BEN CLASSON/Herald photo
As outspoken atheist Christopher Hitchens took the stage at the Monona Terrace Saturday afternoon, a crowd of more than 500 greeted the author with a standing ovation and uproarious laughter at each barb at religion. Few were left standing, however, once Hitchens turned to rebuke the audience, mostly members of the agnostic organization Freedom From Religion Foundation, for not "coming out as atheists" and "taking on jihad" in the Middle East. At the 30th annual FFRC conference, the author of "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” concluded with remarks he predicted "will slightly piss you off," saying world suffering will not end until everyone stands up against the evils and war promoted by Islam. FFRF Co-President Dan Barker met Hitchens on stage to present him with the "Emperor Has No Clothes Award," which recognizes public figures who "are not afraid to just tell it like it is," according to Barker. Responding to a question from an audience member on what he said was the futility of killing Muslims in Iraq to end extremism, Hitchens parodied: "’How does killing them lessen their numbers?' You must have meant something more intelligent. … We worry too much in America about our ‘right' to be in Iraq. "Make them worry. Make them run scared. … I'm going to fight these people and every other theocrat all the way. All the way. You should be ashamed sneering at the people guarding you as you sleep." For most of his speech, however, Hitchens' target was Christianity, opening with jokes about the decaying body of deceased Christian Coalition leader Jerry Falwell. "Religion abolishes our obligation to live in truth. … It caters to our worst sadomasochism," Hitchens said. "We'd be better off without it, even if it preached morality, which it doesn't." He went on to ask if it is "moral" to tell children their sins are forgiven, "because of a human sacrifice they had no say in?" Debts of morality can be repaid, he said, but not erased. The author made arguments against intelligent design theory, saying advances in the last 20 years have made science "totally incompatible with religion." He also told the crowd that heaven would be comparable to North Korea, as they both embody a totalitarianism of eternal gratitude. Hitchens pointed to the "horrific pointlessness and misery" of having to thank a leader for everything when the leader was never asked for in the first place — which he said is intrinsic to both the concept of heaven and in North Korea. "At least you can fucking die and get out of North Korea," Hitchens added. Meanwhile, there were others outside the building preaching against the author's message. Members of the Christian group 5 Loaves & 2 Fish passed out an "Open Letter to Those Who Deny God" to FFRF members as they entered the building. According to the group, erasing the influence of God in government and public life will not cure society of its evils, but rather the opposite. "We want people to at least consider the possibility of God because they're denying God," said Roney Sorensen, one of the group's members who helped write the leaflet. "We believe that they're lost souls right now; we want to win them for God. We don't view them as the enemy or the foe; we view them as fellow human beings who right now are spiritually lost." During his speech, Hitchens argued that atheists must fight to end religion. "You can't be a good person and a God person," Hitchens said. "[Religion] is bound to lead to bad behavior. It always has and it always will." Among the many evils done in the name of religion, Hitchens said he learned while in Iran that prison guards rape women prior to execution, because it is against their faith to execute a female virgin. "Only with God can people give themselves permission to do these things," Hitchens said. – Tim Williams contributed to this report.