Home > General Politics, Religion > Christopher Hitchens versus Tony Blair: is religion a force for good?

Christopher Hitchens versus Tony Blair: is religion a force for good?

The scene was Toronto, Canada, where atheist and anti-theist Christopher Hitchens came to debate former British Prime Minister Tony Blair on the resolution “religion is a force for good”.

Munk debates – who organised the event – saw all 2,600 tickets sell out soon after the ticket office opened, while CBC news in Canada claim that “scalpers outside were asking for as much as $500 a ticket.

Inside, the compere and the chair of the debate both felt inclined to remind the audience that Christopher Hitchens has recently been diagnosed with cancer which he battles with today, yet this has not put stop to his intellectual output, as tonight’s debate seems to testify.

At the start of the debate, the crowd were asked to offer their own opinions of the resolution in a poll. The pre-debate results came in at: 22% for the resolution, 57% against and 21% undecided.

Hitchens started the debate by mentioning Cardinal Newman, assuring the crowd that his opposition to the resolution doesn’t just pick on the extreme elements of religion, or so-called extreme elements, but rather the false hope of the moderate voice as well – a theological position which, to Hitchens, is just as damaging and preposterous, but which is given legitimacy.

Not to forget the fanatic side, Hitchens asked the audience to think what will happen if fanatics take hold of apocalyptic weaponry – before explaining that in the Middle East this is already a reality.

In Blair’s reply to his opponents’ opening statement, he told the audience that a quarter of the work done on HIV/AIDS in Africa is carried out by Catholic organisations. Faith, for Blair, is not just a means of counsel to people, but it is a spiritual experience, which rather than sits separate to science, actually contextualises it.

In reply to Hitchens on fanatics, Blair reminded him that it is not just religion that produces evil, pontificating on Pol Pot and Stalin.

After setting out their statements, the argument seemed to rest on whether religion can be a necessary source of inspiration for people who carry out good, in the name of the faith – something the Tony Blair Faith Foundation is keen to promote, in addition to promoting interfaith discussion and resolution – or whether what we choose to describe as religious inspiration is simply common humanism which is an appeal to kindness that all people share, religious or not.

As this notion became the centre of the debate, Hitchens was able to set the narrative, leaving Blair to try and find examples where faith is the main driver of good. The former PM, being reduced to admit that people have the capability of good, religious or not – which would seem obvious – it allowed Hitchens to assert that faith is not necessarily a force for good, since it is as likely that someone with faith can be as good as someone without it, leaving Blair to pursue the rather flimsy counter-argument that faith can be some source of inspiration for those who do good in its name – a position which does little to undermine Hitchens’ own.

The most memorable line of the night came from Hitchens who said that “the cure for poverty has a name: the empowerment of women” which while Blair did not disagree, left him in the position of distancing himself from bigoted opinions inside the church.

The two debaters concluded in disagreeing the qualities of faith and religion, Hitchens opining that it should be enough to want to help others without recourse to a “theocratic dictator” while Blair assumed that love and humanism for other people can be legitimately bound in religion, which is no bad thing.

The audience had the opportunity to vote on the resolution after the debate, to see whether they had changed their mind (which 75% of them had said before the debate they were open to do); 68% of the votes ended up backing Hitchens, while 32% backed Blair – which means a swing of nearly 10% for both men.

The question remains; religion and faith are not always bad for the world, prejudice and intolerance can be carried out by anyone of any theological position or none. But does it necessarily follow that religion is a force for good? A crowd in Toronto has said no.

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Categories: General Politics, Religion
  1. Graeme
    November 28, 2010 at 5:36 pm

    I don’t like the idea of a father who never goes away, a king who cannot be deposed, a judge who does not allow a lawyer, jury or appeal. No Thanks.

    I don’t have to accept or even believe in the superstitions of a bunch of bronze age goat herders, living on their flat world with their imaginary “friend”

    As his own son, he let himself be tortured in order to cure humanity of an endemic, inheritable disease called “sin”. Despite being omnipotent, he failed to stop “sin” contaminating his creation when a talking reptile shared some magical insight-inducing fruit with a woman made from a rib, the rib having been taken from a man made from soil. If you don’t accept this as absolute truth, you will be tortured for ever.
    You’d better accept it immediately because he’s coming back any day now to pick up and reward the people who have been nice to him – but only the ones who have done it in the right way, the rest get tortured for ever…

    Indoctrination starts at a very young age. If it doesn’t brainwash you early in life, it’s very unlikely to get you later.

    I’m not convinced that faith can move mountains, but I’ve seen what it can do to skyscrapers.

  2. Robert Landbeck
    November 29, 2010 at 10:16 pm

    This debate ws redundant before it started, over shadowed by a greater one already under way! What science, religion, philosophy or theology, Hawkins or Dawkins thought impossible has happened. History now has it’s first fully demonstrable proof for faith. And coming from outside all existing faiths, clearly has ‘tradition’ in the cross hairs. Quoting from an online review:

    “The first ever viable religious conception capable of leading reason, by faith, to observable consequences which can be tested and judged is now a reality. A teaching that delivers the first ever religious claim of insight into the human condition that meets the Enlightenment criteria of verifiable, direct cause and effect, evidence based truth embodied in experience. For the first time in history, however unexpected or unwelcome, the world must contend with a claim to new revealed truth, a moral wisdom not of human intellectual origin, offering access by faith, to absolute proof, an objective basis for moral principle and a fully rational and justifiable belief! ”

    If confirmed and there appears a growing concerted effort to test and authenticate this material, of which I am taking part, this will represent a paradigm change in the nature of faith and in the moral and intellectual potential of human nature itself;  untangling the greatest  questions of human existence: sustainability, consciousness, meaning, suffering, free will and evil. And at the same time addressing the most profound problems of our age.

    While the religious will find this news most difficult, those who have claimed to be of an Enlightenment mind should find it of particular interest. But if they are unable to appreciate this change in the historical faith paradigm, to one that conforms precisely to a criteria subject to test and confirmation, then their own ‘claim’ to rationality is no more than pretension nor better then those theological illusions they find so abhorrent.

    A unexpected revolution appears to be under way. More info at http://www.energon.org.uk

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