Sparring Over Things Unseen

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 13, 2007

Welcome to the Thursday night Theological Smackdown at Gaston Hall on the Georgetown University campus!

In this corner, from Washington, D.C., standing 5 feet 10 inches (maybe) and weighing 185 pounds, best-selling author and National Book Award finalist . . . Christopher Hitchens!!!

And in that corner, all the way from Oxford, England, standing 6 feet and weighing 195 pounds , professor of historical theology at Oxford University . . . Alister McGrath!!!

It was the Atheist vs. the Believer in a debate over religion in the modern world Thursday evening in front of a full house at Georgetown's Gaston Hall.

Hitchens (author of "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" and a columnist for the Atlantic and Vanity Fair) took on McGrath (microbiologist, Christian and author of several books rebutting atheism).

Granted, neither contestant wore boxing trunks (thank God, if indeed He exists), the polite crowd refrained from throwing Starbucks cups onto the stage, and moderator Michael Cromartie never had to pry the opponents apart. Nevertheless, the theological punching match was fierce: two brilliant Englishmen going at it for two hours over the nature of God, if there actually is a God, and whether religion is more trouble than it's worth.

Hitchens snarled, stalked his opponent and pounced at every opportunity. He called religion "childish nonsense," the Bible "fiction," the Old Testament "racist," and Jesus a useless martyr. The entire package, according to Hitchens, is responsible for totalitarianism, genocide, sexism, suicide bombings, genital mutilation and every other ill that humanity has brought on itself since the big bang.

McGrath, more erudite, poked tentatively at his challenger at first, before landing some solid punches at the final bell that drew roars of approval from the crowd. (Example: "I take it you do not believe in Hell or anything like that, and therefore I don't see what the difficulty is for you personally.")

The battle started well before the competitors took the stage on either side of Cromartie. There was the requisite trash-talking, with each competitor vowing to beat the other into a bloody rhetorical pulp.

Well, sort of. McGrath (after the concept of "trash-talking" was explained to him) had a little trouble working up a head of steam.

"I hope we'll have a very good conversation, which is the object of the evening," McGrath said over a Perrier at a pre-debate reception.

Hitchens, who recently became an American citizen, was more direct: "Anyone who prefers faith to reason is an enemy," he said over a cigarette outside, where a line of believers of one kind or the other spilled down the stairs from Gaston Hall and out into the autumn evening.

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