When Hitchens met Brennan


For those seeking a barometer of current thinking on important questions of meaning and values, ABC TV's Q&A is a good place to start.

Chaired by genial but incisive host Tony Jones, every Thursday at 9.30pm it lines up a panel of five opinion makers, usually including a few politicians. They field questions on current events from ordinary members of the public, both in the studio audience, and from viewers at home. This interactivity is a large part of its appeal.

Last Thursday's edition was a treat. Its panel was a bit different to normal, as it eschewed the usual politicians, and instead featured people representing different perspectives on belief. These included one of the leading new atheists, British author of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens. (Continues below)

And he didn't disappoint. As much as I disagree with his point of view, I have to concede he was an able and sharp debater, relentless in nailing the other panelists, pointing out flaws and inconsistencies in their arguments, and he was master of the witty and cutting riposte.

But the other panelists proved to be worthy opponents. They included Jesuit priest and social activist, Fr Frank Brennan; lecturer in politics and former spokesperson for the Islamic Council of Victoria, Waleed Aly; academic, and former editor of The Monthly, Sally Warhaft; and deputy director of the Sydney Institute, Anne Henderson.

The overarching theme, atheism versus religion, was timely. The new atheists seem to be riding a wave of popularity. I'm beginning to view them as a religious movement, in that there is a consistency in their message that deals with big questions of meaning and values, they are producing a stream of literature that is being actively promulgated and promoted, and they are carrying this out with evangelical, if not fundamentalist zeal.

To show I'm not alone in this view, this week the Atheist Foundation of Australia announced that in March 2010 it will host a Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne whose theme is 'The Rise of Atheism'. The keynote speaker will be Richard Dawkins. The Age's report on the convention carried the headline, 'High-priest of atheism on his way'. Sounds like it will rival the Hillsong Convention held every year in Sydney.

This view was reflected in a question to Hitchens from a member of the Q&A audience: 'You typically stereotype religious people as dogmatic and fundamentalist ... How is this when people who listen to you feel as if you are the one being dogmatic and fundamentalist in your evangelical pursuit to convert the world to atheism?'

In a nutshell, he rejected the view that this is 'what I do, or what I'm like', and he even went on to concede that religion has some worth, that 'religion is ineradicable ... it was our first attempt at philosophy, just as it was our first attempt at health care, cosmology, astronomy and so on'.

Brennan then made the sensible point to Hitchens that 'you do concede that religion is ineradicable, so given that reality ... why not drop the bagging and smearing, and let's say the solution is respectful public discourse? We judge things by their fruits, and if there be arguments which are put which are misconceived, then we talk that out.'

Notwithstanding some grimaces, groans and sharp words, and an entertaining little spat between Hitchens and Henderson, this edition of Q&A is an example of this sort of respectful discourse. I think it's fair to say it shed more light than heat on the subjects it traversed.

The final question from the audience formed a neat conclusion: 'Many non-believers facing death change their minds about religion. Is that fear or comfort?'

All the panelists answered the question, but Hitchens was given the final word, and he held implacably to his atheist position: 'It's a religious falsification that people like myself scream for a priest at the end ... Most of us go to our ends with dignity. If we don't and if it is the wish for fear or comfort, then both of these things are equally delusory, as religion is itself.'

Problems with Hitchens and Islam (Herman Roborgh)
Christopher Hitchens and ethics without God (Andrew Hamilton)
Christopher Hitchens' illogical atheism (Neil Ormerod)

Peter KirkwoodPeter Kirkwood worked for 23 years in the Religion and Ethics Unit of ABC TV. He has a Master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity.

Topic tags: Q+A, God, Sodomy and the Lash, Frank Brennan, Christopher Hitchens, Sally Warhaft, Waleed Aly, Henderson



submit a comment

Existing comments

None needed
Frank Mannix | 09 October 2009

I watched this program and I thought Hitchins was rude crude and unattractive - he got too much air time, talked over other people - I do not agree with all he says, he makes some points but he gave little acknowledgement to others on the panel, Tony Jones could have intervened on some occasions to let others air their views.
margaret o'reilly | 09 October 2009

Sorry Peter, I am very suspicious of QandA, it is produced 'outside' the ABC, under the guise of being the product of an independent company. The viewers never get to participate in the selection of topics, the selection of panel members and the composition of what you call Tony's incisivness and what I would rather call, his planned route to his (his group's) objective.

As for Christopher Hitchens, I thought he was rude, bombastic and pompous to say the least. He did his cause no end of damage by the way in which he spoke down any opposing views from the audience. He would have been a bigger disaster had he not been rescued several times "just before you answer that Christopher, I'm going to give you a little time to think about that and we'll hear from" by Tony Jones.

What a sham and am I gald it was a sham.

The best presenters were Sally Warhaft and Anne Henderson, their genuineness shone through. I could listen with respect to all the challenges they would give the Church because of the genuine way in which they tried, in vain because of Tony Jones' interuptions, to address the topic, which was, which was, yes, it was very hard to understand just what the topic was.
Fr Mick Mac Andrew Bombala-Delegate NSW | 09 October 2009

You mustn't have been watching the same show I saw - regardless of what you think of Hitchens' point of view, Henderson and Brennan came across as inarticulate buffoons on this episode of Q&A. I was embarrassed for them. At no point during this show did Hitchens 'bag and smear', so Brennan [although I've usually liked his writing elsewhere] came across as looking like an idiot. And Henderson was just rude and petulant, cutting across Hitchens, trying [unsuccessfully] to prevent his views being heard. She looked like an even bigger idiot.
Bernadette Schroeder | 09 October 2009

I agree about the earlier point that alludes to the transperancy of the Q&A program, Tony Jones is the director of this show, for all that that means.

