Reports: Blair-Hitchens debate

UPDATE:  As James Cameron reports in the comments below, the full transcript of the debate is online here (note that there are three parts).

Associated Press (the most thorough report):

“Is it good for the world to worship a deity that takes sides in wars and human affairs, to appeal to our fear and to our guilt – is it good for the world?” Hitchens said in his opening remarks.

“To terrify children with the image of hell … to consider women an inferior creation. Is that good for the world?” Hitchens asked as he opened the debate hosted by the Munk Debates center.

Though his face was pale and drawn, and his trademark mop of unruly hair gone, he was no less animated than usual in spite of his battle with cancer of the esophagus. He said earlier Friday that he scheduled his chemotherapy treatments around the debate so he “wouldn’t have to let anyone down,”

“This is what I do whether I’m sick or not. (Religion) is still the main argument,” said Hitchens who has made it known that his diagnosis has not opened him to God or religious belief.

The Guardian:

Both men were unabashedly stalwart in their positions. Hitchens, one of the leading “new atheists” and author of the hit book God Is Not Great, slammed religion as nothing more than supernatural gobbledegook that caused untold misery throughout human history. “Once you assume a creator and a plan it make us subjects in a cruel experiment,” Hitchens said before causing widespread laughter by comparing God to “a kind of divine North Korea”.

Blair, perhaps not surprisingly, was a little less forthright. On the backfoot for much of the debate he kept returning to his theme that many religious people all over the world were engaged in great and good works. They did that because of their faith, he argued, and to slam all religious people as ignorant or evil was plain wrong. “The proposition that religion is unadulterated poison is unsustainable,” he said. Blair called religion at its best “a benign progressive framework by which to live our lives”.

Throughout the 90-minute debate Hitchens seemed to have the crowd’s sympathy. That might have been to do with his ill appearance due to cancer, but was far more likely to be down to the sharpness of his verbal barbs and the fact that 57% of the audience already agreed with his sceptical position according to a pre-debate poll, while just 22% agreed with Blair’s side. The rest were undecided.

57% of the audience agreed with Hitchens beforehand! Well, maybe the debate drew a biased sample, but I still find that amazing—and heartening!

And here’s a New Year’s present: the AP reports that “BBC World News and the News Channel will broadcast the debate on Jan., 1 2011.”

The Winnipeg Free Press:

Preliminary results posted on the Munk Debates website from an audience poll suggest Hitchens won the debate, with 68 per cent of those who handed in a ballot at the end of the night saying they favoured the con side and 32 per cent agreeing with Blair.

Both, however, seemed to sway many people to their way of thinking, as ballots submitted before the debate put the audience of 2,700 at 57 per cent con, 22 per cent pro and 21 per cent undecided.  .  .

Hitchens, a columnist for Vanity Fair and author of “God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” said for religion to be a force for good it would have to first give up all supernatural claims. He proposed a “pact with the faithful.”

“As long as you don’t want your religion taught to my children in school, given a government subsidy, imposed on me by violence, any of these things — you are fine by me,” he said.

27 Comments

  1. Jeff Hebert
    Posted November 27, 2010 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    I believe the 21% undecided were before the debate (emphasis added):

    …ballots submitted before the debate put the audience of 2,700 at 57 per cent con, 22 per cent pro and 21 per cent undecided.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted November 27, 2010 at 7:11 am | Permalink

      Fixed, thanks.

  2. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted November 27, 2010 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    … said for religion to be a force for good it would have to first give up all supernatural claims.

    So for religion to be good, it would have to cease to be religion.(?)

    • Nick Andrew
      Posted November 27, 2010 at 7:52 am | Permalink

      They can keep the charities and funny hats.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 27, 2010 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      Religion can still be like knitting or the giant circle jerk it looks to be anyway.

      Mind, there will still be faith systems, like utopianism, political ideologies or your favorite football team.

      I guess there has to be a separation specifically for religion, because its claims is even nuttier and more harmful than thinking the Buffalo Bills will win a league championship.

  3. James Cameron
    Posted November 27, 2010 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    A transcript of the debate can be found here:
    http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/the-staggers/2010/11/christopher-hitchens-tony-blair

  4. Posted November 27, 2010 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    Nice post. I would not have known about this debate but for seeing this.

