Last night at the Society for Ethical Culture, the big question was: whose body count is bigger? Atheism’s or Christianity’s?
In one corner was Christopher Hitchens, a leading contributor to American intellectual dyspepsia and the author of God is Not Great; in the other was Hoover Institution and former young Reaganite Dinesh D’Souza, author of What’s So Great About Christianity. (If the war between the two were to cause any collateral damage, a look around the packed auditorium put the number of civilians in the line of fire in the hundreds.)
The Salem Witch Trials killed just eighteen, said Mr. D’Souza. And the Inquisition killed only 2,000 in 300 years! Whereas atheists could claim Stalin, Mao… his list went on.
"Atheism, not religion, is responsible for the mass murders of history," he declared triumphantly. "I think Hitchens by the end of the day should be chanting ‘Thank God for Christianity.’"
Earlier Mr. D’Souza had opened the debate, sponsored by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and The King’s College on the topic "Is Christianity the Problem?" on a rather more lighthearted note.
"I don’t believe in unicorns," he said drily, "but I haven’t written a book on the subject." This was a dig at the "militancy" of the "new atheists:" Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Mr. Hitchens.
He charged that the values claimed by atheists-individual dissent, personal dignity, equality, antipathy to oppression, compassion as a social virtue-actually "came into the world from Christianity," thank you.
Mr. Hitchens took the podium with a plastic glass of dark-colored liquid and thanked the "alarmingly polite and wholesome faculty, staff and students of King’s College."
(His alarm no doubt partly consisted in speaking before this particular audience: The King’s College’s mission is to educate its students from a "commitment to the truths of Christianity and a Biblical worldview.")
To Mr. Hitchens, those truths have a deeper origin even than that, because "human solidarity predates monotheism."
God, as Christians describe him, he said, is a "celestial dictator" who will "continue to judge and persecute us even after we are dead."
It is "very fortunate," he concluded, "that we posses no evidence of this."
Then came the zingers: "It’s not moral to lie to children and ignorant uneducated people-to tell them they can be saved. It’s wrong. The [idea of damnation] is one of the most wicked ideas ever preached." And its preachers?
"Vicious, child-hating old people."
Someone apparently flashed Mr. Hitchens the "two minutes left" sign.
"I don’t need two minutes to finish with this religion!" he crowed.
But he did. He reminded the audience that for tens of thousands of years, humans lived for 20 or 25 years before they were "dead of microorganisms." Christians, he said, believe that heaven watched this for 98,000 years and then suddenly decided to intervene 2,000 years ago with "a filthy human sacrifice in a remote part of Palestine." This "can’t be believed by a thinking person," he said, to applause.
Then it was Mr. D’Souza’s turn again. "I feel like a mosquito in a nudist colony," he said. "I’m trying to decide where to begin!"
He started with Christ, "one of the mildest men to ever set face on earth," he said, whose "ideas have done good for the world."
He surmised that for poor Hitchens, "the gates of hell are locked from inside." Because, well, we are free to accept or reject salvation, and if we reject it, "God reluctantly gives us our wish." The crowd liked this, too.
Then back to Mr. Hitchens, who said we’ve all heard the argument that without religion, "we’d descend into nihilistic chaos," but "is there anything forbidden to those who say they have God on their side?"
On to "cross-examination," which went approximately as follows:
Then, as is customary in debates on this topic, it was … back to the dictators!
D’Souza: "Hitchens zooms in on Hitler, leaving untouched Communism. He didn’t mention Mao, Pol Pot, Kim Jong Il…"
Hitchens: "Bah!" (takes a drink).
"Take Russia in 1917. Is not the case that for centuries they’ve been told their head of state is a little more than human? Out of this were serfdom and similar delights born."
D’Souza: "Christianity has a lot to answer for. That’s why we have forgiveness. But not Mao, Stalin, Hitler-people who would have wiped it off the face of the earth if they could have, as would Christopher Hitchens!"
With that, the question and answer period began. Mr. Hitchens, mugging about alcoholism as is his wont, said his favorite miracle is the one where water was turned to wine. Mr. D’Souza reiterated that evolution can’t account for morality. Mr. Hitchens said that when he was a socialist, he enjoyed giving blood. Mr. D’Souza said this was because Mr. Hitchens was raised in Christian Europe. Mr. Hitchens said "Yuck!"
And Mr. D’Souza got the last word, declaring that "the atheist is chafing under the laws of a world in which we are accountable. Atheism isn’t an intellectual revolt, it’s a moral one."
Phew. At this point anyone could have been forgiven for rushing the stage to grab Mr. Hitchens’ cup and throwing it down his throat.
Mr. Hitchens lingered at his podium as the crowd clapped, looking as if there were more he wanted to say.
He didn’t. And as Mr. D’Souza smiled and greeted admirers on the stage, signing copies of his new book, Mr. Hitchens made his way toward the door.
"Christopher is used to steamrolling his opponents," Mr. D’Souza told The Observer with all the boyish relish of a 26-year-old foreign-policy advisor to Ronald Reagan. (He’s now 46.) "I’ve watched a couple of his debates, and they’re very one-sided in his favor. So I was determined to be the equalizer."
He estimated that he’d done exactly that.
"I feel very pleased about it, and I’m looking forward to taking on the other atheists now," he said cheerfully.
Kiley Humphries, 22, the tall brunette Student Body President of King’s College, was standing nearby.
"I feel like Dinesh won, because I don’t feel like Hitchens ever answered the question of ‘Were these people really fighting for atheism?’" she said. She said that she was originally from Wichita, Kan. and that being a student at a Christian college in Manhattan is "a fascinating clash."
Mr. Hitchens, meanwhile, was cornered on the steps outside, where a large group of students had gathered to watch him fend off an agitated opponent named Ryan Sorba, a self-described "young professional from California"-not a King’s College student-who was wearing a suit and hollering something to the effect of: "According to the atheists, why ought we to preserve the species?"
"What’s your answer?" shouted one woman to Mr. Hitchens’ challenger. The Observer was a bit puzzled.
"Shut up and let him sign some books!" shouted another man.
Mr. Hitchens kept his voice low and fired back at his opponent politely, keeping pace with the increasingly loud inquiries.
He eventually tried, with an apologetic air, to escape. His opponent, unsatisfied, shouted: "There’s no reason to preserve the species, OK?"
Mr. Sorba was looking wounded as he made his way down West 64th Street, but a reporter catching up with him found him willing to expound further.
“According to Hitchens, morality is nothing but a chemical reaction in the brain,” explained Mr. Sorba. “If right and wrong is determined by instinct, than it means we’re nothing more than genetic meat puppets dangling from the strings of our DNA!”
Mr. Sorba, it turns out, is something of a celebrity on the family-values circuit; a former college Republican who gives a speech on college campuses these days called “The Born Gay Hoax,” about how homosexuality isn’t genetic. (Here’s Ryan Sorba on YouTube!)
Once he was fully gone, Mr. Hitchens looked around with beagle eyes.
"Comrades?" he mustered to the two gentlemen beside him, who pointed out the location of his car.
"I don’t feel any better," he muttered.