Hitchens vs. Brummett: the un-debate

I just attended a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Prof. Barry Brummett at the university of Waterloo. The topic,

“Religion has been a positive force in culture.”

It was moderated by Jian Ghomeshi.

So, why am I calling it the “un-debate”?

One of my hobbies is to listen to debates between religious folks and science folks. I really like it when the debaters passionately disagree, and are utterly convinced that the other is a kook. That didn’t happen tonight.

First of all, Hitchens wasn’t there in person. I can’t say I blame him… he’s fighting cancer. Instead, he was present via live video link. That was OK, but it DID make it a bit harder to hear what he was saying. Combine that with the fact that Hitchens tends to use rather long an convoluted sentences (oh, and he has a British accent), and sometimes it’s difficult to get his point. I must say, I missed much of the point of his opening statement. But I’m sure he had some.

Prof. Brummett was not as opinionated as I like to see in debates. I can appreciate that he’s probably a nice person to work with, collegial and understanding. But I really didn’t get much of a sense for where he stood on the topic. He got a chuckle out of the crowd when he answered two questions in a row with “it depends… blah blah blah”. I understand that the topic is complex, but he didn’t seem to want to draw a line in the sand.

Prof. Brummett did make some good points, that HOW one talks can be an important factor in communication. He also flogged the point that it’s important to not only understand your own point of view, but to also try to predict what your rivals might counter with. Perhaps he thought Hitchens would eat him alive if he came out with guns-a-blazin’.

As the question period approached, I started wondering about the finer points of the topic.  What exactly does “positive force” mean? And what kind of culture are we talking about? I assumed it referred to society. But I think I was wrong. A number of questions seemed aimed at tabulating the number of paintings and sculptures inspired by religion, and weighing them against the atrocities done. In retrospect, I find the question of “culture” rather vacuous. Here’s why. One person asked what would inspire all the great art if there was no religion. I know how Dawkins would have answered. Reality!

For me, the climax of the debate was during Hitchens’ last statement (in fact, he seemed to get better as time went on). Someone asked, “There’s been a lot of talk about the dangers of extremism. I’d like to hear more about tolerance.” In reply, Hitchens referred to “tolerance” as patronizing and condescending. He asked “Would you like it if I said ‘I’ll tolerate you’? ” Then he discussed how Mother Teresa forgave him for writing The Missionary Position.  Hitchens said that she wasn’t as modest as she looked, making false claims of modesty… “Don’t pay any attention to me. I’m just going around doing God’s work all the time.” Hitchens said that “it’s a tremendously arrogant claim.”

Prof. Brummett was an excellent speaker, clear and cogent, but uncontroversial. I admit it, my desire to see a clash of words is not rational. After all, why should I expect a conversation between two grown men to get inflamed? Brummett probably just doesn’t have a bone to pick with Hitchens, at least not on this topic.

Hitchens looked healthier than I’ve seen him lately. He did manage to sling around some anti-religion mud. But it’s hard to fight someone who won’t hit back.

I think the topic was just too vague to really spark a heated debate between these two.

26 Responses to “Hitchens vs. Brummett: the un-debate”

  1. John says:

    on a lighter note—nice to see Hitch had his hair frosted—
    Ahhh…”The Hitch”. Be well CH. We still need you. We’ll try to continue, but when you’re gone there will be a HUGE void.

  2. Nick Andrew says:

    How did Hitch’s voice sound? Last we heard, he’d lost it – I’m glad to hear it was not total.

  3. Jeff Orchard says:

    His voice was fine. He did have a number of short pauses while he seemed to be swallowing, etc. But he didn’t appear to be phased by his health at all.

  4. James says:

    You knew there was going to be a problem when the proposition changed from “… in literature” to “… in culture”, after tickets were sold. Hitchens at least attempted to address the latter (esp. in his opening), not sure Brummett tried either.

    I really can’t blame him though. He either knew he was in over his head, or decided to let the night become what most of the audience really wanted: The Hitch Show. I think we got our $20 worth for that alone.

  5. sevandyk says:

    I like that Brummet didn’t try to come out with guns blazing – it showed an intelligance and maturity that debates often lack. He acknowledged the nuance and complexity about these sorts of questions, instead of just repeating talking points. This was actually a really interesting debate, in my opinion, because they listened to each other. They didn’t speak past each other, but instead engaged and wrestled with the other’s ideas. It was mature and interesting.

  6. Stacy says:

    Is there a video of this anywhere online?

  7. 1984 says:

    Hopefully video/audio will be available.

    Personally I find Hitchens very easy to understand, along with Carlin. I never really have to second guess where they stand on their opinions. Hitchens masters the language well as did Carlin.

  8. April says:

    I love you most brilliant man in the whole world.

  9. April says:

    the missionary position is my favorite

  10. Lisa says:

    So glad to hear Hitch has his voice back.

