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The hot ticket: Hitchens / Brummett debate

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The Theatre of Humanities at University of Waterloo’s Hagey Hall was the place to be last night as author Christopher Hitchens debated Professor Barry Brummett on the topic of Religion as a positive force in culture. Tickets for this event, in honour of the 50th anniversary of the English department, sold out in a few days, just from the email sent to students and alumni.

About a week before, we found out that Christopher Hitchens’ health would prevent him from attending in person, so he would only be on video. Refunds were therefore offered for those who wanted it, and I’m sure that moved some people from wait list into attendance, but it remained a sold-out event. They even set up an overflow room for people to be able to watch everything on video.

Q’s Jian Ghomeshi was the host. He’s an engaging presence himself, and did a good job of trying to get clarifications of certain points made by each man, and of managing the audience questions.

Both Hitchens and Brummet were very interesting to listen to, though both Robin and I felt the deliberate effort in having to “adjust our brains” to take in the flow of big ideas coming toward us. Once engaged, though, it was pretty easy to stay with that flow. Hitchens had some very funny lines, and some quite profound ideas. He admitted that religion had been behind some great works of art, but pointed out that these were often combined with atrocities. And that there was no real knowing how religious artists of the past really were, since they were not allowed to admit to doubt. Brummet had some provocative comments of his own, like the idea that capitalist ideals may overtake religious ones as a primary cultural force, but mainly argued for rhetorical training as a means for combating religious extremism.

Fundamentally, I don’t think these two gentlemen truly disagreed with each other, so I’m not sure how much this was really a “debate”. Brummett never really said whether he was an atheist or not, but it was clear he was no big fan of organized religion. He just said that people had a tendency to want certainty, to have something greater make the decisions for them, and a need for spirituality. This could lead to dangerous religious extremism unless people learned to think critically.

Hitchens was less interested in how people could avoid the lure of giving themselves over to religious faith; only that they must. He talked about the wonders of the natural sciences, of the cosmos, advanced physics, blacks holes… How could a burning bush compete with any of that?

So mainly, we were just being intellectually entertained on both sides, though clearly Hitchens was the star attraction. He looked and sounded good, considering his state of health (stage 4 esophageal cancer). At one point Ghomeshi suggested they take two more audience questions before wrapping up, but Hitchens requested more. “I don’t really have any other plans for tonight,” he said. So the event took a good two hours in all.

There’s no way I can properly recap the evening, religion and culture both being very large areas, resulting in a wide-ranging discussion. But if you want a sense in 140 characters or less, the Twitter hash tag is #uwdebate.

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