You could tell from the background music that played beforehand – alternating recordings of James Brown and Gregorian chant – that this was going to be an unusual debate.
The question under debate (“Is God great?”) and the speakers — two men who are often depicted in harsh caricatures by their critics — might have caused some to expect something like a circus. Perhaps surprisingly, it turned out to be the public intellectual event of the evening, a bit like Bertrand Russell vs. C. S. Lewis.
Taking the atheist position was Christopher Hitchens, the journalist and author of a new book arguing that “religion poisons everything.” In defense of God was none other than the Rev. Al Sharpton, a man of the cloth who is perhaps even better known for his political and civil rights activism than for his training as a preacher.
Mr. Hitchens and Mr. Sharpton engaged in a sold-out debate tonight before a crowd that packed the Celeste Bartos Forum at the New York Public Library’s Beaux-Arts headquarters on Fifth Avenue. The polite but vigorous discussion was moderated by Jacob Weisberg of Slate Magazine, who began by asking Mr. Hitchens, “What have you got against God?”
Mr. Hitchens said he realized that belief in God was irrational at age 9. He cited two arguments against faith. First, that religion is simply untrue, religions having arisen to explain phenomena that could not be accounted for – like diseases and natural disasters – for which there are now scientific explanations.
Second, Mr. Hitchens criticized those who don’t believe in the literal truth of the immaculate conception, the burning bush, Lazarus rising from the dead and yet say, “It’s not really true, it does come from a rather fearful period of the dark ages, but it’s nice to believe.”
Mr. Hitchens noted the Christian titles – “Parting the Waters,” “Pillar of Fire,” “At Canaan’s Edge” – of Taylor Branch’s three-part biography of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “If you think about it for a second, it’s a very good thing that the good doctor was only using this metaphorically,” Mr. Hitchens said, adding that Dr. King, “if he really believed in invoking the lessons of Genesis and Exodus,” would have turned toward eye-for-an-eye vengeance rather than nonviolence and civil disobedience.
He said of the Christian Old Testament: “In these books there are the warrants for genocide, for slavery, for the torture of children, for genital mutilation, for annexation, for rape and all the rest of it. It’s a very good thing that this is all man-made.”
Mr. Hitchens invoked the Western, rationalist tradition – “the tradition that brings us through Galileo and Spinoza and Thomas Paine and Voltaire, and Thomas Jefferson and Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein, men of great wisdom and insight, by all means struck by the inspiring character of our universe” – and aware of the transcendent inspiration provided by poetry, architecture and contemplation of the universe.
“Look through the Hubble Telescope if you want to see something that’s awe-inspiring; don’t look to blood-stained old myths,” Mr. Hitchens said.
Mr. Hitchens said he was inspired to write his book by the rise in religious fundamentalism, citing violence over a Danish newspaper’s publication of a cartoon satirizing the Prophet Muhammad, the sectarian conflict in Iraq and the controversy over the teaching of evolution in American public schools. (He compared teaching intelligent design to teaching alchemy or astrology.)
Mr. Sharpton, who had listened to Mr. Hitchens’s presentation with a sober expression, offered a calm response.
“You made a very interesting analysis of how people use or misuse God, but you made no argument about God Himself,” Mr. Sharpton said. “And attacking the quote-wicked-unquote use of God does not at all address the existence of God or nonexistence of God.”
We are sitting in a room that because of lights, we assume that there is electricity in the building. Electricity can light the room or burn it down; it does not mean electricity does not exist because it burns a building down, or that it is inherently wicked. Clearly people have misused God, as they have misused other things that are possibly positive, but its existence is not in any way proved or disproved by you giving me a long diatribe on those that have mishandled and misused God.
Mr. Sharpton offered two other arguments in defense of religious belief. He argued – as he would throughout the evening – that without God, all is morally relative.
