By Michelle Boorstein
The food was elegant, the attendees elite and polite, the backdrop brutal.
Sitting before a highly unusual forum at the Pew Research Center this afternoon were the provocateur atheist writer Christopher Hitchens, thinned and bald from ongoing chemotherapy, and his brother, Peter, a journalist and devout Christian. The brothers have had a largely estranged, cold relationship but had agreed to a gentle debate on the subject about which they both have recently published books — God.
Specifically, the 90-minute “conversation” before a small group of journalists unusually high-end (it included those from The New Yorker, Commentary and the American Spectator), was about whether truly civilized societies require religions and the ethical structures they provide.
This conversation about the hereafter and getting along was the first time the sparring brothers have talked publicly together since Christopher was diagnosed with esophageal cancer earlier this year and characterized himself as “dying.”
They last shared a stage, Peter told me in an interview this weekend, in 2008 at Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Mich., for a debate that turned angry and into what he called a “ghastly circus.” Since then Peter has come out with a memoir-political polemic meant to counter Christopher’s best-selling critique “God Is Not Great: How Religion Spoils Everything.”
This time everyone seemed to walk on eggshells and the discussion was, well, uber-civilized, if cold. The brothers barely spoke as people milled around and ate beforehand and didn’t look at one another during the discussion, even when directly addressing the other.
“I don’t have long to live and it’s not something I wish to focus on in this argument,” Christopher said tersely when asked by a reporter to address whether his diagnosis had changed the brothers’ relationship.
“I thought we’d already done that,” Peter said when asked if he wanted to separately address the status of their connection.
The intensity of the backdrop was clear when I talked with Peter, who told me he “hoped” he’d get to see his brother outside the public forum, but that the chemotherapy treatments could complicate things. “It’s not a simple matter of just doing it.”
But there were snippets of a shared boyhood, a chuckle when Peter noted that their mother was “a bit of a snob” and references to various spots they lived growing up with a father who was a commander in the British Navy. Even those exchanges were laced with obviously divergent views on the era and global events since.
After Peter had made a point about how much more peaceful and polite Brits were to one another when the boys were growing up, Christopher noted that “people would kill one another at that time over what kind of Christian you were.”
Peter argued that his older brother “tends to surge off” into broader political issues like the Catholic-Protestant issue in Northern Ireland, but “I mean in the way people were brought up, and I don’t think the affect of Christian upbringing was small .. There is this utopian view about things like, ‘Can we bring in democracy’ but the question rather is, can we construct in the square mile where we live a civil society?”
Despite his clearly frail physical condition, Christopher Hitchens’ often acerbic tongue and quick wit didn’t seem changed, snapping when asked how he felt about people suggesting his views about 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.
Secular-minded boosters, he said, have their own drawbacks. When people imply that he’s too tough to be overcome by cancer, “it has the effect of giving me the blues” because he feels he will fail people if he dies.
The stakes for brothers, both highly successful, both engaged in this life-and-death subject at a time of fatal illness, seemed to play out strangely in this proper setting, under fluorescent lighting and with a whirring video camera (CNN and NPR plan to run excerpts tomorrow, Pew not for another week or so) and clanking silverware.
The two hadn’t discussed or mapped out the forum before it happened, said Peter, who described himself in our interview as “reluctant” to do the event and said he didn’t even want to write such a personal book as “The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith,” but was convinced of its import by the book industry. He said he only agreed to the event if it could be civil and not billed as a debate.
“I don’t see the point in spoiling a good argument by being angry with my opponent,” he told the forum about his feelings about his brother, at whom he did not look as he spoke. “He has been my opponent for most of my life, but I’d say that is over.”
No big issues were resolved in the 90 minutes, nor was it clear – to the extent it was a debate – who won. Peter argued generally that societies which have rejected religion have turned cruel, including parts of British society, including a neighborhood they lived in as boys that is now home to savage crimes. He attributed things like Russians’ unwillingness to hold doors for one another as part of the change in daily life.
“What is it in our civilization that we ought to value?” he asked.
Hitchens 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 believes, really practicing a secular humanism “with a vague spirituality.”
The talk wrapped up with Christopher responding to a questioner who wanted to know if Christianity had contributed anything to him.
Hymns and prayers he learned as a boy, he said, are “a reminder of the ephemeral transience” of human life and all humans create, he said. “But I dare say I could have got that from Einstein.”