Hitchens vs. Hedges; Atheist vs. Believer Clash Ignites Audience

Visualize this spectacle: a debate between a neocon and a progressive. The subject is religion. One of them is there to defend religion, to praise God, to cheerlead for even the most devout. The other -- his opponent -- is an atheist. He skewers deities and those who follow deities. He calls them evil. Toxic. Childish. He mocks doctrine. Railing that the devout want to kill us and control the world, he is on a mission, as it were, to vanquish missions. You'd expect the liberal to be the atheist and the neocon to vouch for the devout. No-brainer, right? Well, no.

As Christopher Hitchens debated Chris Hedges in a Berkeley auditorium last Thursday night, it was Hedges who praised the pious. And it was 9/11-neocon Hitchens who railed against "Abrahamic man-made filthy propaganda," proclaiming that "human emancipation begins when this nonsense ends."

Both men are the authors of brand-new books, both of which share a basic premise. Truthdig columnist Hedges, who won an Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights in Journalism five years ago for his New York Times reportage on terrorism, has just published American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (Free Press, 2007, $25). Hitchens' latest is God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Twelve, $24.95), its title saucily skewering the English translation of Allahu Akbar.

While in American Fascists, Hedges lambastes fundamentalist Christianity and what he calls its divisive good-vs.-evil, us-vs.-them "binary worldview," he is also a Presbyterian minister's son and has a Harvard divinity degree. Which qualifies him for the ostensibly odd role -- a game of Twister unto itself -- of supporting religious ritual and belief in the supernatural while being denounced as a callow hypocrite by a world-famous colleague who might once have agreed with him on everything.

That colleague now disagrees with him on nearly everything, though before the night was over both expressed a loathing for the KKK. That was a hard bill to fill: chewing the fat about faith with a celebrity atheist -- an "ex-socialist," as the evening's emcee would call Hitchens, succinctly -- in a stalwartly secular college town, during an arguably religious war, at an event bristling with contradictions.

Its cosponsors were Cody's independent bookstore, Berkeley free-speech-radio station KPFA and the Zaytuna Institute -- a traditionalist Islamic education center and seminary in nearby Hayward that maintains a strict dress code including long-sleeved shirts and scarves for female students and whose Web site outlines its mission to use "the most effective tools of our time as a means of serving our Lord and honoring our Prophet, sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam."

Sharing the middle-school auditorium lobby with a Zaytuna table and a book-selling table were representatives of the Revolutionary Communist Party. A Christian booth of some kind would have made for an even more provocative mix, but that contingent -- along with Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Baha'i and, for that matter, Berkeley's thriving neopagans -- was either not invited to set up a table or declined. Hitchens spoke first, smirking that "since I'm in Berkeley, California, the mush-headed view" pervading the audience was surely that faith inspires ethics. Yet "our morality, our human solidarity," he avowed, "are innate."

Rather than springing from some religious code whose every behavioral prompt is "either a bribe or a threat," drawn from doctrine that "either demands total abjection or proposes that you are the egomaniacal center of the universe," acts of kindness and activism and the saving and taking of lives spring, he believes, from some universal interior monitor that gauges right and wrong.

"It also makes me rejoice in the deaths of my enemies," he said and stood back, as if the hostility in the hall was palpable. "I can't change that. And neither can you, pray as you might." Scorning a classic Christian tenet, Hitchens snarled, "Go ahead and love your enemies. Don't go loving mine."

His enemies are "the enemies of civilization" and they "should be beaten." He spoke of hordes aching to kill us and our children and burn our libraries. He cited "the Iranians, [who] have a tooth-fairy god called the Twelfth Imam," and who "managed by piracy to have acquired an apocalyptic weapon to drive the lesson home. These people are coming after you, too, and it's time you woke up to it." Hedges bristled. "The problem," he countered, "is not religion. The problem is religious orthodoxy." Religion isn't as toxic as "that disease of nationalism" from which "comes a blind racism." What spurs evil acts, he told the crowd, was "the clamor of the tribe or the nation" -- though anyone might argue that the lines between faith, tribalism and nationalism are fuzzy these days at best.

