April 14, 2010 // Local

‘The God Question’ debated at Notre Dame

By Ann Carey

NOTRE DAME — Interest in the April 7 debate between atheist author and columnist Christopher Hitchens and Catholic apologist and author Dinesh D’Souza was so high on the University of Notre Dame campus that the event sold out 90 minutes after tickets became available. The mostly student audience of 900 was enthusiastic but polite as Hitchens and D’Souza conducted a lively discussion of the question “Is religion the problem?”

Hitchens is considered to be a leader of the “New Atheist” movement, along with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. The title of Hitchens’s 2009 book accurately sums up his attitude toward God and religion: “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.”

D’Souza is a leading authority on international issues and was a policy analyst in the Reagan White House. Recently he has focused on responding to the arguments of the “New Atheist” movement. His 2008 book, “What’s So Great about Christianity?” is a response to several recent books touting atheism. His book, “Life after Death: The Evidence,” came out in 2009.

The evening brought out no new arguments from either of the men, who have debated each other on the topic frequently, but the quick wit and intellectual acuity of both speakers kept the audience engaged.

Hitchens presented his case first, urging the audience to discard “the faith position” and adopt “the only respectable intellectual position,” which is one of “doubt,” he said.

“Religion is a problem principally because it’s man-made,” Hitchens claimed, saying that religion was humanity’s first attempt to make sense of our universe, a “crude, most deluded, worst attempt” that is riddled with superstition.

Hitchens blamed much of the past and present violence and evil in the world on religion, citing the Palestinian-Jewish conflict and the Jihadist movement, as well as the Inquisition. He also took a quick verbal swing at the Catholic Church for abusing deaf children.
D’Souza said his remarks would meet Hitchens on his own ground and be built on reason rather than revelation, Scripture or authority. When Hitchens speaks about evolution, D’Souza said, he doesn’t explain the presence of matter, merely the transition, which does not account for life itself.

“Evolution requires a cell: So how did we get it?” D’Souza asked, saying it was “preposterous” to claim that life evolved out of random molecules in a warm pond. Nor does evolution explain the fact that humans have a moral conscience, unlike animals, whose instinct is self interest.

The “god explanation” is much better, D’Souza said, for the cell reflects intelligent design, and the universe shows rationality. And if religion is the primitive thing Hitchens claims it to be, D’Souza asked, why hasn’t it disappeared instead of enjoying the revival it is having in the 21st century?

In his rebuttal, Hitchens said he did not find the revival in religion to be a good thing, claiming that Jesus “operates on the fringe on mythology and history,” with no proof that he ever lived or rose from the dead.

D’Souza responded that religion is not incompatible with science, just different, asking different questions that science doesn’t have an answer for, such as: “What is the purpose of our life? Where are we going? What happens after we die?”

In the question-answer period after the debate, some members of the Michiana Skeptics — an organization for atheists, agnostics and other so-called “questioning” people — managed to get to the microphones before students, so most of the questions posed in the limited period were to D’Souza about his arguments. The result — perhaps unintended — was to give D’Souza more time to further explain the classic Judeo-Christian concepts about God and religion. According to member comments on their Web site, the Michiana Skeptics enjoyed dinner, drinks and conversation with Hitchens after the program ended.

The debate was sponsored by more than 10 Notre Dame departments and organizations. Michael Rea, director of Notre Dame’s Center for Philosophy of Religion, served as moderator and explained at the beginning of the program that the idea for the debate came from students. Wray said that the center is a think tank for Christian philosophy, but recently has been looking for ways to promote more serious debate. It was his hope, he said, that Notre Dame students would ask their theology and philosophy professors to discuss with them some of the issues that came up at the debate.

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