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Policy In Public / Feature

Review: Munk Debates

Debates are designed to enlighten the listeners through the collision of competing ideas. Sometimes, despite the magnitude of the two forces, not much light is shed.

On Friday, November 23, 2700 people gathered at Roy Thompson Hall in downtown Toronto to hear former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and prominent journalist Christopher Hitchens debate the assertion that "religion is a force for good in the world."

After leaving office in Britain, Blair established the Tony Blair Faith Foundation to foster increased cooperation between various faiths. He was formally welcomed into the Catholic church and began to speak more openly about his religious convictions. His memoir—A Journey: My Political Life—reflects on his time in office and his faith.

Christopher Hitchens steadfastly affirms atheism and decries religion as a reflection of residual superstitions that no longer square with our contemporary lives. His significant media output represents, among other things, a long and persistent argument against organized religion and the collection of ills that, he believes, have accumulated under that guise. His controversial book God Is Not Great is a waypoint on this longer trajectory of critique and criticism.

Debates are designed to enlighten the listeners through the collision of competing ideas. Sometimes, despite the magnitude of the two forces, not much light is shed. With Tony Blair debating Christopher Hitchens, there was certainly sufficient magnitude of force. Peter Munk's opening remarks included a reminder that the Munk Debates exist to elevate the level of discussion among Canadians on critical, global issues. Unlike speeches, which Munk calls flat, one-dimensional readings, the debates should spark insight in listeners through having "two superbly informed and qualified" people offering points that "only these superb people" can articulate.

Attendees paid concert-ticket prices to watch the debate in person. Upon entering, attendees were polled about their position on the motion—"Be it resolved religion is a force for good in the world"—and then asked to fill in a ballot, indicating their opinion on the motion: 22% thought religion was a force for good, 57% thought religion was not a force for good, and an additional 21% were undecided. 75% of the audience also indicated that they were willing to change their opinion based on the arguments presented.

Hitchens began with a quote from Cardinal Newman's famous Apologia Pro Vita Sua (A Defense of My Life) on the necessity of ultimate devotion and moral purity. Hitchens argued that, among other things, religion is not a force for good because it elicits fanaticism, considers human beings as raw material to be formed, and pursues a destructive fantasy about the possibility of purity.

Hitchens's summary of religion's narrative is that we are created sick, and have been ordered to be well by a kind of North Korea divine dictator, who is greedy for uncritical praise and swift to punish us for sins that this deity "so tenderly gifted us in the first place." We are, argued Hitchens, offered a way out at the low price of the surrender of our critical faculties. We must be willing to accept the extraordinary claims made by this deity without even ordinary evidence. He challenged listeners to consider if, indeed, it is good to appeal to our credulity and not our scepticism—to appeal to our fear and guilt. Is that good for the world? Is it good to preach shame? To terrify children with images of hell? To promote the idea of the inferiority of women? To insist we are created, not evolved, despite overwhelming evidence? To say that certain books of myth are divinely revealed? No, he argues: Religion forces nice people to do bad things and asks intelligent people to accept deeply dubious claims. In short, religion is for deluded, masochistic, oppressive people.

In his opening remarks, Tony Blair acknowledged that, indeed, great good and great evil has been done in the name of religion. Half of African aid is religiously derived, more than a quarter of AIDS care worldwide is provided by Catholic organizations, and remarkable work is done around the world by Muslim, Jewish, and other religious groups—including in Canada, where organizations like Covenant House in Toronto provide care for those who need it most. Whatever its ills, religion is not an unadulterated poison. He argued that the deepest impulse of religion to inspire people to do good, through a basic belief common to all faiths: that the true face of faith is serving and loving God by serving and loving fellow human beings. Religion provides a means by which people live out their lives, not only for themselves, but also for others. As such, it is not thoughtless, irrational, superstitious, or fanatical. It does not answer questions of biology, but it does answer the deepest longings of spiritual desire and offers fulfillment through conceptions of the transcendent. When removed from the ways it can be perverted, religion helps us kneel in humility, not swagger with pride. If we judge religion on its failings, then we must judge politics only by bad politicians, journalism only by bad journalists, and so on.

