Post-Faith Debate Notes

Below are some backstage notes from tonight's program with Christopher Hitchens and Dinesh D'Souza.

- Thanks to all who came to tonight's Faith Debate.  It seemed like there was a great vibe at the center, and I hope the program justified it.  It certainly did for me.  I think it was one of our best- substantive, educational funny and at times poignant.

- First things first: Three cheers for Brent Walters who I thought did a terrific job as moderator tonight.  This was our toughest moderating assignment and he was terrific.  He let the conversation flow, hit on salient points, followed up when necessary and did not insert himself inappropriately in the program.  He also did a great job of weaving in audience questions throughout the talk.  Hence, the last question asked from the audience was not the only one.  He touched on several throughout the discussion. 

- And speaking of questions, apart from the opening one, neither Hitchens nor D'Souza wanted to know any of the questions in advance.  They both felt the spontaneity was crucial to the program.  I thought it made for a great dynamic.

- Both men enjoy one another's company and respect one another's intellect.  That is not a show.  Hitchens in particular is someone who does not suffer fools, and does not consider D'Souza one. Both men are also endlessly fascinated by this ongoing debate they are having with each other and the rest of society.  They have debated this topic at the University of Colorado, the University of Notre Dame (Go, Trojans! Beat the Irish!) and the University of South Florida, where they had an audience of over 2,000.  Tonight was the first time they had debated since Hitchens went public with his cancer.

- We received permission from both participants to record tonight's program.  Excerpts of it will be replayed on Brent Walters' God Talk on KGO.  Whether it is done this Sunday or next will depend on the speed of the editing process.  I will update this blog when we have the slot confirmed.  You can also check back on the KGO site at

- The first time I met Dinesh D'Souza was at the home of Bruce and Valerie Schooley in Alamo.  It had to have been at least a dozen years ago.  My wife and I were just boyfriend and girlfriend at the time. Bruce and Valerie were there tonight as guests of D'Souza's, and it was good to see them again all these years later.  How have I filled out so much and they and Dinesh all look the exact same? 

- Hitchens and I had a nice exchange about someone we mutually admire, the late William F. Buckley, Jr.  Hitchens credits Buckley with launching his career as a social commentator for having him on the great Firing Line.  He also shared with me that despite recent books that have been rushed to press in the wake of Buckley's death, his definitive and official biography is a project in progress.  It will be written by Sam Tanenhaus, Editor of the New York Times Book Review.  As a Buckley geek of the first order, this is information I should have known.  Interestingly, Hitchens has yet to be interviewed for this volume.  He undoubtedly should be.

- I shared with D'Souza about the first time I had seen him in a debate format, approximately a decade ago when he sparred over affirmative action and racial preferences at Brown University.  I remember distinctly how hostile the Brown students were to his message.  I also remember how eloquent he was in the face of some real rudeness, and how he had gotten the better of the exchange (in my view) despite the crowd.  He told me that after the exchange ran on CSPAN, he received several letters, as did the network, about how great he was under the pressure of the students' disrespect.  He told me his debating partner commented about how surprised he was to see the feedback of the viewing public versus the feedback of the small group at the function.  And thus are the shortcomings of an environment where everyone simply echoes each other rather than exchanges freely.  I hope at Newsmakers we always do the latter.

- D'Souza also made the point that the aforementioned debates he had about affirmative action in the 90's sharpened him to be able to take on someone like Hitchens on the more complex subject of religion.

- I thought Hitchens made an interesting point about the uprising in Egypt being evidence of people resisting religious order.  From a pure debate scoring standpoint, I thought that was his only weakness.  That is, that the people of Egypt don't seem to me to be rejecting an autocratic, faith based government.  Indeed, they may yet vote in a more extreme version.  I thought Hitchens was much more persuasive absent that argument.  As with the issue of afterlife, we won't know until we know.  And no, I'm not saying I could effectively debate Christopher Hitchens on any subject apart from perhaps the NCAA's Bowl Championship Series.

- To me the crux of this debate over religion and their differing viewpoints comes down to how each man defined faith.  At the risk of oversimplifying, faith, according to D'Souza, is a leap we all take in every-day life, its frequency making it less esoteric than the atheist would have us believe, and proof that there is something else at play apart from mere science or happenstance.  To Hitchens, faith is simply a bridge to understanding in the absence of anything else.  It is only used to explain that which is beyond our comprehension, but not beyond all comprehension.  That to me was the essential question of the whole debate. The rest of it is more window dressing: good examples and bad of religion's role in our society, etc. 

- I also thought their exchange on Jefferson was an interesting one, but there again, I'm probably letting my "geek flag fly" as it were.  Everyone is invoking Jefferson these days, just as folks from all sides seem to canonize and reference Lincoln, FDR, JFK and more recently, Reagan to make various points.  It is interesting how in death, some people are more endearing and become all things to all people.  I attribute this in equal parts to our own growth and maturation, and the unappreciated complexity of the men who have held our nation's highest office.

- And lastly, my friends, let it be known that Walnut Creek's new parking token system serves many functions.  We used one of the tokens for our official coin toss to decide who answered a question first.  Hitchens won the toss.  Who won the debate is up to you.


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  • 2/17/2011 8:16 AM Rob Pattison wrote:
    Good insights, Steve. I found one of the most striking things to be the respective demeanors. Hitchens sounded angry and bitter throughout, even making what seemed a couple of personal jabs at D'Souza. In contrast, D'Souza seemed gracious at all times, even during his most emphatic comments.

    I enjoyed the conversation but found each of them somewhat disappointing. The content got lost in the rhetoric. For the most part, neither provided concise, cogent statements and neither really answered the questions put to them (maybe they are at heart politicians!). Even so, an excellent program -- thank you.
    Reply to this
  • 2/17/2011 10:03 AM joe lesher wrote:
    i thought the debate last night was great. i'm definitely biased(i like to joke that i'm 99.9% atheist)but i really enjoyed the exchange of ideas between these two. i'm of the persuasion that both science and religion are trying to ultimately answer the same question, i just favor the way science goes about it. every scientific discovery is open to scrutiny... in fact aggressive scrutiny is the only way science works. this is where i take umbrage with religion. if someone truly believes that their book is the literal word of god, the scrutiny ends. it's not up for debate whether you think Jesus or Muhammad or Ra is the true representation of God on earth. i also believe that if none of us know what happens after we die, as D'Souza said many times, then any religion that deals with the afterlife is just as true as any other. which means that they all all nonsense. i agree with D'Souza in that Christianity contains certain ideals that, after a thousand or so years, lead to the Enlightenment, Industrial revolution, etc. at the end of the night i thought it was easily one of the most stimulating events we've had at the Speaker Series.
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  • 2/17/2011 11:24 AM Anonymous wrote:
    There are different degrees of faith. Faith in the historical Roman Empire versus faith in a God who loves the world and had a Son who died for the human species is another degree of faith to be sure.
    Reply to this
  • 2/17/2011 6:45 PM Mike wrote:
    Would be great if the entire debate could be made available? Or even sold or in exchange for a charitable donation.
    Reply to this
    1. 2/18/2011 9:31 AM Steve Lesher wrote:
      It will not be available for individual distribution, but portions will be re-aired on KGO's "God Talk" either this wee or next.
      Reply to this
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