Debating Tony Blair on faith

Last week, atheist author Christopher Hitchens debated the merits of religion with former British prime minister Tony Blair, who converted … Continued

Last week, atheist author Christopher Hitchens debated the merits of religion with former British prime minister Tony Blair, who converted to Catholicism after leaving office. Following are Hitchens’ thoughts about the event. For Tony Blair’s click here.

I am sometimes asked whether I ever get tired of debating the faithful. There are two reasons why I never do. The first is that this argument is at the root of all other arguments: constituting the essential underlay of differences about philosophy, cosmology, history, textual criticism and even medicine. The second is that I never know what my antagonist is going to say, or affirm, or claim to believe.

In any case, there was scant chance of being bored while contesting these matters with Tony Blair. But he did exemplify, to an unusually high degree, the tendency of modern believers to eclecticism and to the public presentation of what often turns out to be a virtually private or personal definition of religion. (I find this doubly odd in the case of a man who went to a lot of trouble to convert to one of history’s more disciplined and rule-bound churches, at a time when its latest pope is striving to reinvigorate a highly traditionalist interpretation, but let that pass for now.)

One can’t do everything with a motion for debate so panoptic that it contains the two words “religion” and “world.” So I was decided to concentrate on exposing or at least undermining the two favorite “talking points” of the soft-centered spiritual. The first of these is their pretend-concession that, yes, terrible things have indeed been done, or even are done, “in the name of religion.” The second is their peculiar idea that if you can change the subject to charitable donation by the faithful, you have somehow scored a point.

The claim that wickedness and stupidity has divine authority is not a claim made by religious fanatics who have hijacked (or in some amusing renditions “high-jacked”) faith for their own purposes. Rather, the authority is found in texts that are the ancestral bedrock of religion and are asserted – because otherwise what is it to be “religious” in the first place, or at all? – to be in some way the word of god. I won’t bore you again with the numerous graphic and horrible examples of this, such as the biblical warrants for slavery, genocide, land-theft, the murder of homosexuals and the subordination of women, or the famous Muslim hadith about the requirement to slay apostates. What about something ostensibly more mild? “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one cometh to the father except by me.” Here we confront the inescapable tones of the exclusive fanatic, by whose poorly-reported teachings alone one may hope for salvation. And the punishments for declining this beautiful offer? Departure into everlasting fire. The rewards? An eternity of praise-giving. Unless Blair and people like him are willing to disown such sinister and totalitarian supernatural claims, they should stop saying that offenses occur “in the name of” their cherished beliefs. Rather, they should have the grace to agree that such offenses are innate and foundational.

I thought it was very decent of Tony Blair, after I had threatened to become repetitively tedious on this point, to concede it in almost so many words. Asked by a young questioner to say what had impressed each of us most in the arguments of the other – a chance to let the Socratic dialectic into the proceedings – he said that I was correct to maintain that the problem is indeed present in the original scriptures. (When it was my turn to answer, I cited some seductive elements of religion that he had not mentioned himself, so please see the transcript.)

As for religious charity and good works, this is not even a bad argument. Examined for a moment, it doesn’t amount to an argument at all. Suppose you observe me debating with an opponent who catches me out in a logical fallacy or an apology for crimes against humanity, or both. Nothing daunted, I have my riposte all prepared. On the way to the symposium or panel, I announce as if proudly laying down my four aces, I handed a fifty dollar bill to a homeless person. Why, I even specified that ten per cent of my donation would be set aside to build a school where the man, and his children, could be taught my own beliefs as if they were true. Now try to tell me that my logic was unsound, or my ethical claims contradicted! When faith reduces you to this level of “debate” you should feel a distinct blush of shame. People tell me that Louis Farrakhan’s “Nation of Islam” rescues young black men from narcotics. I tend to doubt the claim, but even if it were true it would not alter the fact that Farrakhan runs a crackpot racist cult centered on yet another supreme spiritual leader (all of these, you notice, often homicidally opposed to one another).

