Blair, Hitchens and the Munk debate about religion

By Dennis Gruending

update_aa.jpgThe much-anticipated Munk Centre debate in Toronto between former Prime Minister Tony Blair and writer Christopher Hitchens has come and gone. A sell out crowd of about 2600 people paid up to $500 each to sit in plush seats at Roy Thomson Hall and hear the two debate whether religion is a force for good in the world. The adversaries were civil to one another inside the hall, while out in the streets about 60 protesters braved the cold to criticize Blair’s support, while he was prime minister, of an American led invasion of Iraq. “Don’t fete him, arrest him,” one woman was quoted as saying about Blair. The event was widely covered, especially by the British media, including the BBC and The New Statesman, which also provides a full video and print transcript on its website.

“Once you assume a creator and a plan, it makes us objects, in a cruel experiment, whereby we are created sick, and commanded to be well,” Hitchens began. “And over us, to supervise this, is installed a celestial dictatorship, a kind of divine North Korea … Salvation is offered at the low price of the surrender of your critical faculties.” That got a laugh. Blair later responded, “I do not consider the leader of North Korea a religious icon.”

Blair began his presentation in a more qualified way than Hitchens. “It is undoubtedly true that people commit horrific acts of evil in the name of religion,” he said. “It is also undoubtedly true that people do acts of extraordinary common good inspired by religion. Almost half the healthcare in Africa is delivered by faith-based organisations, saving millions of lives. A quarter of worldwide HIV/AIDS care is provided by Catholic organisations. There is the fantastic work of Muslims and Jewish relief organisations . . . So the proposition that religion is unadulterated poison is unsustainable. It can be destructive, it can also create a deep well of compassion, and frequently does.”

Blair, of course, shocked many by converting to Catholicism in 2007, shortly after he stepped down as prime minister in Great Britain. He has created a foundation that seeks to close rifts between the world’s dominant faiths. Hitchens, an atheist, wrote a book called, God Is Not Great, in which he elaborated on why he finds religion a superstitious and destructive force.

A post-debate vote showed either that Hitchens had won, or perhaps, in the words of a British reporter for The New Statesman that “Toronto is a rather secular place.” Sixty-eight per cent opposed the resolution that religion is a force for good in the world and 32 per cent supported it. Hitchens probably had the easier task because, as the same British reporter wrote: “It is just much easier to highlight all the bad things humans have done in the name of religion – and even get some laughs – than it is to explain the good faith can do, to individual souls as well as the world.”

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Dennis

Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based writer, blogger and a former member of Parliament

3 thoughts on “Blair, Hitchens and the Munk debate about religion”

  1. You have it right Dennis. The real debate is between those on the inside of Roy Thompson Hall and those protesting on the outside. Religion is a force for good when it demands justice from those in power instead of charity. Blair is defending the kind of religion that is the opiate of the masses. But there is another message in the Scriptures that opposes playing church while doing evil:
    15 When you spread out your hands in prayer,
    I hide my eyes from you;
    even when you offer many prayers,
    I am not listening.

    17 Learn to do right; seek justice.
    Defend the oppressed.[a]
    Take up the cause of the fatherless;
    plead the case of the widow.

    18 “Come now, let us settle the matter,”
    says the LORD.
    “Though your sins are like scarlet,
    they shall be as white as snow;
    though they are red as crimson,
    they shall be like wool.

  2. As I watched this debate it seemed to me that the two debaters were not addressing the same issue. Blair stuck closest to the resolution that religion in balance was a force for good in the world while Hitchens reiterated the same comments he has made over and over in the past that deny the possibility of the existence of God or if He does exist he has no interest in the welfare of mankind. Blair was eloquent and sincere. Hitchens,while undoubtedly equally sincere, chose to be the stand-up comedian, to the delight of a youthful audience. Consequently I was disappointed that there was no real debate and important issues were not really discussed in the way they deserve to be explored.

  3. This was hardly a debate Hitchen’s just repeated what he always says, people of faith are stupid, yawn. I was unaware that Blair switched to the Catholic faith. That said perhaps it understandable, after all the path to ‘forgiveness’ for his part in launching war, is relatively straight forward and convenient, i.e he can just say a hundred, in his case maybe a thousand, Hail Marys make a few strategic donations and be done with it. And imagine he never has to say he was wrong for his support of war as a solution. He never has to question or even have doubts as to the status-quo. That said he was definitely the “winner” of this so-called debate. Of course one has to first look past the hypocrisy of the man.

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