Christopher Hitchens isweakened by cancer, but still determined to denounce religion on a visit to the US Bible Belt.
Airdate: 
Sunday, October 30, 2011 - 20:30
Channel: 
SBS One

Dateline heads to the United States' Bible Belt, as hundreds gather to celebrate their non-belief in God.

The annual Texas Freethought Convention draws atheists, agnostics and humanists from around the world, and this year Christopher Hitchens is the star attraction.

David Brill meets the renowned writer and thinker, as he battles cancer and uses the last of his strength to denounce religion as immoral.

And outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins tells David he only cares about facts and is standing up against 'outdated and rather unimaginative ideas about the world'.

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- Click to see David's report.

EXTRA - Follow the links under 'resources' on the right-hand side of the page to find out more about the Texas Freethought Convention and the work of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins.

REPLAY - Watch Dateline's interview with Richard Dawkins, filmed during his Australian tour in March 2010.

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Transcript

For decades now, America's evangelical Christians have been vigorously promoting their faith, taking it into the mainstream of society and politics. The country's atheists and agnostics have increasingly felt pushed to the margins. But now they're fighting back, trying to make their views just as widely known. The non-believers recently gathered in Houston for the annual Texas Freethought Convention where the star attraction was Christopher Hitchens, straight from his hospital bed and ready to throw a few more verbal hand grenades despite what appears to be a terminal illness. David Brill was there.

REPORTER: David Brill

MYERS: Why don't I believe in God, because there is absolutely no evidence for Him - the religions that endorse Him are ridiculous.

MAN: I don't know if there is any supreme being or not - I have never seen any evidence for it so that is why I call myself an atheist.

They've come to hear the word against God and there are plenty of preachers.

MAN: There is no reason for us to follow the rigid guidelines that Christianity has dumped on us.

WOMAN: Religion does not deserve respect.

At this convention centre in downtown Houston, a new brand of atheism is being offered up.

MAN 2: We are moral and just as good as you are.

These are daring views, here in the Christian heartland of Texas.

NICK LEE, PRESIDENT OF THE ATHEIST ALLIANCE OF AMERICA: We're here, we're proud and we are not going away and our worldview is just as important as the Sunday preachers.

Nick Lee is the President of the Atheist Alliance of America.

NICK LEE: Imagine you are sitting here in Houston Texas in the heart of Rick Perry country, can you believe that? We are sitting here in defiance.

Rick Perry is the Governor of Texas and a Republican presidential hopeful. His highly evangelical beliefs have been widely reported.

RICK PERRY, GOVERNOR OF TEXAS: We pray for our national's leaders Lord, for parents, for pastors, for the generals, for governors that you would inspire them.

NICK LEE: I would not have been active about my atheism if I had not moved to Texas. And I discovered after my career, moving around the world, living in various places even in the United States where I never felt the oppression of religion, when I moved to Texas I did feel it.

Lee is frustrated that religion is even enshrined in the law here.

NICK LEE: In the Texas State Constitution there should be no religious test for the holder of public office, "as long as she/he believes in a higher supreme being." If any candidate stepped forward in Texas and ran on an atheist platform they would have no chance getting voted dog-catcher.

The star attractions of this year's gathering are the movement's great defenders, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. The increasingly frail yet undiminished Hitchens is here to receive the Freethinker of the Year Award.

PROFESSOR RICHARD DAWKINS, OXFORD UNIVERSITY: He has inspired and energised and encouraged us all. His very character has become an outstanding and unmistakable symbol of the honesty and dignity of atheism.

This is an extremely rare public appearance for Hitchens who was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer last year.

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Now some of you know, I guess you all know now. I'm not as I was.

At a point in life when many people look to religion for solace, the concept of belief continues to rile Hitchens.

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: The realisation that comes to one often that religion, the human need to worship, the need to debase ourselves I would sometimes say, a pseudo masochistic impulse is unfortunately deplorably strong. Many people would make the trade of security for freedom thinking they will get at least one and don't know they will end up with neither.

And Hitchens' sharp critique hasn't weakened in anyway.

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: If Jesus wasn't the son of God, He was a hideous wicked imposter whose words were vain and empty and intended to deceive.

MAN: Thank you very much for being here.

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: No don't thank me it's nice to be here.

Despite, or maybe because of his illness, Hitchens continues to write prolifically. Last month he released a massive collection of his essays and for some, his work has had a profound impact.

MAN: You have changed my life and that of my three children. I can't say how much I appreciate it.

REPORTER: How do you feel when you hear things like this Christopher?

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: I tend to say to people that I believe they would have got there themselves which I think they would.

WOMAN: You write the way other people breathe.

REPORTER: So what do you think of all this?

MAN 3: Oh this is incredible. I actually come from an evangelical family. I'm the only atheist in the household so this helps me to get away from all the crosses and bibles all over the house.

While they are preaching to the converted here both Hitchens and Dawkins have been criticised elsewhere for their blind faith in their own opinions. But they remain undeterred.

PROFESSOR RICHARD DAWKINS: I don't give a damn for anybody's opinion, I only care about the facts. So I'm not an enthusiast for diversity of opinion where factual matters are concerned. I'm against the propagation of outdated and rather unimaginative ideas about the world which are so much less exciting, so much less enthralling and so much less thrilling than the truth. I'm against religion that teaches people to be satisfied with non explanations for things when in the 21st century we have extremely good explanations and we are getting better ones.

Hitchens is keen to pass on these good explanations to a new generation, like this 8-year-old girl who wanted to know what books she should read.

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Well there's an author called Robert Graves, who isn't going to be far out of her reach, with wonderful tales of Greek and Roman mythology.

GIRL: I've already read those.

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: You've read all of them?

GIRL: Yes.

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: This is getting worse and worse, she has flawed me twice now. This is like the Rabbis confronting Jesus outside the temple you know.

GIRL: I was eager to meet famous Freethinkers because that is what I want to be when I grow up. My mum says I'm not but I already am.

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: I really wish you well - I wish there were more like you. Actually what would we do if there were? Lots of love and take it easy and remember the love bits.

MARK DAVIS: It may have been difficult to recognise Christopher Hitchens there. He was a very regular commentator on Australian television. If his health holds out, Christopher Hitchens is scheduled to appear at the global atheist conference being held in Melbourne next year.

Reporter/Camera

DAVID BRILL

Producer

MELANIE MORRISON

Editor

WAYNE LOVE

Original Music composed by Vicki Hansen

30th October 2011