But without this dud poor-box standby, repeated in his contribution to this page, Blair would evidently feel naked. He did not answer my question about the millions of Africans who have been even further immiserated by the efforts of Roman Catholic “charitable missions” to deprive them of contraception. And to deprive them of it, moreover, in a time of plague that centers on sexual transmission. Indeed, he never rose with any robustness to defend his new allegiance, even though I challenged him on Cardinal Newman – whose beatification he recently helped sponsor – and on several recent instances of Vatican complicity in cruel and unusual doings. So at least he doesn’t exhibit that most tiring of all phenomena; the zeal of the new convert.

I have several times written and said that atheist beliefs are compatible with all sorts of other beliefs as well. Ayn Rand, not all of whose work I admire, was an atheist. Leo Strauss, a philosopher justly admired by conservatives (and by me, when he writes about “Persecution and the Art of Writing”) seems to have been without theistic belief. Some utilitarians like Peter Singer are unbelievers too. I am ready to believe that Mussolini was an atheist, though if that’s true it’s even more disgusting that the Vatican made such a pet of him, along with the Christian fascist dictators like Franco, Salazar, Pavelic and Tiso. The majority of public atheists and secularists in the West have a tendency to associate with a kind of ethical humanism or even leftism, but this is not necessary or entailed. So Blair was quite right to disagree with a position that I do not hold and have in fact never heard argued – that if religion vanished, all our evils and woes would dematerialize along with it. He made a small stab at another hastily-carpentered standby of the faith-based canon, about twentieth-century tyranny being atheistic, but his heart didn’t quite seem to be in it. Everyone knows or should know what Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf about doing the lord’s work. And nobody can find any totalitarian text that says: we can do what we like, and everything is permitted to us, because we have no god on our side. The whole concept of supreme unalterable leadership, as Orwell wrote, is intrinsically theocratic.

That could have been a separate debate, which I am willing to have at any time or place and with any challenger. The same goes for another inexpensive point that is about to run out of traction: the pseudo-clever slogan about atheists being fundamentalists, too. Blair sometimes flirts with this trickery, but to his credit appears to be as ready to drop it as to pick it up. Perhaps somebody will one day identify a single proposition, whether in molecular biology or astrophysics or behavioral science, which any materialist or unbeliever would not discard if it were to be met by overpowering contrary evidence. But until that day dawns, the taunt doesn’t even count as a nice try.

I am sure that neither side in this inescapable, vital argument was represented at its strongest in Toronto last Friday. Still, I would freely say that Tony Blair, a man who has recently had to endure a great deal of thuggery defamation, demonstrated qualities of sincerity, honesty and moral courage: capacities that he will I hope one day decide to deploy in a better cause.

  • aunkmaa

    Excellent Peice Christopher, though I havr to take exception with the Statement you made during the Debate about the US Invasion of IRag. It is not up to those of us who argued against the Invasion to explain, which is absurd, it is you and the Supporters of the Invasion, who have to explain why eliminating a US Puppet Dictator “Saddam Hussein ” was worth the Carnage that follows to this Day was necessary. The UN Weapons Inspectors were in the Country, Saddam was cooperating (Reluctantly)Al Qaeda WAS NOT IN THE COUNTRY until AFTER THE INVASION. Plus this is one of many justifications you have made. You are wrong on that one! Peace my Brotha!

  • bruce18

    Christopher,I note one following fact: everything we know about God has been passed down to us through human action. Since humans are inherently flawed, is it any wonder that some of what we have received is flawed? Finding and highlighting those flaws says more about humans than it does about the existence of God.

