the left parted company is surprisingly unstrident and nonpolemical. It is, in fact, almost melancholic. He’s not claiming with his typical adamantine force that the balance sheets work out. And perhaps the strongest theme in Hitch-22 is just this — that sometimes the balance sheets are an unholy mess.

“By the time he got to Oxford, he was quite accustomed to ‘keeping two sets of books,’ passing out leaflets at car plants by day and racing off in fancier dress to the Gridiron Club by night. Christopher Hitchens may long to be a cogent man of reason, and he can certainly be a pitiless adversary. But he knows there are two sides to any decent match, and it’s touching in Hitch-22 to see how often he’ll race to the other side of the court to return his own serve, which may explain why, though he tries to be difficult, he’s so hard to dislike.”

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you someone who, even when you disagree with him politically or religiously, is so very hard to dislike. Christopher?

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Oh, is it my turn already?

CROMARTIE: You’re on.

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: I want to say that I was very impressed while reading Peter’s latest book — to which I commend your attention — to see that he had written a particular — (audio break) — long before he can have read a book I hope you will also all be reading, which is Diarmaid MacCulloch’s extraordinary history of Christianity. I don’t know how many people here have tried it yet. But it’s really an admirable, beautifully written book.

It’s argued from the viewpoint of a fairly faithful Anglican, whatever that may turn out to be. It’s written, anyway, from a Christian perspective and with an absolutely extraordinary control of scholarship and prose. One of the things it says — very sobering for a Christian reader, I would suppose, to read is this:

There used to be a word which could be used unironically, and it was used, really, until not much more than a century, a century-and-a-half ago. People could say, and mean what they said when they said the word, Christendom. There was a Christian world. It had been partly evolved, partly carved out by the sword, partly defended by the sword, at some points giving way, at other times expanding. But it was a meaningful name for a community of belief and value that endured for many, many centuries — and has many splendors to its name.

And it’s all gone; no one could use that term now without either great nostalgia or some degree of irony. It’s all gone for the reason — MacCulloch gives exactly the reason Peter gives in his book. It destroyed itself, Christendom, and it destroyed itself by the tremendous criminal act of urging its members to kill each other in the outbreak of the great war — as it was then known, but it wasn’t known that it would lead to a huge and even worse part two — in 1914, where the king-emperor of the British empire, who was also the head of the Church of England, and the Russian czar, who was also the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, and you follow the road —

There’s a partial exemption to be made here for the French empire, which didn’t precisely go to war in the name of its religion. But all the others did, and they leveled Christian civilization, European civilization, to a point where we still have no idea how much we’ve lost and how greatly our development as a species and as a society has been retarded. Out of the ruins of it, and striding across those poisoned ruins, came the great totalitarianisms that very nearly put an end to what remained of what could be called, by then certainly not Christendom, but of European and Russian civilization.

So this discussion that we’re having is by no means a new one and doesn’t involve such a new thought. We’ve had to wrestle for a very long time with the idea, what will we do about civilization; what will we do about values, ethics, morals; how will we teach them; how will we learn to live with one another in the absence of any real religious authority, any credible one, any one that’s worthy of the name, worthy of respect? This absence has been felt for a very, very long time, long before I was able to start writing about it.

I would just add, because I think it’s of extraordinary interest, that most of those empires have since passed away. Some of them won the war, nominally, and some of them lost it, nominally. They’ve more or less accepted the implied defeat in the long run, but two of them are in a rather sinister way, in my judgment, in the process of recrudescing — the Ottoman Empire, the caliphate, which very ill-advisedly went to war on the side of Wilhelmine German and Austro-Hungarian imperialism, throwing its own empire into the ring and declaring a world jihad from the throne of the caliph himself in Constantinople, making it obligatory on all the faithful to kill at least two non-believers as long as those non-believers were not German, Austrian or Hungarian, since it was the German, Austrian and Hungarian treasuries that were actually paying for the promulgation of this jihad.

