Thursday, July 28, 2011

"Hitchens vs Blair" Debate

Canada is increasingly one of the most secular states in the developed world. In fact, I feel it is leading the way in not only being 'secular' but also rather anti-institutional religion. One evidence lies in the way people perceive religion. On November 26th, 2010, world renowned atheist activist, Christopher Hitchens and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, lock horns in Toronto Canada to debate the question:

"Be it resolved religion is a force for good in the world."

Hitchens vs. Blair: Be It Resolved Religion Is a Force for Good in the World (The Munk Debates)
Moderated by Rudyard Griffiths, both speakers were allowed 7 minutes to make their opening arguments which is then followed by two rounds of rebuttals and counter arguments. Questions are then fielded both online as well as from the audience. Here are some of their points.

1) Against the Motion: Christopher Hitchens

Hitchens essentially says that religion is not only a non-factor in improving the good for the world, it can be downright harmful. He begins by quoting a text from Cardinal Newman, and calls it fanaticism, before going on a non-stop onslaught on religions, especially Christianity. In a sinister interpretation of God as a High and Mighty Bully, he argues against religions that refuse to tolerate skepticism.

"Religion forces nice people to do unkind things and also makes intelligent people do stupid things." (9)

He holds up the Middle East as a classic example of how religions and violence are linked. In a nutshell, Hitchens tries to paint religions (especially Christianity) into a corner that bullies mankind in general, and sullies relationships.

In Hitchens's rebuttals, he continues to lump various religious people in order to demonstrate that there are no clear links between religions and good works. Rather than being pre-occupied with the good, Hitchens chooses the path of proving that religion has caused more harm than good for the world. He says:

"We don't require divine permission to know right from wrong. We don't need tablets administered to us, ten at a time in tablet form on pain of death, to be able to have a moral argument. No, we have the reasoning and the moral suasion of Socrates and of our own abilities. We don't need dictatorship to tell us right from wrong." (17)

2) For the Motion: Tony Blair

Blair calmly responds with 7 points.

  1. There is also much good done by people of religion;
  2. People's good works are inspired by their faith;
  3. Faith answers a profound human longing
  4. Faith can educate people what science cannot
  5. The world is better off with people of faith, judging from the amount of good inspired by religions
  6. Ridding the world of religion will not necessarily rid the world of violence, as atheists and secular powers have also caused grievous hurt and evil
  7. There is more good than evil that religion brings.

In Blair's rebuttals, he wisely says:

"If we can't drive religion out of the world because many people of faith believe it and believe it very deeply, let's at least see how we make religion a force for good, how we encourage those people of faith who are trying to do good, and how we unite those against those who want to pervert religion and turn it into a badge of identity used in opposition to others." (19)

3) Questions from the Audience

On globalization and the unity of all mankind of all religions and belief, Hitchens say that religions divide rather than unite. To the question about how religions divide, Blair shares about how the two warring religious parties in Northern Ireland have come together despite their religious differences.

On Northern Ireland and Iraq, Hitchens then point out that religions have caused the problems of war in the first place, Northern Ireland's Roman Catholic vs Protestants war, and Rwanda's genocide in spite of it being the African countries with a large Christian population. Blair counters with the statement that linking religion as the cause of the problem in Northern Ireland and Rwanda will be over-simplistic. Without religion, the same thing will happen too.

My Comments

Hitchens interestingly draws a parallel in his opening remarks about Cardinal Newman's conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism, with a snide reference to Blair's similar religious conversion to Catholicism from the Church of England. His tone and words go for the jugular right from the start. He regularly flash out his 'familiarity' with the Bible, and other religious thought, and argues that non-religious people do not need religion to tell them about good and bad.

I find the statistics intriguing. Out of a total of 2700 people, about 25% voted FOR the motion; 55% opposed; and 20% undecided. After the debate, everybody including the decided made their choices. The final tally: 32% FOR and 68% AGAINST the motion.

Based on Hitchens' relentless onslaught against religion, it seems like while Hitchens is aiming to win arguments, Blair is simply playing the role of neutralizing Hitchens. In other words, Hitchens is trying to score goals, while Blair appears to adopt a posture of defending his goal. In that sense, I can understand why the 2700 voted as they did.

Having said that, I am not too bothered with the numbers. The figures simply reflect the state of the culture, and the perception of the content in the debates. For me, Blair makes a lot of sense. He is measured and supports his arguments with coherent data, religious thought, and diplomatic gracefulness. Hitchens on the other hand, is a no-holds-barred anti-religious war machine, using all kinds of material as weapons, including the selective use of religious material taken out of context.

My verdict: Blair's arguments appear more sound, and considered. Hitchens makes a lot of noise, and his arguments sound angry. Those who are trained in Bible studies, and reading religious material in their respective contexts will agree with Blair.

p/s: You can download the debate transcripts here, after registering an account.

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