Debate on the Value of Religion

An Impressionistic Review of the Debate
between Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchins.

My wife Ruth and I want to thank Deon Ramgoolam for making available to us two tickets to the Munk Debate at Roy Thomson Hall on Friday, November 27, 2010. They were selling from between $50 and $80 apiece, and scalpers were apparently offering them for $150 apiece. Recipients of this email may be interested in what happened, although there has been extensive press coverage of the event not only in the Toronto area but also through the Internet on MunkDebates and BBC World. We were planning to watch the debate on the Internet, Ruth admiring Blair, the undersigned admiring Hitchins. Instead we were “part of the event.” Our seats were first-balcony centre, ideal!

It was a sold-out house with an audience of well-dressed, middle-aged, professional-looking men and women ranging from youngish to oldish. There were protestors out front to draw attention to Tony Blair’s complicity in Iraq. Nobody was protesting the presence of Christopher Hitchens. Security people and police officers were everywhere and everyone was “wanded” as he or she entered the foyer. Purses were cursorily examined. This meant that the proceedings commenced at 7:20 p.m. rather than at seven o’clock. The evening lasted to nine-twenty.

Events were well organized. Projected on two giant overhead screens were quotations from the writings of the speakers: provocative remarks in red by Hitchins, placatory ones by Blair in blue. Peter Munk, gold-mine speculator and philanthropist (and the local George Soros) and benefactor of the Munk Centre, spoke about the need for debate and discussion on a high level. He rambled. Ruth remarked to me that he is used to people listening to every word. He was followed by Rudyard Griffith, whose Dominion Institute has done good work drawing history to the attention of Canadians, who acted as moderator. He is a clone of Trudeau’s sons, He explained the format of the debate and introduced the two speakers, both of whom were casually dressed.

Hitchins is quite unwell. He coughed, touched his nose, drank glasses of water, and touched the crown of his bald head. It was announced that the diagnosis was esophagal cancer. Ruth said Blair has “kept in trim” but I felt he was as emaciated as a Christian saint. We both sympathized with the effect that Hitchins was making. His voice was as firm and growly as ever.

The advance ballot in the foyer established that about 60% of audience members disagreed with the resolution “Be it resolved, religion is a force for good in the world.” In other words, they were with Hitchins and atheism (or humanism, as Hutchins called it), and against what Blair called “people of faith.” About 15% of respondees claimed that they had not made up their minds.

There is no point in covering the debate in any detail. Hitchins argued with specific instances that many of the world’s most pressing problems yesterday and today were and are caused by religion. Blair’s defence was that problems were caused by people, some of whom professed a specific faith but others who admitted to no religious beliefs whatsoever. He added that it was necessary for “people of faith” to deal with this problem. Hitchins noted that this had not been done in the past and present-day events showed that the situation was getting worse. Blair referred to his success in Northern Ireland, building a “bridge” between the Catholics and the Protestants, but Hitchins dismissed this out of hand saying the believers had caused the problem in the first place.

For his part Hitchins concurred that the world would never be free of “noxious” religions, and this gave Blair the opportunity to reiterate his mission for “believers” to set the scales right. Hitchins admitted to the existence of a sense of “the transcendental” or “ecstasy” that is “above and beyond matter” but saw it as the outgrowth of humanism, not superstition.

The two speakers had sentiments in common. Both of them favoured British trades unions and the invasion of Iraq. Blair wanted to rid the world of dictators. Hitchins felt the invasion was a good thing if only because all the organized religions were against the invasion.

I felt that Blair was delivering sermons, but Ruth suggested that his outpourings were lectures. If the latter, they were unstructured. Yet he is the master of the evangelical appeal. Hitchins drives a “demolition derby” and has not lost his patented sarcastic edge when drawing attention to the abuses of religion. The man is quite brilliant, so brilliant that he seems vindictive, whereas the former U.K. prime minister is so diplomatic that he will call a toad “a species of amphibian.”

In a nutshell, Blair appealed to the heart and soul, Hitchins to the head and hands. I have no doubt Blair is capable of being “bloody”; Hitchins is willing to “think dirty” and probably “act dirty.” In all, despite Blair’s involvement in “peace negotiations” in the Middle East, Hitchins has a better grasp of the situation in that part of the world and in the mind-set of the Muslim fundamentalists and terrorists.

There were some poorly phrased questions from the audience but one excellent one in the form of a request: “I would like each speaker to summarize the best point of his opponent.” It was here that Hitchins admitted that religion will not disappear tomorrow and that it is up to the Christians and others to stand up for decency. Then Blair admitted to the abuses committed “in the name of religion” but not, at first, conceding that they were really “religious abuses.” This gave Hitchins the opening he needed to point out that the abuses arose directly from “the scriptures,” a point Blair reluctantly embraced. I felt the Blair was being politic on purpose, Hitchins impolitic by nature. I noticed that Blair would applaud Hitchins’ presentations, whereas Hitchins merely rocked in his chair as if biding his time.

The audience would break out in applause now and then, generally louder for the critic and crowd-pleaser (Hitchins) than for the believer and appeaser (Blair). Another ballot, an exit poll, established that those people who were against the resolution – i.e., they felt religion was not a force for the good – had “won” the debate. That is, about 61% now favoured Hitchins’ argument. This was an increase of 1%.

It was hardly “the debate of the century” but it did raise most of the issues that arise between credulists and sceptics, between in this instance a moderate believer and an I’ve-had-enough critic.

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