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God Debate’ sparks discussion on campus

Joseph McMahon | Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Two titans of the academic world will clash tonight in the Leighton Concert Hall when famed anti-theist and author of books such as “God is Not Great” Christopher Hitchens faces Catholic apologist Dinesh D’Souza in “The God Debate: Is Religion the Problem?”
Hitchens and D’Souza represent two fundamentally irreconcilable positions, and both have come under criticism for their tendency to use demeaning language and bullying in debates.

Theology Professor Fr. Richard McBrien said he will not be attending because both Hitchens and D’Souza represent the extremist sects of their respective viewpoints.
“I’m not excited about the debate because an intelligent middle position will not be represented. The two debaters reflect, in my opinion, extreme anti-religious views, on the one hand, and an extreme right-wing view of Catholicism, on the other hand,” McBrien said. “It’s an important debate, but the religious side would require someone with a more comprehensive theological perspective.”

Junior Sy Doan, who wrote an Observer Letter to the Editor criticizing Hitchens’ aggressive debate tactics, said despite his reputation as an “intellectual bully,” Hitchens is still a “viable member of the intellectual community who Notre Dame should welcome.”

“I think it’s wrong that we expect intellectuals to be genial and mild-mannered,” Doan said. “Intelligence and comity do not necessarily go hand-in-hand.”

After President Barack Obama was invited to speak at last year’s Commencement ceremony, Notre Dame’s identity as a Catholic university has been criticized.

“To shun an important, admittedly controversial, member of the academic community in Mr. Hitchens would be to betray Notre Dame’s commitment to a holistic, liberal arts education, in my opinion,” Doan said.

Some students around campus agreed with Doan’s sentiment and felt the debate would actually help strengthen their faith.

“As when Obama visited our campus last year to give the Commencement address, it is important to open a dialogue with those who disagree with Catholic teaching in order to strengthen our own beliefs,” junior Zach Reuvers said. “The University cannot fulfill their mission of educating hearts and minds if they only present one side of an issue.”

Junior Scott McIntosh, who is a theology minor, said ignoring works “by individuals such as Hitchens only hurts Catholicism.”

“By engaging in civilized dialogue with those who have opposing beliefs, we can not only deepen our own understanding of the Scriptures, but also share and articulate the beliefs of the Catholic Church in the hopes that others may see what the Church has to offer,” he said.

Sophomore Dennis Grabowski said hosting the debate is important for sustaining an intellectual climate at Notre Dame.

“This debate has importance for all those who seek to promote an atmosphere of discourse on this campus — those who seek an atmosphere in which questions can be better resolved, positions strengthened and others’ beliefs accepted,” he said.

Grabowski said Notre Dame’s position as the preeminent Catholic university in America made it the perfect forum for the God Debate.

“There are few forums which are actually improper for the discussion of the existence of God; a University such as ours which seeks to be known as an intellectual one is certainly not among these,” he said. “Indeed, the world’s leading Catholic University is the perfect forum for the discussion of deep religious questions.”

One complaint about the event centered on its timing. Theology Professor Fr. Neil Roy said it is odd that the God Debate would be scheduled during a holy week.

“Given the splendid ceremonies of the Easter Triduum just celebrated so magnificently at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart and the ongoing exuberance of faith on campus during the Easter Octave, it seems somewhat awkward that this particular event should be scheduled on 7 April  — Easter Wednesday,” he said.

Many students complained about the scarcity of tickets available. Both Reuvers and McIntosh said they were in class while the event sold out and were unable to get tickets afterward.

“I was also frustrated by the lack of tickets available to students,” Reuvers said. “An event of this magnitude should be held in a location that allows a large number of people to attend and I believe a majority of the tickets should be reserved for students.”

Junior Jessica Hedrich wrote a Letter to the Editor expressing her own frustration with the lack of tickets, but was given a ticket after an event organizer saw her letter.

“I am a committed Catholic, and I think rationally considering these questions can bring a deeper understanding of my faith and why I believe what I believe,” she said.

For those unable to attend the debate, it will be broadcast live tonight on NDTV.