“If there is no God and if there is no supreme mechanism that governs the world, what makes right right and what makes wrong wrong?” Mr. Sharpton asked. “Why don’t we just go by whoever is the strongest in any period in history?”
He added, “On one hand, we’re going to argue God doesn’t exist; on the other hand we’re going to call people wicked. Wicked according to whom, and according to what? It would be based on whoever has power at that time.”
Further, Mr. Sharpton suggested that the marvel of human creation – including evolution – implies the existence of a divine creator.
“The real thing that I’m interested in, Mr. Hitchens, is to really discuss the idea of God and the idea of a supreme being and how creatures and creation have just by some great coincidence, an unexplained scheme, followed some order that just happened by itself. Some thing, some force, some overruling force, had to set all of that pattern in and it continues thousands of years later.”
Mr. Sharpton told Mr. Hitchens, “In terms of the civil rights movement, it was absolutely fueled by a belief in God and a belief in right or wrong. Had not there been this belief that there was a right and a wrong, the civil rights movement that you alluded, and referred to, would not have existed.”
Mr. Sharpton also aimed a barb at Mr. Hitchens, who has broken with left-wing commentators through his staunch defense of the war in Iraq and President Bush’s policies there.
“At the end what is refreshing is that you are a man of faith,” Mr. Sharpton told Mr. Hitchens, to much laughter, “because any man that at this point has faith that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has more faith than any religious person I know.”
Mr. Hitchens noted that Dr. King had studied Hegel and Marx and that “among his associates were a large number of secular socialists,” like the unionist A. Philip Randolph and the activist Bayard Rustin.
“The belief that it is illegal as well as evil to keep black Americans in subjection does not require any supernatural endorsement,” Mr. Hitchens said. “It had been proved repeatedly in morality and law and ethics.” Indeed, he said, many Christians offered Biblically based defenses of slavery and racial segregation.
Mr. Hitchens added, “I didn’t say that God was misused. I said that the idea of God is a dictatorial one to begin with. A belief in a supreme, eternal, invigilating creator who knows what you think and do and cares about you, watches over you while you sleep … is an innately horrific belief.”
Mr. Hitchens said he did not doubt that the creation of life on the planet was remarkable and not necessarily “susceptible to a smooth, logical, reasonable explanation.”
Mr. Sharpton was not persuaded. “A lot of what you’re saying is based on dogma that has nothing to do with one’s belief in a supreme being. You’re discussing, again, religions, dogmas, denominations, not the existence or nonexistence of God.”
Noting that Dr. King had established the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he said, “There’s no question that he himself saw that the basis of the movement was God-based.” He added, “To try and secularize the civil-rights movement is just totally inaccurate. It was a church-based, faith-based movement; there’s just no question about that. … Let’s not reinvent Dr. King any more than we try to reduce God to some denomination or convention.”
But Mr. Sharpton, in a jab at Mitt Romney (and the Mormon religion), added, “As for the one Mormon running for office, those who really believe in God will defeat him anyway, so don’t worry, that’s a temporary situation.”
Mr. Hitchens again cited violent texts in the Bible, like God’s command (later revoked) that Abraham sacrifice Isaac and calls for the destruction of the Israelites’ enemies. He said that “nutcase settlers” in the West Bank were trying to “establish a theocracy and bring on a Messiah” and that the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad could be used to justify the killing of apostates.
”I think we could do without all this,” he said.
Mr. Sharpton replied, “Again, you are debating points I didn’t make. I said you keep confusing the existence of God, again, with religious denomination or belief.”
Mr. Hitchens: “Are they separable?”
Mr. Sharpton: “Yes, very much so.”
Mr. Hitchens: “Religion gets its morality from us; I think it’s fairly easy to demonstrate that.”
Mr. Sharpton: “You’re back on the testaments. Why don’t you write a book, ‘Testaments Are Not Great.’ ”
Mr. Hitchens said the very parable of the good Samaritan – who was not a Christian – suggests that morality and religion are not necessarily linked: “Morality comes from us. Religion claims to have invented it on our behalf.”
