By Paul Harris
Saturday 27 November 2010 09.38 GMT
Staunch atheist wins over audience in debate with Catholic convert over whether religion is a force for good in the world
Tony Blair (left) and Christopher Hitchens before their debate on religion Former British prime minister Tony Blair (left) and author Christopher Hitchens before their debate on religion. Photograph: Mark Blinch/Reuters
In theory it was not an event that should have created a stir: a philosophical debate on the moral merits of religion. In an age of reality TV drama and Hollywood blockbusters loaded with special effects it would seem hard to get the masses to flock to witness such an old-fashioned, high-brow spectacle.
But when the two debaters are the world’s most famous recent Roman Catholic convert in the shape of Tony Blair and the charismatic yet cancer-stricken sceptic Christopher Hitchens suddenly it becomes easier to sell tickets.
Two thousand seven hundred tickets to be precise. For that was the size of the crowd that packed the space age-looking Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto late last night to watch the two ideological foes – when it comes to religion – spar and trade verbal blows.
The occasion was part of the Munk Debate series, organised by the Aurea Foundation group, and the motion was simply: “Be it resolved, religion is a force for good in the world”.
Both men were unabashedly stalwart in their positions. Hitchens, one of the leading “new atheists” and author of the hit book God Is Not Great, slammed religion as nothing more than supernatural gobbledegook that caused untold misery throughout human history. “Once you assume a creator and a plan it make us subjects in a cruel experiment,” Hitchens said before causing widespread laughter by comparing God to “a kind of divine North Korea”.
Blair, perhaps not surprisingly, was a little less forthright. On the backfoot for much of the debate he kept returning to his theme that many religious people all over the world were engaged in great and good works. They did that because of their faith, he argued, and to slam all religious people as ignorant or evil was plain wrong. “The proposition that religion is unadulterated poison is unsustainable,” he said. Blair called religion at its best “a benign progressive framework by which to live our lives”.
Throughout the 90-minute debate Hitchens seemed to have the crowd’s sympathy. That might have been to do with his ill appearance due to cancer, but was far more likely to be down to the sharpness of his verbal barbs and the fact that 57% of the audience already agreed with his sceptical position according to a pre-debate poll, while just 22% agreed with Blair’s side. The rest were undecided.
But the true winners of the debate were the organisers. The high-profile debaters and controversial subject matter ensured not only a packed hall but an overflow location where people who could not get tickets were able to watch it on TV monitors. Tickets sold out weeks ago and were selling on eBay for several times their cover price. The debate was also trailed on the front pages of some Canadian newspapers and covered by local television.
It even attracted a small but vocal knot of anti-Iraq war protestors accusing Blair of war crimes. Demonstrators unveiled placards that read “Arrest Blair” and “War criminals not welcome here”, proving that, as with the merits of religion, some arguments are unlikely to ever be settled with a single night’s debate.