In the format of a debate, the enormity of the question about religion as a force for good seeks an answer within a few minutes of alternating blocks. It would be extremely difficult to come to a definitive conclusion about the relative good of a single human life given this format—never mind a matter that touches every one of the billions of people around the world. The real value of the debates cannot be conceived within the actual content delivered by the presenters. If that is the measure, it is thin soup indeed, however accomplished the debaters. The wider matrix of conversations sparked by the debate help determine its value, and this also makes it much more difficult to assess success or failure. The vast majority of those exchanges happen beyond the reach of the Munk Debate organizers. To some extent, the debates are a polemical stage-show with the cultural elites in attendance, many of whom have already fully settled their positions, despite the straw polling.

Additionally, most of the billions of religious people will never see or be in any way convinced by the discussion or the format. Science and technology have not eradicated religion. Despite its high profile in the media, militant atheism has passed most people by, as the world merrily goes on and they practice their faith—such as it is. This doesn't make religion de facto good—it just reinforced the fact that the effect of the debate format, and the Munk Debates in particular, is likely to be small.

In John Steinbeck's East of Eden, a young university student returns from Stanford and tries to convince his grandmother to give up her faith through his newly-acquired rational arguments. He uses logic, history, and other analytic tools to unseat her belief and modernize her thinking. After a period of this engagement, she finally says to him, "Boy, my faith is a mountain and you don't even have a shovel"—to her, his rationalism was not a definitive weapon within the arena of her faith.

Hitchens hopes for the growth and flowering of secularism that will displace the influence of religion: a faithless kind of world-peace-ready rational religion. But as Charles Taylor and others have noted, secularism is not the absence of religion, as Hitchens seems to think. Religion won't go away, so a secular space that allows room for religion—along with the absence of religion—is much more important and vital than the alternative that Hitchens appeared to offer up. Blair wasn't particularly sharp on picking up this angle, and seemed to be content to stay within walking distance of the "religion does a lot of good" arguments, rather than attempt to show more concretely how things might go in the world if both the religious and non-religious worked together. He alluded to it by mentioning the interfaith work of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, and doubtless has more to say about it, but it wasn't mentioned in a compelling way.

Hitchens is right to be worried about religion being used to oppress people. Sadly, there is nothing new about the phenomena of religious systems oppressing people. Jesus often stridently critiques corrupt religion in the two-thousand-year-old New Testament Gospels. We do well to guard against this oppression today, but sadly, examples abound from any major world religion one might name.

But suggesting that religion is used to manipulate people doesn't make it bad. Human drives like sex, hunger, and the desire for power are manipulated every day in the marketplace. Just because sex is used to sell cars—arguably a perversion and misuse of a deep human need—doesn't mean sex is bad. We ought to argue against such abuses, and can do so without mistakenly thinking that sex is the problem. The misuse of that human appetite is the problem. Blair tried to come at this angle in a number of ways, but Hitchens seemed to have the upper hand by creating punchy digs that connected with the audience and made them laugh.

It is very difficult, I think, for debates to truly change the way people think. It would perhaps have been more interesting to ask about people's religious practices when they came into the venue, then poll them afterward about whether they would now be giving up those practices—ceasing to attend synagogue or mass, pray, read their scriptures, and so on. I suspect the impact would have approached zero—and similar for the inverse.

Hitchens made confusing causation and correlation errors: The fact that people who are religious (or occupy positions of power within a religion) do bad things doesn't mean that the religion is bad, or that it should be abolished entirely. Blair might have pushed this more pointedly and winsomely, but did not. At what point in history—or in today's society—did a society function with a total absence of religion? As Blair pointed out, some of the most oppressive, catastrophic regimes in the twentieth century were atheist, or substituted state loyalty for religious faith. The abuse of power and the shocking loss of human life that attended those regimes ought to make us wary of any contemporary attempts to do the same. But in the debate, Blair seemed unable to marshal these ideas with sufficient force to demonstrate their weakness.

After a long standing ovation the debate ended. The result: 32% of the audience believed that religion was a force for good, and 68% believed the inverse—the previously "undecided" votes appear to have split. More significantly, in time, the distance traveled by the conversation's ripples will be the true measure of the evening's effect.

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