Not only did the caliphate lose the war, but it lost its caliphate; it was dissolved by Mustapha Kemal [Ataturk]. But it’s interesting, it’s one of the two that’s trying to come back. Now you can go to a meeting in Kensington in London, if you wish, or on the Left Bank, or in the Kreuzberg in Berlin, and you can go to the caliphate club. It’ll be quite well attended; there’ll be quite a lot of people who say that the only salvation of humanity, the only true morality, the only real faith will come when all the Muslim umma is once again united — in fact, somewhat expanded, to take in, for example, Spain and other territories lost in previous combats.

It’s a real movement, and we’re going to be living with it for the rest of our lives. And those who think that faith-based is the prefix to something positive have a lot of argument, I think, ahead of them when they confront people who really mean it like that.

The second of the two empires that took part in this hecatomb of civilization in the name of their own religion, I mean the Russian one, shows real signs also of imperial nostalgia. No one here, I suppose, will have forgotten the moment when George Bush first met Vladimir Putin, who had chosen for the day to decorate his chest with his grandmother’s ornate Russian Orthodox crucifix, enough for the president to be convinced and to say that just to look into those beautiful limpid eyes was enough to see that he was a person of deep spirituality and sensitivity.

I think, by the way, in a fairly strong field, that’s one of the stupidest things any president has ever said. But now you don’t have to use much of your imagination when you see at the inauguration — when Putin wants to make someone prime minister, and when he says, how can he make himself czar again down the road — all these inaugural ceremonies are attended by black-cowled patriarchs swinging their incenses, demanding and getting in return privileges over other churches and other religions in Russia, restoring the same political and clerical balance, roughly, that did underpin Russian absolutism and autocracy until the great catastrophe of 1914.

And that’s coming back, too, and I think we don’t pay anything like enough attention to this fusion of traditional great Russian chauvinism and police regime with the clerical bodyguard and prop and stay and ally that it’s appointed for itself. But now it goes without saying that I’m speaking to the question of, how compatible is civilization with religion?

But so far, those are the only two empires that do show this sign of religious revival. It’s equally true to say that in huge parts of what we might call the industrialized modern world, tens of millions of people, in effect, live in a post-religious society. It’s hard to argue, I think, that they lead conspicuously less-civilized lives than their predecessor generations, than the ones of 1914 or 1939.

We haven’t yet conquered the problem of alienation or of anomie or of spiritual waste or of the fear of death. That has to be worked on. And we have a problem with moral relativism, that religion in its — inaudible — supremacy equally failed to solve. But I don’t think it’s really true to say that we live less-civilized a life than those of our predecessors who felt that there was a genuine religious authority that spoke with power.

It’s actually more than half a century since George Orwell wrote that the problem of civilization would be exactly this. He said, how will we now inculcate ethics, teach morality, to the people, to the majority, in the absence of a spiritual authority that commands respect and that has innate presence, that has the respect? With this decline in the authority of religion, how shall we teach ethics and morals?

It remains a very, very good question. I’d pause to mention that George Orwell himself, a very convinced atheist with a very strong and rooted respect for liturgy and for scripture and for tradition, made quite a good shot, in living his own life and evolving his own writing, in showing how, in fact, it is possible to lead an ethical existence without supernatural support or any appeal to it. But that might be choosing a rather too-favorable example to my own argument.

The truth is that if we just look at our own society, what do we really find? I was very interested to see the recent findings of our hosts today about how much Americans really know about their own religion — how few Catholics really know what the sacrament is, for example, how very few Protestants know who Martin Luther was, how very few — I was very surprised by this — how very few Jews appear to know that Maimonides was one of them — a Jew, as you will — and so forth.

But it shouldn’t really have surprised me, I don’t think. Thomas Jefferson said in what I used to think of as a disastrously non-prescient letter — I think it was to his nephew, Peter Carr — that there isn’t a young American born today who will not die a Unitarian.

Well, that’s one of the things T.J. didn’t get exactly right. But if you go around the public halls and the provincial theaters, as I do whenever I can, and engage with belief and the believers, you’ll find to an extraordinary extent that a kind of ethical humanism with a vague spiritual content is extremely commonplace. I can take 10 bucks off most Catholics by asking them the difference between the Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth. I’ve known all about how to do that long before Pew alerted me to the opportunity — (laughter).

