Tony Blair debates religion with Christopher Hitchens in Canada

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Photo of Blair and Hitchens at the debate.

Last Friday, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair debated the role of religion with atheist author and journalist Christopher Hitchens at the Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto, Canada. Organised under the auspices of the 'Munk Debates', the motion was: "That religion is a force for good in the world".

Hitchens argued that religion is "a cruel experiment whereby we are created sick and ordered to be well" and that the omnipresent, omniscient God supposed by many world religions was "a celestial dictatorship, a kind of divine North Korea".

Blair — who in 2008 established the Tony Blair Faith Foundation — conceded whilst religion is not necessary for everybody to act morally, it was still helpful for many despite violent interpretations of texts by extremists. He said the world religions unite in a moral mission to, "do unto others as you would have them do unto you", describing "a spiritual presence, bigger, more important, more meaningful than just us alone, that has its own power separate from our power, and that even as the world's marvels multiply, makes us kneel in humility not swagger in pride."

Continuing, Blair stated: "If faith is seen in this way, science and religion are not incompatible, destined to fight each other, until eventually the cool reason of science extinguishes the fanatical flames of religion."

Hitchens listed numerous aspects of religion he thought were negative, arguing "is it good for the world to appeal to our credulity and not to our scepticism? Is it good for the world to worship a deity that takes sides in wars and human affairs? To appeal to our fear and to our guilt, is it good for the world? To our terror, our terror of death, is it good to appeal?"

Pressing his points, Hitchens asserted: "To preach guilt and shame about the sexual act and the sexual relationship, is this good for the world? And asking yourself all the while, are these really religious responsibilities, as I maintain they are? To terrify children with the image of hell and eternal punishment, not just of themselves, but their parents and those they love. Perhaps worst of all, to consider women an inferior creation, is that good for the world, and can you name me a religion that has not done that?"

Blair responded, "I don't think we should think that because you can point to examples of prejudice in the name of religion, that bigotry and prejudice and wrongdoing are wholly owned subsidiaries of religion."

Before the debate, the audience opposed the motion 57% to 22% (21% undecided). Post-debate, the motion was opposed by 68% of the audience and supported by 23%.