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On the Road with Atheism III

Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson walk into a bar ...

Day 1, October 29, 2008
Day 2, October 30, 2008
Day 3, October 31, 2008
Washington D.C.

On the final day of their frenzied tour (handing out copies of Is Christianity Good for the World? at every stop), tired of being prodded and wired and filmed and helicoptered, Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson were trundled into a train in Philadelphia and headed south for the District and their final climactic event. The organizers of this tour (and accompanying film) had not wanted to end with a formal debate. All too often, formal debates are the rhetorical equivalent of two fighters shadow-boxing in opposite corners struggling to impress the crowd with their respective bobs and weaves, but never actually meeting anywhere in the middle—anywhere where noses might end up bleeding. While this had not been true of the tour up to this point a different tone was needed for the finale.

Martin's Tavern in Georgetown was selected for the venue. This would not be an event involving blue blazers standing behind podiums beneath spastic fluorescent lighting. Nor would there be a moderator. The two men sat on stools at one end of the restaurant, the bar at their backs, and they faced off in front of a packed (and eating and drinking) house.

The guest list was necessarily tight, and the room was a blend of theologians and journalists, skeptics and believers, students and authors, as well as friends of both men and roaming cameramen.

The discussion was meant to focus on morality and (this being the final event), it was clear that Wilson would not be content unless Hitchens left with the truth wrapped around his neck. For his part, Hitchens attempted to maintain that morality is innate in humans, an evolved feature in a higher primate.

Wilson challenged the authority of any such morality, saying that it could evolve along and morph along with any other biological feature, simultaneously pushing Hitchens on his admission that the desires to rape, pillage, and murder was equally "innate" in the species. He insisted that Hitchens explain how he (or any man) could determine the difference between a moral and immoral act if both were simply byproducts of evolution.

Hitchens slipped and shifted and evaded, but he was never let off the hook, and he could never successfully answer the question. The atheists in the audience grew antsy, chomping for their own shots at Wilson, and soon enough the floor was opened for questions. One after one, they attempted to do what Hitchens could not—show an authority for their morality, or show that they did not need no such authority—and one by one they failed.

The collegiality between the men continued, though both exchanged barbs more pointed and meaningful than humorous.

Hitchens is an intelligent man. But an intelligent man without the truth is no better than, well … a higher primate.

Related Elsewhere:

Hitchens and Wilson are promoting their book, Is Christianity Good for the World?, which began as a debate on Christianity Today's website.

The first day's dispatch focused on enemies, the second on the marvels of reality.

CT also has a special section on atheism.

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