Hitchens preaches to the choir in latest 'God debate'

Craig Jarvis
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

RALEIGH, N.C. - In the great debate about God, author Christopher Hitchens won over an already sympathetic audience Tuesday night. But if anyone was expecting the famed intellectual brawler to knock out his opponent - a young religion professor from Campbell University - he barely drew blood.

Adam English held his own against Hitchens, who has convened a series of debates across the country to promote his new book, "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything." The Vanity Fair columnist squared off against his local opponent in the sweltering sanctuary of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship hall, where at least 500 people showed up to watch.

True, Hitchens pulled his punches, mostly restraining himself to verbal love taps when he summarized his opposition to religion, a performance he has perfected in recent national television interviews and other appearances. And English, who is also a Baptist minister, was not an easy target: Calm, polite and academic, he turned the evening into the debate it was billed as rather than a stage for Hitchens to beat up on a stereotype.

Yet, just to show he could unleash a provocative roundhouse if he wanted, Hitchens delivered more than a dozen intricately crafted broadsides that earned him raucous applause. As he put it, people should be free to believe whatever they want - just don't impose those beliefs on him: "Otherwise, we would have a fight on our hands, and you would lose."

"When they're not telling you you're a sinner and you're going to hell, they're flattering you by saying, `But take heart, the whole constellation of the universe is arranged around you,'" he said.

Hitchens likes to mention the internal warring among faiths - in the Middle East, in Northern Ireland, to name a couple - and their utter incompatibility with other religions. "It's what you'd expect from a species that is one-half chromosome away from chimpanzees," he said to a few groans but much applause.

He asked why, if the Bible is to be believed, God didn't intervene in the human suffering on earth until at least 6,000 years ago.

"Then it was 2,000 years ago before he said, `OK, that's it.' He said, `In one part of Palestine, I'll have my son torn to shreds, and if that doesn't make them love me, I don't know what will.' And the Chinese didn't even hear about it until later."

His biggest ovation of the night came in response to a question from the audience about what he was most thankful for. After he dismissed the entire concept of religious gratitude, a devilish smile crossed his face, and he said: "I'm grateful for the gift of sexual charisma that has been lavished on me" - which sparked wild applause and whistles - "as well as a very powerful means of making good on it."

There was, of course, nothing professor English could say to that. But in his persistence to find common ground, he said he, too, was thankful for sex and for life itself.

English earned a few rounds of applause as he met Hitchens' sometimes contentious remarks with patience. He said he didn't recognize his religion or himself in Hitchens' book, which he said portrayed Christianity as fanatical rather than loving. "I wouldn't want to spend an eternity with the God you portray," he said.

God is not an explanation for the universe, English said, but a representation of the mystery of life. The fact that there are so many kinds of religion, English said, proves "the universality of religious quest. Our souls are religious souls - they long for something other than the ordinary, and they reach out for something transcendental."

The night concluded with an aggressive back-and-forth between the two speakers over the track record of religion in civil rights. Finally, the unwinnable debate simply ended with both speakers thanking the audience.

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