Blair, Hitchens Debate Religion

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 53 Responses | Print |

53 Responses

  1. I’m not sure the argument you present is much better, Professor. While secular tyrants have inflicted much death and suffering, secularism itself is not at fault (I hope we agree). Secularism or even atheism has no holy book or heavenly commands, whatever evil is inflicted by a secular person is attributable only to the inherent nature of the person. Him/her being secular is as relevant as Hitler being vegetarian.

    On the other hand, while one can definitely say some of the evil perpetrated by religious fanatics is due to the qualities of the fanatics, it’s certainly true that other parts are attributable to religion. Saudi Arabia wouldn’t kill apostates if the Hadeeth didn’t command it, and IRan wouldn’t stone people if the Qur’an didn’t require it.

    I wouldn’t caricature religion by blaming every evil on it as Hitchens often does, but it’s certainly true that were to disappear tomorrow, quite a handsome amount of evil would also suddenly disappear. Whereas if atheism was to disappear, those already inclined to do evil would do evil, and those already inclined to do good would do good.

    • Which is pretty much the case already. Some learn certain things from their mothers and teachers, seed in fertile soil as it were, and others — well, the parable is found in most of the major religious traditions.

  2. There was no demolition. Post-polling skewed in favor of Hitch because pre-polling skewed in his favor. And each man took the same share of those who were undecided in pre-polling. Hitch took most of the applause, but of course this was from an audience that mostly agreed with him. And much of Hitch’s applause came because of his marvelous delivery – something perhaps few other speakers could match.

    There was also no demolition because ther resolution was designed to ensure there could be none. What an ungracious thing to do – to host a debate designed to ensure that one of its participants would ultimately be fed to the lions waiting for it online! I don’t think so. The resolution didn’t propose that god exists, or that we are better off with religion. It asked whether it is a force for good. The answer is obviously yes. And no.

    It was a lovely conversation between two accomplished men. Unforgettable, actually. Rather unlike this blog post.

  3. It doesnt seem “demolished” is the right word, since they rather evenly split the undecideds. In any case a sad debate between two deeply insincere and unreflective men. The religion versus reason/atheism/science discussion is generally an abuse of reason all around.

    • “In any case a sad debate between two deeply insincere and unreflective men.”

      Murderers and destroyers of nations debating values of any kind is ironic, but mostly an insult to the intelligence of the audience. Next week, Noriega on democracy.

      • “Murderers and destroyers of nations”

        Iraq was without doubt a mistake however i would consider tony blairs other military interventions overall just, such as sierra leone, kosovo and afghanistan.

        Its also good to see a proper estimate of stalins acts, 10 million is bad enough without putting forth clearly false claims like 60 million which ive seen on a number of occassions.

  4. Mr. Blair is an intellectual lightweight. He had no business being on the same stage with Mr. Hitchens. Of course Mr. Htichens made mince meat out of Blair.

  5. IMO both the religious and secular rest on and are interpreted by prevailing social values which are, in turn, modified and conditioned by the prevailing economic situation as noted by Robert Wright in “The Evolution of God.”

    The attempt to conclude that one thing or the other is the sole reason is an indication of an infantile dichotomy as noted by Louise Kaplan in “female perversions” or Lack of Requisite Variety as laid out by David Andrews in “The IRG Solution.”

  6. Seriously? Blair? One of the two former worldleaders of the last decade worse than Bin Laden in his actions tries to defend religion? How else was it going to end?

  7. The Wikipedia entries have it right on the Great Chinese Famine (which Amartya Sen, among others has written about*) between 1958-1961: “Unofficial estimates vary, but scholars have estimated the number of famine victims to be between 20 and 43 million. [….] Researchers outside China…generally agree that massive institutional and policy changes which accompanied the Great Leap Forward were the key factors in the famine.”

    The most recent work: “Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–62, is a 2010 book by Frank Dikötter, Chair Professor of Humanities at the University of Hong Kong and Professor of the Modern History of China from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

    Based on recently released Chinese provincial, county and city archives, the book constructs ‘the most detailed account yet’ of the experiences of the Chinese people during the Great Chinese Famine of 1958–62, which occurred under the Communist regime of Mao Zedong. The book supports an estimate of ‘at least’ 45 million premature deaths in China during the famine years, including some two to three million victims of political repression.”

