Christopher Hitchens, Al Sharpton and God

The two firebrands meet to debate religion, the idea of God and Hitchens' new book.

Published May 8, 2007 6:28PM (EDT)

The Rev. Al Sharpton observed at his debate with writer Christopher Hitchens Monday night that it was perhaps the first time, he, Sharpton, was put in a position in which, at the start of the debate, he was not assumed to be the devil. Last night, Sharpton was on God's debating team -- and still he managed to be on the less popular side.

Sharpton was a late addition to what was originally supposed to be a forum that featured just Hitchens, whose new book, "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything," was the focus of the debate, which took place in front of a sellout crowd at the New York Public Library.

Anyone who came expecting fireworks from the two was likely disappointed, but there was, at the very least, no shortage of wit from two men who proved themselves to be skilled debaters. Hitchens bobbed and weaved away from questions he wished not to answer as adeptly as if he were running for office, while Sharpton acted if he were on a debate team, sticking carefully to the spine of the argument while almost dropping his own personal beliefs to the side. Most of the barbs from the two came cloaked in a thick coat of humor, though there were a few times when one or the other -- mainly Hitchens -- seemed to have struck a real nerve, as when Hitchens said he believed the title "Reverend" is "something people should be more concerned with living down than living up to."

Hitchens opened the debate, which was moderated by Jacob Weisberg, editor of Slate, one of the many media outlets to which Hitchens contributes, by laying out his argument against religion. It comes "from the infancy of the species," he said, and though some say "it's nice to believe because religion teaches good precepts," he believes that is "radically untrue." He compared the idea of an omnipotent God to North Korea, but said, "At least with North Korea you can die ... Christianity won't let you do that." Sharpton's frequent counter was that Hitchens was arguing something that did not address the very title of his book. "Attacking the 'wicked' use of God," Sharpton said, "does not address the existence of God."

For the most part, the audience seemed to be with Hitchens -- but there was some deviation from his side, most often when the subject of the Iraq war, of which Hitchens is a prominent and frequent supporter, came up. Sharpton scored some points by cracking, "You are a man of faith, because any man that still to this day believes that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has more faith than any religious person I know." A New York City audience couldn't help loving that one.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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