28th November 2010
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you very much to the Munk family, great philanthropists for making this possible. Seven minutes, ladies and gentlemen, for the foundational argument between religion and philosophy leaves me hardly time to praise my distinguished opponent, in fact I might have to seize a later chance of doing that!
I think three and a half minutes for metaphysics and three and a half for the material world won’t be excessive, and I have a text, and I have a text and it is from, because I won’t take religious texts from a known extremist or fanatic, it’s from Cardinal Newman, recently by Mr Blair’s urging beatified, on his way to canonisation, a man whose Apologia made many Anglicans reconsider and made many people join the Roman Catholic church and is considered rightly a great Christian thinker. My text from the Apologia.
“The Catholic church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail and for all the many millions on it to die in extremist agony than one soul … should tell one wilful untruth or should steal one farthing without excuse.”
You’ll have to say it’s beautifully phrased, but to me, and this is my proposition, what we have here, and picked from no mean source, is a distillation of precisely what is twisted and immoral in the faith mentality. Its essential fanaticism, it’s consideration of the human being as raw material, and its fantasy of purity.
Once you assume a creator and a plan, it makes us objects, in a cruel experiment, whereby we are created sick, and commanded to be well. I’ll repeat that. Created sick, and then ordered to be well. And over us, to supervise this, is installed a celestial dictatorship, a kind of divine North Korea. Greedy, exigent, greedy for uncritical phrase from dawn until dusk and swift to punish the original since with which it so tenderly gifted us in the very first place.
However, let no one say there’s no cure, salvation is offered, redemption, indeed, is promised, at the low price of the surrender of your critical faculties. Religion, it might be said, it must be said, would have to admit makes extraordinary claims but though I would maintain that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, rather daringly provides not even ordinary evidence for its extraordinary supernatural claims.
Therefore, we might begin by asking, and I’m asking my opponent as well as you when you consider your voting, is it good for the world to appeal to our credulity and not to our scepticism? Is it good for the world to worship a deity that takes sides in wars and human affairs? To appeal to our fear and to our guilt, is it good for the world? To our terror, our terror of death, is it good to appeal?
To preach guilt and shame about the sexual act and the sexual relationship, is this good for the world? And asking yourself all the while, are these really religious responsibilities, as I maintain they are? To terrify children with the image of hell and eternal punishment, not just of themselves, but their parents and those they love. Perhaps worst of all, to consider women an inferior creation, is that good for the world, and can you name me a religion that has not done that? To insist that we are created and not evolved in the face of all the evidence. To say that certain books of legend and myth, man-made and primitive, are revealed not man-made code.
Religion forces nice people to do unkind things, and also makes intelligent people say stupid things. Handed a small baby for the first time, is it your first reaction to think, beautiful, almost perfect, now please hand me the sharp stone for its genitalia that I may do the work of the Lord. No, it is — as the great physicist Stephen Weinberg has aptly put it, in the ordinary moral universe, the good will do the best they can, the worst will do the worst they can, but if you want to make good people do wicked things, you’ll need religion.
I’ve got now 1 minute and 57 seconds to say why I think this is very self-evident in our material world. Let me ask Tony again, because he’s here, and because the place where he is seeking peace is the birthplace of mono theism, so you might think it was unusually filled with refulgence and love and peace. Everyone in the civilised world has roughly agreed, including the majority of Arabs and Jews and the international community, that there should be enough room for two states for two peoples in the same land, I think we have a rough agreement on that. Why can’t we get it, the UN, the US, the quartet, the PLO, the Israeli parliament can’t get it, why not? Because the parties of God have a veto on it, and everybody knows this is true. Because of the divine promises made about this territory, there will never be peace or compromise, there will instead be misery, shame and tyrrany and people will kill each others’ children for ancient books, caves and relics, and who is going to say this is good for the world? That’s just the example nearest to hand.
Have you looked lately at the possibility we used to discuss as children in fear, what will happen when Messianic fanatics get hold of an apocalyptic weapon? We are about to find that out as we watch the Islamic republic of Iran and its party of good allies make a dress rehearsal for precisely this. Have you looked lately at the revival of Tsarism in Russia, where … draped over an increasingly xenophobic tyrannical expansionist and aggressive regime? Have you looked lately at the teaching in Africa and the consequences of it of a church that says, AIDS may be wicked but not as wicked as condoms. That’s exactly no seconds left, ladies and gentlemen. I have done my best. Believe me, I have more.
RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Christopher, thank you for starting our debate. Mr Blair, your opening remarks, please.
TONY BLAIR: First of all, let me say it is a real pleasure to be with you all this evening, to be back in Toronto, it’s a particular privilege and honour to be with Christopher in this debate. Let me first of all say that I don’t regard the leader of North Korea as a religious icon, you will be delighted to know.