Before the Ten Commandment were handed down, he asked rhetorically, did the Israelites believe that “adultery, murder, theft and perjury were O.K.”?
He added, “The golden rule is something you don’t have to teach a child. There is no need to say, ‘And if you don’t follow this rule, you’ll burn in hell.’ ”
He said of religion, “By all means, believe it, as long as you don’t try to make me believe it or teach it to my children.”
Mr. Sharpton, in a quite personal turn, turned to his own experiences:
I would say that many people, I among them, in our own lives have had experiences that make me believe that there is a God. And make me believe that my seeking God and seeking the guidance of a supreme being is real to me. I’m not going by Moses, I’m not going by Peter, I’m not going by the man that you said was a legend, Jesus of Nazareth. … I’m not here to defend Scriptures. I didn’t write those Scriptures. I live my life, and in my life the existence of God has been confirmed to me in my own personal dealings and in my own faith being vindicated and validated. That has absolutely nothing to do with Scriptures, whether they are right or wrong.
Mr. Sharpton returned to his argument about moral relativism:
When you raise the issue of morality, if there is no supervisory being, what do we base morality on? Is it based on who has the might at a given time, who is in power? If there is no order to the universe … then who determines what is right or wrong, what is moral or immoral? You use religious terms interchangeably while you attack the idea of God. There is nothing immoral if there is nothing in charge.
Mr. Hitchens said he found Mr. Sharpton’s argument that God is necessary for morality to be a “profound observation,” one made in Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” for example. But on the whole, he argued, religion has done more harm than good.
Rather than believing that without God, we would be “wolves to each other,” he said, “I think there’s an enormous amount of evidence that that’s not the case, that morality is innate in us. When you see something otherwise surprising to you, such as a good person acting in a wicked manner, it’s very often because they believe they have divine orders to do so.”
Mr. Hitchens said that religion prompts many people to do evil things – citing Palestinian suicide bombers and even the practice of circumcision. “I do not think that any person looking at a newborn baby would think, ‘How wonderful, what a gift, now let’s start sawing away at his genitalia with a sharp stone.’ ” He added, “This is what I mean when I say that those who think there’s any connection between ethics and religion still have all their work ahead of them.”
Mr. Sharpton’s retort: “So you do not believe, in your long and thorough research of history, that atheists never did anything evil — only religious people reading Scriptures of some sort?”
Mr. Weisberg, noting that that Mr. Sharpton “to my surprise has not defended anything in the Bible,” asked Mr. Hitchens, “What is your problem with faith divorced from religious text or literalism?”
Mr. Hitchens said he defined religion as “the belief that God tells you what to do,” and argued that religious texts and religion itself could not be separated.
Mr. Weisberg then challenged Mr. Sharpton to explain why “you haven’t defended the Bible at all.”
Mr. Sharpton’s reply: “Maybe I read the wrong book. I didn’t get the book by Hitchens that the Bible is not great. I have yet to, after several inquiries tonight, gotten him to address that. When I read his book and hear him talk, he makes a case against everything other than God.”
Mr. Sharpton added, “We can then agree that as long as I don’t bother the sedate, scholarly world of Mr. Hitchens, he’s fine. And I’m fine with that. Because I am certainly not trying to convert Mr. Hitchens.”
Members of the audience – including Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the former Dutch lawmaker who was born in Somalia, renounced Islam and is now affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington – asked questions of Mr. Hitchens and Mr. Sharpton.
Perhaps the funniest moment in the cordial and profound exchange occurred when Mr. Sharpton endorsed Mr. Hitchens’s book.
“I’d encourage people to buy the book,” Mr. Sharpton said. “I don’t believe what it says, but it’s well written. He’s a very eloquent and well-versed person.”
“That’s extremely handsome of you,” Mr. Hitchens replied.