Christopher and Peter Hitchens debate religion against brutal backdrop

By Michelle Boorstein The food was elegant, the attendees elite and polite, the backdrop brutal. Sitting before a highly unusual … Continued

By Michelle Boorstein

The food was elegant, the attendees elite and polite, the backdrop brutal.

Sitting before a highly unusual forum at the Pew Research Center this afternoon were the provocateur atheist writer Christopher Hitchens, thinned and bald from ongoing chemotherapy, and his brother, Peter, a journalist and devout Christian. The brothers have had a largely estranged, cold relationship but had agreed to a gentle debate on the subject about which they both have recently published books — God.

Specifically, the 90-minute “conversation” before a small group of journalists unusually high-end (it included those from The New Yorker, Commentary and the American Spectator), was about whether truly civilized societies require religions and the ethical structures they provide.

This conversation about the hereafter and getting along was the first time the sparring brothers have talked publicly together since Christopher was diagnosed with esophageal cancer earlier this year and characterized himself as “dying.”

They last shared a stage, Peter told me in an interview this weekend, in 2008 at Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Mich., for a debate that turned angry and into what he called a “ghastly circus.” Since then Peter has come out with a memoir-political polemic meant to counter Christopher’s best-selling critique “God Is Not Great: How Religion Spoils Everything.”

This time everyone seemed to walk on eggshells and the discussion was, well, uber-civilized, if cold. The brothers barely spoke as people milled around and ate beforehand and didn’t look at one another during the discussion, even when directly addressing the other.

“I don’t have long to live and it’s not something I wish to focus on in this argument,” Christopher said tersely when asked by a reporter to address whether his diagnosis had changed the brothers’ relationship.

“I thought we’d already done that,” Peter said when asked if he wanted to separately address the status of their connection.

The intensity of the backdrop was clear when I talked with Peter, who told me he “hoped” he’d get to see his brother outside the public forum, but that the chemotherapy treatments could complicate things. “It’s not a simple matter of just doing it.”

But there were snippets of a shared boyhood, a chuckle when Peter noted that their mother was “a bit of a snob” and references to various spots they lived growing up with a father who was a commander in the British Navy. Even those exchanges were laced with obviously divergent views on the era and global events since.

After Peter had made a point about how much more peaceful and polite Brits were to one another when the boys were growing up, Christopher noted that “people would kill one another at that time over what kind of Christian you were.”

Peter argued that his older brother “tends to surge off” into broader political issues like the Catholic-Protestant issue in Northern Ireland, but “I mean in the way people were brought up, and I don’t think the affect of Christian upbringing was small .. There is this utopian view about things like, ‘Can we bring in democracy’ but the question rather is, can we construct in the square mile where we live a civil society?”

Despite his clearly frail physical condition, Christopher Hitchens’ often acerbic tongue and quick wit didn’t seem changed, snapping when asked how he felt about people suggesting his views about God might change because he is ill.

“I have resented the idea that it should be assumed, now that you may be terrified, or depressed, that now would be the time to throw out values you have had for a lifetime,” he said. Repulsive. Wholly contemptible.

Secular-minded boosters, he said, have their own drawbacks. When people imply that he’s too tough to be overcome by cancer, “it has the effect of giving me the blues” because he feels he will fail people if he dies.

The stakes for brothers, both highly successful, both engaged in this life-and-death subject at a time of fatal illness, seemed to play out strangely in this proper setting, under fluorescent lighting and with a whirring video camera (CNN and NPR plan to run excerpts tomorrow, Pew not for another week or so) and clanking silverware.

The two hadn’t discussed or mapped out the forum before it happened, said Peter, who described himself in our interview as “reluctant” to do the event and said he didn’t even want to write such a personal book as “The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith,” but was convinced of its import by the book industry. He said he only agreed to the event if it could be civil and not billed as a debate.

“I don’t see the point in spoiling a good argument by being angry with my opponent,” he told the forum about his feelings about his brother, at whom he did not look as he spoke. “He has been my opponent for most of my life, but I’d say that is over.”

No big issues were resolved in the 90 minutes, nor was it clear – to the extent it was a debate – who won. Peter argued generally that societies which have rejected religion have turned cruel, including parts of British society, including a neighborhood they lived in as boys that is now home to savage crimes. He attributed things like Russians’ unwillingness to hold doors for one another as part of the change in daily life.

“What is it in our civilization that we ought to value?” he asked.

Hitchens stuck to the big picture, arguing that many Western believers would view the word “secular” as positive if they heard it used to describe a new leader in Iran or Iraq, for example. Even a society like the United States considered strongly rooted in religion is, he believes, really practicing a secular humanism “with a vague spirituality.”

The talk wrapped up with Christopher responding to a questioner who wanted to know if Christianity had contributed anything to him.

