By Rita Field-MarshamWe had been looking forward to the Munk Debate in Toronto between former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and controversial author Christopher Hitchens since we were invited to attend and wondered whether Hitchen’s frail state would affect his performance.
The debate tackled the resolution: Religion is a force for good in the world. Speaking for the motion was Mr Blair, a recent convert to Catholicism, while Mr Hitchens, bestselling author, journalist, literary critic and world famous atheist, spoke against.
Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens at the Munk Debates
An introduction to the resolution posed the questions: In a world of globalization and rapid social change does religion provide the common values and ethical foundations that diverse societies need to thrive in the 21st century? Or, do deeply held religious beliefs promote intolerance, exacerbate ethnic divisions, and impede social progress in developing and developed nations alike?
Mr Blair’s position in summary was: “Religious faith has a major part to part in shaping the values which guide the modern world and can and should be a force for progress.
“Faith motivates people to do good”
On the other hand, Mr Hitchens said that “globalization and humanism are not made easier by practices of religion which are by their nature exclusivist. Humanity and compassion should motivate people to good – not the fear of God or the reward of heaven. You end poverty by empowering women – the Word of God doesn’t.”
Describing the scene perfectly, The Telegraph, under the headline: ‘The convert and the atheist at war over religion’, reported: “The physical contrast between the adversaries perched on their stools, ready to trade verbal blows in front of a packed auditorium, could not have been greater. There was Tony Blair, 57, the former prime minister, looking slim, jaunty and relaxed and across the stage was Christopher Hitchens, 61, the British-born, Washington-based writer and commentator, whose bald head and red eyes were evidence of the gruelling chemotherapy treatment he has been having for late-stage oesophageal cancer. But, when the two men squared off on the role of religion, it was Hitchens who came out punching, with Blair on the back foot.The debate had been billed in terms of an intellectual heavyweight clash: the polemicist versus the politician, the sceptic versus the statesman, the outspoken atheist versus the Catholic convert. And, after nearly 90 minutes of verbal cut and thrust, it was Hitchens who emerged victorious.”
Despite Hitchens rabid atheism, he conducted himself in a good spirit of almost bonhomie.
Prior to the debate, 25% of the 2,600 audience members agreed with the resolution, while 55% disagreed and 20% were undecided. Immediately following the debate, agreement with the resolution had risen to 32% while disagreement with the resolution had risen to 68%.
The increase in both numbers was attributed to the persuasive powers of both speakers.
But one thing on which everyone agreed was the need for ALL of us – faith-motivated and atheist alike – to do whatever we can individually and in co-operation with others to improve the lot of the less fortunate in our societies.