I am going to make seven points in my seven minutes, that’s a biblical seven. The first is this, it is undoubtedly true that people commit horrific acts of evil in the name of religion. It is also undoubtedly true that people do acts of extraordinary common good inspired by religion. Almost half the healthcare in Africa is delivered by faith based organisations, saving millions of lives. A quarter of worldwide HIV/AIDS care is provided by Catholic organisations. There is the fantastic work of Muslims and Jewish relief organisations. There are in Canada thousands of religious organisations that care for the mentally ill or disabled or disadvantaged or destitute. And here in Toronto, barely one and a half miles from here, is a shelter run by covenant house, a Christian charity for homeless youth in Canada.
So the proposition that religion is unadulterated poison is unsustainable. It can be destructive, it can also create a deep well of compassion, and frequently does.
And the second is that people are inspired to do such good by what I would say is the true essence of faith, which is along with doctrine and ritual particular to each faith, a basic belief common to all faiths, in serving and loving God, through serving and loving your fellow human beings. As witnessed by the life and teaching of Jesus, one of love, selflessness and sacrifice, the meaning of the Torah. It was Rabbi Hillel who was once famously challenged by someone that said they would convert to religion if he could recite the whole of the Torah standing on one leg. He stood on one leg and said: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. That is the Torah, the rest is commentary, now go and do it.
The message of the prophet Mohammed, saving one life is as if you’re saving the whole of humanity, the Hindu searching after selflessness, the Buddhist concepts of Kuruni … which all subjugate selfish desires to care for others, Sikh insistence on respect for others of another faith. That in my view is the true face of faith. And the values derived from this essence offer to many people a benign, positive and progressive framework by which to live our daily lives. Stimulating the impulse to do good, disciplining the propensity to be selfish and bad.
And faith defined in this way is not simply faith as solace in times of need, though it can be; nor a relic of unthinking tradition, still less a piece of superstition or an explanation of biology. Instead, it answers a profound spiritual yearning, something we feel and sense instinctively. This is a spiritual presence, bigger, more important, more meaningful than just us alone, that has its own power separate from our power, and that even as the world’s marvels multiply, makes us kneel in humility not swagger in pride.
If faith is seen in this way, science and religion are not incompatible, destined to fight each other, until eventually the cool reason of science extinguishes the fanatical flames of religion. Rather science educates us as to how the physical world is and how it functions, and faiths educates us as to the purpose to which such knowledge is put, the values that should guide its use, and the limits of what science and technology can do not to make our lives materially richer but rather richer in spirit.
And so imagine indeed a world without religious faith, not just no place of worship, no prayer or scripture but no men or women who because of their faith dedicating their lives to others, showing forgiveness where otherwise they wouldn’t, believing through their faith that even the weakest and most powerless have rights, and they have a duty to defend them.
And yes, I agree, in a world without religion, the religious fanatics may be gone, but I ask you, would fanaticism be gone? And then realise that such an imagined vision of a world without religion is not in fact new. The 20th century was a century scarred by visions that had precisely that imagining in their vision, and at their heart, and gave us Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot. In this vision, obedience to the will of God was for the weak, it was the will of man that should dominate.
So I do not deny for a moment that religion can be a force for evil, but I claim that where it is, it is based essentially on a perversion of faith, and I assert that at least religion can also be a force for good, and where it is, that it’s true to what I believe is the essence of faith, and I say that a world without religious faith would be spiritually, morally and emotionally diminished.
So I know very well that you can point and quite rightly Christopher does to examples of where people have used religion to do things that are terrible. And that have made the world a worse place. But I ask you not to judge all people of religious faith by those people, any more than we would judge politics by bad politicians. Or indeed journalists by bad journalists.
The question is, along with all the things that are wrong with religion, is there also something within it that helps the world to be better and people to do good, and I would submit there is. Thank you. (Applause).
RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Well Tony, your training in parliament had you perfectly landing that right on the seven minute market. Ladies and gentlemen, we’re moving into our rebuttal rounds and I’d like the audience to get engaged, to applaud when they hear something the debaters say when they like, also to help me enforce our time limit, when you see that clock ticking down, start applauding and that will move us through this in an orderly fashion. Christopher, it’s now your opportunity, in our first of two rebuttal rounds, to respond to Mr Blair.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: There are four, is that right?
RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Two rounds of rebuttals. Each of us has the opportunity to go back and forth. Yes, four minutes for each speaker in each of those rounds.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: So I’ve got four minutes?
RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Yes.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Yes, good. Then hold your applause, for heavens’ sake. Well now, in fairness, no one was arguing that religion should or will die out of the world, and all I’m arguing is it would be better if there was a great deal more by way of an outbreak of secularism. Logically if Tony is right, I would be slightly better off, not much, but slightly, being a Wahabi Muslims or a Jehovah’s witness than I am wallowing as I do in mere secularism.
What I am arguing is what we need is a great deal more of one and a great deal less of the second. I knew it would come up that we would be told about charity, and I take this very seriously, because we know, ladies and gentlemen, as it happens, we’re the first generation of people who do really, what the cure for poverty really is. It eluded people for a long, long time. The cure for poverty has a name, in fact. It’s called the empowerment of women. (Applause).
