PETER BRIETBART, a contributor to the Freethinker, and a student of politics and philosophy at the University of Sussex where he is chair of the Secular Society, was there to see the Church totally routed –and he grabbed the opportunity to interview CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS after the debate, organised by Intelligence Squared.
There are few experiences more pleasing than watching Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry utterly demolish their opponents in debate. Last night, in the Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, they squared up to MP Ann Widdecombe and Nigerian Archbishop Onaiyekan, who were tasked to defend the motion that:
The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world.
Oh, the humiliation!
The voting, according to The Telegraph‘s Andrew M Brown – who described the Archbishop as “particularly hopeless” – gives a good idea of how it went. Writes Brown:
Before the debate, for the motion: 678. Against: 1102. Don’t know: 346. This is how it changed after the debate: For: 268. Against: 1,876. Don’t know: 34. In other words, after hearing the speakers, the number of people in the audience who opposed the motion increased by 774. My friend Simon said it was the most decisive swing against a motion that he could remember.
One highlight included the lovely hostess Zeinab Badawi asking the Archbishop if Jesus actually said anything about homosexuality, and him replying “that’s not the point.”
Another was Fry’s noting that the Church is obsessed with sex. He makes the comparison with food, exclaiming that only two kinds of people are obsessed with food: the anorexic and the obese. In a religious context this boiled down either to celibacy or child abuse.
But the masterstroke, the coup de grace, came from Christopher Hitchens, whose breadth and depth of knowledge meant that the debate was no longer a mere discussion, but a devastating prosecution of the Catholic Church for crimes against humanity.
Within minutes of Hitchens’ opening, the full realisation of the evils of the Church became apparent to all but the most obstinate of believers. The institutionalised rape and torture of children; the teaching that condoms can cause AIDS; the historical atrocities; the endorsement of dictators; the justification of slavery; the subjugation of women; the suppression of enlightenment thinking; the torture and murder of heretic scientists and the bullying and hatred of homosexuals, were but a few of the issues covered. Hitchens suggested that the Archbishop should not have come here to debate, but to beg for forgiveness on behalf of his wicked organisation.
I caught up with him after the momentous Fry/Hitchens victory, and he was visibly eager to speak to the Freethinker:
Peter Brietbart: It’s lovely to speak with you, thanks for the time.
Christopher Hitchens: It’s very nice of you to say so. By all means, ask away.
PB: How would you respond to the religious apologists who would say that the majority of religious activity is benign in nature?
CH: Well, I have a standard reply, I hope you don’t mind. I’ve evolved it over a lot of debates, and put it to a lot of religious believers and spokesmen, and I’ve never yet had a reply: Name for me a moral action or a moral statement ever made or committed or uttered by a believer, that a non-believer couldn’t have made.
No-one’s ever come up with one. Name for me now a wicked thing done or an evil thing said because of their religion – you’ve already thought of one.
PB: What would you say to those who level accusations of racism against those who criticise Islam? It’s an increasingly popular stance on the Left.
CH: Indeed. The creepy word “islamophobia” has been coined to give the idea, without actually saying so, that quarreling with Islam involves a dislike of Muslims -the majority of whom are darker skinned than I am. But that’s absurd because Islam promises to be a religion of universality. It at least does say that. Some religions aren’t accessible to all. Judaism for example. Well, you can convert, but it’s not quite the same.
PB: Rather more painful to join.
PB: Bush, we discover, told Jacques Chirac that the biblical demons of Gog and Magog were at work in Iraq. Have you heard about that? What are your thoughts?
CH: Yeah, I don’t believe Chirac. I don’t know what the truth of the matter may be, but I do know that Jacques Chirac is an untrustworthy scumbag. And anyway, that’s not the way Bush talks. I don’t believe the Palestinian guy who said that Bush told him that God told him to invade Iraq, either. Bush is a Methodist. What he’s said, and he’s said it often, is that once you’ve worked to a certain point, you can do no more – it’s in God’s hands. That’s fatalism. Actually he’d make a very good Muslim. And if he’d been born in Saudi Arabia, he would be one, just as he’d be a protestant if he was born on the right side of Belfast.
CH: Yes, Voltaire is right, of course. But that doesn’t mean that the thing won’t keep on mutating. I mean, I do think we are mammals and primates. We are in some sense programmed to look for patterns, we’re easily scared, and we often put up with a crap theory over no theory at all. And we’re afraid of dying. And we’re only partly rational. Our pre-frontal lobes are too small, our adrenaline glands are too big, because we’re adapted to the savannah, from which we fled. So I think religion is not eradicable, but then, I wouldn’t want it to be eradicated.
I’d be sad, in a way, if it did die out, because it is human. But I think it can be domesticated in the same way as our violent tendencies. We have other anti-social or superstitious tendencies which we can, at least for a while, rid ourselves of. It’s the job of civilization to bring superstition under bounds and keep it there.
CH: That’s a very good question. Well, here’s what I would look for. I’d look for the author from which you could reconstruct the work of many, many other writers because of references, quotations, allusions that one is supposed to get.
PB: That’s a cunning answer. Very tactical.
CH: Yes, well, that would put Shakespeare very high, for example. From that there’s a great deal of Biblical stuff, classical, Italian renaissance, history, mythology … there’s a huge amount of other learning in it. I don’t think there’s any other writer of bodies of canon in that way. So from that we could work out quite a lot about what we were before, as a species. But for that reason, not because of it’s extraordinary beauty and wisdom. Otherwise it would be Darwin. It would have to be Darwin. His work, too, is full of great references, and teaches us a great deal about the natural world. He was a literary type.
PB: Ah, I had hoped you might say Darwin. That might just be my choice, too.
PB: Next, what can we do, as individuals or groups, to further the cause -if you can call it that- of reason and unbelief?
CH: Well, it may sound like a religious, or confessional answer, but you have to start with yourself. We all have to overcome our own irrationalities and superstitions first. That’s a lifetime of education, and it’s worth having. I try and do it everyday. I expose myself to other people’s opinions, writings and so forth, so that’s the main thing. Oh, and if you do well enough, you might just get asked your opinion.
The other thing is not to give anything the go-by. You have to get up and say no when someone suggests there should be a tax break for churches, or that the bishops should sit in the House of Lords, or anything like it. Oppose anything that trespasses on the secular line of the separation of church and state, because civilization begins where the separation of church and state begins. There are no exceptions to that in any country. So it’s in the general interest, as well as your own, that we patrol that line with great vigilance.
PB: It’s been a pleasure. Thank-you.
CH: You’re very welcome!
For those of you who have not attended an Intelligence Squared debate, let me say that these events are very well organised, and are worthy of my highest recommendation.