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Sparring Over Things Unseen
Hitchens vs. McGrath: A Matchup Made in Heaven? Good Question.

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.

Hitchens has traversed the nation, brandishing his deadpan humor and oratorical skills in several dozen matchups with theologians, ministers, rabbis and other godly types, since "God Is Not Great" was published in May. It is the latest of several books attacking religion that have climbed the bestseller lists in the last two years, including Sam Harris's "The End of Faith" and Richard Dawkins's "The God Delusion."

Although it's hard to imagine that the books have turned wide swaths of the American population against God, the tomes certainly have galvanized the anti-religion crowd. That bunch has been quietly seething about theists since Ronald Reagan brought evangelicals out from behind their Bibles and the culture wars escalated. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by Muslim extremists only fueled nonbelievers' rage at the forces of religiosity.

McGrath has taken on the doubters: His book "The Dawkins Delusion?" -- a response to Dawkins's book -- was published this year. He has also written "The Twilight of Atheism," in which he argues that atheism is on the wane.

The Hitchens-McGrath matchup was the brainchild of Cromartie, who directs the Evangelicals in Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he is vice president.

But even Cromartie was surprised by the interest in the esoteric event, which was free. More than 1,200 people requested tickets, and the 800-seat hall was packed, literally, to the rafters.

Professors brought their students, think-tank types brought their funders, Catholic wives brought Protestant husbands, Episcopalians and Jews brought each other, and ministers brought their parishioners. Most Abrahamic, and a few non-Abrahamic, faiths were represented.

Atheists appeared to be in the minority, and the crowd was clearly rooting for McGrath -- even Corey Kinna, a seminary dropout who made a little money off Hitchens earlier this year when he bought Hitchens's book, got him to sign it and then sold it on eBay ("It paid for dinner and a movie"). Julia and Neal McClusky, a married couple who are Protestant and Catholic, respectively, came to cheer on McGrath and check out the other side of the theological street.

"You need to know what your opponents are saying," said Neal.

McGrath was a nonbeliever while growing up observing the Catholic-Protestant wars in Belfast, before becoming a Christian at Oxford.

"It was like someone, I suppose, who had been near water discovering champagne," he told the crowd.

Throughout most of the match, McGrath took the rope-a-dope approach to attacks by Hitchens, who trotted out a string of outrageous words and deeds by men of faith over the ages.

"There are some forms of religion that are pathological," McGrath conceded in response. "The real problem, I think, is extremism -- the kind of ideology that forces violence upon us." But Hitchens was not to be mollified.

"I'm not looking for consensus, baby, I'm just not in the mood," he snapped from his seat next to Cromartie, drawing a rumble from spectators.

McGrath, in turn, brought up examples of atheism gone mad -- Stalinism, fascism -- while Hitchens pointed out that while Hitler propagandist Joseph Goebbels was, indeed, excommunicated from the Catholic Church, it was for marrying a Protestant, not for any crimes he committed in Hitler's Germany.

And so it went: each side bringing out the misdeeds of the other. McGrath mounted a spirited defense of Jesus Christ, Hitchens went after Islam. McGrath pointed out that Hitchens had no evidence that God didn't exist. Hitchens retorted that McGrath had no evidence that He did.

So: Nobody got knocked down, nobody was knocked out, no arm was held up in triumph, the eternal question remains unresolved.

Amen.

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