A dozen Air Force Academy cadets listen silently as Christopher Hitchens, the internationally known writer, pundit and atheist, starts speaking Monday evening.
Hitchens mentions a just-publicized video of the United States military's top chaplain in Afghanistan advising soldiers in Bagram on how to convert Muslims to Christianity, explaining it's their duty to "hunt people for Jesus."
"Good people are going to get killed because of this stupidity," Hitchens predicts in crisp, Oxford-inflected English.
His words hang in the air for only a moment. Then an Old Chicago waitress breaks in with her own dilemma: She has two Dr Peppers on her tray but can't remember which is the Diet.
"I forgot which is which," she says with a giggle.
Hitchens regularly fills large lecture halls across the country, but he seems unruffled by the strangeness of speaking at a campus Freethinkers meeting on the patio of a northwest Colorado Springs restaurant. The cadets, warned by Academy officials that Hitchens would not be allowed to lecture on campus, quietly arranged a more intimate gathering publicized only by e-mails and word of mouth.
Hitchens talks for more than two hours, gently questioning the young men and women about their experiences at the service academy stained five years ago by allegations of an institutional bias toward evangelical Christianity. His argument against faith, presented in his book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, essentially boils down to this: Most religions evolved before humans had much idea how the world worked, and now they're sadly outdated.
The cadets, in street clothes, are still recognizable by their tendency to address Hitchens as "Sir." One asks Hitchens how an atheist can find meaning in life.
"I think it's quite possible we're here as a joke," he replies. "It's much better than being the plaything of a sadistic celestial dictator."
The cadets give Hitchens few examples of being proselytized or pressured by religion at the Academy. One says he arrived a Baptist, but went the other way and started questioning his faith. Another recalls a fellow student who confessed during a night of drinking that she wasn't certain of the evangelical views she espoused when sober.
"There's nothing like a smashed evangelical," Hitchens muses.
Hitchens was invited to Colorado Springs by Kyle Southard, a second-year cadet active with a student-run Jewish congregation and the Cadet Interfaith Council. Despite feeling that the Academy tolerates many religions, Southard felt a "vast lack of understanding" about those without faith.
Hitchens was willing to visit on his own dime, but officials "recommended" that the students not ask for him to be invited to speak on campus, says Academy spokesman Lt. Col. Brett Ashworth.
That recommendation was made because of comments by Hitchens judged to be "degrading to others," Ashworth says, and would have applied equally if he espoused evangelical Christianity. (Self-described former-terrorists-turned-evangelicals, who spoke on campus last year, were allowed as part of a terror briefing, Ashworth says.)
After Hitchens finishes, Southard says privately that the meeting could've been "beneficial" had it happened on campus with more cadets. Hitchens doesn't appear to mind, and seems tickled when the cadets give him a plaque with a small replica of the Academy's famous Cadet Chapel.
"Don't keep the faith," he tells them as a farewell. "And don't fly too close to the sun."