  5. Tulse
    Posted November 27, 2010 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    The 57% con is actually lower than the Canadian average — a world poll on the question of whether religion is a force for good had 64% of Canadian responding “no”. And yes, I am inexpressibly pleased with my fellow Canucks’ godlessness.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 27, 2010 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

      Hell, we [Sweden] *would* place last! (O.o)

      …, so, okay, I’m fairly pleased too. I just don’t like the exceptionalness. At worst it can only go downhill from here.

      [Or it already has. I wonder how we would have placed if the poll would have been a few years back, before the multicultural society (finally!) started grow here?]

  6. Helen Wise
    Posted November 27, 2010 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Thanks very much for posting the transcript link, Mr. Cameron.

    I’m really looking forward to reading this.

    • beechnut
      Posted November 27, 2010 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

      Seconded.

  7. Matt Penfold
    Posted November 27, 2010 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    What annoyed me was Blair’s use of the no true Scotsman fallacy. He claimed that when people do bad things in the name of religion it is because they are not following real religion, but when people do good it is because they are following real religion.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 27, 2010 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      Well, Blair *was* born in Edinburgh, and part time raised in Glasgow. If he won’t use the “argument”, who would?

    • Notagod
      Posted November 27, 2010 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

      Blair [Iraq invasion]: It was not about religious faith.

      Most christians that I talked to during the run up to the invasion of Iraq were sure it was the fulfillment of christian prophesy. They don’t talk like that now though. I also remember lots of religious talk from the congress critters during the build up. At the very least religion was used to sell the war to the United States public.

  8. Ken Pidcock
    Posted November 27, 2010 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    Blair seemed to concede from the start. He knows that religion is not a force for good in the world, and all that he can claim is that good people who are religious believe that they are good because they are religious.

    It all depends, I guess, what your experience of religious people is. My experience of the people I was with last week in Africa, that include deeply religious people; not actually that they’re doing what they’re doing because of heaven and hell, they’re doing it for love of their fellow human beings, and that’s, I think, something very fine. What’s more, that they believe that this love of their fellow human beings is bound up with their faith, so it’s not something, you know, yes, of course, it is absolutely true, they might decide to do this, irrespective of the fact that they have religious faith, but their faith, they feel, is an impulse to do that good.

    Not a coherent position, I think.

    • MadScientist
      Posted November 27, 2010 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

      Aside from the arguments from exception and the arguments from emotion which pervaded Blair’s speeches, there is this:

      Hitchens: “Why can’t we get it [peace between Israel/Palestine], the UN, the US, the quartet, the PLO, the Israeli parliament can’t get it, why not? Because the parties of God have a veto on it, and everybody knows this is true.”

      Blair: “… the reason we don’t have an agreement at the moment between Palestinians and Israelis is not to do with the religious leaders on either side, it’s a lot more to do with the political leaders …”

      And Blair yet again: “But you know, the religious leadership can play a part in this, for example, I don’t think you will get a resolution of the issue of Jerusalem, which is a sacred and holy city to all three Abrahamic faiths, unless people of faith are prepared to try and find common ground, so they are entitled to worship in the way that they wish.”

      So here we have Blair#2 contradicting Blair#1 and agreeing with Hitchens. There will never be peace in Israel so long as religion has a veto.

      • MadScientist
        Posted November 27, 2010 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

        I’d just like to add that the Israeli politicians blocking any peace agreements are doing it either because of their own religious beliefs (such as in the case of Netanyahu) or they are doing it because of the influence of religious groups. Like Blair, they can make up any number of lame excuses about why they are blocking the proposals and manage to leave the mention of religion, which is the true reason, out of it. For example, the biggest lame excuse is “security” – as if Israel can’t bomb the hell out of Palestinian territory simply because they recognize Palestine as a sovereign state.