Hymns and prayers he learned as a boy, he said, are “a reminder of the ephemeral transience” of human life and all humans create, he said. “But I dare say I could have got that from Einstein.”


Elizabeth Tenety Elizabeth Tenety is the former editor of On Faith, where she produced "Divine Impulses," On Faith’s video interview series. She studied Theology and Government at Georgetown University and received her master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. A New York native, Elizabeth grew up in the home of Catholic news junkies where, somewhere in between watching the nightly news and participating in parish life, she learned to ponder both the superficial and the sacred.
  • eezmamata

    Never heard of Peter Hitchens. Lots of brothers feel such resentment that another one of their siblings has made it and they have not … somehow it seems so unfair to them, as if luck were at play. This way they can excuse their own failure, in fact it’s an alibi.Trying to have a professional life as the anti-Christopher is just as pathetic a thing as I can think of.

  • shadow27

    I’ve watched my siblings waste a lot of their lives on petty arguments like this. I certainly hope that their estrangement is based on something more serious than whether or not God exists.

  • the4millerz

    @Shadow27 – you “hope that their estrangement is based on something more serious than whether or not God exists”? Wow.Please give us all the enlightenment of what could be MORE serious than the debate over the existence of God.Of course there is NOTHING more serious than the existence of God since logic tells us that matter cannot create itself. Duh.

  • qualquan

    the4millerz writeWell then what is god made of? Matter? Energy..which is interchangeable with mass or matter? Then who created him/her since your logic says matter cannot create itself?

  • daniel3715

    Of course Christopher is right, if all of the treasure spent on Religious cathedrals, mosques, synagogues, and religious wars since humans emerged from caves was spent on education, think how much more evolved humans would be.Voltaire was right:”The first clergyman was the first rascal who met the first fool”.”Churchs are built by rascals for the benefit of rascals”.

  • daniel3715

    Of course Christopher is right, if all of the treasure spent on Religious cathedrals, mosques, synagogues, and religious wars since humans emerged from caves was spent on education, think how much more evolved humans would be.Voltaire was right:The first clergyman was the first rascal who meet the first fool.Churchs are built by rascals for the benefit of rascals.

  • Freestinker

    QualQuan asked The4MillerZ : “Well then what is god made of? Matter? Energy..which is interchangeable with mass or matter? Then who created him/her since your logic says matter cannot create itself?”=====QualQuan,My prediction: The4MillerZ will not repond because you have exposed the fallacy of the uncaused cause.Nice work.

  • baj3

    It is always amusing to hear the God Squad tell us, with infinite condescension, that matter cannot create itself. On the other hand, God (unlike, of course, Allah, Zeus, the spirit of the 3rd volcano from the left and all the others who are mere human inventions) does not need a creator. As kids we all wondered, and even said aloud until it was beaten out of us: who made God? Answer came there none. (Yes, I know that is from Alice in Wonderland not Jesus in Wonderland, but it fits just as well here.)

  • Craig_Colgan

    It’s “Grand Valley State University.” For the record.

  • sharonsj1

    My sister was an atheist. I am not. That difference of opinion never got in the way of our relationship. On the other hand, neither of us was Christian….

  • shans99

    Peter Hitchens is quite well known in the UK and has a column in the Mail. He’s an award-winning journalist and author who doesn’t show up much in the US but is a significant media figure in Britain.The fact that you’ve not heard of him, EEZMAMATA, says less about Hitchens’ prominence and more about your provincialism.

  • robertajkaufman3

    yesterday I had a really bad day. Any one who would have witnessed it would not think me much of a christian. It is life and death the battles are mind go thru to find some truth that we believe initself. falling is hard when the ideals you believe in seem higher than you can reach.and falling only helps the non believer look at you and say see not so this God what hypocrites to believe such nonsense but you see I breath so very much better with God than I ever have here were opionions get mired in intellect and lost for lack of faith of some higher power once Mr Hitchens some one made a mockery of something I loved simple this thing was but so spiteful it became and if ever I hated the most it must have been then until thinking myself dying lungs burning barely able to hold up my head I looked up and saw an entire sky filled with that spiteful thing its true and whether we rise to his occasion or fall so is this Christ I don’t ask you to believe me but I tell you with what you are facing if you were to seee what I saw so sick when I looked up you might feel faith flow thru your body and feel the possibility of infinite endless hope what would you have to loose here is my prayer for you that you experience that for it is pure grief to never know that but more that with this revelation you tell someone else so that a harder heart then what yours has been would believe and you could know a peace that whispers everything is going to be all right and run you right into forever honest

  • wgmadden

    It’s not “Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan”, it’s “GRAND Valley State University ( in State Valley Rapids, Michigan”. Sheesh!

  • wgmadden

    It’s not “Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan”, it’s “GRAND Valley State University ( in State Valley Rapids, Michigan”. Sheesh!

