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Blair vs. Hitchens debates up a holy storm

by admin November 29, 2010

In the long-running discussion over faith and the role it plays in society, the atheist side appeared to have fought a winning battle last Friday night.

Former British prime minister Tony Blair and author Christopher Hitchens debated the resolution “that religion is a force for good in the world” on Friday night at the Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto. The event, sponsored by businessman and philanthropist Peter Munk, had 2,700 people in attendance and streamed live to many more over the Internet.

Blair converted to Catholicism after he left his tenure as British prime minister. Since then, he established the Tony Blair Faith Foundation as a move to encourage inter-faith discussion. Hitchens is a British-born journalist, known for his work with Vanity Fair magazine, and an avowed atheist. Hitchens highlighted the negative outcomes of religion, such as persecution and ignorance. Blair’s arguments focused in on the charity work that religious organizations have wrought, while Hitchens’ rebuttal was that all humans have an innate sense of treating others with respect, and that religious authority is not needed to enforce that.

According to those in attendance at Concordia’s screening, and to observers around the world, Hitchen’s argument was the most convincing. “I was just thinking, Hitchens is standing up there, dying of cancer, and he’s still destroying [Blair]” said one organizer, Todd Whitworth.

“I think […] it’s the passion that he has for his subject that seems to keep him driven,” Whitworth added, noting that Hitchens, who scheduled the debate in between chemotherapy sessions, seemed to have brought the same vigour to his presentation as he had displayed in previous, healthier speeches.

“I don’t think he had real thought about religion,” said organizer Doga Col about Blair.

John Bellingham, an independent student and a staff member at Campus for Christ, did not side with Blair despite his own personal convictions, or well, because of them. He also found Blair’s arguments lacklustre and, as an evangelical Christian, disagreed with the ex-PM’s views on religious pluralism.

The live audience voted for their preference before and after the debate, with 56 per cent disagreeing with the motion,only 22 in agreement and another 21 undecided. The final tally at the end of the night was 68 per cent for Hitchens’ side, and 32 per cent for Blair.

The setting for the Concordia crowd in the darkened classroom H-531 was like a movie theatre, save for the lack of popcorn and explosions onscreen. About 60 students and members of the public congregated to quietly watch the live, streamed debate while occasionally laughing at quips made by the orators.

The screening held at Concordia was the first-ever event for the Freethought and Humanist Club. The six founding members were pleased with the crowd, and acknowledged that most were swaying to Hitchens’ side before the debate had started. The Freethinkers believe their club to be the only secular student group on campus (Concordia does host a number of clubs of different faiths and denominations, as well as the Multi-faith Chaplaincy).