There are people who combine a sort of Anglicism with a kind of Buddhism — it’s not at all uncommon — or Hinduism. I would say that the American Jewish population is in its majority effectively post-religious. It has, I would prefer to say, transcended its monotheism and become an ethical humanism. Certainly in the Reform, and to a great degree the Conservative congregations, that’s already the case, and everybody knows that on non-scriptural but, as it were, moral matters the American Catholic community has what is called by them a cafeteria Catholic, or an à la carte manner to it. In other words, it picks and chooses what might or might not be convenient to believe.

This is shallow, to be certain, and it’s thin, but I’m not sure if it isn’t preferable to a more decided, enforced orthodoxy, in connection with which, because I know I’m trespassing on your time, I’ll try and put it in the form of a question. It’s a thought experiment, if you like, which I’ll leave you with. Notice how in your daily newspaper intake, media intake, the much-maligned word secular has acquired on some pages of the newspaper, namely the international ones, almost the character of a positive. It has lost its pejorative character almost entirely.

In other words, suppose you were to read today that the new prime minister of Iraq was the leader of a secular force that didn’t have any religious allegiance. Would you be, A, terribly upset, B, enormously relieved or, three, thrilled beyond measure? (Laughter.) Ought you to be thinking this, those of you of faith?

What if someone was to say, a leader would emerge in Iran, an opposition leader, with genuine support among the intellectuals and — inaudible — and the downtrodden workers and peasants, who was to say, you know what? I’ve never believed a word of this story about the upcoming 12th imam and his reappearance and his bringing of a reign of peace and redemption to the whole human race. I think that’s an absolute fairy story, I think that’s got about as much chance of being true as Santa Claus. Would you not be rather relieved to hear that there was such a person? I submit that you most certainly would.

If you heard today that Bibi Netanyahu on yet another of his fraudulent trips to Washington to humiliate our president and our Congress had dispensed with the services of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the leader of the religious partnership in his coalition, who calls for God to smite the Palestinians with a plague, for example — that this man no longer appointed the person who is in charge of housing and settlements, which a matter of fact, he does. Would you not think that was a step in the right direction? I submit that you would.

So it may be rude to leave you with a question rather than proposing an answer, but I think you’ll see why I have done so, and I now make way for a younger and more principled generation.

CROMARTIE: Thank you, Christopher. A biography of Peter is in front of you, but I would just call your attention to something that he wrote in his new book, The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith. In April 2008, they had a debate in Grand Rapids, Mich., on the existence of God — Christopher and Peter did — and he wrote this:

“Somehow on that Thursday night in Grand Rapids, our old quarrels were, as far as I am concerned, finished for good. Just at the point where many might have expected — and some might have hoped — that we would rend and tear at each other, we did not. At the end I concluded that while the audience perhaps had not noticed, we had ended the evening on better terms than either of us might have expected. This was, and remains, more important to me than the debate itself.

“Something far more important than a debate had happened a few days before, when Christopher and I had met in his Washington, D.C. apartment. If he despised and loathed me for my Christian beliefs, he wasn’t showing it. To my astonishment, Christopher cooked supper, a domesticated action so unexpected that I still haven’t got over it.”

Edward Lucas of The Economist described Peter as “a forceful, tenacious, eloquent and brave journalist. Readers with long memories may remember his extraordinary coverage of the revolution in Romania in 1989, or more recently his intrepid travels to places such as North Korea. He lambasts woolly thinking and crooked behavior at home and abroad.”

I give you, ladies and gentlemen, Peter Hitchens.

PETER HITCHENS: Thank you. The question, first of all, is what civilization might be. I doubt whether we can agree on that very quickly, since we probably can’t even agree on how to spell it on either side of the Atlantic. I would really like to start by explaining what it isn’t and to recount some experiences of mine in places where it had ceased to be

The first one, picture me, if you will, in a blue suit and polished leather shoes sitting on top of a pile of cargo in a retired Soviet aircraft — rather, Soviet aircraft which ought to have been retired — landing at Mogadishu Airport one winter’s afternoon shortly before sunset. I won’t explain quite how stupid I had been to get myself into this position, but I was working at that time for a daily newspaper which had accepted a suggestion of mine, unexpectedly, that I should go to Mogadishu just before the U.S. Marines arrived, as they thought, to rescue the Somalis from famine and chaos.

