WASHINGTON – Famed atheist Christopher Hitchens and his lesser known atheist-turned-Christian brother Peter Hitchens debated Tuesday over whether a civilization can survive without God.
Christopher, the elder of the two Hitchens, argued that civilization can survive without God and noted that millions of people in modern societies today are living in a post-religious society. He began his talk by discussing the word “Christendom,” or the Christian world, which has since disappeared.
“It’s hard to argue that they (people who live in post-religious society) lead conspicuously less civilized lives than their predecessor,” said Hitchens, author of the book God is Not Great, at a luncheon hosted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life in Washington.
But younger brother Peter, who is a practicing, conservative Anglican, pointed to a decaying society in the post-Christian world. In particular, he noted that the neighborhood in England he grew up in is now overrun by gangs. The younger Hitchens contended that the deterioration of British society is partly due to the decline of Christianity in the country.
“The extraordinary combination … of liberty and order, seem to me to only occur where people take into their hearts the very, very, powerful messages of self-restraint without mutual advantage, which is central to the Christian religion,” said Peter, who is a respected British journalist and author of the book The Rage Against God.
On Tuesday, journalists in the D.C.-area crowded into the moderate-sized conference room at the Pew Forum Religion & Public Life office to hear the brothers discuss the question “Can civilization survive without God?” The Hitchens brothers have a history of public debates about their opposing belief in God and other issues, such as the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and at times have been estranged from one another. In 2008, Peter Hitchens said he would not formally debate his brother in public anymore because doing so would not resolve anything but only create enmity.
Notably, the Pew event was not a formal debate but more of a luncheon for the press to meet and ask questions of the Hitchens brothers.
During the discussion, Peter said he found it objectionable that people who attack Christianity in Britain and in the United States dismiss the good that has been done in the name of religion. He said in a serious argument, atheists would have to answer how “the turning of the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just” could be obtained through anything other than religion.
But elder brother Christopher remained resolute, saying that nothing could persuade him that “a human sacrifice several thousand years ago vicariously redeemed me.” He said he finds it “contemptible” that some people think he might convert to Christianity now that he is battling cancer. They assumed that he has not thought deeply about the question of the existence of God, said Hitchens.
Unfazed by his brother’s staunch defense of atheism, Peter Hitchens commented on how civilization can survive without God but how people must be careful of what kind of society they would be living in. He pointed to the “shameless” police-state in China and the “tremendously conformist” society in Japan as example of how a religion-less civilization would look like.
“I think both the atheist and the Christian fear there is a God, but the Christian also hopes there is one,” said Peter.
Despite their opposing views, the Hitchens brothers debated rather amicably Tuesday, each respecting the view of the other. After “the longest quarrel of [Peter’s] life” in 2008, the younger Hitchens said he no longer held hope to convert his brother, who he described as as having "bricked himself up high in his atheist tower, with slits instead of windows from which to shoot arrows at the faithful."
The two brothers are separated in age by two and half years and today regard each other as “different people” with different lives, living in different continents (Christopher in North America and Peter in Europe).
“If we weren't brothers we wouldn't know each other," Peter Hitchens stated in an interview last year.
It was not immediately clear how the elder Hitchens’ recent cancer diagnosis has affected the brothers’ relationship. Christopher Hitchens announced in June that he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer – the same cancer that killed his father. Hitchens’ cancer has since spread to regional lymph nodes.