Ex-British PM, Hitchens take debate to a higher plane

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, left, and author Christopher Hitchens pose ahead of their debate on religion in Toronto

From the outset, it did not look good for the champion of religious faith, as former British prime minister Tony Blair and author, skeptic and professional oppositionist Christopher Hitchens debated the question: is religion a force for good in the world?

Blair, who wrote in his recent memoir that he has always been more interested in religion than politics, took the view that it is a force for good. Hitchens, who has advanced esophageal cancer and scheduled his chemotherapy around Friday’s debate, not surprisingly, argued otherwise.

A poll of audience members attending the Munk Debates at Roy Thomson Hall – they had to pass protesters who chanted that Blair (who brought Britain into the Iraq war) was a “war criminal” — showed only 22 per cent supported the motion, 57 per cent opposed, while 21 per cent were undecided. Some 75 per cent said they were willing to be persuaded one way or the other.

Poor Blair.

He was earnest, and much like a good shepherd, presented faith as a benign force, one that would unite the people of the world to work together for the common good. Think of the work health care provided by Catholics, Muslims and others religious groups. The essence of faith, he said is experienced in serving a loving God and fellow human beings.

He agreed that terrible things have been done in the name of religion – but if the world was rid of it, would evil not endure? “Would fanaticism be gone?”

Hitchens, pale, strong voiced and the crowd’s favourite, used a sharper weapon – his erudition and contrarian wit. He said he knew charity would be part of Blair’s argument.

“The cure for poverty has a name,” Hitchens said. “It is called empowerment of women!” There was great applause.

He too, values charitable work. “My money always goes to Médecins Sans Frontières and Oxfam . . . who go out in the world and do good for their fellow creatures for their own sake. They don’t take a Bible along.”

Then there were the metaphysical arguments. Blair talked movingly about transcendence and how, through the practice of faith, believers experience humility, obligation and compassion.

Hitchens countered that belief in angels, miracles, the afterlife, all that is supernatural, demands too much of a sacrifice of intellectual freedom. He could not, it was clear, stand to be part of any flock, to be any kind of sheep.

One question from the audience, which included a former Prime Minister and former Ontario premier, a Nobel Prize winner – it was a high brow crowd – was political and one many were curious about. What part did his faith play in Blair’s decision to enter the war on Iraq?

“What faith can do is tell you what is right . . . (And) give you the strength to do it. It was not about religious faith,” he said. Religion “defines you as a human being, it doesn’t do the policy answers. They were decisions based on policy, ones I genuinely believed to be right.”

The evening ended with an exit poll. Did views change in the course of the two hour debate? They did. The audience at Roy Thomson Hall — the debate was also aired online — voted 32 per cent in support of Blair’s argument and 68 per cent for Hitchens.

Hitchens has written that he is not anticipating a death-bed or earlier conversion. He has had many “tender” offers of prayer. His response has been: “Praying for what?”

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