Is religion a force for good in the world? That was the question that brought former British prime minister Tony Blair to a stage in Toronto to debate atheist and Vanity Fair contributor Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, in late November.
Interest in the Munk Debate on Religion was high. Tickets to all 2,700 seats in Roy Thomson Hall sold out within hours. The debate was moderated by Rudyard Griffiths, co-anchor of the Business News Network current affairs show SqueezePlay and a columnist with The National Post.
As audience members filed into the hall, they were asked to vote and register their opinions. Some 57 per cent disagreed with the proposition that religion is a force for good while 22 per cent said they believe it is. Twenty-two per cent declared themselves undecided.
The post-debate vote, in which there was no “undecided” option, revealed little shift in opinion. Both parties picked up almost equal numbers of previously undecided audience members. In all, 68 per cent sided with Hitchens and 32 per cent with Blair.
Hitchens, who is battling stage IV esophageal cancer, came to the debate armed with a lot of reasons why public opinion of religion might be at an all-time low. These reasons ranged from the hate preached from pulpits in Rwanda, and that country’s subsequent genocide, to the years of sectarian violence in Ireland and the high levels of HIV infection in Africa following the Catholic church’s opposition to the use of condoms (only recently modified by the Pope for the prevention of HIV/AIDS transmission). Hitchens also pointed to religion as an obstruction to peace in the Middle East.
Acknowledging that horrific acts have been committed in the name of religion, Blair argued that the evil done is a perversion of true faith. “The true essence of faith,” he said, is “a basic belief, common to all faiths, in serving and loving God through serving and loving your fellow human beings.” What’s more, he suggested, in order to find a way forward, people of faith need to hear these charges argued as powerfully as they are by Hitchens.
“The proposition that religion is unadulterated poison is unsustainable,” he said, then pointed to acts of “extraordinary common good inspired by religion.” Half of health care in Africa is “delivered by faith-based organizations saving millions of lives,” he said, listing work done by Christian, Muslim and Jewish organizations. “[Religion] can be destructive. It can also create a deep well of compassion and frequently does.”
Hitchens argued that the harm done in the name of religion is a direct consequence of people believing in scriptural authority. “No one is going to deny there are rewards of real estate made in the Bible by none other than Jehovah himself,” he said. “That land is promised to human primates over other human primates in response to a divine covenant.” That kind of belief, in a God that takes sides in territorial disputes, gets in the way of any peace agreements in the Middle East, he said.
Blair conceded there are people of many faiths who abstract scripture and use it to justify their beliefs and actions in a modern context. “If you believe that as a Muslim we should live our lives according to the second century, then you will end up with some very extreme positions. But actually,” Blair continued, “there are masses of Muslims who reject that as a view of Islam.”
The same goes for Christianity, he added. “…When you take Christianity as a whole and ask what does it mean and what draws people to it? What is it that made me as a student come to Christianity? It wasn’t the things that Chris[topher] has just been describing…. The essence of it is through the life of Jesus Christ, a life of love and selflessness and sacrifice, and that’s what it means to me.”
Those who believe in a world of peaceful coexistence and co-operation must help others of deeply held religious convictions to be part of that world, said Blair.
Both men agreed that religion is unlikely to disappear. Hitchens suggested that it should be balanced with more secular humanism. Blair suggested that people should concentrate on finding ways to work together with people of different faiths and to learn from each other.