  9. MadScientist
    Posted November 27, 2010 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    Tony is just so dreary and fuzzy-minded and never addresses an issue – unless your idea of addressing an issue consists of irrelevant and unsubstantiated claims and strawmen. Just a few comments – not that anyone has asked:

    “The message of the prophet Mohammed, saving one life is as if you’re saving the whole of humanity …”

    Oh please Tony, I crave condescension! Patronize me! Patronize me! I always thought the message of the prophet Mohammed was “it’s OK for me to rape, pillage, rob, and lie – but don’t you ******* try that shit on me.”

    “… Sikh insistence on respect for others of another faith. That in my view is the true face of faith.”

    The Sikhs are a marginalized religion and suffer persecution and discrimination in many places. So it is this minority who show the “true face of faith”? How about the many faiths which condemn the Sikhs? I guess they must be Atheists in Disguise.

    I find it very difficult to read Tony Blair’s parts without screaming and cursing – what he says is either an irrelevant distraction at best or else outright lies. Personally I would give Blair a failing grade for his poor writing skills. Essays (and the speeches of an honest debate) are meant to provide factual statements to support an idea. Blair demonstrates that he is incapable of writing so much as a single coherent paragraph. I will try to get through the Blair Drivel, but I doubt I would miss anything of significance if I simply ignored what Blair had to say and only read Hitchens’ parts.

  10. Thanny
    Posted November 27, 2010 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Call my a cynic, but I think virtually all of the “undecided” people were actually quite decided. They chose that answer because they considered it good form to take the neutral position before a debate (or something of that nature).

    I don’t think we can conclude anything about swayed opinions based on the before and after numbers.

    • MadScientist
      Posted November 27, 2010 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

      I agree that many may have had an opinion before walking through the door and that they said “no opinion” as a matter of principle, but I don’t believe that they would necessarily vote for the position that they were for initially. I would bet many of those people would have voted for Blair if they had decided that he provided convincing arguments for his position – even though they do walk out the door still believing that Blair was full of it and hadn’t changed their real life opinion. I would rather have far more such people in the audience.

      • Posted November 27, 2010 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

        Yes, and it turns out, if you watch the video, that 75% of all the people who had formed prior opinions stated they were willing to change their minds should the debater taking the opposite side convince them (doesn’t look like that happened, though).

        • MadScientist
          Posted November 27, 2010 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

          That’s the problem with these poll numbers – it doesn’t indicate how many people switched sides. However, I’d be surprised if any of the 57% or 22% changed sides. I’d say the 57% had no good reason to change sides anyway, but the 22% came in as cheerleaders for Blair. It’s like any creationist debate – the creationists say they’ll change their mind if provided with evidence, and they they turn on their mental filters.

  11. Lee
    Posted November 27, 2010 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    If all you cheapos are interested 😉

    Munk Debate with Tony Blair and the Devil

    • nick bobick
      Posted November 27, 2010 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

      Skip the first vid and you will save yourself 13 minutes of listening to an incredibly dull introduction. TB and Hitch don’t appear on stage until about 14 1/2 minutes in.

  12. Joe Fasulo
    Posted November 29, 2010 at 6:39 am | Permalink

    What Blair fails to mention and Hitchens also does not mention is the financial benefits to “faith” especially in the area of the time and minimal investments in missionary work. The organizations who fund individuals do so with a. already established enthusiasm of the very ignorant youth they recruit b. the tax benefits in the state’s and other nation’s tax codes c. the potential in the recruitment of those people that are helped even if they are helped minimally.

    Also I have never heard Mr. Hitchens ask his opponents just how they demonstrate behaviorally their faith or is it just verbal. Do they in fact and in demonstration practice their faith or do they just go through the motions. What specifically do they do?

  13. Dominic
    Posted November 29, 2010 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    Interestingly this morning (Monday 29th) on Radio 4 (UK) the ‘religious commentator’ Clifford Longley said that the debate was missing the point. To precis his argument, he claims that god & the church etc are more interested in saving souls from eternal damnation than in saving bodies etc in the here & now. So accept JC as saviour or you are doomed!
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/programmes/thought/week.shtml
    This shows once again why accommodationists are so wrong.

    Did anyone else note that Hitchens paraphrased the Elizabethan poet Fulke Greville? I am sure deliberately.
    “Created sick, commanded to be sound”? Greville goes on in a later line,
    “If Nature did not take delight in blood,
    She would have made more easy ways to good.”


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