Christopher Hitchens last night at FreedomFest debate, with Dinesh D’Souza, right (WND photo)

LAS VEGAS – It was billed in jest as a Friday Night Fight in the city known for epic bouts, but a libertarian conference’s headliner debate last night featuring “God is not Great” author Christopher Hitchens offered much more, reflecting the growing visibility and muscle of a new breed of atheists spreading their message with evangelical fervor.

The debate was one of eight at this year’s FreedomFest, which describes itself as the tradeshow for liberty and the world’s largest gathering of free minds.

With his trademark wicked wit, the British-born journalist Hitchens, now an American citizen, took on political writer and Hoover Institute scholar Dinesh D’Souza, a devout Catholic, on the subject, “War, Terrorism and Geo-Political Crisis: Is Religion the Solution or the Problem?”

As relevant as the topic was to a former Trotskyite who passionately backs the Iraq war and recently subjected himself to waterboarding – it became clear that Hitchens, and the audience for that matter, wanted to get to the central issue: Are the claims of Christianity true or not? Hitchens himself laid out the parameters from the start: “Today we only have time to discuss one thing, does this stuff, even if it’s all made up, does it at least make people behave better?”

But after an opening exchange with D’Souza over examples of people who do bad things in the name of religion, Hitchens was in high form, arguing that most of the witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus Christ were “deluded, illiterate, hysterical women.”

Yet for all his bombast and admitted scorn for Christianity, the audience of about 1,000 – who deemed D’Souza the winner, narrowly, in a hand-count afterward – clearly warmed to the Cambridge-educated Hitchens, whose self-deprecation and deft, deadpan humor proved irresistible, prompting frequent outbursts of laughter and applause.

Barely containing his mirth, after hearing D’Souza’s argument, he began with, “That was terrible, Dinesh.”

Christopher Hitchens chats with FreedomFest attendee (WND photo)

Robert Spencer, who earlier in the day debated a Middle East studies professor on the topic, “Islam: Peaceful or Violent,” was among the impressed.

“I’m not an atheist, but Hitchens would almost make me one,” Spencer, a Catholic, told WND.

Hitchens, whose 2007 best-seller bears the subtitle “How Religion Poisons Everything,” has teamed up over the past two years with an informal group of prominent “new atheists” who prefer to call themselves anti-theists. Along with Hitchens, the “Four Horsemen” are biologist Richard Dawkins, and philosophers Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris.

Hitchens told WND after the debate his purpose is simple.

“I do it because I think the essential argument that underlies all other arguments is the one between belief in the supernatural and repudiation of that,” he said. “It cuts across all the left-right, libertarian-statist arguments.”

D’Souza – author of the New York Times best-seller “What’s So Great About Christianity?” – told WND he is engaging Hitchens, because “the new atheists have been getting a free ride for a couple of years.”

“With their tremendous mainstream media exposure, their arguments go unchallenged,” he said. “They will say things like Christianity is responsible for people who want a theocracy in America, or radical Muslims over there are very similar to the Christians over here. Everyone just goes, ‘Yeah, I guess so.'”

D’Souza said that’s why “it’s very important to intellectually contest this, both to embolden Christians who feel a little bit besieged but also to reduce the arrogance of the atheists.”

“I see it as empowering the believers, flummoxing the unbelievers and appealing to the man on the fence,” he said. “Those are my three goals.”

Hitchens told WND his relationship with Dawkins, Harris and Dennett has developed informally since each published a book in 2006, but they have clear aims, acknowledging “we hoped to tempt some people out of the woodwork to engage us in debates.”

Dawkins is author of “The God Delusion,” Dennett wrote “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon,” and Harris penned “Letter to a Christian Nation.”

‘Illusion of an illusion

Launching the debate last night, Hitchens emphasized his conviction that belief in the supernatural is “at least latently totalitarian.”

As the discussion invariably drifted toward the question of Christianity’s validity, the disdain for traditional faiths he expresses in “God is Not Great” surfaced.

In the book, Hitchens writes “monotheistic religion is a plagiarism of a plagiarism of a hearsay of a hearsay, of an illusion of an illusion, extending all the way back to a fabrication of a few nonevents.”

