Friday night was the debate between Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair on if religion was a positive force or not, held at Roy Thompson Hall on the behalf of Munk Debates and broadcast via the internet around the world by the BBC. My brother and I saw it at the Center for Inquiry, which was packed full and beyond for the event.
When this was announced tickets sold out in three hours, and Peter Munk (Canadian mining zillionaire) in his opening remarks said that he heard that tickets were going for outrageous prices on eBay, and he hoped the evening would be worth it (it was).
It should come to no surprise to people that I think Hitchens walked away with the debate. Blair did a good job for his side, but his arguments were basically limited to the idea that religion fills a void in people's lives that would be empty otherwise, religions are engaged in good works around the world, and you can't blame religion as a whole for the bad things that people do in its name. His low point IMHO was the old saw of "Hitler and Stalin was atheists, therefore lack of religion causes genocides", and his high point was his answer to the wonderful question "Which of your opponents arguments do you think is the strongest?" He replied, in answer to a point Hitchens had recently raised, is that the texts of all the world's religions espouse, in black and white, ideas that are at odds to those of modern society (like that fact women are second class citizens at best in all of them). His only answer to that is that people have to works past this to find the true meaning of faith. (Hitchens replied to this that once you agree with this you're halfway out the door already, if you accept that there are some universal values separate from the religious teachings, why do you need the teachings at all to prop the rest up?)
Hitchens (who had to juggle his chemo schedule to attend, but was looking pretty good for the whole evening) was in fine form, and unlike Blair scarcely repeated himself at all (stating after his opening remarks ran out of time "I've got plenty more!". His points that really stuck with me were 1) This is the first generation who knows how to end poverty, grant women the same rights as men (ability to decide how many children to have, apply for credit). It's worked from Bolivia to Bangladesh, and every major religion speaks against it. 2) In a great parallel, he points out that the Communist Party rightly deserved credit for some important things around the world (such as support for Ghandi in Indian independence and the same in South Africa) but it is still a failed ideology (and one of the great books about this was called The God that Failed) because it requires you to turn your own decision-making over to a higher force that can't be wrong. And that's not something anyone should do, ever, adding "You may see where I'm going with this". 3) In response to a question along the lines of "Shouldn't we all just get along?" his reply was that he'd like nothing better than to not bother the religious while they don't bother him, but that's an agreement that will never be kept. Most religions expressly have to convert, and they'll send Bibles to Haiti in the midst of disaster instead of medical supplies.
There was lots more like this, and it was far more eloquent then I make it sound here. A transcript of the event is available here and its available on YouTube here.
What's really great was in the final poll of the audience, 68% thought Hitchens won vs 32% for Blair. It was an amazing evening and we need lots more of it.
Hitchens vs. Blair
November 28th, 2010