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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