    In the twentieth century at least, famines are clearly “man-made” disasasters in the strongest sense of that phrase and thus politically and morally inexcusable. The Chinese regime bears full responsibility in this case.

    *As for basic literature on the subject: Amartya Sen’s Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (1981), Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen, Hunger and Public Action (1989), and Jean Dreze, Amartya Sen and Athar Hussain, eds., The Political Economy of Hunger: Selected Essays (1995).

    And you’re right, the greatest horrors of the twentieth century were not, at bottom, religious in nature but owing to various political and ethno-nationalist ideologies, indeed, even where religion is an important variable it is arguable whether or not it is a prime causal factor or simply indicative of the individual and collective identities of parties to a conflict that is, in the first instance, about land, self-determination, political representation, and so forth.

  8. Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens “debate religion?” T’would seem the equally warmongering duo might prefer ‘debating’ hypocrisy and the question “might genocide be construed to be immoral.”

  9. The main problem with religion is that its account of reality is unfounded and preposterous.

    There are countless religions. Each of them has a different version of the makeup of the same universe, so only one of them could be correct. Far more likely, they are all erroneous, because each purports to speak authoritatively about a period of time and an alleged realm of being for which they can present no evidence.

    Thought control is odious, so we should fight for freedom of religion, but it should be exercised in private, not in the public sphere. I have the right to believe that 2 + 2 = 5, but I don’t have the right to be chair of the math department.

    The world is faced with critical problems which require rational solutions. People who insist on indulging in magical thinking should agree to sit at the children’s table when the adults are discussing public policy.

  10. “And, Hitchens does not have a good response to the enormity of the evil done by secular leaders such as Stalin or Mao.”

    What a ridiculous counter argument. The evil done in the Crusades, the Inquisition, and countless other slaughters were done IN THE NAME OF RELIGION. Stalin and Mao happened to be secular leaders, but what they did was not done in the name of being secular. To conflate the two would require you to argue that Stalin and Mao did what they did BECAUSE they were secular leaders.

    Religious apologists do make this claim, btw, but there is very little (or no) evidence to support it.

    • The war in Iraq was in the name of freedom. Nazi expansionism was in the name of the Aryan race. Soviet expansionism into Central Asia was in the name of Communism, and class revolution. Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward was in the name of progress. Is evil in the name of God different?

      Men are, and will do, evil in the name of real and imaginary causes. To blame religion is to disacknowledge our own evil.

  11. Blair seems to have lost the debate but, as a former debater myself, I know that the winner or loser of a debate has little to do with the subject matter and everything to do with the verbal skills of the participants. In fact, I won debates more easily when I was arguing the side of a debate that I did not believe, because it enabled me to focus more clearly on the subject and on presentation of logic. Tony Blair has far poorer verbal presentation skill than Hitchens, so I would be astonished if he did not come out on the short end of the stick.

    You point out the arguement of good works by religionists does not validate religion as a force for good because non-religious also do good work, but that is a comparative argumative, which would score negatively in a formal debate. The fact that other groups are going good does not have anything to do with the fact that religious groups are doing good; a group doing good is a force for good. The postulate is not that religion is necessary for there to be good work, only that it constitutes a force for good, which can be illustrated by it doing good and is not diminished by other forces also doing good. Blair, naturally, did a poor job of making that point.

    The argument of bad work by religion is actually irrelevant to the debate as stated, since the postulate did not state that it was a force exclusively for good, but again the fact that bad work is done by others, by non-religious groups, is comparative and not actually pertinent to the subject being debated.

    I know, debate coaches used to absolutely infuriate me, too.

  12. Upon reflection, I withdraw my statement about the “bad work argument” being irrelevant. If Hitchens could demonstrate that religion did more harm than good, then he could invalidate the debate postulate, since “net good” would be implied in the statement, but that would be a stiff burden. Even so, the comparative argument of non-religious groups doing bad work would be irrelevant.

