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.