Prominent writer and commentator Christopher Hitchens described the Archbishop of Canterbury as a “sheep-faced loon” at a debate on secularism in Oxford on 12 May.
Hitchens, a well-known atheist, author and Balliol graduate, also characterized Prince Charles as a “bat-eared monarch with bad taste in women” while speaking about his opposition to the Queen’s role as head of the Church of England.
Hitchens said on Wednesday he wished to reword his remarks about Prince Charles. “It should have been ‘bat eared Islam-fancying monarch in waiting with no taste at all in women’,” Hitchens said.
Officials at the Veritas Forum, which organized the event, estimated that more than 800 people attended the debate at the Sheldonian Theatre, with many turned away at the door after the room reached capacity.
Challenging Hitchens at the debate was John Haldane, Professor of Philosophy at St Andrews University. Organiser Sherif Girgis said he first invited Hitchens and later Haldane.
“Both are quick on their feet and almost inordinately eloquent. As public intellectuals with deep ties to Britain, I thought that both would also be able to relate to our audience and do so in a way that was thoughtful and informed but not exclusively academic – and the Veritas Forum is not meant to be an academic conference, but more personal, provocative, and applicable,” Girgis said.
Eimhin Walsh, a postgraduate Theology student at Balliol, described the debate as “disappointing”. Walsh said he thought Haldane “was catering for a specialist audience” and Hitchens was “characteristically obnoxious.”
Mike Webb, another student who attended the debate, said he thought Haldane performed well at the debate, but that Hitchens relied too heavily on personal attacks.
“Hitchens peddled his usual line about the evils of religious people throughout history. Nobody disputed it, and it added nothing to the debate.
“John Haldane, conversely, was arguing from within the context of the past 300 years of moral and political philosophy, and so was rather more interesting. It was a shame that Hitchens was unwilling – or unable – to engage with him,” Webb said.
The Veritas Forum operates in 60 educational institutions in North America and Europe and seeks “to inspire the shapers of tomorrow’s culture”.
Girgis says that the Veritas Forum in Oxford is “designed to put Christianity in conversation with other worldviews in pursuit of the ‘big questions’ — morality, religion, public life, etc.”