This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 11, 2008 - It's hard to imagine that any atheists were converted to Christianity, or Christians to atheism, after listening to Dinesh D'Souza and Christopher Hitchens debate the topic "Is it good to believe in God?" Wednesday night. But most of the crowd of more than 2,000 people who crowded into Powell Hall seemed to enjoy the spirited exchange, and gave the speakers a rousing ovation at the end of the program, which lasted a little under two hours.
Not coincidentally, both men have relatively new books in the stores, and the program was followed by a mass book signing. Hitchens and D'Souza have debated about God -- and sold books -- in other cities, and presumably will continue to do so.
Hitchens, a British-born essayist and gadfly best known for calling Mother Teresa "a fanatic and a fraud," takes the atheist position in "God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything." D'Souza, a prominent conservative writer and political adviser noted for blaming "the cultural left" in great part for the Sept. 11 attacks, responds to Hitchens and others he calls "the new atheists" in "What's So Great About Christianity."
Unlike some Christian conservatives, D'Souza seems to have no problems with most of the findings of modern science. He frequently cited Darwinian biology in support of his arguments, stating that neither human morality nor, at the other end of the spectrum, the genocidal acts of dictators -- atheistic dictators, he was careful to state -- would have evolved solely through the survival-of-the-fittest struggle posited by Darwin. And he expressed his belief that the Big Bang theory of the creation of the universe implied a creator, a "prime mover," a "supernatural cause."
Hitchens replied, "Look, I can't show there was not a prime mover, but you can't show that there was a prime mover either. There has never been an argument that proves there was a prime mover." Hitchens also noted that geneticists like Richard Dawkins -- another one of the "new atheists" who have debated D'Souza -- have shown how traits like altruism could have developed within Darwinian biology.
Repeatedly describing the Christian God as a "tyrant," Hitchens proclaimed that "emancipation from religion is the first step the human mind must take before it can move on to other questions," such as morality and the origins and meaning of the universe.
After a mention that the dictator Kim Jong Il was critically ill, Hitchens and D'Souza went back and forth about North Korea, with Hitchens calling it an absolute dictatorship under a supreme power, just like Christianity, and D'Souza saying "North Korea is the result of a society that tried to purge God completely."
D'Souza said "the new atheism is a rebellion against morality." Hitchens, although saying he was quite comfortable being thought of as part of "the old atheism," replied that atheism was instead a rebellion against a vision of a "tyrannical and sadistic" God.
D'Souza brought up the so-called "wager" proposed by the 17th-century philosopher Blaise Pascal: If you say you believe in God and you are wrong, what have you lost? But if you reject belief in God and you are wrong, you will be lost. Hitchens responded, "What kind of deity is this that says, 'If you bet wrong, you are going to be tortured for eternity'?"
And so it went. Pared of its sometimes impressive rhetoric, and of skillful and entertaining arguments on both sides, the whole debate could probably be reduced to the usual endpoint of most such debates: faith. Both men admitted that they could neither prove nor disprove the existence of God, although each said that the preponderance of evidence was on their side. Both said they had chosen to believe as they did.
Judging by the applause at various points throughout the debate, most of the audience agreed with D'Souza and his defense of Christianity, although a strong minority -- perhaps one-fourth of the audience -- seemed to support Hitchens. Much of the crowd consisted of student-age men and women. Students tickets were $10, as opposed to $25-$50 for adult admissions, and several students said they had been assigned to attend the lecture for a course.
The debate was sponsored by the Fixed Point Foundation, which is based in Birmingham, Ala. and describes itself as a Christian "think-tank and teaching resource for churches and the broader community." The moderator was Larry Taunton, director of the foundation. At the beginning of the debate, he made it clear that the subject would be "the Christian God," not the deities of other faiths.
Harper Barnes of St. Louis is the author of "Never Been a Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked the Civil Rights Movement."