Monday, January 03, 2011

Can we PROVE that religion is a force for good?

On November 26, 2010 Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens engaged in a serious live debate - at the Munk Centre in Toronto, Canada - concerning the contribution that religion makes to humanity. It was the sixth in the Munk Debate series. These debates feature prominent thinkers and practitioners, debating issues of pressing interest and concern like global security, climate change, humanitarian intervention, foreign aid, healthcare, and now, religion. (see

The resolution that Blair and Hitchens debated was a simple one: be it resolved religion is a force for good in the world. Tony Blair - former prime minister of the United Kingdom (May 2, 1997 to June 27, 2007) and the founder of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation - whose goal it is to "promote respect and understanding about the world's major religions and show how faith is a powerful force for good in the modern world", argued the affirmative. His opponent, Christopher Hitchens is an English-American author and journalist who describes himself as an anti-theist who believes that the very concept of God or a supreme being destroys individual freedom. In 2007 he wrote a book about atheism and religious faith entitled God is Not Great.

The pre-debate poll of the audience revealed that 25% of participants were in favor of the resolution, 55% were opposed and 20% were undecided. When the dust settled, the post-debate results revealed that Hitchens had won over more of the undecideds than had Blair - the final figures were 32% in favor, 68% opposed. In other words, just over two thirds of the audience - an audience that I suspect is skewed significantly towards the more highly educated and informed - could not be convinced that religion does more good than harm. Wow.

A quick recap of the two hour session. The gist of Tony Blair's argument was that while people have done a great deal of harm in the name of religion, they have also done much good. People of faith have been instruments of peace and have served humanity sacrificially in many ways, BECAUSE of their faith. And, although the record of evil (done in the name of religion) is long and indisputable, removing faith from the equation would NOT remove evil. Or, put another way, all of the bad things cannot be blamed on people of faith. Faith CAN BE and SHOULD BE and IS a force for good in the world. The gist of Hitchen's argument was that ALL of the good that has been done by people of faith can be encouraged and done through secular humanism, completely WITHOUT any reference to the supernatural. In fact, Hitchen's quipped that he has no problem with religion if the supernatural aspect is removed - let it BE a force for humane living, for care and compassion, peace and justice - without appealing to supernatural forces. Hitchen's believes that people of faith do good ONLY because they are trying to avoid guilt and shame. Thus any good that they do do, is really self serving. It may be tough to prove otherwise, but it's not a point that I'm willing to concede...

As with all debates, perhaps, this one was engaging but predictable. It failed to pierce through the crust of superficiality. The obvious impasse between an argument that presumes and celebrates the supernatural and one which dismisses the very notion of God or a supreme being was not breached by either side. As I listened to the debate - with a clear bias in favor of the resolution - I found myself feeling a bit frustrated with Blair's failure to challenge Hitchen's basic assumptions. This left him trying to justify faith from a humanitarian perspective. But to be honest, Hitchen's - or maybe the con argument no matter who was making it - didn't allow any room for a serious appeal to the essence of faith - the supernatural. In this context an appeal to that which we know by faith would have been met with disdain and ridicule. Such is the dilemma for those who might wish to argue FOR faith with those who make all of their decisions based on what they can see and understand and measure and prove. In a sense, the debate was lost before it began. In fact, I'm actually a bit surprised that anyone who was undecided going in was swayed to vote in favor of the resolution at the end. I can only conclude that God can override secular arguments, even in a secular setting!

The way I see it, Hitchen's had two major advantages in this debate: he went first and thus could define the parameters for the debate, and he was arguing the side of reason in an audience that has been educated to trust in the mind and the achievements of science. Religious faith is counter-intuitive in this context. It may well be impossible to PROVE the supernatural to intelligent skeptics. And of course if you implicitly agree to leave the supernatural out of the debate - well, let it be understood that faith without the supernatural will be beset by human frailties and folly. And it is THIS kind of faith which should be exposed as a fraud against divine providence. Fortunately God does not NEED us to argue on his behalf or to defend him in the arena of public opinion. This may sound like a copout and that's ok with me.

I admire Tony Blair for his willingness to get in the ring in the first place and I trust that he knows that agreeing to leave the supernatural out of the debate would leave him with an insurmountable deficit when considered from a purely humanitarian perspective. We will not argue people into faith. Transformation from unbelief to belief is the work of the supernatural. And let it be said that the supernatural is not constrained by any rules of engagement that the skeptics might impose.

The failures of people of faith are not an indictment of the supernatural but rather evidence of man's humanity - at best a distorted image of the divine. But on the other hand, the worst of man's humanity is perhaps a hard nosed denial of the divine and thus, a selfish reliance on our own abilities and a manmade call for compassion and justice. When you think about it that way, compassion and justice are a blatant contradiction of the very premise of evolutionary science where the strong survive and the weak perish. People of faith are called to a higher standard by a God who refuses to abandon us to our own devices.

If you want to watch the debate, you can do so online through the Munk webpage at Watching the debate will cost $2.99. You can read the transcripts for free or you can listen to the debate for free on itunes - just search Munk Debates in the podcast directory. There are two options: a CBC Radio Ideas episode which includes the highlights of the debate (about 53 minutes) or the full debate (Jeff Crouse - 2 hours).

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