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The benefits of religious debate on campus

Editorial Board | Friday, April 9, 2010

Wednesday’s God Debate brought two extreme viewpoints to the University to engage an important question: the existence of God.
Yet the debate’s presence on campus has garnered controversy as members of the Notre Dame community questioned the role of this sort of discussion at a Catholic university, and because tickets sold out before many students could get their hands on them.
Christopher Hitchens, a well-known anti-theist, and conservative Catholic writer Dinesh D’Souza wrestled with the question of faith in the debate titled “Is Religion the Problem?” The two intellectuals have a reputation for combative viewpoints.
Although some University advertising portrayed the debate as brash and antagonistic, it turned out to be just the opposite. The God Debate fulfilled its goal of fostering open, intellectual dialogue, and debaters used reason and science rather than rhetoric and emotion to drive their arguments, avoiding any debate over actual Christian scripture and practice.
But the real asset of this kind of debate on campus is not the debate between the academics themselves but rather the discussion it provoked among students, professors and other members of the Notre Dame community.
The fact that students sought out tickets and criticized the University for the lack of available seats indicates that the student body is already engaged in the kind of intellectual dialogue that the God Debate furthered. Those in attendance appeared very receptive and respectful of both speakers.
The University has an important role as a Catholic institution, but it is also an institution of higher learning. The God Debate is the kind of conversation for which Notre Dame should be a forum.
Although Hitchens and D’Souza disagreed, both stuck to fact and theory to support their arguments. In this way, the debate was informative and thought-provoking, rather than pointlessly stirring up emotional rhetoric.
But students should not take either side of the debate as presented by Hitchens or D’Souza at face value.
The enthusiasm these debaters display shows that this is an important, but contested issue, and one that students should form their own opinion about by becoming knowledgeable. The presenters give an introduction to extremes, not a comprehensive view. Students will have to work their way along the spectrum as they learn more about the positions to form their own opinion, which will probably be closer to the middle ground than the views expressed by Hitchens and D’Souza.
To the credit of these two figures, their criticism of each others’ arguments was professional and intelligent. When personal attacks were made, they were made in the form of offhand jokes and were taken in stride by both sides. Both Hitchens and D’Souza recognized that it was more important to keep the issue itself at the forefront, and we applaud them for not letting personal attacks overshadow the opportunity for dialogue.
As students at a Catholic University, we naturally grapple with contentious issues — the death penalty, abortion, premarital sex. What we should take away from the God Debate is that not only is it important to discuss contentious issues with those who disagree, but the manner in which we do it is just as important.
Seek productive discussion, use facts to support your assertions, be respectfully critical of the opposing view, but also courageously stand up for what you believe in. These are all crucial lessons to be learned from this event.