  • Bthomas1956

    To assume that this conflict was the center of their lives is rather naive, while Christopher has always had a bit of a chip on his shoulder as many atheists seem to do. The contributions of both Peter and Christopher go way beyond this one point of argument.

  • qualquan

    Its not religion but reason which makes us better human beings. It is reasoning and intelligence which makes us realize the economic and human benefits of fairness and honesty.

  • johnturkal1

    I rather like BThomas’s comments. We can always find examples that contradict some of his/her comment but the truth is religion can be as desruptive to a civil society as no religion at all. We need only to look as far as our own back yard for an example. Always enjoyed listening to Christopher wheither I agreed with him or not. Never heard Peter but I can surmise their conversations didn’t conclude with a cup of coffee and good natured ribbing. Maybe they should have stuck to politics.

  • Brianrrs37

    QUOTE:”Never heard of Peter Hitchens. Lots of brothers feel such resentment that another one of their siblings has made it and they have not … somehow it seems so unfair to them, as if luck were at play. This way they can excuse their own failure, in fact it’s an alibi.”So you think everything in life is about title, paycheck and class?If you want to attack Peter Hitchens for bad arguments, I am fine with that, but attacking him for not being as well known as his brother demeans the middle class and poor.I am a college educated dishwasher and not the least ashamed of it. People complain all the time that everyone should get an education. I hate to burst your bubble, but even if everyone did get an education, we would STILL have a three class system.Attack Peter for his defense of Santa, not is paycheck.I hate jaded people who think that if you don’t live in a mansion or make billions, you are a loser.Tell me, when you are on your own deathbed, are your really going to be concerned with the material things you collected throughout life? QUOTE;” as if luck were at play.”For every Tom Cruise their are hundreds of thousands in Hollywood, just as good, if not better, that will remain unknown.For every player that makes it to the NFL with only 45 slots per the 32 teams, there are 100s of thousands and millions, from pee wee league age, that will NOT make it and will have to fall back on something else.I am so sick of people like you equating poverty as being lazy or class as equating to morality.The issue here is not about how many books Peter sells vs his Brother. The issue is the existence of god.

  • Brianrrs37

    QUOTE:”The main reason we are suffering economically and as a society is because we have become unfair and hypocritical. “When you ask anyone of any class if they came across a car accident, would they ask the person’s class or religion before rendering aid, the rational and humane person says no, they would just lend the aid.BUT, some people hypocritically will let a guy in a cubical allow you to die because of your inability to pay.I say be consistent, if you don’t want to pay for the heath care of others, then the next time you see someone bleeding to death, and they are poor, screw em, they got what they deserved, right?And why not stop at just letting them die. Why not have them arrested and jailed for merely not having what you have. After all, they are mooches, right?Yet the rich have no problem taking tax deductions the middle and poor have to subsidize. If the money is not going into the pot, someone has to make up for it.The fact is that the class war fare is being waged by the corporate class who won’t be satisfied until American workers are making cell phones for 40 cents an hour 16 hours a day like China.

  • PSolus

    0penM1nded,Bear in mind that the4millerz wrote, “I believe in evolution…”; he/she did not write that he/she actually understands all of the nuances of the theory of evolution.It is very easy to believe something; it is generally more difficult to actually understand that thing.

  • gladerunner

    spidermean2:Q: “How did it all come into being?”Q: “How did lungs come about?”And the difference is?You: “You’re an idiot!”

  • schnauzer21

    Does anyone care what their neighbor puts in his coffee? Or which sock he puts on first as he dresses? Of course not.Then why are people so concerned about which god (if any) he leans to too or what he does in his bedroom with another consenting adult?

  • spidermean2

    NOne of these idiotic evolutionists can say how their eyes, ears, nose , lungs, brains evolved using the laws of science. They just don’t realize how crazy they are until they will face the ONE who knows how it all came into being.Good if they won’t burn.

  • spidermean2

    Science follow a set of rules. Physics, Chemistry, Math, etc have their set of rules. Darwinian Evolution has no rules because it is not science but a science of fools.How did the eye, ear, brain, nose, lungs evolve? These idiots have no answer. Of course, because they have no set of rules. It’s all random stupidity to them. They just say what they want like stupid babblers.

  • BSoto

    Christopher Hitchens’s brother, Peter, nearly seemed capable of sharing the same table until that last comment, “morality is what you do when you think nobody is looking, and there’s a lot of things I would do if I didn’t believe in god.” That statement of course assumes the worst of humanity, and a void where consciousness should be, not to mention how tentative and contrived Peter’s morale software really is. To imply we all need belief in an invisible, supernatural, omniscient dictator in the sky to hit the brakes on decisions that would otherwise unnecessarily and adversely affect yourself or others is of course ridiculous, as we see secularists make generally defined “moral,” and even altruistic decisions like this every day without believing things on bad evidence.As is often the case when pitting others against Christopher Hitchens, Peter is outclassed here.

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