  11. paul says:

    I really tend to dislike the highly opinionated debates you seem to like. What’s the point in both sides simply stating and supporting their own opinions? Spouting their own ideological views? Their own life experiences? It sounds more like a ‘political debate’ than an actual debate. I’d much rather see debaters discuss a topic (without changing it) in a logically coherent and sophist fashion.

    • T.C. Darren says:

      Hello Paul,

      I think that you’re referring to an argument, which has a dialectic form. Debates, on the other hand, start with all parties convinced that they are right. More often than not, they employ theatrics and emotional manipulation to win the case, instead of reason. And I agree: a logical discussion is much more meaningful.

  12. Randy Harris says:

    It did play out more as an exchange than a debate.

    Hitchens certainly lined up on the contra side of the question (“Religion has been a positive force in culture”), but Brummett stubbornly declined to take up a simpler version of the pro side. That may have been frustrating from a sheer spectacle viewpoint, but it was far more rewarding intellectually, as it brought out a number of important themes and presuppositions in the social and psychological bases of religion. As he said, it won’t do simply to tell people ‘Stop being religious. You’re fools.’

    For his part, Hitchens was in admirable form, ebbing at times, flowing very eloquently at others, but overall masterfully playing the crucial social/rhetorical role of providing powerful arguments against the reflex dependence on what Brummett called “sure and certain systems,” and denouncing the drive to subordinate oneself to some priest-mediated higher order, which only serves (in Hitchens’s words now) ‘a secular tyranny of rule of men over men.’

  13. Jennifer says:

    It was extremely stimulating, to say the least. What a way to spend a Saturday night! Being in the workworld now, and attending with my working stiff brother, it’s rare to hear such enlightening and thoughtful conversation.

    My favourite part, and the one that made me tear up, is when Hitchens was talking to, at least it seems to me in retrospect, the point that religion gives one’s life meaning. He stated that one does not need religion for meaning, and that discussing, debating, remaining curious, pursuing knowledge “is enough. This [pursuit] in itself, is enough.” There was a silence after this proclamation.

    Coming from a man near his end (and my brother and I having left my mother in intensive care to see this debate–we needed a break) made me cry. I am grateful for having heard it from a man I so admire.

  14. Christopher continues to be the best philosopher of the century. I grieve that he,s sick but remain very grateful that he continues to enlighten us.

  15. PC says:

    I,m so glad that Mr Hitchens are debating and fight for the enlightment and truth to give all the world to see and take part in! You have made my life and raise my awerness of that there is people like U who can make everyone,s life much more intellegent and alot more funnier by learning and listening to you Mr Hitchens. I cheers to U everytime i have a glass in my hand! As a final tought, i would like to give you this beautifull song by the late Luther Vandross, The Impossible Dream, and wish you all the best for many years to come!


  16. Dulcinea says:

    Do you happen to know if or where this debate is posted online? I’ve been looking for it since the 4th without any success.

  17. Peter says:

    Yes, the art inspired by religion: like, say, Picasso’s ‘Guernica’, the horrors of a city bombed by Fascists acting for the Catholic church and its battle to overthrow a democratically-elected government and maintain the exploitation of the poor in Spain by pious, lazy, corrupt, exploitative rulers.

  18. heinrich says:

    When it comes to religion, Hitchens is guilty of the very arrogance he finds in the religious. His point about Mother Theresa as arrogant is so absurd it’s laughable. He has no knowledge of theology and his view of religion is uninformed. His attack on Mother Theresa’s work is shaped by the theology of Marx and Trotsky and he condemns her for failing to ease their physical sufferings. He just doesn’t get it.

    • Jeff Orchard says:

      OK, you’ve said that Hitchens is wrong in general. But what PARTICULAR thing is he wrong about? You’ve only offered us ad hominems. Where is he wrong, and why?

    • You are dumb says:

      Hitchens has no knowledge of theology and his view on religion is uninformed? I guarantee Hitchens has studied all the holy books in more details than any other religious person. His work on Mother Teresa is brilliant. Open your mind.

  19. heinrich says:

    Jeff, I think he misunderstands Mother Theresa’s work and its purpose. He wanted a hospital in Calcutta where the sick and dying could be treated. Her ruthless rejection of the simplistic do-good approach represented by Hitchens shocked and appalled him. When death approaches, she thought the best thing you could do for a dying person on the street in Calcutta was to be there with them.

    • fred jones says:

      If you think assisting dying people with pain relief and treatment, is simplistic as opposed to simply being with them and providing no assistance like a demented idiot a sever lack of empathy for the suffering of others


  • Jeff Orchard

    Jeff Orchard is an associate professor of computer science at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. He has degrees in mathematical nerdism from Waterloo and UBC, and got his PhD in computing science from Simon Fraser University in 2003. Jeff is 99% atheist, 1% agnostic, and is passionate about teaching critical thinking. One of his research goals is to understand how the brain works (and then use that knowledge to take over the world). He has published academic papers in image processing, and is also an evolution buff.