Hitchens & D'Souza Debate at Notre Dame

Scot Bail: Guest Writer
Catholic apologetic Dinesh D'Souza and Atheist Christopher Hitchens
Catholic apologetic Dinesh D'Souza
and atheist Christopher Hitchens
Catholic writer Dinesh D’Souza and atheist Christopher Hitchens debate at the University of Notre Dame in April of 2010. The debate, titled “Is Religion the Problem?” was in the Leighton Concert Hall of Notre Dame’s DeBartolo Performing Arts Center. Michael Rea, director of the Center for Philosophy of Religion said, “This debate gives our students the opportunity to confront arguments and rhetoric head-on,” Rea said, “and then discuss the whole experience afterward with Notre Dame faculty – home to some of the world’s leading theologians and philosophers.”

Dinesh D’Souza:
Named one of “America’s most influential conservative thinkers” by The New York Times, D’Souza has been outspoken in his defense of religion, both in print – notably with publication of his bestselling book, What’s So Great about Christianity? – and in debates against non-believers around the globe.

Christopher Hitchens:
Ranked by Prospect and Foreign Policy magazines as the fifth most important public intellectual in the world, journalist and author Hitchens has risen to prominence as a leader of the “New Atheist” movement after the runaway success of his book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

“Is Religion the Problem?”
Hitchens vs. D’Souza at Notre Dame University, Notre Dame, Indiana
By Scot Bail

Regardless of a possibly biased Notre Dame audience the debate was passionate and balanced.  Christopher Hitchens and Dinesh D’Souza approached their positions using arguments primarily from science and ethics. This was not the first time in the arena together for these two scholars. This was evident in many of their responses.

  1. Hitchens’ assumptions:
    1. The only respectable intellectual position is doubt, skepticism, reservation, and free unfettered inquiry.
    2. Religion was our first attempt at many things which are now better served by secular science, and as such it was rather elementary.
    3. Secular justice and law are superior to religious law.
  2. D’Souzas’ assumptions:
    1. Science presupposes many things in order to explain observed facts.
    2. Religion presupposes God to explain observed facts.
    3. God is a better explanation.
    4. Evolution has no explanation for morality and human cruelty.


Questions like the original of life and the universe; or are we a branch on the evolutionary shrub no different than any other animal, were tossed back and forth.  D’Souza argued for a complex natural world that necessitates a designer. Hitchens, and the agnostics, argued that nature is far from perfect, which proves nature is the product of chance. 

As long as proof eludes us it requires faith to believe either position.  Hitchens and D’Souza insist that their position requires less.  Hitchens admits there is much enigma in the origins of the cosmology, and espouses and open mind. But he allows no room for metaphysics, a creator, or miracles. D’Souza says that when empirical science ends, religion provides a bridge to additional knowledge and experiences.

The question of morality was used to support both positions. What is the origin of moral consciousness? Hitchens said secular justice and law are superior to theocratic law. He gave historical examples of religious laws supporting atrocities. He also questioned why “God inspired” edicts change to suit the times.  So how do we decide what is right and wrong. What is justice? Hitchens says no one can answer these questions for us, we have only ourselves.

Evolution claims the human animal acts out of selfishness. We are moral because, at some level, it is self serving. D’Souza said that evolution doesn’t account for human cruelty or compassion. He gave examples of giving up your seat on the bus for an elderly lady. On the opposite end we have mass murder. Evolution can’t explain how these are self serving. Murder often doesn’t nourish any basic need. D’Souza said we don’t see genocide behavior in animals. He talked about another voice inside us that prod us to take moral and transgress action. Evolution can not account for this, and science does not explain it. He says God is a better explanation for morality than evolution, and we should pick the better answer.

In conclusion the debate led me to reflect on my own understanding of ethics. What if Hitchens is correct that morality evolved with biology? What if, in the course of human events, religion and spiritual teaching never existed?

-Could morality evolve and exist only as a personal choice rather then communally?

-Through some mutation of evolution could ethics on this planet develop as a polar opposite to what we have today?

-Hitchens says doing good things gives him great pleasure. Is pleasure a substantial basis for being charitable?  

-As an exercise read a book or watch a film that holds a different world-view from your own. Draft some resemblance of a moral code based on behaviors from the script.  What path does it take? Are you comfortable with the result of this strand as holding ethical authority?

-If the Christian faith was proven a myth, how would society restructure its ethical standard that is based heavily on the Bible?

Carnival Sage ®