Arriving at Mogadishu Airport is an experience some of you may have had and some of you may not. What I can tell you is this: There is no passport control. There is no baggage reclaim. In fact, as you land, sitting on top of the baggage, it slides the length of the aircraft as the brakes go on, which has made me take aircraft safety precautions with a total lack of seriousness ever since. It’s rather enjoyable, actually, when the baggage slides down the whole length of the plane.

You’re met at the end of the runway by a man from The Associated Press who is collecting all the water and supplies for his bureau, and by about 15 young men with AK-47s, who approach you and say, do you want a bodyguard? And you turn to the man from The Associated Press and you say, do I want a bodyguard? And he says, yes you do. If you don’t have a bodyguard, you’ll be dead and stripped by morning.

So we hire, myself and my colleague, John Downing, we hire one of these — in fact, two of these bodyguards — and a car with no upholstery, and we drive into Mogadishu just in time to see the departing ranks of the gangs and tribal formations which are supposed to be driven away by the arrival of the U.S. Marines. They are, in fact, going. They’re going into the sunset with their machine guns and their bandannas — they look like heavily armed rock stars — because they know that there is no point in being there when the Marines arrive, and they intend to come back later and do whatever it is they do.

We circle around, looking for some time for somewhere to spend the night. And only by great good fortune, because departing around a corner, my colleague sees somebody he knows from Sarajevo, do we find anywhere to spend the night. We are allowed into a compound which has been rented by some German television people, who share with us their camel stew and allow us to sleep on their concrete floor. I go to sleep listening that evening to the cries of dying people and the chatter of gunfire outside and hearing, in effect, what would have happened to me if I hadn’t found my way into the German compound.

The following day I find people to take me round; we’re nearly murdered on one occasion because my interpreter is from the wrong tribe. I see a scene of complete desolation. Every building has bullet holes, or indeed, shell holes in it. The main street is completely stripped bare of every feature of modern civilization. It’s just a stretch of mud with potholes in it with loping persons on it carrying weapons and no guarantee that they won’t use them on you. All the physical features of civilization and all the, as it were, intangible features of civilization — civility, safety, the ability to rely on your neighbor, the passing person, for any kind of kindness or consideration — have gone.

Eventually, with great relief, I got out of Mogadishu and I got home and was shown a few weeks afterwards a photograph of the same street which I had seen on that evening and on the following morning. Mogadishu having been an Italian colony, the street scene was actually rather Roman: pleasantly dressed people strolling along well-kept sidewalks, expensive cars gliding up and down a smooth road, telephone kiosks, pavement cafes.

The distance between that and what I saw was approximately 20 years, and it came to me and it has stayed with me ever since, whenever I walk down a pleasant street in Oxford, where I live, or indeed roam around Dupont Circle here or any major civilized city, this is not permanent. This is not here automatically. It is not as the air we breathe or the water we drink. It is as a result of certain unusual conditions which do not always exist and which have come about only for a very short period of time in a very limited number of places, and which even having been established, can come to an end.

This experience came on top of two years living in what, when I arrived, was the capital city of the Soviet Union and what, when I left, was the capital city of the Russian Federation. And there I also saw a very curious civilization which was not a civilization. That is to say, there was very little civility on the street between people. I was always struck by this. I would go down into what we’re always told in the tourist manuals is the magnificent Moscow Metro.

Because of the horrendously ruthless climate, the stations are guarded by very heavy wooden swing doors, or were in those days, and I would hold them open for people as they came into the stations behind me, and they would step back with a look of mistrust on their faces, as if I was playing a sort of joke on them. They were completely unused to the idea that anyone might do this. There wasn’t even that level of consideration. Nobody in any kind of public dealing would trust you. Almost everything had to be obtained through whispered threats and bribes.

By contrast, if you were invited into the homes of Russians, you were immediately led into a warm and entirely civilized circumstance of complete mutual obligation and trust in that very, very narrow and very, very small society. It was the family and the immediate friends where people knew whom they could trust and to whom they could show obligation and from whom they could expect it.

