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Brothers Christopher and Peter Hitchens spar over religion in cold, civilized debate

Christopher, left, and Peter Hitchens, in their forum on Tuesday. (Courtesy of the Pew Research Center)

It was a most unusual brother act: Christopher Hitchens and Peter Hitchens debating religion; the latter a believer, the former decidedly not. And while the British-born writers had aired their disagreements in public before, their Tuesday forum at the Pew Research Center in Washington was their first since the atheist brother -- Christopher -- announced that he is dying of esophageal cancer.

Has it changed their relationship?

"I don't have long to live," Christopher, bald and thinned by chemotherapy, said tersely, "and it's not something I wish to focus on in this argument."

Would Peter address it? "I thought we'd already done that," he said.

And so it went, a strangely cold yet emotionally fraught conversation, over the hum of video cameras and gentle clank of silverware, before a luncheon audience of riveted fellow journalists. They barely glanced at each other as they spoke, but shared an occasional laugh (Christopher chuckling when Peter described their late mother as "a bit of a snob").

Peter told our colleague Michelle Boorstein that the last time they'd shared a stage, in 2008 in Grand Rapids, Mich., the debate turned angry, a "ghastly circus." Since then, Peter has released a memoir-polemic -- "The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith" -- meant to counter Christopher's best-selling "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything." He said he agreed to the event only if it could be civil and not billed as a debate.

So here we go. Peter argued that Brits were much more peaceful and polite to each other when they were growing up. Snapped Christopher: "People would kill one another at that time over what kind of Christian you were."

Despite his clearly frail physical condition, Christopher's acerbic tongue and quick wit seemed undiminished. How did he feel about the suggestion that his views on God might change because he is ill? "I have resented the idea that it should be assumed, now that you may be terrified, or depressed, that now would be the time to throw out values you have had for a lifetime," he said. "Repulsive. Wholly contemptible."

Not that he's any more pleased by secular types, who try to boost his spirits by saying he's too tough to lose to cancer. Does that, he wondered, make him a failure if he dies? "It has the effect of giving me the blues," he said.

Peter argued that societies that reject religion turn cruel, citing a neighborhood they grew up in that's now home to savage crimes. Russians don't even open doors for each other, he said, as evidence of decay of secular life. "What is it in our civilization that we ought to value?" he asked.

Christopher stuck to the big picture, arguing that many Western believers would view the word "secular" as positive if they heard it used to describe a new leader in Iran or Iraq, for example. Even a society like the United States considered strongly rooted in religion is, he maintains, really practicing a secular humanism "with a vague spirituality."

Someone asked: Did Hitch get anything from Christianity? Hymns and prayers from childhood, he said, are "a reminder of the ephemeral transience" of human life. "But I dare say I could have got that from Einstein."

No big issues were resolved in the 90 minutes; of course, no winner was declared. Would the brothers see much of each other outside of the forum? Peter told Boorstein he hoped so, but said the chemotherapy could get in the way: "It's not a simple matter of just doing it." But they keep things cordial.

"I don't see the point in spoiling a good argument by being angry with my opponent," he told the forum. "He has been my opponent for most of my life, but I'd say that is over."

To read more, please see Michelle Boorstein's dispatch at's On Faith: Christopher and Peter Hitchens debate religion against brutal backdrop

By The Reliable Source  | October 13, 2010; 1:05 AM ET
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They are both right and life sucks and Tone is fkn right! I always come back to what my dear Poppa, the dearly departed Bernie Bloom, plumber extraordinaire from Avenue J in Brooklyn, 1915- 2005...: "Danny," he told me, "nobody gets out of here alive." And he was SO right. Still, I feel religion should be gently explained to kids when they are young, all the religions, they are great myths and stories and I grew up with them, Moses parting the Red Sea and the Burning Bush and Esther and Sodom and Gomorrah and the Tower of Babel, I loved going to Hebrew School on Sunday at Temple Beth El. But the day after my bar mitzvahy, after praying to God for a full asking Him to help me sing my halftorah well, AND I DID, Cantor Shames said i was GREAT, the very next day, I siaid to myself: "You know, this God stuff is baloney. And I started off that day on a lifelong and fulfilled and happy search for truth, which has NOTHING to do with anicent dark ages myths and legends. Hitch is right. But religion helps. The only thing I HATE about some religions of the West, and that would include Judiams, Islam and Xianity is when they proclaim they are SUPERIOR to each oher. What dummies. If they all sat down and said THERE IS NOT ONE TRUTH, but rather there are many truths, and let us rejoice in that and stop saying ONLY WE will go to heaven because we have GOD's EAR.".....ouch

Posted by: 7788 | October 13, 2010 7:56 AM | Report abuse

Thing is, both brothers are right. For Peter, his POV is his reality amd that's cool. For Hitch, his POV is his reality and that's cool, too. Who's really right? Hitch, of course, but in the end IT DOES NOT MATTER, gods or no gods, this is all but a tale told by an idiot signifying nothing. And NOBODY gets out of here alive, not even Jesus. But glad to see the brothers coming together like this, it's Biblical even!

Posted by: 7788 | October 13, 2010 7:57 AM | Report abuse

One more note: for those who believe in a supernatural superstition-fueld "God", their religious beliefs CAN help with bad tiimes or tragedy or death of loved ones, and I have seen this power work with Xians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Shint...oists, Sufis, all religions work well this way. Sure it's a crutch, but it's a marvelous psychological crutch. AND for those who are atheists or agnostics, as I am, our sense of reality and what life is REALLY all about serves as a CRUTCH, too.

So for Peter, he has his crutch. He still shuffles along. Hitch has his crutch, he shuffles along, too. There are no winners in life. It's a lose lose situation. But until the final moment of last breath taking. CRUTCHES work well. So long live reality crutches. But long live reality, too. In the end, reality wins. WHATEVER reality is, that is......

Posted by: 7788 | October 13, 2010 7:57 AM | Report abuse

No offense to either guy, but why should their argument be a front-page Style story? Who cares what they think, pro-religion or anti-religion? It's not really section-front news if some author brothers boringly debate religion! This could be a short, inside item for the column--but not the front page. These guys are boring, boorish, and most people could really care less what they think about religion. Now, if the debate was being held by two nationally-known theology experts, or top leaders in religion, or top church or synagogue leaders, well, maybe, just maybe, that would be worthy of the front page. But these guys? No one really cares that much.

Posted by: thefrontpage | October 13, 2010 2:00 PM | Report abuse

Atheists Contradict themselves:

Posted by: Thinkpoint | October 15, 2010 11:49 PM | Report abuse

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