  13. All religions being human constructions, seems to me that all are fundamentally flawed fictions.

    • Oh, no sir — MY religion was divinely revealed to me directly by God Herself! To oppose that TRUTH is BLASPHEMY!

  14. What about all of the deaths attributable to capitalism’s normal, profitable operation? If we’re attributing 13,000,000 deaths to socialism or socialists and others to religion, surely we can come up with figures for capitalism.

    A good argument can be made the deaths from the war in Iraq can be attributable to capitalism. It’s been asserted one of the reasons for this unprovoked, illegal war of aggression is the exploitation of Iraq’s oil resources by capitalist corporations. What capitalist corporations are now allowed to “develop” Iraq’s oil fields? From the AP, “The 8.6 billion barrel field, which is being developed by a consortium grouping Exxon Mobil and Shell, was among those awarded by Iraq during one its first international oil licensing rounds last year and is seen as a key part of the country’s drive to boost overall output of a resource on which it relies for 95 percent of its foreign revenues.”

    Another example is a Harvard-based study published in the American Journal of Public Health estimates that 45,000 yearly deaths in the US are associated with no health insurance. Health care is a commodity like any other. One implication of a commodity’s exchange value’s importance for capitalist producers is that if one doesn’t have the money to purchase it, e.g., health care, then one doesn’t receive it.

    The same is true for food, shelter, clothing and so on. Clearly, there is enough food produced in the world so that everyone can have enough to eat and there has been for a long time. How many starvation deaths around the world each year could be prevented if people didn’t have to buy food, as in capitalism, but received it because they were human beings?

    People surely wouldn’t be so indifferent to or content with the current economic system if all the deaths occurring because of it were clearly attributed to it. How many lives of men, woman and children in the US are being irreparably harmed due to the approximately 25 million adults being unemployed, underemployed and not counted as unemployed (marginally attached), even though they are jobless? For some reason it’s a “crisis” when financial capitalists risk not being repaid as is the case in Ireland now, but their livelihoods aren’t endangered; where it’s not the same with unemployed workers, whose lives are literally at risk.

    When and where is this debate?

  15. “The form of the proposition was unfortunate, since it led Blair to emphasize the good works that people inspired by religion do.”

    Yeah, that was a no-win scenario for him. Blair himself has done some very bad things inspired religion himself, so any preaching on this topic would sound extremely hollow.

  16. Interesting write-up. But the way I see it religious morality is far superior to atheistic morality. When we advocate democracy which is a form of governance that is representative and accountable then we also need an ethical system in which individuals are held accountable not only for their actions but also for their intentions and thoughts. All ethical system based on atheistic-materialism deal solely with one’s actions. It is said that actions are judged by their legality or illegality and emotions such as shame and benevolence have no place in modern morality.

    Secondly, when we talk about altruism there are only two ways of inculcating altruism in individuals. One is religion and other is the institution of family. And both of these institutions are threatened by modernity, urbanization, individualism, atheistic-materialism, existentialism and hedonism. Men are selfish, greedy, insensitive and bigoted by nature. Education can alter this nature to some extent but without religion and the love and sympathy of our parents I don’t see how it can be achieved even in Plato’s academia? Assuming that I am an atheistic-materialist how can someone convince me rationally that I should help others? I will always look for my self-interest first and foremost. If the interests of others or society coincide with my interests then we don’t have a problem but whenever there is a conflict of interest then I will behave like Neo who saved the love of his life instead of saving the Zion (mankind) in the movie Matrix. Without involving the God, afterlife and accountability in the hereafter there is no rational way of convincing me that I should help others who will in turn help others and it will become an infinite loop without any defined purpose or meaning.

    All this rant is completely a hypothetical scenario and I really don’t believe in a word of what I’ve written above :)

    • “Men are selfish, greedy, insensitive and bigoted by nature.”

      And thus by nature they create biased belief systems to ennoble these behaviors. No one can be trusted. Even worse, when exceptional individuals like the Buddha or Jesus come along and try to reverse these evil belief systems, their prescriptions are quickly overcome by the hypocrisy of their followers. The more beautiful the vision of harmony and justice, the more brutal the betrayal, which is why Christ’s followers have enslaved several continents and annihilated hundreds of native cultures.

