Two Arguments for Faith I Don’t Get (Blair vs. Hitchens)

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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.

httpvp://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=45A081C92957109B

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There are 9 Comments to "Two Arguments for Faith I Don’t Get (Blair vs. Hitchens)"

  • Buffy says:

    The first was the idea that faith is good because lots of people already have faith.

    Argumentum ad populum. This one is used often by believers. “84% of Americans are Christian so it’s obviously true”. “The majority of Americans believe in banning gay marriage so we’re obviously right”. Once upon a time the majority of people thought the sun moved around the earth and that disease was transmitted by smell (later witchcraft). The majority can be amazingly stupid. They voted twice for GWB after all.

    Just because a majority of people believe something doesn’t make them right. Furthermore it’s folly to encourage ignorance just to avoid upsetting the status quo.


    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.

    People can use religion for good things, but the few good things that arise from religion can easily be obtained from other things (secular charities, non-religious ethical training, etc). We’d greatly benefit from unchaining ourselves from the evils it brings to the world, which far outweigh any potential benefits it brings. If religion were an actual drug it would never get FDA approval because the risks far outweigh the benefits, and the injuries/deaths it has left in its wake would bankrupt the manufacturer.

  • Ben Finney says:

    I’m no fan of Blair’s arguments, nor his position on religious belief.

    Your argument, though, is also flawed:

    though some people use religion for bad things, some people also use religion for good things.… If it can be used for both good and bad, then it doesn’t make a difference at all!

    Clearly it can make a difference, despite being used for both good and bad things. Medicine, for example can be used for good purposes and bad purposes; would you conclude that therefore medicine “doesn’t make a difference at all”?

    Maybe you mean something else by that; if so, I’d love to see it updated in the article.

    • ZackFord says:

      I was simply making the point that the good and bad things cancel each other out. You can’t successfully call something good by pointing out that it’s also bad.

      • Ben Finney says:

        the good and bad things [of religion] cancel each other out

        I feared that was your position. But how does that follow?

        The analogy with medicine was meant to make this distinction clear. There are good results and bad results; that doesn’t mean they cancel each other out. I would think it obvious that the good vastly outweighs the bad, in the case of medicine.

        Or are you of the opinion that human well-being would be unchanged overall if humanity were to suddenly be without all medicine tomorrow? That’s the only was I can see compatibility with your inference from “there is good and bad” to “the good and bad cancel each other out”. I find that position absurd, I hope you do to, in which case I hope you mean something else.

        • ZackFord says:

          See, I don’t think the metaphor of medicine works at all, and here’s why.

          The whole concept of medicine exists because we empirically proved its benefits from the outset. Here’s an herb that heals! We can prove that. And we proved that a lot of “medicine” did NOT work, and thus it’s no longer medicine (like, oh, blood letting). We figured out it was good BEFORE we started promoting it as a good thing.

          Your argument (and Mr. Blair’s) rests on the assumption that religion already is good. But the question being debated is just that: Is religion a force for good in the world? I think it’s safe to assume that for the question to be meaningful, it would need to be proven that religion does more good than bad, as opposed to just doing any good. There would be no such debate over whether medicine is good; it’s not in question that medicine is a good thing because if it weren’t, it wouldn’t be called medicine! For religion, the foundational question is still up for grabs.

          Let’s instead use an impartial variable to consider the argument: widgets. Are widgets a force for good in the world? Well, widgets are responsible for both bad things and good things. Okay then, do the good outweigh and outnumber the bad? Would the good things continue without the widgets? Would the bad? Would the ratio of good things to bad things be higher WITH widgets or without widgets?

          To simply say, “widgets are responsible for both bad things and good things” does not actually answer the question of whether widgets are good things. This certainly might look different if you have an initial assumption that widgets are good, as you and Mr. Blair seem to with religion. But that is bias, not any kind of effective argument.

          • Ben Finney says:

            You seem to have mistaken me for someone who agrees with Blair’s position. I invite you to read my comment starting this thread; I disagree with his position.

            But I’m also disagreeing with your statement in the article, as I quoted in my first comment. Here it is again:

            though some people use religion for bad things, some people also use religion for good things.… If it can be used for both good and bad, then it doesn’t make a difference at all!

            You contradict that in the comment I’m replying to:

            Are widgets a force for good in the world? Well, widgets are responsible for both bad things and good things. Okay then, do the good outweigh and outnumber the bad? Would the good things continue without the widgets? Would the bad? Would the ratio of good things to bad things be higher WITH widgets or without widgets?

            All of that acknowledges that widgets (and by analogy, religion) does make a difference. On that we agree. I’d appreciate your fixing the article’s statement to the contrary.

          • ZackFord says:

            I don’t think religion makes a difference, at least not for the better. I see a lot of unique bads and no unique goods. The argument in question does nothing to support the question being debated. We do not agree, and I stand by what I wrote.

    • Mark says:

      I would say it is more important to point out that medicine when used correctly is good and when abused is bad. The same is true of religion. When followed as it should, it is good. When abused for ones own personal gain it is bad.

      • ZackFord says:

        And who determines how it “should” be followed? I would point out that standards for medicinal use are based on science, research, and critical thinking, and the resulting impacts are empirically measurable in nature, both good or bad.

        So should we start using scientific thinking to assess how to properly use religion? I’d be all for that.

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