|Blair and Hitchens prior to their debate in Toronto|
When it comes to flying I am, to paraphrase Martin Amis, a nervous passenger but a confident drinker and Valium swallower. Yet despite this fact, when I heard that on 26 November Christopher Hitchens was to debate Tony Blair in Toronto, Canada, about whether or not religion is a force for good in the world, I found myself idly looking up flights. Would it really be too far to go for an evening’s entertainment? And what if I could make it an evening’s reportage? No matter. The flights were too expensive, and I was too slow on the uptake: the debate had sold out before I had had time even mentally to pack my bags. But what a line-up: Hitchens versus Blair. An atheist and secular internationalist (and arguably the greatest man of letters on either side of the Atlantic) against a Catholic and nominally secular former Prime Minister, admired by Hitchens for his “principled” stance on the political touchstones of Kosovo and Iraq. It looked set to be a fascinating evening. And, from the garret in which on my laptop I watched events unfold, so it proved.
The event took place under the auspices of the Aurea Foundation, whose founder, the rasping and lightly befuddled Peter Munk, informed us that he wants to use these debates in order to “elevate the quality of discussion” regarding “issues of vital importance to us all”. After about fifteen minutes of this kind of talk, Christopher and Tony (as they referred to one another throughout the evening) took to the stage. Christopher, who is suffering from metastasized cancer of the oesophagus, looked frail and, occasionally, in pain. But he also looked angrily suspicious, and possessed of a revving and playful hostility. Blair, by contrast, looked almost egregiously healthy, bobbing into the arena with an apologetic grin and a pair of arms so slung as to appear in perpetual readiness for a gesture of reluctant affirmation (“fair’s fair”, they kept wanting to say).
The debate kicked off with Hitchens, who used his opening speech to make the claim – persuasively – that the metaphysical claims of religion were incompatible with the motion that religion could be a force for good. Adducing the much vaunted example of Cardinal Newman (on the grounds that he is claimed as a “moderate”), Hitchens insisted that the claims made by the Cardinal in his Apologia contained “a distillation of what is implied and involved in the faith mentality” – this being, pace Fulke Greville, that religion creates us sick and asks us to be sound; that it offers both a warrant and a mandate for genital mutilation; for misogyny; for the coercions of heaven and hell; and that it is predicated on a messianic ideology that, today, is about to meet with apocalyptic weaponry.
Blair’s rather flaccid response to this was to point out all of the charitable work that has been done by religious groups around the globe; to insist that while religion can be bad, it can also be good; and to opine that faith answers a “profound spiritual yearning”. Not, I think you’ll agree, a knockdown retort. But stay a while. For it turns out that, while religion can induce us to commit acts both decent and wicked, it is only the good acts that are indicative of the “true face of faith”, encapsulated for Blair by the (non-Christian) precept of the Golden Rule.
I do not think I do a disservice to the former Prime Minister when I say that his argument as it developed throughout the debate never really reached the dizzying heights that this opening salvo seemed to promise. Indeed, to Christopher’s numerous and incisively posed objections – that the best way to eradicate poverty was to oppose the religious warrant for the subjection of women; that secular charities do the work for its own sake and not as a way of proselytizing; that to be a force for good religion would have to give up its supernatural claims – Blair did not have much to offer other than to say that prejudice and persecution are not only particular to religion and that, since “we cannot drive faith out of the world” we must “see how we can make it a force for good.”
This seems an extraordinary position for any believer to adopt, let alone a Catholic (and at no stage in the evening did Blair sound like one of those). One wonders, in fact, quite what it is that he does believe. To a question from the audience about the need for faith as a source of morality he supplied the cryptic fatuity: “For some people humanism is enough. But for some people it isn’t.” When asked about the role that religion plays in social divisions in sub-Saharan Africa he said that the faith-based children he knew talked not of confessional differences but of their “common love of humanity”, and when asked to transpose this question to the territorial claims of Israel and Palestine his response was to aver that “religion has created these problems and must play a part in resolving them.”
This probably makes it seem as though the evening belonged to Hitchens (which it did), but this is not to suggest that the debate lacked interest. One especially compelling moment was supplied when a questioner asked each speaker which of his opponent’s arguments he found the most unsettling. Hitchens simply said that he agreed with the proposition that things would not necessarily be all right were religion to go away. Blair’s response was the more interesting. Throughout the debate he had made much of the idea that the good that is done by the religious is done because of religion, with the corollary that any evil that had been enacted had been enacted in the name of religious belief. Hitchens challenged Blair on this point on a number of occasions, but it was in his response to the question from the floor that Blair gave his most interesting and most revealing reply. The affronts to human rights that are contained within holy texts are, he argued, to be historicised. Muhammad, for example, was probably not bad for his time. But we need to move on, and it is no longer acceptable for “bad believers” just to pick from their texts the bits that they like. No. What believers must do now is boil religions down to their “essence”. Christianity can be boiled down to the life of Christ and, in making that reduction, the task of the Christian now is “to explain Scripture in a way that makes sense to people in the modern world.” Well, quite. But on what authority can the bits of Scripture that we don’t like simply be ditched? And what about modern Christians who do like those injunctions?
It is always difficult to determine, with events such as these, who won. The numbers at the start of debate were, for Blair, rather less than encouraging: 22% for the motion; 57% against; 21% undecided. I should say that they did not much improve. (The BBC report that Hitchens won by a margin of two to one.) He lacked the rigour and the incisiveness of Hitchens, and he never adequately addressed Hitchens’s points about the moral problems that are posed by the very idea of a morality whose provenance is divine. But one does not really go to debates like these for the results. Rather, one goes for the debate. It is an achievement of the secularism to which both men lay claim that it could take place at all.
Matthew Adams is a freelance writer and critic, and has contributed to the Spectator, Times Literary Supplement, Guardian and Literary Review