December 6, 2010
Catholic convert Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, and atheist Christopher Hitchens debated in Toronto whether religion is force for good or ill.

CATHOLIC REGISTER PHOTO | MICHAEL SWAN

Catholic convert Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, and atheist Christopher Hitchens debated in Toronto whether religion is force for good or ill.

MICHAEL SWAN
THE CATHOLIC REGISTER

Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens duked it out to a draw in the biggest public debate on religion ever held in Toronto Nov. 26.

At the start of the evening, 22 per cent of the sold-out crowd at Roy Thomson Hall were in favour of Blair’s proposition that religion is a force for good in the world. Fifty-seven per cent thought religion was a force for ill and 21 per cent were undecided.

Before the debate, fully 75 per cent of the live audience claimed they were open to changing their mind.

After 90 minutes of verbal fireworks, Blair, the former British prime minister and Catholic convert, and Hitchens, the author and journalist noted as a champion of the “new atheism,” had each convinced a similar number he was right.

Blair picked up 10 per cent, with 32 per cent of the post-debate audience believing religion is a force for good. Hitchens gained 11 per cent, with 68 per cent of the audience deciding religion is a negative force in the world.

Hitchens argued that religious fanatics are willing to go to war, oppress women and marginalize everyone unlike themselves.

“It’s not something that happens because people misinterpret the (sacred) texts. It’s because they believe in them,” said Hitchens.

Ticking off a list that included Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot, Blair countered that atheists had demonstrated the same capacity for murderous fanaticism as religious people. The problem is fanaticism, not religion, he said.

“In a world without religion, the religious fanatics may be gone,” he said. “But I ask you, would fanaticism be gone?”

EQUALITY FOR WOMEN

The world would be a better place, with far less poverty, if women were truly treated as equal and fully human, said Hitchens.

“It is invariably the clericy that stands in the way,” he said.

Blair countered that the religious people he knew weren’t searching their dogmas for ways of keeping women ignorant, pregnant and poor.

“For me the essence of it, through the life of Jesus Christ, is to live a life of sacrifice and love.”

Jonas Grupiljonas, a sous-chef de cuisine at the Royal Ontario Museum, found watching the Catholic politician debating an atheist journalist a positive experience.

“Debates like this should be more available,” Grupiljonas said.

Maya, who didn’t want to reveal her last name, felt Hitchens won.

“I just believed in the strength of his argument,” she said. “For Tony Blair it became very personal — about his religion.”

Toronto lawyer Marion Korn said Tony Blair was the winner.

“He answered the question,” said Korn.

But Anglican priest and counsellor Charles McMulkin found the debate “frustrating.”

“I wanted more from both,” he said. “I thought it was shallow because both men’s arguments were overly simplistic.”

SUPERFICIAL DEBATE

University of Toronto professor of psychology Jordan Peterson echoed McMulkin’s frustration. Peterson’s research expertise is in the psychology of religion and he was brought in to contextualize the debate for the crowd.

“It was superficial,” Peterson told The Catholic Register.

Hitchens’ rationalism versus Blair’s list of good works by religious people advances the debate no further than the middle of the 19th century, said the professor.

Given the wars and mass murders committed over fundamental beliefs (from communism to Islam) in the last 100 years, a sophisticated debate is necessary for this century, said Peterson.

“This isn’t a game. Really, it’s not a game,” he said.

“Hundreds of millions of people have died because of this problem. It isn’t something to engage in for intellectual amusement. A lot of the debate was precisely that — engaging and entertaining. . . . It’s blasphemous to treat this as if it is an intellectual game.”

SPOKESPERSONS FOR RELIGION

Peterson would have rather seen biologist Richard Dawkins represent the atheist side in the debate, even though the author of The God Delusion has a tendency to win his arguments by setting up straw men.

“The problem on the religious side is that, as far as I can tell, spokespersons who can best people like Dawkins or Hitchens — who are very eloquent in their argumentative capacity — haven’t arisen,” he said.

Mining billionaire Peter Munk’s Aurea Foundation organized the debate, part of its twice-a-year Munk Debates. In addition to the full house in Roy Thomson Hall, organizers filled up a lecture hall at the Toronto Reference Library for a live feed to a pair of big-screen TVs and also attracted millions around the world to watch a live Internet broadcast.

The full debate can be downloaded from the Munk Debates web site at www.munkdebates.com/debates/Religion for $2.99.