Entries in hitchens (4)


Was Blair vs Hitch fixed? (UPDATED)

I was one of the lucky few who managed to get a ticket to the debate in Toronto last night between Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens, put on through the Munk Debates. If you missed it, you can stream the conversation online. It's worth watching it just for the opening seven minute statement by each man, both of which I thought were top notch. 

I won't rehash how it went down -- as all of the news reports have it, Hitchens won handily. Despite his illness (and he was clearly flagging toward the end), he had more energy and fire than did Blair.  As the BBC reports, the former UK prime minister came across as somewhat defensive, and before the evening was a third over he'd conceded almost all of Hitchens' main points. In particular, Blair didn't seem to get that religious leaders working today to solve problems they had caused, from Ireland to Africa to the Middle East, is hardly an argument in favour of the resolution.

But maybe part of the problem was with the resolution itself: "Be it resolved religion is a force for good in the world." The way that is phrased, it can't but put religion on the defensive, by assuming it has to make its case. Religion, on this phrasing, is guilty until proven innocent. 

But what if, instead, the resolution had been "Be it resolved that atheism is a force for good in the world." In this case, Blair would have had the first kick at atheists, and he could have done what Hitchens did, and simply retailed the horrors done in the name of atheism during the 20th century. He might even have pressed Hitchens on his own erstwhile Trotskyism; Blair's failure to press this point was a  bit perplexing.

Overall, Blair didn't seem interested in the more metaphysical or even political arguments in religion's favour. Instead, he seemed content to simply list the places he'd visited where believers were doing good works. And while Hitchens boasted of having lots more "stuff" in the can, Blair seemed either ill-prepared, or simply unreflective. And so it was left to Hitchens to defend religion on the grounds that it brings us in touch with the numinous or ecstatic dimension of life, something that didn't seem to have occurred to Blair. But I'm certain that had the resolution been framed differently, with the atheist having to justify unbelief, the result might have been the same, but the debate would have had more spark. 

I think that one problem with how the debate evolved was the poor quality of the questions from the audience, especially from the select group sitting on stage. The only decent question was from the last person, who asked each man to say which point of his opponent he found most persuasive or difficult to rebut. This brought out the only seriously reflective moment of the night from Blair, where he talked about the difficulty of reconciling belief with some of the darker and more pleasant parts of scripture. And from Hitchens, it elicited the wonderful excursion on the numinous. 

But otherwise, the questioners on stage didn't seem to have done their homework, or to know much about the intellectual backgrounds of either Blair or Hitchens. (Or maybe it is just that the moderator, Rudyard Griffiths, did a bad job of choosing from the questions that were asked -- I don't know how the questions were chosen). 

But here is what I would have asked Blair:

1. How did you come to convert to Catholicism as a grown man? Did you have an epiphany or some sort of experience? Was it a rational decision?

(UPDATE: @munkdebates reminds me this is off-resolution.)

 2. What connection, if any, is there between the purported universalism of your faith and the similar universalist claims of liberalism? Is religion the handmaiden of liberal internationalism?

Here is what I would have asked Hitchens:

1. How do you explain the horrors done against religion and religious believers in the name of unbelief in the 20th century?

UPDATE: Did Hitch answer this? I know Blair raised it, but I don't recall Hitchens answering it. 

2. How do you reconcile your claim that religion poisons everything with your obvious delight at discovering that you are jewish? Aren't you doing exactly what you accuse your opponents of doing, namely, grasping on to ancient promises and blood ties as a way of cementing your identity?

UPDATE: @JRMARLOW tweets that this was sort of addressed here


Hitchens: More than just an atheist

I have little piece today in the Ottawa Citizen on Christopher Hitchens. It took me a while to think of something vaguely novel to say about him, this is what I came up with:

But what is most remarkable about Christopher Hitchens is that, for all his faith in the power of the pen, he fundamentally gets that logic alone has its limits, that sometimes debate can be futile. Hitchens grasps that the body itself can be an argument, and that sometimes the most effective way of challenging authority is the charmingly adolescent gambit of simply getting in its way.



On Hitchens vs Blair

Thanks to a friend with more perseverance than I have, I've snared a ticket to the upcoming debate between Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens in Toronto. It is part of the popular Munk debate series, and apparently they'll debating the question of whether or not religion is a force for good in the world (regardless of whether or not God "exists".)

I'm excited, but that excitement is tempered by mixed feelings. Blair was one of my political heroes when he was elected for his first term -- he always struck me as a more principled and engaged politician than his Canadian counterpart Jean Chretien, whom I had come to despise. But Blair was far too credulous of the claims of the Bush regime over Iraq, and at the end of his tenure he became a morally decadent money grubber.

As for Hitchens, I find it somewhat annoying that he's become a posterboy for atheism, and lumped in with the Dennett/Dawkins/Harris crew. It isn't that I disagree with that crew, not at all. It is just that I think it does a disservice to what Hitchens is on about. As someone put it about Hitchens, his anti-theism is less about belief, more about obedience -- what Hitchens has always railed against is the obedient mind.

That is why I'm bothered by the topic of the Blair-Hitchens debate. I pretty much know what each man's answer to the question is, and I don't expect to be much enlightened by it. Instead of the artificial schoolboy construct of the debate, I'd much rather see them talking about the Iraq war, its justification, its conduct, and its aftermath.



Some interesting links

1. A rather annoying interview with Christopher Hitchens conducted by the extremely annoying Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic. As if the big issue is whether Hitch will discover god on his deathbed.

2. Stephen Hawking can't make up his mind. First he said that humans need to be worried about rapacious spacefaring aliens come to steal our natural resources. Now he says that species is most likely to be... us. He's rapidly turning into David Suzuki.

3. In praise of the enlightenment, from City Journal.

4. An adman quits to find his soul -- an authenticity quest. (via @ajkandy)