  17. Hitchins could have accounted for Mao and Stalin (and also Milton Friedman) by pointing out that “believing in religion” is catastrophic in that it is an instance of the more fundamental evil of “believing religiously”. Trust in science is essentially different, because all it takes a physicist to trash the big and mighty Theory of Relativity is a sound mathematical argument or a few disproving experimental results. There is nothing “sacred” about anything in science. I think man stepped onto the slippery slope the moment he acquired the capacity to conceive/invent the notion of sanctity.

    Atheism, in as much as it revolves around a core belief (god does NOT exist), is itself prone to the same theoretical flaws. The correct attitude toward religion is to render it irrelevant by learning to ignore it categorically. “Religious Beliefs” should not be a field in say your Facebook profile if “Favorite Pencil Brand” or “Opinion about the taste of Tequila” aren’t, and as long as it is, the answer should be “N/A”.


    • “Atheism, in as much as it revolves around a core belief (god does NOT exist), is itself prone to the same theoretical flaws. ”

      Atheism is the lack of belief in the existence of a diety, not the active belief that such a diety does not, for a certainty, exist. There is no core belief of atheism… frankly even calling it an “ism” is questionable.

      And don’t get me started on what agnosticism is. (It is NOT some imaginary middle ground between theism and atheism!)

  18. Bliar the war criminal representing Christian ethics? Someone must have wanted the outcome rigged…like the intelligence was manipulated to justify the pre-ordained invasion.

  19. Watson: >> I have the right to believe that 2 + 2 = 5, but I don’t have the right to be chair of the math department.

    Wrong. 2+2=4 is not just true but normatively so. In fact, you have no right to believe 2+2=5. You may choose to do so, but a right entails the freedom to do so without retribution. But society will punish you if you believe 2+2=5. For example, try and take the SAT and see how colleges will admit you.

  20. Raed: >> While secular tyrants have inflicted much death and suffering, secularism itself is not at fault (I hope we agree).

    Perhaps, but you have no argument. Like Karamazov, some will say that “If God doesn’t exist, everything is permitted.” For your point to hold, therefore, you need to show that, had they been religious, Hitler, Stalin, et co, would not have been more restrained. Or you can show that, without Christianity, the Enlightenment would have happened anyway (few scholars would agree). Or that the Saudis would be better behaved without Islam, etc. If you don’t address these issues, you have no point.

    • Arguments of this sort never work out. There is no telling of how things might have turned out if this or that didn’t happen, especially when the “if” part happens to be “assume there was no Christianity”. However, what can be said is that observing the reality on the ground there are many things that are carried out in Saudi Arabia or by the Catholic church that are clearly because of Islam and Christianity (apostasy being one).

      Moreover, if you believe that without God everything would be permitted, then that’s only more evidence to how religions degrade one’s moral judgment. Do you honestly believe that if you stopped believing in religion you would start raping and killing? People have a sense of decency entirely external to religion. The point is that religion often neutralizes that sense in favor of divine commands that are evil.

  21. “Mao’s Great Leap Forward was implicated in a famine that killed 3 million”

    You might add:
    Thabo Mbeki’s Aids policies are implicated in the deaths of 3 million

    Pope John Paul II’s policies on the use of condoms are implicated in the deaths of 3 million.

    It is so lazy to use the unintended deaths resulting from mistaken policies in order to smear one group (in this case the Chinese).

  22. Hitchens is wrong about Iraq. But I do hope that he gets his miracle. The world will be a poorer place, without his voice.

  23. “And, Hitchens does not have a good response to the enormity of the evil done by secular leaders such as Stalin or Mao.”

    Stalin and Mao were evil people indeed. The only thing wrong with this is that their evil deeds were not done in the name of secularism. They did not use secularism as a justification. Anyone can learn the beliefs of Atheists in 3 seconds. Non Belief. It ends there. He would be the first to admit there are evil secularists as well.