Opening the debate, Hitchens insisted, “I don’t think there is any evidence to make us believe religion makes us better,” pointing to Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe’s Catholic faith, the embrace of Russian Orthodoxy by hardliner Vladimir Putin and the threat from Iran’s theocratic Muslim regime.

“When will it happen that an apocalyptic regime will get a nuclear weapon?” he asked. “It has almost certainly already occurred. The parties of god will confront us where they will make us live at their pleasure.”

Hitchens contended God, himself, is the author of totalitarianism, presiding over a “celestial North Korea in the sky that subjects us to constant survey … while we are asleep, after we are dead.”

“Until we can get rid of this wish for tyranny in our own heads, can we stand the chance of emancipating ourselves from the hell and terror of now?” Hitchens asked.

D’Souza dismissed Hitchens’ opening statement as a “very sneaky, elliptical mode of attack.”

He began by reiterating the atheist argument in its current mainstream form, which links zealous Christians to Muslim terrorists, saying, “If you look around the world, there are Islamic crazies over here, Christian nuts over there, who all fuel at the same holy gas station.” The atheists, he said, point to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Protestants vs. Catholics in Northern Ireland, the Crusades, the Inquisition and the witch trials, “so a reasonable person would conclude we’d be a lot better off we got God out of it.”

D’Souza said he wanted to take on the new atheism at its strong point, acknowledging the argument has an element of truth.

“We hear crocodile tears about the crimes of religion,” he said. “But the Crusades were 1,000 years ago, the Inquisition 500 years ago,” which killed a relatively small number of people, about 2,000 over a period of 250 years, he argued.

“By contrast, not the only crimes of Christianity, but of Islam, pale in comparison to the crimes of communism,” D’Souza said, noting even the smaller operators such as Pol Pot – never mind Stalin and Mao – managed to kill 2 million people.

“If religion must be blamed for crimes,” D’Souza said, then so should atheism.

He dismissed Dawkins’ argument that Christians killed in the name of Christianity but atheists didn’t kill in the name of atheism, pointing out communists held atheism as a central tenet.

“You see the problem when a biologist is permitted to leave the lab,” he quipped.

Hitchens insisted North Korea, and other communist regimes built on a personality cult, are essentially theocracies. Noting he had visited the hermit Asian nation, he pointed out Kim Jong Il’s father –dead now for a decade – is still the president and recipient of the people’s forced reverence.

That scenario bears resemblance to the Christian view of Heaven, he contended, where “you get to sing the praises of god forever,” which “sounds like hell to me.”

“Don’t let Dinesh fool you,” Hitchens told the audience, “that [North Korea] is a secular regime.”

D’Souza said Hitchens was “attempting a sleight of hand, saying let’s blame religion for the crimes of religion and then let’s state the crimes of atheist regimes and also blame religion, because atheist regimes resemble theocratic regimes.”

The 20th century, he argued, “was really an attempt to create secular utopia.”

D’Souza found agreement with Hitchens that the response to Islamic jihadists should “not be pleasant conversions, but rather, heavy ammunition.”

But, he argued, it’s the nations with vibrant faith that are prepared to address the threat, quipping “the Swedes have upgraded their terror alert from run to hide.”

“It’s going to be, at the end of the day,” he said, “that the Christians come to Iraq and the secular guys come to Vegas.”

FreedomFest, which concludes today, also featured speakers such as Forbes CEO and former presidential candidate Steve Forbes, Republican Rep. Ron Paul, Libertarian Party presidential candidate and former congressman Bob Barr, CATO Institute Executive Vice President David Boaz, Wall Street Journal writer and Club For Growth co-founder Stephen Moore, President Richard Viguerie, Wharton professor Jeremy Siegel, Habitat for Humanity founder Millard Fuller, historian William J. Federer and Jihad Watch director Robert Spencer.

The conference will conclude tonight with a debate titled “Is There Scientific Evidence for Intelligent Design in Nature?” Stephen C. Meyer, director and senior fellow of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute and George Gilder, senior fellow at Discovery Institute where he directs Discovery’s program on high technology and public policy, vs. Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, and Ronald Bailey, science correspondent for Reason magazine.


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