I warmed to Frank Brennan and Waleed Aly because of their knowledge, the way in which they responded to the questions that were directed towards the panel, and the fact that they did not 'stoop' to the kind of behaviour displayed by Christopher Hitchens. Susan and Anne unfortunately were not of a cal;ibre to enhance this discussion, which unfortunately made them appear tokenistic, or, again highlighted Tony Jones' poor 'direction' and selection of panelists and questions.

Christopher Hitchens was clearly there to get a response from people. The typical child acting out, looking for attention. Unfortunately he is a self appointed spokesperson for atheism. I lost count of the random points he brought up that were completely disconnected from the question, but were blurted out to stir the discussion into a debate that would favour his argument. He patted himself on the back more times than most politicians would in a week. And lastly, let's face it, we all know that he walked out of the studio alone because other than on a discussion panel, who would really want to talk with such a person?
Damien | 09 October 2009

I'm with Bernadette, the other panelists had little to say about anything. MARGARET you think hitchens got too much air time? i think he got too little. all everyone else had to contribute was to say "yes this is a tough issue" and "yes this issue requires a lot of further discussion". WHAT WAFFLE!! as hitchens said "WHY DON'T YOU TELL US WHAT YOU REALLY THINK!?". also good on him for challenging those Muslim apologists for making such ignorant statements about the Murderous Islamic Republic of Iran!
JIM | 10 October 2009

I quite enjoyed the show as well. I like Hitchens' wit and his practiced approach to picking the faults in his opponents. I enjoyed Brennan' and Aly's artful misdirection and squirming out of the hard questions. Henderson by contrast was, boring and rude. What was sadly missing was an Australian Atheist - say Phillip Adams to give us some local context.

I do have to say I am disappointed in your allusion to the old "Atheism is just another religion" canard. Your stated qualities for religions are a little to broad to be convincing.

I laughed when I read the title for the Age's piece, even Cathnews did a better job.

While I think it would be wonderful to have a conference every year, I find comparing it to the Hillsong conference a very long drawing of the bow and an again a rather poor attempt to link Atheism with extreme fundamentalist religion in the mind of your readers. That and the music will probably be better at Hillsong.

We have a convention where Atheists will be discussing, education, the attack on science from creationism, how to deal with religious extremists, separation of church and state, the infiltration of non-evidence based religious treatment of the mentally ill. Sounds like it has a bit more of a social justice slant to me?
Sean the Blogonaut | 10 October 2009

I too enjoyed the programme, but found the thoughtful and respectful responses of both Frank Brennan and Waleed Aly in marked contrast to the certainty expressed by Christopher Hitchens.

For all his undoubted intellect and wit, Hitchens all too often seems more intent on offending and goading, and being impressed with his own cleverness. He excells at preaching to the converted.

I would suggest that the most insightful critique of Hitchens (and Richard Dawkins) I've yet read is by the Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton in 'Reason, Faith and Revolution', in which he also has some fascinating reflections on the nature of faith - now that would have been some show had he been on the panel.
THOMAS RYAN | 10 October 2009

I agree Bernadette. What's wrong with Q & A that they couldn't get a panel who'd have been on equal ground with Hitchens? The Catholic party were hopeless. Henderson was too silly and Brennan too busy being too nice. Maybe atheism clears your brain!
Kerry Bergin | 11 October 2009

I very much agree with Bernadette, Jim and Sean The Blogonaut.

Damien, what makes expressing a strongly held view merely a 'typical child acting out, looking for attention'? Do you accuse everyone with bold opinions of being childish? Or just people you disagree with?

What actually seems childish is your speculation about Hitchens leaving the studio alone. Quoting Father Brennan, to whom you say you warmed, 'why not just drop the bagging and smearing?'.

It's worth noting Hitchens' response to that (which alas the above article omits) because it tackled Fr Brennan persistent insinuation of incivility front on: "Well, Father, you're the soul of charity but who has been bagging and smearing? ... you've said that twice now, as if you're sitting there, our only protection against a wave of smearing and bagging. As long as we have a civil conversation, we don't have to keep on saying that that's what we're doing".
Brendan of Wollongong NSW | 11 October 2009

I agree that this episode of Q & A an engaging debate, and that the panelists mostly engaged in 'respectful discourse'. However, I thought Hitchens was unnecessarily brutal in his denigration of two young Muslim women who dared to disagree with him. Tony Jones gave him free reign, and no one on the panel deigned to offer them any support.
Myrna tonkinson | 12 October 2009

Ad hominem, Ad hominem, Ad hominem, Ad hominem
Adam M | 19 October 2009

I too enjoyed this program.

I find that this debate is sorely in need of some proper definition. What is religion? That would be a good place to start. I am keen on the etymology that relates the word to a bond, a binding between the individual and the truth. What, then, is the truth? Well, that's where faith steps in for many people.

I kinda like the eastern idea that something that is true (for the individual) is true on physical, emotional and intellectual levels, and the "truth" of a matter, can be checked out at all three levels. That must mean that self-delusion can have no place, and truth can be brutal. It means that science is to be respected.

I kept thinking about this while I was watching, and thinking that it was ironic that it was just possible that Hitchens was possibly the most religious person on the panel!
robert | 23 October 2009

To those who criticise Hitchens, I would like to remind them that the panel consisted of religious(4)and atheists(1). I think he showed enormous restraint.
Ronaldo | 26 October 2009

So what was the fulcrum of the show? Hitchens calling out Frank Brennan and Waleed Ali on their respective teams' ex cathedra condemnation (Catholic) or death sentence for practitioners (Islamic) for any expression of human sexuality that isn't line and length. How rapidly those company men dissembled. Convictions take courage, which is hard when you've got something to lose.
Andrew Eather | 27 October 2009


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up