On January 27 atheist Christopher Hitchens squared off against Jay Wesley Richards, Christian philosopher of science, to debate the topic, “Atheism vs. Theism and the Scientific Evidence of Intelligent Design.” The event, which ran approximately two hours, was broadcast by the Church Communication Network (CCN) to thousands of viewers in churches across the country.
The audience filled nearly all the seats in Dinkelspiel and represented a wide range of people both from Stanford and the surrounding community. Men wearing T-shirts that said “Stand Up for Evolution” and “Atheists are friendly in Silicon Valley” milled around in the crowd before the debate while students and professors also attended in droves.
Host Ben Stein, a lawyer, writer, and actor, and moderator Michael Cromartie, Vice President at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, opened the debate. “Is religion a wholesome or sinister force? Should we praise [God], condemn Him, or not acknowledge that He exists?” Stein said to the crowd in his opening remarks.
Hitchens wasted no time in reiterating his well-known views on organized religion. “Intelligent design, as I decline to call it,” he said, “is propaganda for creationism.” He scoffed at the concept of God as a designer, much less a benevolent one, as he rehashed human history.
“If everything was designed, what are we to make of the designer?” he said, “Slavery, ignorance, death; what kind of incompetent, cruel, indifferent designer does this?” He implored the audience, “Don’t place everything on a leap of faith, you know better.”
Richards, who earned a PhD in philosophy and theology from Princeton Theological Seminary, argued for the existence of a designer based on irreducibly complex systems discovered in molecular biology, the fine-tuning of the universe, and the fact that the universe had a beginning. He also briefly summarized the “privileged planet” hypothesis, which posits that not only is the earth designed for life, it is also designed for scientific discoveries to be possible.
“Where does the evidence point in terms of two competing hypothesis, to an atheistic or theistic world view?” Richards asked the audience. He pointed out that humans share higher moral truths, and asked the audience, “In which perspective of the world do the moral truths that we know all fit?”
Hitchens derided religions’ claim to morality with historical examples of cruel acts associated with various religions. He used expletives and vulgar language regularly throughout the debate, and cursed God himself.
The rhetoric heated up when Hitchens mentioned “genital mutilation, suicide bombing, and child molestation,” all of which he attributed to religion. As the debate proceeded, he adopted a posture with his back turned to Richards. After a discussion of atrocities performed in religion’s name, he turned to Richards only to say, “Don’t come to me with this morality, please, it’s not just an offense to this audience, but the many victims who have suffered from this false antithesis.”
Hitchens also asked Richards to publicly affirm his beliefs in the Christian faith, to which Richards readily admitted. Hitchens replied, “I rest my case.”
The tone of the debate encouraged occasional emotional responses from the audience. When Richards cited the finite beginning of the universe as evidence for God the designer as a first cause, a man in the audience twice cried passionately, “Then who created God?” In response to Hitchens’ comment child abuse by priests, another man yelled, “Atheist teachers do the same in schools!”
Ben Sten and Michael Cromartie interspersed questions during the second half of the debate with questions from the audience, occasionally guiding the conversation back on topic. After one particularly long soliloquy on the evils of Joseph Smith by. Hitchens, Cromartie joked with the audience, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to invite you to tune in next time for our discussion of Mormonism.”
Stein incited particular vehemence from Hitchens when he relayed the question, “What is the purpose of life?” While Richards deferred the question as it was not within the scope of the debate, Hitchen’s reply was more candid. “Vindication,” he declared. The second reason he gave was sex.
Richards called out his opponent toward the end of the debate. “I hope someone is taking count of the subjects being discussed and the insults being hurled from the podium,” he said, also to cheers of support from the audience.
The debate met with mixed reviews. The Dean of Religious Life, Reverend Scotty McClennan remarked, “It was well-organized, and the moderators did a good job, but it wasn’t the kind of format that leads to education in terms of people changing their minds.”
Others did feel swayed by the arguments presented in the debate. Mark Thomas, the founder Atheists of Silicon Valley, said of the debate, “I’d say Richards won, even though I’m an atheist.”
Some people took issue with the conduct of the debaters more than the actual arguments. “In any debate, when people go for laughs or insults, it shows a lack of substance,” said Anna Mammen, a San Jose resident and active Christian.
Others lamented the arguments and evidence left unsaid. “The expertise in science was lacking on both sides of the argument,” said Dr. Bob Siegel, a Professor of Microbiology and Human Biology at Stanford addressing his disappointment in the “science of intelligent design” aspect of the debate.
The sponsors of the debate, including our very own paper, all viewed the event as a success. “Far higher turnout than I first expected,” said event organizer Tristan Abbey. “Debates like this are explosive, but they get people talking about issues they might normally shy away from, and no topic is more important than this.”