  • 44fx2901

    BRUCE18 states the following “…everything we know about God…”. To know anything about god is to presuppose that god exists. If god does not exist, then god is unknowable. You cannot know that which does not exist. Hitchens makes no claim to know anything about god, but only to note that the actions of those who justify their acts in the name of god sometimes have bad outcomes. Hitchens makes no claim about god, because it would be fruitless for him to do so, because he cannot comment upon that which does not exist.People have done great things and awful things in the name of religion. To that end it is no different than any other human endeavor, other than those who espouse religion applaud its virtues. Hitchens point is that it is the fact that many claim religion as virtuous that brings it into especial criticism. If it was some other activity which did not claim such virtuosity for itself his claims would fall on deaf ears.

  • Gladiator2008

    Atheists have correctly pointed out the fallacy of the argument of the faithful, that because God has cannot be proven NOT to exist, he therefore automatically does exist by default. However, if the religious argument is fallacious, then so too must be the converse: that because God has can’t be proven to exist, he therefore automatically does not. The point is not that one side is “right” and the other “wrong”, but simply that we don’t have enough information based on the evidence to draw a conclusion, one way or the other. In the absence of sufficient evidence, each of us is left to our own beliefs. Some would say that is the way God intended it to be, as a test of faith, while others would simply say it proves there’s nobody home up there.Science itself doesn’t exactly clarify the matter either. Mechanically speaking, even a single cell organism is more complex than the most complicated machine man has yet devised (though that will probably change sometime this century). The DNA molecule itself, on which life on this planet is based, bears a striking resemblance to an incredibly sophisticated computer program. Yet conventional biology leads us to believe that all this appeared in random fashion over the eons, a process analogized to the chimpanzee, which, given a typewriter, eventually will produce all the works of Shakespeare. Yet, when one considers that analogy more closely, from a mathematical standpoint it seems unlikely: each letter in the play increases the odds against by a exponential power of 26 (26 letters in the alphabet, which is generous, leaving out capitalization and punctuation). Continuing the analogy, it seems implausible given those astronomical odds that our would-be Shakespearean chimp could get beyond the first act of MacBeth, even given the span of a trillion years to try.The notion that life here, which is even more complex than Shakespeare’s works, somehow randomly appeared seems to me to be even less likely, rather akin to a tornado spontaneously assembling a fully functional 747 jetliner out of thin air. From a purely mechanical standpoint, its hard to escape the conclusion that some sort of intelligence is behind all this. Whether that intelligence is “God” or some sort of super advanced alien lifeform is impossible to say. This is all my own personal belief, of course; there’s no evidence to support it, but like I said, none of us really have any evidence. So I put forward my own belief, for whatever it’s worth.


    I find it continuously amazing that Believers equate believing there is a God with believing there is not a God as equivalent and what non believers create as their “religion”! And it is simply not true!There is no equivalency of “proving” there is no God to the requirement of Believers to “prove” there is a God! The total burden is on the Believer…sorry! My not being able to “prove” there is no God; does not mean anything in regard to believing there is a God! Certainly, not a separate and independent creator God diddling with his creation to achieve eternal adoration and subjugation!

  • Freestinker

    Bruce,Hitchens makes no claims about the existence of god(s). The onus is always on those who make a positive claim like “God exists” to provide reliable, supporting evidence for such a claim. Otherwise the default position must be that it is either unknown, unknowable, or just plain false until proven true.Scriptures were indeed written by men, not god(s), so of course they are fallible and sometimes cruel, just like the men who wrote them. And until someone provides irrefutable evidence for the existence of god(s), it is completely reasonable to doubt or even reject such a claim as totally unfounded speculation (a wild guess at best).All three Abrahamic religions are intrinsically evil at their core. Says so in the scriptures, right there in black and white. If this is because the men who wrote the scriptures were intrinsically evil or if it is because god(s) themselves are intrinsically evil, we may never know.In my opinion, Santa Claus is a much more benevolent fellow, except of course for those stockings filled with coal … but I digress.

