The Review’s January debate on atheism vs. theism was considered a huge success by most who attended, and here’s why: it featured the kind of open dialogue and exchange of ideas that should be prized at Stanford and every university. Christopher Hitchens and Jay Richards discussed at length a subject—belief in a higher authority—which lies at the heart of many people’s worldview, yet is rarely discussed seriously in upper level academia. By nature this topic is divisive, and nowhere more so than in today’s universities. For many collegiate scholars, there simply isn’t room for belief in God within an analytical, scientific framework. Such beliefs, if held, are to be kept out of the classroom; for to university atheists, they contribute nothing to the search for greater knowledge. For these atheists, scientific inquiry (in the broad sense) is the sole legitimate means of expanding our understanding of the world around us.
The Richards/Hitchens debate was invigorating precisely because it forced people to challenge their assumptions about the role of religion in the quest for greater knowledge.
And this process only began with the audience listening to the debaters; I spoke to several classmates who participated in hours-long discussions of the issue after the debate.
Hitchens’ and Richards’ dialogue was responsible for sparking these discussions, and in many ways it was a good model. But the audience also noted the conduct of the debaters, and in this area Hitchens fell unfortunately short. Many lamented Hitchens’ frequent resorts to lewd language and name-calling. The Church Communication Network employees who broadcast the show live no doubt rued Hitchens’ blasphemous swearing; there was no opportunity to edit anything before it was sent out to hundreds of churches across the country. But this is not the only reason why Hitchens’ demeanor was disappointing—his unprofessionalism and resort to vituperative tactics lost him the debate, in the opinion of many. As noted in our cover article on the debate, one attending atheist felt obliged to admit that Richards had won by nature of his much more professional demeanor. Richards used logic and reasoning to make his point, instead of vitriol and shock rhetoric.
Hitchens’ conduct was an ongoing reflection—in this editor’s opinion—of the way too many liberals conduct debates—by vituperation and name-calling instead of reasoning and logic. They try to shout or shame the other side into submission, instead of attempting a true dialogue. While neither liberals nor conservatives are immune to stooping to this level, it seems to happen more often with liberals. Perhaps this is a function of the prevalence of liberal thinking in the campus community; homogeneity of accepted thought breeds complacency. Liberals who fall prey to this behavior fail to realize, however, that each time they resort to insult tactics they greatly weaken their argument. Perhaps this trend is one step in the cycle of university ideological environments. For decades now, liberal thinking has dominated collegiate academic circles—if the name-calling trend continues, it will not dominate for much longer.