There’s Still Room For Civilized Debate

With apologies to Tom Coburn, I don’t know anyone that works at MSNBC, but I find their network a blight on what is left of the profession called journalism. Anyone who doesn’t agree with the hosts is considered nothing short of a caveman with Nazi Party membership. There is no room for civil discourse on this network or many other media outlets, universities campuses or Internet message boards in this young century.

But once in a while you’re surprised. As in this story about a debate over religion between atheist Christopher Hitchens and Catholic writer Dinesh D’Souza.

The pair has faced off before in similar debate settings. The event Wednesday focused on the question, “Is Religion the Problem?” At Notre Dame, where students are required to take two courses each in philosophy and theology, the debate was hotly anticipated. Tickets sold out in less than 90 minutes.

Hitchens, who’s most known for his incendiary remarks about believers, apparently took note of the university’s predominantly Catholic population and toned down the rhetoric, sticking purely to the logic of his arguments.

D’Souza, too, appealed to reason, stating in his opening remarks he would refrain from arguing on the basis of Scripture, Revelation or the like, instead relying on secular logic in expressing his views.

Thus, those hoping for a bloodbath got nothing of the sort. Instead, Hitchens argued respectfully (over the course of two hours) that religion evolved as man’s “first attempt” at understanding the world, before science caught up to major questions about our being. D’Souza countered that science has not and will not provide all the answers, but rather religion provides the “best explanation” for eternal questions about our being.

The fine-tuned universe argument — that the world is perfectly aligned to support life as we know it — played a central role in the debate, with D’Souza arguing there must have been a “fine tuner.”

Hitchens, meanwhile, said that in the absence of evidence of such a “fine tuner,” the “only respectable intellectual position” is one of doubt.

In all, Hitchens and D’Souza led an elevated discussion, senior economics major and Catholic Katy Smith said. She was particularly surprised at Hitchens’ restraint, given his demagogic reputation.

“I thought he was going to be a lot more inflammatory and that I was going to leave offended,” she said. Instead, she found Hitchens to be engaging and even humorous, and while she disagreed with him on several points, she also found herself disagreeing with D’Souza.

Respectful and logical. These two men who agree on almost nothing involving religion showed us how real debate should be conducted and the students followed their lead. This is not to say one can’t be forceful in their arguments. There’s a time and a place for so-called “demagogic” discourse, but you have to know your venue and adjust accordingly. It’s not too late for this kind of thing to flourish.


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