Field of Science

Blair/Hitchens on the goodness of religion

To my elation, the much anticipated debate between Tonay blair and Christopher Hitchens is up on YouTube. To see it, and to skip the first 19 minutes of introduction by someone I don't know, go here (h/t to Physicalist). See the YT channel for all eight 15 minute segments, but note it is likely to be taken down at some point...

The motion that Hithcns and Blair were to discuss was this. "Be it resolved that religion is a force for good in the world."

Hitchens recently debated William Dembski, and in comparison, this was a far better debate. Blair is actually a worthy opponent to Hitchens, whereas Demsbki is just feckless, really.

Admittedly, Dembski had a much, much harder question to deal with than Blair: "Does a Good God Exist?" This question opens up, and the debate did get deep into, all the good reasons why the very idea of a god is so ridiculous, which is much harder to defend than the question of whether religion is a force for good in the world.

Do go watch - it is a delight to see them both.

A few points I felt like jotting down:

Hitchens mentions the famous quote by Steven Weinberg: "With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion."

I'm now reading Malcolm Gladwell's The tipping Point, in which he makes the point that otherwise well-behaved people can do bad things in the proper context. I agree with this, and would then rather say "for good people to do evil—that takes context (and often that can be religion)." But it can often be that the good people experience distress and fear without religion, and that can lead to evil, too.

But that's about as far as I would disagree with Hitchens today (okay, I also disagree about the invasion (Blair and Hitchens both say "liberation") of Iraq).

Blair, though, brings up the same point quite a few (i.e., many) times, namely that, yes, religion causes many bad things, but many people also do good things exactly because of their religion. Much charity is done by the religious, and, Blair contends, this work is inspired by the faith of the religious. Whatever that exactly means, we can then either surmise that without faith they wouldn't do that, or that they would. If they would, then faith is of no relevance. If they would not, then the question becomes if the good things thus impelled by faith outweighs all the bad ones (which both Blair and Hitchens agree are plentiful). That is an empirical question.

On top of that, if the truth is that people who do charity based on faith would cease to do it if they lost their faith, then that's actually a pretty dismal inference. How uncharming that would be, don't you think?

Blair doesn't seem altogether certain what the answer is, because he manages to both say "fact is that's what motivated them," and that while they might do it anyway, their faith is an impulse to do charitable work. The latter sentiment would seem to give faith a minor role. Does he resolve the ambiguity by saying that "love of fellow human beings [are] bound up with their faith"? I'm not entirely sure what he means, and I'm not sure Blair himself is completely resolved on the issue.

Near the beginning Blair also speaks well of humility, and not so well of "swagger". But, I implore you all, do tell me what it is that is so great about humility. True, people who are not humble can be arrogant. Maybe the idea is that the starving poor would rather not receive sacks of flour with statements like "are the rich countries great or what?" on them? But seriously, are we really sure that humility is such a big issue (it does get mentioned by pretty much all religious people who i have seen debate)? I agree that arrogance is many times a bother, and humility is less confrontational, but it does not, as far as I can see, have much do with the motion of the debate, nor about the truth of the claims of the religious.

Another one from Blair: "Get rid of religion, and you still won't get rid of fanaticism." And that would be true, at least in the century of Stalin and Mao. However, maybe we would get rid of most most most of it? Seem likely to me. Also, turn the statement around: Get rid of fanaticism, and you still won't get rid of religion." That's also true, but you'd get rid of the a lot of it, and I think that speaks volumes. There is no need to debate the extremes; I would like to hear Blair admit that while not all religion is bad, weighing the good vs. the bad does clearly suggest that getting rid of religion would do the whole world a lot more good than bad.

As for the motion, before the debate the vote in the audience was 21% in favor, 56% 57% against, 21% undecided. I don't know what it was afterwards.

Update 11/28: The post-debate vote was 32% in favor, and 68% against. Both increased about 10%. I agree with Larry Moran that this makes it a tie.


  1. I can't help but see Blair coming across as slightly disingenuous, given that he was the man who was prime minister during 9/11. Of course, that's presumably part of the draw of this particular debate ("the 9/11 PM debates that religion is a force for good!"). Still, are we now to believe that Blair thinks religion is actually a force for good? Really? During 9/11 too, Tony?

  2. He does make it clear that religion causes many bad things to happen, but that there are many good things, too. i don't actually disagree with that, but I think question should be what the total effect is, and I'm guessing I then side with Hitchens.

  3. Clearly, religion is a force for good in the world. Let's see: it prevents people from doing heinous and atrocious acts, such as, say, rape little children. So, as a consequence, strongly religious people (say, Priests) are therefore much less likely do engage in such a practice, as I'm sure statistics will show. Right? It's got to be right, no? Because if it didn't prevent THAT, well what the hell is it going to do? Make people pay money to those priests? I mean, beside that?


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