  • Frank57

    Here was Blair, arguing for faith in fairies, and I suppose as good a representative for that ideal as any, and there we had Hitchens, arguing the reverse and arguably no better than any of several atheists on tap.But, insofar as one can debate the illogic of believing in unprovable deities, to call it a ‘debate’ is farcical. We are pretty sure where Tony stands — personal view of faith or not. On the other hand, we cannot be so sure of Hitchens. Hitchens is an avowed atheist, but this does not mean he is also a humanist (and it appears he is not), whereas perhaps the best example of an atheist/humanist would be Dawkins — Richard Dawkins would have been a better opponent to Tony in this ‘show’.Hitchens is that form of atheist that, as far as humanism is concerned, is entirely cynical and, in the ‘Ayn Randian’ sense, is entirely about himself.”Leo Strauss, a philosopher justly admired by conservatives (and by me…” Here is Hitchens, an atheist who admires a man who said: “those who are fit to rule are those who realize there is no morality and that there is only one natural right – the right of the superior to rule over the inferior.”So, we have a ‘philosopher’ named Leo Strauss, admired by Hitchens, who somehow believes:1- Those who are fit to rule realize there is no morality. (Really? So, one is only fit to rule if one voids oneself of morality?)2- There is only one natural right — the right of the superior to rule over the inferior. (But who decides who is inferior? The rich? The intelligentsia? The police? Doesn’t this then lead to massive paranoia and infighting between the equal ‘superiors’ using the ‘inferior’ as cannon fodder? Where have we seen this before?)Hitchens will defend the light-headed Ms. Rand — a petit Russian immigrant all aglow in the lights of Broadway and the new existentialist chaos, gleefully espouse the pedestrian, patently obvious, Darwin/Plato-extrapolated goo mouthed by the dilettante Strauss, then will go on as usual to tout the ‘logic’ of justifying war with Iraq.So, I believe choosing Hitchens for this show was a mistake and a blew a good chance for humanists to make their case. Crackpot atheists are, as are crackpot religionists, a dime a dozen — even those as articulate as Hitchens. I hope the world doesn’t judge all atheists as ‘Hitchenites’.This ‘debate’ would have been much better served if a real humanist had taken Hitchen’s place — it was like watching a a sock-hop dance between a child and a clockwork automaton.Mr. Hitchens, my sympathies toward your illness, but as well-versed and as articulate as you are, you didn’t fit in this. Had Blair the mind, he could have torn you and your neo-conservative atheism apart in short order. He could have waved your eugenically perfect vision of humanity’s future around like a beacon for the teetering masses — therein lay your weakness. For this atheist, a complete and utter waste of time, really.

  • Freestinker

    Atheists have correctly pointed out the fallacy of the argument of the faithful, that because God has cannot be proven NOT to exist, he therefore automatically does exist by default. However, if the religious argument is fallacious, then so too must be the converse: that because God has can’t be proven to exist, he therefore automatically does not. Gladiator2008,If I claim Santa Claus exists, it’s up to me to prove it. And if I can’t prove it what are you to conclude? … Santa Clause (in all likelihood) does not exist!Same for god(s). Now I suppose there is some infinitesimally small chance that Santa Claus and/or god(s) really do exist but that probability is so unlikely as to be considered practically negligible. Does Zeus exist? Hydra? Athena? How about ghosts? Goblins? Fairies? Satan? Leprechauns? … and the practically infinite list, which includes every single supernatural being ever conceived by man, goes on and on … Sure they might exist, but probably not. Either way, the burden of proof is always on the believer, every single time. Otherwise, it is not at all unreasonable to call B.S. on such fanciful supernatural claims.Got some evidence for your god? Then post it up. Otherwise, I’m calling B.S.!And the complexity and order we see in nature is more than adequately explained by evolutionary biology. Is biological evolution “intelligent”? Evidently so.