"God is better understood as a verb than as a noun," he ventured. "God is a process." Invoking Tillich, Flaubert and Freud, Hedges finished his introductory remarks by proposing that "the danger is not Islam. ... The danger is the human heart." Thus began a discussion around a low coffee table with KPFA's Interim Program Director Sasha Lilley moderating.

Hitchens mocked the leisurely arrangement. Leaning far back in his flexible chair and describing his posture as "semi-reclining," he offered to "do it lying down if you want me to," before calling Hedges simplistic and self-serving and asking him to reconsider -- "if you can think at all." "I hate institutionalized religion as much as Christopher does," Hedges put in. Cheers erupted when he called the Christian Right "the most frightening mass political movement in American history."

Hitchens broke in, repeatedly overrunning Lilley, disdaining as "callow leftism" the "evil nonsense taught by Hedges ... that Palestinian suicide bombers are driven by despair.... These are people in a state of exaltation [for] their mullahs and their filthy religion," Hitchens raged, dismissing at once "any other explanation of Islamic jihad" besides a religious one, then likewise dismissing "anyone who eulogizes this evil wicked thing." Boos shook the hall. But so did cheers. As Hitchens rocked back in his chair, it was clear from the clamor that a fair portion of the crowd supported him: maybe thirty percent, maybe forty. What trumps what, these days, in Berkeley?

Hedges likened Hitchens to The End of Faith (Norton, 2004, $24.95) author Sam Harris, condemning the "binary worldview" both men share. Taking up the jihad gauntlet, Hedges riposted that "the only route we have given these young kids is [that of] affirming themselves through death," with its attendant promise of paradise and huge funeral processions. "Self-immolation is the only route they have," he insisted, to wild and lasting applause. Hitchens eyed him, incredulous, across the coffee table strewn with water glasses and stacks of notes. "Who makes excuses for suicide-murderers?" Hitchens marveled. "Shame on you." From the crowd came a shout: "Shut up!"

Hitchens shook his head: "You rationalized murder." As Lilley and Hedges struggled to restart the dialogue, Hitchens kept repeating that phrase with mingled accusation and wonder: You rationalized murder. "I haven't finished," Hedges protested.

"You have finished," Hitches snorted. "You are finished." Debates are fights, but bloodless ones. They are our teensiest, cleanest, most demure wars. And their frontline artillery comprises words: not just their meanings, not just Hitchens drawling "Comrade Hedges" but their sound, the whole Toastmasters rimshot rise-and-fall, that performative badda-bing that makes us flinch in principle but which works behind a mic. In those stage-lit, miniature wars our secret weapons are whatever we know of our adversaries' pasts. Missteps. Alliances. In that vein, Hedges could have asked Hitchens why in November 2005, under the auspices of an overtly Christ-centered far-right think tank known as the Family Research Council, he addressed fundamentalist Christian college students who received course credit for attending that event.

Yet Hedges did not broach that subject. And luminous as his writing can be, onstage he was rather trounced, at least in a Toastmasters sense. "What's dangerous," he declared as the evening drew to a close, "is when one person thinks he has an absolute truth.... To believe that we have an understanding of the truth ... is to carry out an evil."

Funny how truth keeps popping up everywhere these days. Well, not truth itself so much as its spectre: now you see it, now you don't, either dazzling or puzzling, changing in the shifting light from a right to an ideal to a bludgeon. How to get this straight? We seek truth. Well enough. But how much? Because its opposite is ignorance, or lies. On the evil-absolutism connection, Hitchens seconded Hedges -- but again, and ironically, only up to a point.

"We can't use the word 'totalitarian,'" he boomed sarcastically, "about the one religion that actually practices totalitarianism." He meant Islam. He waxed nostalgic for bygone days when his debates about religion were predictable: when the devout would just come right out and announce that unbelievers were doomed. "At least we knew where we were," he mused. "Now it's all relative. It's made up a la carte and cherry-picked." Applause shook the hall. Sometimes, even in Berkeley, you don't know where you are.

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