    • Sorry for being a bit of a nag here, but you’re answering the wrong question. The debate is not whether secularism is a force for evil but whether religion is a force for good. (These are not complementary propositions.) Secularism is not on trial here: religion is. So to rebut Prof. Cole’s argument, you need to show that he has not argued successfully that Stalin would not have behaved worse had he been religious. But since Stalin was close to being the ultimate monster, Prof. Cole is almost certainly correct. In other words, this is not a line of reasoning you’re likely to win.

      That the Crusaders did evil things in the name of religion does not by itself contradict the proposition that religion is a force for good. What if the Crusaders had done much worse things without religion? The history of conquest is that religion is usually not needed for it. Napoleon didn’t need religion to invade the Middle East: he only needed the evil Brits. So again my point is, yes, perhaps religion is not a force for good. But no one who disagrees with Prof. Cole here has even begun to make that case.

      • Religion CAN be a force of good, but at what cost?

        How many moral acts does the Catholic Church need to perform to repent for the systematic rape and torture of children that has been going on for centuries?

        How many good deeds need to be performed to repent for the Africans who die each year from HIV because missionaries preach condoms are bad.

        How about denying equality for homosexuals?

        How about the denial of global warming?

        I’m sorry but I don’t think morals can come from religion and if any passage that comes from religious texts can be seen as providing moral guidance, its by accident.

      • “So to rebut Prof. Cole’s argument, you need to show that he has not argued successfully that Stalin would not have behaved worse had he been religious.”

        No… if Stalin would not have behaved worse had he been religious then all we would have, assuming you could actually somehow determine such a thing, is one single example in which religion would have been irrelevent. How exactly is that accomplishing anything as an argument in favor of the proposition that religion is a net force for good? And how does it act as a counter-point to the clear examples where religion certainly was a force for evil?

    • I always wonder when people defend secularism/atheism in this way. If atheism stands for “non-belief”, then surely they would not say they did it for “non-belief”. They would do it for something else besides God. Isn’t that the whole appoint of secular and atheist tyrants throughout history? Whether it be to make themselves Gods on Earth as it were, since they don’t believe in any other God, or to expand their empire and have total domination? That’s what’s meant with secular and atheist tyrants throughout history I believe They are not driven by God and even reject God numerous times but their world view allows them to see themselves as the ultimate authority over everything in their country and possibly beyond and they seek to acquire as much power as possible, trying to emulate that which they deny.

  24. Enjoyed your analysis very much.
    Tamil Tigers example was a very good one. Religion, as you have put it, have been used by a lot of people, Seeta (Hindu Goddess) was kidnaped by someone disguised as a priest, Muhammad bin Qasim, Tariq Bin Ziyad terrorized peole in Sindh and Spain in the name of religion, Khumaini’s vilayet e faqhi argument brought about “revolution” in iran, Karbala, etc etc. Religion is silent and has been used by coarcive rulers, politicians, leaders for a long time.
    I heard a lecture by Robert Pape who goes to extreme lengths in explaining how suicide bombing is a secular phenomenon, contrary to popular belief.

  25. let us not forget that stalin,in his youth was a priest in training…he often said that this was good preperation for his later career.

  26. Hitler and Stalin were both religious. Hitler was a Catholic and Stalin a seminarian, who at the end of his life, his guards revealed, spent about an hour a day in prayer. This shows that being a good or bad leader has nothing to do with religion — as both Dante and Machiavelli stressed.

  27. I don’t think these kinds of debates are useful. Is religion a force for good? It depends on the person. If you don’t believe in God, you have no experience with religion, so in reality you have no chance of saying it’s a force for good. That would be Hitchens. He’s simply ignorant, despite how intellectually gifted he is. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Maybe he’ll find out soon. As for Blair, I wouldn’t want to listen to him talk about faith. It’s like George W. Bush. These politicians who launch unjust wars and then have no regrets shouldn’t even mention their belief in God. They give it a bad name. Thanks for your summary here, Professor Cole.

    • Or, they give religion an accurate name: reactionary self-justification. Which is why I gave up not only on Baptism but on Baptism’s racist, greedy, war-loving God. I don’t know where Hitchens got his beliefs, but once I began to doubt the fascistic absolutism that such a religion requires, I had no place to go but all the way to the other side to call it out as an evil.