Now, you may say that this has to do with the climate or the economic conditions. I don’t happen to believe this, and if any of you would be kind enough to take a look at my book, I hope I have explained to some extent how this had come about. These two experiences, one on top of the other, persuaded me that it was worthwhile to think of what it was in our civilization that we ought to value.

There was one other thing, and Christopher will be slightly familiar with part of this. When we were growing up in the early 1960s and late 1950s, we lived for a short while in a very pleasant suburb of what was then the British naval base at Portsmouth. Now that we no longer have a navy, it is no longer that but it was then, and it was a very secluded, soft, comfortable, safe place in which we could wander about unsupervised for hours. Our parents could send us off and not worry about what would become of us. I can’t imagine, actually, anywhere more typical of English suburbia at the time.

While I was in Moscow, I had access to an immensely elaborate precursor of the Internet, the wire services that my newspaper received, one of them being the Press Association, the domestic one. And I was astonished one evening to be reading the wire services and to see the name of this suburb, Alverstoke, come up in a story. In that story what had happened was that somebody had been involved in an altercation with a group of people going past his front yard who had been kicking his garden fence in. As a result of trying to tell them to stop doing this, he had been kicked to death. And I thought: Alverstoke — kicked to death — what has happened to the country that I grew up in?

When I got back, I found that there was more and more of this sort of thing going on. Any of you who are interested, I urge — I haven’t got time to go into the cases now — to Google the cases of two people, one, Fiona Pilkington and her daughter, strangely named Francecca, and the other, a man called Garry Newlove, Garry with two R’s, and you will see that in large parts of England, particularly in the poorer parts, the behavior of individual human beings towards one another has sunk to levels not far distant from the Stone Age.

Mr. Newlove did very much as the person in Alverstoke did. There were people misbehaving in the street outside, and he went and remonstrated with them, and they beat him to the ground — and this phrase occurs very often in newspaper reports in Britain — they then kicked his head as if it were a football until he died.

In the case of Fiona Pilkington, her daughter was disabled and not very well-favored to look at, and as a result, they were ceaselessly persecuted by their neighbors. Their house was pelted with eggs and flour, they were shouted at and screamed at until their lives became a total misery. Mrs. Pilkington eventually snapped under this pressure, took her daughter with her out into the country, set fire to the car and burned them both to death in a hideous murder and suicide of a type which I hope is unimaginable to any of you but which seemed to be a reasonable conclusion to her troubles.

In both cases, they found it almost impossible to get the attention of the authorities, though, of course, after the events became highly public, the authorities began to take some interest and notice. But in fact, this kind of thing is so common at a low level in the grimmer suburbs of English cities that it is actually normal for a lot of people.

This was not the case until quite recently. How has this decline in civilization come about? Well, I think it has come about at least partly — and I’m not a single-cause person — but at least partly because there is no longer in the hearts of the English people the restraint of the Christian religion, which used to prevent this sort of behavior.

I think it would be completely idle to imagine that the two things were unconnected. I haven’t come here to say that civilization’s impossible without religion or indeed without Christianity. There are non-Christian civilizations. There are civilized countries which aren’t really based upon religion at all, such as Japan, which I think any visitor there will agree is an intensely civilized place.

But the extraordinary combination, which you in this country and I in mine used to enjoy and may for some time continue to, of liberty and order seems to me only to 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.

Without that, you reach a kind of, what I term, practical atheism, which is not a term which would be used by the people who actually engage in it because they probably could neither spell nor pronounce atheism, but which does seem to me to be a fair summary of the way in which people behave. If we can agree even to begin to agree here that there might be some truth in any of that, then some discussion can take place.

What I’ve found objectionable about a great deal of the attack upon religion that’s been taking place on both sides of the Atlantic in the English-speaking world in the past few years has been the dismissal and the contempt and the scorn and even what seems to me to be the dislike expressed over and over again for the Christian faith and for the good things that religion does and the unwillingness to accept that there are any of those good things, that the turning of the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just is something which could conceivably be obtained together with liberty by some other method.

I don’t think that’s true, and I think in a serious argument about it, then the atheists would need to concede that it wasn’t entirely true, and in conceding that, might be willing to hold the argument on a slightly narrower field from the one where they currently hold it. I’ll leave it at that.

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