  • ThomasBaum

    Gladiator2008You wrote, “From a purely mechanical standpoint, its hard to escape the conclusion that some sort of intelligence is behind all this. Whether that intelligence is “God” or some sort of super advanced alien lifeform is impossible to say.”If it was the “super advanced alien lifeform” where did the “super advanced alien lifeform” come from or was it just always there, wherever there is?Was the “super advanced alien lifeform” always super advanced or did it start out simpler?Except for something always being or something being created, what else can there be?Did matter and/or energy always exist?You also wrote, “Atheists have correctly pointed out the fallacy of the argument of the faithful, that because God has cannot be proven NOT to exist, he therefore automatically does exist by default.”I have not heard this argument being presented in this way at all even tho some may have advanced it.What I, personally, have said, is that science has not “proved” that God does not exist therefore for one to say that they “know” that there is no God is putting forth a totally unscientific statement.When I say that I “know” that God Is, it is because God revealed to me that God Is, many people say that they know that God Is when what they really mean is that they believe that God Is maybe even fervently believe that God Is.There is a difference between the meaning of “know” and “believe” and many people use them erroneously interchangeably.A case in point, recently I heard in a homily that we know that Jesus rose from the dead, well, I don’t know that Jesus rose from the dead but I do believe it, however, I do know that the Catholic Eucharist is Jesus since the Holy Spirit revealed this to me.Take care, be ready.Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.

  • bjornostman

    Frank57, seems somewhat like you’re quote mining here. The full quote gives a different meaning than what you intend:”Leo Strauss, a philosopher justly admired by conservatives (and by me, when he writes about “Persecution and the Art of Writing”) seems to have been without theistic belief.”That is, in one specific case does Hitchens admire Strauss. That you deliberately misconstrue his statement is suspicious. Hitchens deliberately makes the point that atheism is shared among among whom he does not share other views with, such as Rand and Strauss, and you take it exactly opposite. How come?

  • Frank57

    bjornostman:Perhaps it appears that I am “quote mining” to you, but it is a matter of fact that Hitchens supports those radically conservative views — he admits this himself — as he also openly supports the invasion of Iraq — supporting that terribly unwise, needless and dreadfully expensive (in both dollars and lives) war.One can fairly well state that Strauss is an atheist from his statement: “…the elite should use deception, religious fervor and perpetual war to control the ignorant masses.”One can presume that, taking this sort of pedestrian intellectualism to it’s furthermost cynical extremes produces the above rationale.Unless we are seeing a new wave of the pious who readily admit their religions are all about control of the weak-minded, Strauss is a non-theist, as well as the ultimate cynic.Having read most of his works, I have concluded that Hitchens steadfastly equates and thus condemns any sort of human altruism to faith. I’d love to hear any refutation he might make to this (if he has any).For Strauss and his ilk, altruism has no place in society except as a tool used to control the “ignorant masses.”So, my point is that the debate would have been better served for we atheists by not having Hitchens here as our point-man. He is not the best man to carry the humanist flag forward, based upon his happily admitted fascist views. You say my views make you suspicious. What is doubly suspicious is Hitchens’ support of the radical right and their elitist doctrine, via Strauss and that bevy of cigar-room philosophers, who at one point became simply too intoxicated with their fortune-allotted power and largely still are.Blair should have gone on to ask: “You deny faith, but yet you have faith in some rather questionable doctrine yourself. Why then is my faith so different than yours?”I am an absolute atheist, and a well known (in my circle) secular humanist. Let’s get something straight — atheists often disagree on a myriad of issues, and I have my disagreements with Hitchens. To argue against faith-based practices is one thing, but to do so while in tacit support of wayward conservative political doctrine, which is a kind of faith in an absurdity, is an illegitimate platform from which to speak — as many freshman theologians would easily spy.This debate — juvenile and boring; ultimately fruitless.

  • areyousaying

    Levi Strauss was an atheist?Oh my Lord! I’ve been wearing godless denim all my life.

  • BarryK1


  • dougie_will

    Bruce 18 and Frank 57 – you both seem to think the debate was about the existence of God. It wasn’t. It was about whether religion is a force for good in the world.