    • I think you’ll find that Hitchens is far from ignorant about religion. A little study on his life would inform that he was has vast experience with religion, both personal and academically.

  28. A couple of points:

    1) With respect to Islam, the pre-islamic Arabs were doing horrible things such as burying their infant daughters alive! It was only after the Quran was revealed did this practice come to an end. The point is that there are numerous cases of the introduction of Islam leading to the banishment of barbaric practices. Thus, while I am not going to blame atheism for the atrocities of Mao or Stalin, if either of these men followed the Quran in the CORRECT WAY, then they would not have perpetrated such crimes to begin with. I emphasize “CORRECT WAY” because almost all the problems people blame on Islam are not a problem of the message or religion itself, but rather with how people freely choose to practice it. For example, you can look throughout the Quran, and you will never find a passage that tells people to stone an adulterer. Perhaps the oppresion of women in Muslim countries today really is rooted in the pre-Islam Arab culture that lowered the status of women.

    2) I have atheist friends and I know that they do good humanitarian work. I would not argue that you need to be religous in order to do a good deed, because the emperical evidence easily debunks such an argument. However, can we all agree that whether we are atheist or religious, we all are challenged with thoughts of selfishness, lust, greed, anger, or revenge? Perhaps some atheists are strong enough not to give in to such thoughts without the need of a Creator. However, I would submit to you that there is not an insignificant number of fellow human beings who would more easily give in to such temptations were it not for the fear of God or the desire to please their Creator.

    Thus, a more refined argument would be that when religion is followed correctly, it can be a force for good. And when religion is followed incorrectly, it can be fashioned into a tool to commit evil (just like nationalism, tribalism, etc).

  29. I think religion is but one form of mythology that has evolved to organize peoples and nations. If the mythology produces such organization then it survives and may propagate. If the mythology is insufficient to produce such organization then it dwindles.

    Sometimes the organization leads to “good” and sometimes it leads to “bad”. But peoples and nations can be organized about nonreligious myth as well with the same results.

    The trouble with religion is that it is a voracious myth that feeds upon liberty and reality. Will people and nations built upon myth that does not oppose liberty and reality so consequentially as does religion be able to out compete nations built upon religious myth? I think the answer is yes. Religious myth is just too static for such a dynamic modern world.

  30. It is an interesting argument that religious charity is less to be credited, because it is done out of fear or compulsion, and therefore atheistic charity is more to be credited, because it is more altruistic.

    However, I don’t see the relevance to the original point.

  31. Hitchens has too much baggage from the Illegal War he supported.

    Professor Cole,
    I know Sam Harris would willingly engaged with you in an intellectual conversation on the matter if you feel you have arguments that nobody else they have debated has posed to them. I highly recommend his new book “The Moral Landscape.” He gave a talk at tedtalk and you can find him on booktv.

  32. There are two very distinct questions mingled here — only one of which has any kind of answer.

    1. Truth. An unassailable argument against religion is that it depends on propositions that are false, meaningless, or incoherent. It’s just a bad idea, pure and simple, to give up on rationality and on the only methods we’ve ever developed that leads us to facts about the world.

    2. Utility. Has the practice of religion had a net positive or a net negative effect? Is it good or bad, better or worse (than what?)? This question is unanswerable because there’s no measure that can be applied (piling up anecdotes is not a replacement), and because we’re in a forced choice situation where the effects of the choices are unknown and unknowable. Hitchens does no one a favor by fulminating on this almost meaningless question.

  33. Blair, Bush poodle, liar to his own government, the epitomy of smarm: only his own overweening vanity and lust for publicity would lead him into this trashing. As an example of christianity he offers little good. “Blessed are the poor” while Blair travels the globe charging huge fees for his sick message. Hitchins is dying and dying bravely. Blair is dead already in spirit. He just doesn’t know it.

  34. This may be off-topic, but it is often said that people believe in religions to cast others in hell and feel assured of their own salvation. However this does not hold across the religions. In many people’s religions (including my own, Islam) adherents are required to believe in their own potential ability to be punished in Hell.

