The Munk debate between Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens just finished, and I feel the need to weigh in. For those who are unaware, the debate was about the statement that “religion is a force for good in the world.” Saying yes was Tony Blair, former British PM and founder of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, which seeks dialogue between the world’s major religions. On the “no” side was renowned atheist and current cancer patient Christopher Hitchens, author of the book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Some initial comments, and then I’ll get into my own position on this.
First, Christopher Hitchens has cancer. It’s great that he agreed to participate in this debate in spite of this, but I think the amount of time spent on it at the beginning did him a disservice. While we appreciate the man, we’re here to evaluate his arguments, not his health, and he really does not require any excuse for doing a poor job – indeed, he was much more professional, both in his attitude and the quality of his arguments, than I had anticipated. Tony Blair, on the other hand, was introduced as the man who has done the most for good in the world in the past few decades; who can live up to that? Unfortunately, Blair’s Faith Foundation is a pluralistic foundation, and essentially requires him to reduce his concept of religion to the “essence of all religions” – a phrase he repeated probably more than a dozen times – which amounts to loving and serving God through doing good in the world. There was some tallying of charity and atrocities in the name of religion during the first half, with Blair finally (and repeatedly) making the point that religion doesn’t have a monopoly on atrocity and atheists do it too; and with Hitchens finally getting around to the obvious point that many of the wrongs he kept pointing out are not the result of misinterpretation of scriptures but of belief in them (which is arguable, but he argued it with convincing zeal). Both sides told stories of their own humanitarian work, both claiming that people were motivated either by religion (Blair) or the simple human desire to do good (Hitchens), with someone from the audience finally pointing out (in the form of a question) that they were both talking roughly about exactly the same thing.
Overall, I was disappointed. Not with Hitchens; he was surprisingly well-mannered at most points, and for the most part gave credit where it was due – though when asked what he felt Blair’s most convincing argument was, he didn’t offer much at all. Blair was a disappointment mostly because of his definition of religion: it was very vague, and almost indistinguishable from humanism inspired by a sense of the transcendent, which was something that Hitchens himself would obviously grant as important. In the end, his one and only argument was “religion inspires some people to do good in the world, and we ought to encourage that even though it may inspire others to bad things.” At the very least, that’s how it came across (with the help of Hitchens, who steered the whole debate).
The faults of arguing that religion is a force for good in the world seems too obvious to me, and I’m shocked that nobody picked up on it at the debate: religion itself is not a force at all, whether for good or evil. Religion itself is a human understanding of and response to God, and like all human endeavours it is both flawed and insufficient, and often inconsistent to boot. Religion can be used for good or evil, just like a knife or NATO or economics. For every example Hitchens gave of atrocities and conflicts caused or supported by religion, Blair gave an example of religion being a primary force in bringing resolution to that same conflict. The reason is not that religion is somehow good or evil, but that people are good or evil, at any given moment.
Religion is something invented by human beings, and it can be used for whatever purpose we put it to. Jesus Christ did not invent Christianity; he revealed God to us, and we set up a system to venerate him and propagate his message – but that message itself is not religion. Neither Blair nor Hitchens brought up the actual content of the Christian message, at least in part because they were supposed to debate religion in general but also quite likely because it’s easy to dismiss claims that Jesus himself gave a message of subjugating people or starting wars or performing atrocities. It is not Christ who causes atrocities, but human beings; the fact that we are sometimes armed with disturbing notions of Christ and his teaching says nothing about Christ himself. Hitchens did point out that the atrocities of the Bible are in large part in the Old Testament, and he lamented the fact that we elected to keep it as a part of our scriptures; Blair countered by saying that events of the distant past seem strange to us, and are not easily understood by people today. Both acknowledged that the OT seems to demand atrocities of people; Blair offered no explanation, and Hitchens likely insists that there is none necessary, that the OT and religion itself is barbaric. But in either case, to put the praise or blame for the actions of human beings on a system and understanding that human beings created is actually the reverse of what they were both trying to say: Blair insists that religion inspires us to do good things, and Hitchens insists that it requires us to do bad, both resting those arguments on a system that we created and continue to control to whatever good or evil purposes are within us.
There are real forces acting in the world today, for good and for evil. For evil, there are powers and principalities in the heavenly realms, social and cultural forces that affect our every decision, and sin within us that turns us to evil. For all of these things, religion is a tool to encourage evil. They use it to discourage the good things such as reason, truth, humility, charity, etc. – all things that Hitchens claims religion does away with. Blair is hard put upon to counter that claim, because religion itself is in the hands of these forces, a system in a fallen world of fallen systems.
On the other hand, God himself is a force for good, and religion attempts to describe him. Religion is good when it describes God’s goodness in a way that inspires us to also be good or do good, namely, participating in what God is doing in the world. When religion is bad, it fails to describe God at all. When it fails to perform this purpose, we could actually say that it ceases to be religion, and the claim that religion is bad evaporates. Illegitimate religion needs its own term, I suppose, but in a pluralistic society (such as the one Blair represents with his Faith Foundation) it would amount to the same thing, with everyone claiming that everyone else’s religion is actually this illegitimate religion. So, in a way, Blair was doomed from the start: his insistence on relating to a set of core values that are supposed to represent every religion leaves him no room to define illegitimate religion except by the terms of humanism, which is Hitchens’ field. Thus religion, like humanism, must be a force for good or evil itself rather than simply pointing to what God is doing, because we become unable to point to God himself and maintain a pluralist notion of religion’s good “essence”.
In short, true religion describes what God is doing and invites participation in that. In that sense, religion is not a force in the world at all, but points to the true force, God, who himself inspires us to do good. Hitchens wins, not because the atrocities committed in the name of God outweigh the good done in his name, but because secularism and pluralism set the terms of a debate that in the end had almost nothing to do with God. Post debate, the tally stands at 32% pro (believing that religion is a force for good in the world) and 68% con (pre-debate was 22% pro, 57% con, and 21% undecided); but given the terms of the debate, I’d say the whole thing misses the mark. Without pointing to God, religion not only is not necessarily a force for good in the world, but it isn’t really much of anything at all.