Guest reflection: Munk debate ‘silly and disappointing’

Former British prime minister Tony Blair (left) and US journalist Christopher Hitchens at the Munk Debate on Religion last November. Photo: Tom Sandler
Former British prime minister Tony Blair (left) and US journalist Christopher Hitchens at the Munk Debate on Religion last November. Photo: Tom Sandler
Published January 13, 2011

The January edition of the Anglican Journal gave front-page coverage to the recent Munk debate in Toronto. In it, [former British Prime Minister] Tony Blair and [U.S. journalist and atheist] Christopher Hitchens grappled with the question of whether or not religion is good for society.

Another newspaper report represented it as the intellectual equivalent of a cage match, and at that level, it had an undeniable appeal.  But, as a debate between belief and unbelief, it was silly and disappointing.  Recognizing the reasons for this is, I feel, worthwhile.

Clearly, the thesis about the good of religion is true sometimes (e.g. international health aid), and false sometimes (e.g.the Crusades), and sometimes indifferent (e.g.the Iraq war, of which both Blair and Hitchens were enthusiastic supporters).

Furthermore, there is no reason a believer would want unqualifiedly to defend the thesis. The doctrine of sin tells us that we are capable of evil, we who are believers and not, in our baser side and in our supposedly higher one as well.  They played Mozart at the gates of Auschwitz.

Hitchens offers a caricatured, Punch-and-Judy version of Christianity, and even a neophyte debater knows that refutations of the stronger and more charitable account of one’s opponents’ ideas are more telling.  He says that God made us sinful (creation?), that religion turns us into material (guess he doesn’t read much behaviourism or genetics), that religion involves the elimination of all thought (Aquinas?), that it involves starting with assumptions (modern philosophy of science?), etc.  Even his supposedly damning quotation from John Henry Newman about the incommensurability of one deliberate sin to all earthly goods, could, in fact, have been said by one of the grandparents of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant.  Not surprisingly, his case evinced the fanaticism he derides.

The more interesting question is whether believers would wish the thesis to be proved correct.  At one level, because the Gospel is true, we should not be surprised that goods flow from it. But the Gospel is not true because of the goods. The goods may be there because it is true.  We need to eschew the outcomes thinking of our culture, which is, after all an updated version of the works righteousness of which Paul spoke.

Furthermore, we need to take note that the definition of what “the good” is seems to be presumed before the debate begins.  In fact, the Gospel offers us a comprehensive and new way to see the world, one that takes account of our sense of the good, then expands, alters and reframes it.  Hitchens protests against a claim to a purpose in the universe and ourselves bestowed by the Creator.  But the alternative is purpose as we in our wills manufacture it for ourselves.  Modernity worked its way inexorably from the Enlightenment out to Friedrich Nietzsche, who understood that the making of our own good amounts to the will-to-power.  Hitchens not only caricatures religion–he also sugarcoats modernity.

The affirmation of the purpose for which we were made, to praise God with our heart, soul and mind, that we should defend happily, in the confidence that it can account for more of the world, in its wonder and brokenness, and likewise more of our hearts, than the debunkers can imagine.  Of course, at the end of the day, the best argument for the good of Christianity is that, in spite of all its sins, it contains within it the word about Jesus Christ, who is the light of the world.

— The Rev. Canon Dr. George Sumner is principal of Wycliffe College, University of Toronto.


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