    Now if, as is often alleged, religion were concocted by humans as a feel-good phenomenon, why would anyone willingly believe in their own capacity to burn in a hellish place for eternity?

    Whether it is from God or concocted by humans, it is this restraining influence, seemingly beyond self-interest (why not evolve a concept of heaven-no-matter-what –you-do?), that is religion’s strength. And we have a saying that Islam is between hope and fear, and whoever unites both wings shall fly. I am not evangelizing here, but merely saying, that many people live their lives between these two poles, and it provides them with a constant reminder that they are heaven-worthy and hell-worthy.

    Hitchens would say that the anecdote to religion is other rational pursuits, like science. The problem of science and its associated concept of progress, is that it has been missing a wing for quite some time in its self-assuredness that it is neutral, etc.. Thus people were blind to how science was used in the service of injustices, i.e., Darwinian survival of the fittest invoked as a justification for the subjugation of “under-evolved” peoples such as Africans. How could morality enter the picture when ever-neutral science was invoked? Religion has a capacity for self-criticism, since contemplation is a fundamental tenet; science does not, because its conclusions are seen as definitive since it is based on natural law (which itself presupposes an order behind everything.)

    In answering the question “how?” science does not answer the question, “why?” It seems to me that to dismiss humans’ fundamental need throughout history to know “why?”—–and to dismiss their varied attempts to answer this—– is to be guilty of the same dogmatism Hitchens so despises.

    • “why would anyone willingly believe in their own capacity to burn in a hellish place for eternity?”

      Hell is a tool to scare people into accepting religion, also those who believe in their religion feel that they are safe and that it is the unbelievers who are going to be tortured for enternity.

      “in its self-assuredness that it is neutral”

      Science itself is neutral, it is just the organising of knowledge through testing.
      If something is wrong it is removed, if it is right it is added, if that right later turns out to be wrong, then it is removed, its not gospel.

      “Thus people were blind to how science was used in the service of injustices”

      Again science is just the organisation of knowledge, blaming science for certain wrongs is like blaming physics when some pyromaniac uses fire to cause damage.

      “How could morality enter the picture when ever-neutral science was invoked?”

      Sam Harris would have some issues with this view.

      “Religion has a capacity for self-criticism, since contemplation is a fundamental tenet; science does not,”

      You have got it completely the wrong way around, science is very self-critical, religion is not, have you never heard of peer-review.

      In answering the question “how?” science does not answer the question, “why?”

      If I was to ask “why the hell did a certain bridge fall?”, I would not consult a priest who merely asserts this and that, i would consult a scientific construction engineer.

      “and to dismiss their varied attempts to answer this”

      Its reasonable to dimiss weak assertions backed up by weak evidence, for example if the earth started to tremble would you accept or dismiss the claims by some tribal chief asserting that their is an angry god under the ground shaking it, or would you accept the findings of those who have looked into the matter in a scientific critical manner and found seismic waves were the culprit.

  35. singh3 says:

    “That the Crusaders did evil things in the name of religion does not by itself contradict the proposition that religion is a force for good.”

    It does, unless you come up with evidence to the contrary. The onus is on *you* to come up with some sensible evidence that something may have been “even worse” without said force eg religion.

    Especially in the case of the crusades, where without religion none of the peoples involved would have went anywhere. To suggest that the absence of a crusade would have led to something worse is an extraordinary claim – and you know what sort of evidence you’ll need for that.

    “Secularism is not on trial here: religion is”
    Exactly, that’s why you can’t assume that “it might have been worse”. The onus is on you to prove it.

  36. It seems impossible to deny that some Jewish, Christian, and Islamic holy texts are quite toxic. It also seems impossible to affirm that morality wouldn’t exist without religion. Finally, it seems impossible to deny that religion has promoted morality as well as perverted it. I support church-state separation because there should be no interference with religious expression (except in certain, rare instances) while, on the other hand, the government should be neutral with respect to religion. This would appear to be the best formula for allowing people in a pluralistic society to freely practice their religion while applying the brakes to religions which might otherwise acquire the power to cause unnecessary suffering. Secular humanism and even religious humanism offer the best hope for this planet.

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