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The Atheist and the Apologist

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Atheist and the Apologist
by Alexander Green
Dear Reader,

Last weekend, I had the honor of refereeing "The Friday Night Fight" at
Bally's in Las Vegas.

The two contenders?

In one corner, weighing in at a trim 142 pounds, was Dinesh D'Souza, a
Robert and Karen Rishwain Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford
University and author of several best-selling books including, most
recently, "What's So Great About Christianity." (Note the absence of a
question mark in the title. Mr. D'Souza is a Christian apologist.)

In the other corner, weighing in at a brawny 174 pounds, was Christopher
Hitchens, contributing editor of The Atlantic Monthly and Vanity Fair
and also the author of several best-selling books including, most
recently, "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything." (Mr.
Hitchens, as you may have surmised, is a confirmed atheist.)

The debate was part of FreedomFest, billed as "The World's Largest
Gathering of Free Minds." Over four days, we heard more than 70 speakers
offer various views on investing, politics, history, religion,
philosophy, science, medicine and the arts.

This was the final debate of the conference. The resolution was "War,
Terrorism and Geo-Political Crisis: Is Religion the Solution or the

I told our two pugilists that while we expected a "spirited" debate -
pardon the pun - we wanted this to be a fair fight, a clean fight. So I
warned them that I would tolerate "no head butts, no ear-pulling, no
eye-gouging, no biting, no slapping, no gagging, no faking an injury, no
attacks to the windpipe, no neck cranks, no spine locks, no
fish-hooking, no hair-pulling, no groin strikes, no toe locks, no
grabbing the throat, no punches to the head, no distracting the referee,
no escaping the ring, and no unsportsmanlike conduct."

They both nodded, although Hitchens drew a laugh from the audience when
he feigned a backhand to D'Souza's head on the way to the podium.

Over the next 90 minutes, the two combatants mesmerized the audience
with provocative, enlightening, and frequently amusing arguments.
D'Souza argued passionately that religion provides us with a set of
values and an animating sense of purpose. Hitchens retorted that
whatever benefits religion may provide, it is at the root of much of the
intolerance, war and terrorism that exists around the world today.

Few would disagree on these points. However, their other differences
could not be reconciled, to put it mildly. A vote at the end of the
debate showed the audience of 1,400 was pretty evenly split. (Hitchens
conceded the victory to D'Souza, however, offering that he appeared to
have won a slight majority.)

Afterwards, I joined Hitchens and D'Souza for dinner at Le Cirque across
the street at the Bellagio. And I had to chuckle inside as I watched
these two slap each other on the back, inquire about each other's
families and catch up on where they'd been.

Here were two men whose views on religion could hardy be more opposite.
Yet they genuinely like, admire and respect each other.

Maybe there is a lesson here for the rest of us. Rather than focusing on
our differences, perhaps we can search for common ground.

This is exactly what Jeffrey Moses proposes in his book "Oneness: Great
Principles Shared By All Religions
<> ."

Moses points out that the world's spiritual truths are shared by all
religions and by people of conscience everywhere. The Golden Rule is a
good example:
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

What is hurtful to yourself do not to your fellow man. That is the whole
of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary.

Do unto all men as you would wish to have done unto you; and reject for
others what you would reject for yourselves.

Hurt not others with that which pains yourself.

This is the sum of all true righteousness -

Treat others, as thou wouldst thyself be -------treated.
Do nothing to thy neighbor, which -------hereafter
Thou wouldst not have thy neighbor do-------to thee.

Of course, some fanatical groups - not only today but throughout history
- have ignored or subverted this universal truth. They have strayed -
often in murderous ways - from their own principles. Yet as religion
scholar Karen Armstrong has devoted her career to making clear, the
essence of true religion is compassion:

It is more blessed to give than to receive.

Extend your help without seeking reward. Give to others and do not
regret or begrudge your liberality.

Bounteous is he who gives to the beggar who comes to him in want of food
and feeble.

Blessed is he that considereth the poor.

The poor, the orphan, the captive - feed them for the love of God alone,
desiring no reward, nor even thanks.

As Moses writes, "The great sayings are like a guide or blueprint for
the inner development of mind and spirit that allows a person to achieve
his highest goals. These principles are the foundation for success in
personal relationships with family and friends, for satisfaction and
success in business activities, and for that final aspiration in life
that each person ultimately desires - the achievement of inner peace
extending beyond the confines of an individual lifetime."

Of course, it is not enough to simply acknowledge this. We have to act
on it. We determine who we are not by what we believe, but by what we
do. This simple truth can be found across all of the world's major

By their fruits ye may know them.

Students and teachers, and all others,
Who read the mere words of ponderous
------books, know nothing,
But only waste their time in vain pursuit
------of words;
He who acts righteously is wise.

Not learning but doing is the chief thing.

A man asked Muhammad how to tell when one is truly faithful, and he
replied: "If you derive pleasure from the good which you do and are
grieved by the evil which you commit, then you are a true believer."

Like a beautiful flower, full of color, but without scent, are the fine
but fruitless words of him who does not act accordingly.

"These great principles are not limiting to a person's satisfaction and
fulfillment," says Moses. "Instead, they are guidelines that enable men
and women to evolve to the highest point of human consciousness... These
principles stretch beyond time and change. They establish a clearly
marked path which will enable each individual to attain the peace and
enlightenment that is the ultimate goal in life."

More important than the sectarian beliefs that divide us are the great
truths that unite us. And these truths have one overriding goal: right

An individual's actions cannot help but mirror what is in his mind. You
need look no further than a man's behavior to see the extent of his
inner development.

As the Dalai Lama observed, "Every major religion of the world has
similar ideals of love, the same goal of benefiting humanity through
spiritual practice, and the same effect of making their followers into
better human beings."

I think that's true. As I witnessed in Las Vegas this week, even a
devout believer and a militant atheist can respect each other, love each
other, and put their differences behind them. And if they can, what's
stopping the rest of us? Carpe Diem, Alex

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