If you give women some control over the rate at which they reproduce, if you give them some say, take them off the animal cycle of reproduction to which nature and some religious doctrine condemns them, and then if you throw in a handful of seeds, the floor of everything in that village, not just poverty, but health and education, will increase. Try it in Bangladesh and Bolivia, it works all the time. Name me one religion that stands for that, or ever has. Wherever you look in the world … stupidity from women, it is invariably the clerisy that stands in the way, or in the case of … (Applause).
Furthermore, if you are going to grant this to Catholic charities, I would say, which I hope are doing a lot of work in Africa, if I was a member of a church that had preached that AIDS was not as bad as condoms, I would be putting some conscience money into Africa too, I must say. I’m not trying to be funny. If I was trying to be funny, you mistook me. It won’t bring back the millions of people who have died wretched deaths because of that teaching, that still goes on.
I would like to hear a word of apology from the religious on that, if it was on offer, otherwise I would be accused of judging them by the worst of them, and this isn’t done, as Tony says wrongly, in the name of religion, it’s a direct precept, practice and enforceable discipline of religion, is it not, sir, in this case? I think you’ll find that it is. (Applause). But if you’re going to say, all right, the Mormons will tell you the same, you may think it’s a bit cracked to think Joseph Smith found another bible buried in upstate New York, but you should see our missionaries in action; I’m not impressed. I’d rather have no Mormons, no missionaries and no Joseph Smith.
Do we grant to Hamas and Hezbollah, both of whom will tell you, and incessantly do, without us, where would the poor of Gaza and Lebanon be, … it’s nothing compared to the harm that they do, but it’s a great deal of work all the same.
I’m also familiar with the teachings of Rabbi Hilel, I also know where he plagiarised the story from, the injunction not to do to another … of Confucius, if you want to date it, but actually it’s found in the heart of every person in this room. Everybody knows that much. We don’t require divine permission to know right from wrong. We don’t need tablets administered to us ten at a time in tablet form on pain of death to be able to have a moral argument. No, we have the reasoning and the moral persuasion of Socrates and our own abilities, we don’t need dictatorship to give us right from wrong, and that’s my lot, thank you.
RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: In the name of fairness and equity, Mr Blair, I’m going to give you an additional 25 seconds for your first rebuttal.
TONY BLAIR: First of all, I don’t think we should think that because you can point to examples of prejudice in the name of religion, that bigotry and prejudice and wrongdoing are wholly owned subsidiaries of religion. There are plenty of examples of prejudice against women, against gay people, against others that come from outside the world of religion. And the claim that I make is not that everything the church has done in Africa is right but let me tell you one thing it did do, and it did it while I was Prime Minister of the UK, the churches together formed a campaign for the cancellation of debt, they came together, they succeeded, and the first beneficiaries of the cancellation of debt were young girls going to school in Africa, because for the first time, they had free primary education.
So I agree that not everything the church or the religious communities have done around the world is right, but I do say at least accept that there are people doing great work, day in, day out, who genuinely are not prejudiced or bigoted, but are working with people who are afflicted by famine and disease and poverty and they are doing it inspired by their faith. And of course it’s the case that not everybody — of course it’s the case that you do not have to be a person of faith in order to do good work, I’ve never claimed that, I would never claim that. I know lots of people, many, many people, who are people not of faith at all, but who do fantastic and decent work for their communities and for the world. My claim is just very simple, there are nonetheless people who are inspired by their faith to do good.
I mean, I think of people I met some time ago in South Africa, nuns who were looking after children born with HIV/AIDS. These are people who are working and living alongside and caring for people inspired by their faith. Is it possible for them to have done that without their religious faith? Of course it’s possible for them to have done it. But the fact is, that’s what motivated them. So what I say to you is at least look, what we shouldn’t do is end up in a situation where we say, we’ve got six hospices here, one suicide bomber there, how does it all equalise out? That’s not a very productive way of arguing this.
Actually, I thought one of the most interesting things that Christopher said is that we’re not going to drive religion out of the world, and that’s true, we’re not. And actually, I think for people of faith to have debates with those who are secularist is actually good and right and healthy and it’s what we should be doing. (Applause).
I’m not claiming that everyone should congregate on my space, I’m simply claiming one very simple thing, that if we can’t drive religion out of the world because many people of faith believe it and believe it very deeply, let’s at least see how we do make religion a force for good, how we do encourage those people of faith who are trying to do good, and how we unite those against those who want to pervert religion and turn it into a badge of identity used in opposition to others. (Applause).
So I would simply finish by saying this: there are many situations where faith has done wrong, but there are many situations in which wrong has been done, without religion playing any part in it at all, so let us not condemn all people of religious faith because of the bigotry or prejudice shown by some, and let us at least acknowledge that some good has come out of religion, and that we should celebrate. (Applause).
– Read part two of the debate
All transcript parts posted here The New Statesman
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