So, Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens had a debate recently about whether religion is a force for good in the world.
I’ve created a playlist for all the clips below. It’s pretty good, and Hitchens is still right on his game, despite his health. I particularly appreciated Hitchens’ argument that the way to end poverty is to empower women. It’s worth a listen.
Tony Blair continued making two arguments throughout the debate that I just do not understand. I mean, I don’t think either of them actually help support his point that religion is a good thing to have.
The first was the idea that faith is good because lots of people already have faith. Since we can’t convince everyone to suddenly not have faith, we should encourage people who have faith to apply that faith in good ways.
Is this really an argument for anything? This is the same argument people make to support smoking. They say, Oh, well lots of people are smokers (i.e. addicted to smoking), so we should just let them keep smoking. Umm, no! Sorry smokers. Your habit is gross and makes me sneeze. Go outside, keep your tar clouds away, and yes, keep trying to quit!
Just because people have faith doesn’t mean faith is good! Like Tim Minchin says in his song White Wine in the Sun, “I don’t believe just because ideas are tenacious that they’re worthy.” This argument is really a concession. It doesn’t demonstrate anything at all about the difference faith makes, just that we’re stuck with it, so we ought to try to make the most of it. If anything, it sounds more like a strategy for coping with the persistence of faith.
The other argument he made a lot is that though some people use religion for bad things, some people also use religion for good things. This is not a good argument in favor of religion. It actually demonstrates how pointless religion is. If it can be used for both good and bad, then it doesn’t make a difference at all! It just is.
My argument has long been that there are no unique benefits to religion/faith. None of Mr. Blair’s arguments challenge that claim at all. Sure, some people do good things inspired by their faith, but so what? Plenty of people do good things without faith, and honestly, they’re often better things in the absence of proselytization.
If you are supporting the claim that religion is a force for good, you have to be able to demonstrate that there is something we get from faith that we could not get without it. Given that there are plenty of bad things that are unique to religion—the very suspension of critical thinking that faith requires is itself a detractor—I really don’t think Mr. Blair had much to offer. Admittedly, my expectations were not high given that his opening statement included mention of Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot, hackneyed jabs at atheism that don’t hold up (and which Hitchens didn’t even bother addressing). It’s not surprising that Mr. Hitchens successfully swayed a much larger percentage of the audience than did Mr. Blair.
The debate is not short, but throw the playlist on and listen while you’re at work. Share your own thoughts about these arguments or other things that are said in the discussion.