By Dennis Gruending
The 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.”