Here is the transcript of the debate between Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens on the motion, “Be it resolved, religion is a force for good in the world”.
It is being said that after-event polling suggests that Mr. Hitchens demolished Mr. Blair with the audience attending.
The form of the proposition was unfortunate, since it led Blair to emphasize the good works that people inspired by religion do. This argument from religion-driven altruism is weak for many reasons. It allowed Hitchens to reply in several ways at once. He pointed out that lots of people help others from motives of human decency rather than hope of heaven or fear of hell, and that such unvarnished altruism is better than the one galvanized by hellfire. In essence, he argued, that it is all very well if religious people help others. But secularists help others as well, so we don’t need religion for the good and would be better off without it given the bad it brings in its train.
On the other hand, Hitchens says, religious people are often fanatics and are always condemning unbelievers to eternal damnation and demanding that everyone else agree with them, so that they do a great deal of harm–even to the extent of wars and massacres, over their doctrines. So, if religion is not necessary as a motive for altruism, wouldn’t it be better just to have the innocuous humanist do-gooders who are unburdened by the dark side, of religious fanaticism and bigotry?
Blair never really succeeded in answering this argument, and just went on giving examples of the good works done by religious people he has encountered in various parts of the world. (Sociologists of religion don’t generally find that religious people are in fact more altruistic than the general population. They just seem more self-disciplining, denying themselves pleasures in which the non-religious are happy to partake).
Blair advanced other arguments for religion. He said that many believers saw it as a framework within which they could realize themselves. He cited the example of Jesus Christ as a role model in life. And he pushed back against the image of religious people as all a bunch of foaming-at-the-mouth Inquisitors, saying that some disputes are unlikely to be resolved unless the religious play a central role in their resolution. He gave the example of the disposition of Jerusalem.
Hitchens was amused at the idea that we need religious leaders to resolve disputes such as Israel-Palestine or Northern Ireland, since it was the religious leaders who made those conflicts so intractable in the first place.
Hitchens did not reply directly to the other points Blair made, about religion as a way of self-realization or about the salutary effect if a person adopts an exemplary personality such as Jesus of Nazareth as a role model. (It might be objected that Jesus can only be imperfectly known from the Gospels, which depict him in cryptic and self-contradictory ways. Did he teach turning the other cheek, or did he say he brought not peace but a sword? ) Hitchens, in response, simply blamed religion for being superstitious, irrational, overbearing and producing bad public policy. He gave the example of the harm the Catholic Church did in opposing condoms as a means of battling the AIDS epidemic.
So, I agree that Blair made a bad showing. Religion for him seems to be sort of missionary medicine, urban Catholic schools, some religious dialogue sessions, and some homilies on the virtues of Jesus. It struck me as a sort of social gospel lite. It also seemed to me to have something in it that was patronizing toward the poor of the global South.
Blair caught one break, in that any other debater than Hitchens would probably have thrown in his face his partnering with Bush to destroy Iraq. That poor country has lost hundreds of thousands of lives, seen 4 million displaced (out of 28 million!), seen jobs and livelihoods disappear, and has lost most of its middle class, now laboring in slums under militia rule. Since Hitchens has himself never come to terms with the epochal calamity he helped visit on that country, he held Blair harmless on that issue. Interestingly, Hitchens displays exactly that disregard for the suffering of ordinary people in the service of an abstract principle (overthrowing tyranny, I suppose) of which he accuses the religious. He did take pleasure in pointing out to Blair that Pope John Paul II strongly opposed the Iraq War
Although Blair put up a weak defense of religion, apparently because he is as superficial as he seems on television, Hitchens’s arguments were full of holes as well.
Hitchens blames religion for virtually all social conflict, which is weird. In his book, he blames religion for the guerrilla war in the 1980s-1990s between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government. But while it is true that Tamils are Hindus and the government represents the Theravadin Buddhist Sinhalese, it is also true that the Tamil Tigers were a secular, Marxist organization that hardly acted in the name of Siva! In this debate he blamed the violence attending the break-up of Yugoslavia on religion, whereas almost nobody involved was actually religious. Serbs, Bosnians and Croats speak virtually the same language, and the only difference among them is that Serbs have an Eastern Orthodox heritage, Bosnians a Muslim one and Croats a Catholic one. But these are latent markers of identity in today’s southern Balkans, functioning to create a vague ethnicity. Slobodan Milosevic was a nationalist entrepreneur who thought there was power to be had by whipping up a Serbian chauvinism. But really, religion was irrelevant except as a stage prop.
And, Hitchens does not have a good response to the enormity of the evil done by secular leaders such as Stalin or Mao. While the death tolls often attributed to Stalin were inflated by the Cold War (you can’t actually blame him for slaughters of Russians committed by the Nazis), he probably was responsible for 10 million deaths. Mao’s Great Leap Forward was implicated in a famine that killed 3 million, not to mention all the lives and livelihoods destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. Yet both Stalin and Mao were resolutely secular individuals who actively combated religion and religious belief. (Stalin sent the Komsomol debaters to Uzbekistan to argue the Muslims there out of their faith, in which they appear to have had a good deal of success). So the argument that religion causes people to become fanatical and to harm large numbers of others could be countered by an argument that secular people have also exhibited large-scale bloody-mindedness. My guess is that the secular killed far more people in the 20th century than did the religious.
The best argument for religion might be that there is no secular reason for which to forgive either of these two for following George W. Bush around like puppies and assenting to his illegal war and occupation of a country that had attacked neither the US nor the UK. But the religions teach that neither of them is beyond redemption, and that the rest of us should worry about our own imperfections rather than obsessing about the foibles of others. But then, as Hitchens points out, the actually-existing believers in the religions seldom achieve that blessed state of minding their own business so often recommended to them by the great religious Teachers.
Hitchens has esophageal cancer, and he is fighting the good fight, needing some miracle in which he doesn’t believe and is unlikely to get. You have to respect him for sticking to his principles in the face of the imminent Great Void. Me, I hope he gets his miracle, so that we can go on arguing with him. On matters of principle.