Hitchens v. Blair: Religion in the 21st Century

I have just returned home from a memorable evening in Toronto, which I spent in the company of one of the foremost provocateurs working in the English language, and an ex-politician who currently moonlights as a band aid in the Middle East.
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I choose to offer the following reflections while they are still lucid.

I have just returned home from a memorable evening in Toronto, which I spent in the company of one of the foremost provocateurs working in the English language, and an ex-politician who currently moonlights as a band-aid in the Middle East. The former argued against the motion that "religion is a force for good in the world;" the latter in support.

The debate this evening between Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair was, to put it mildly, a mismatch of substantial proportions. While I disagreed with the majority of Mr. Blair's decisions during his laborious tenure as Prime-Minister of the United Kingdom, I do concede that he is indeed a compelling public speaker on occasion. This was not one of those occasions.

Mr. Hitchens, on the other hand, was characteristically poised, articulate, and above all, compelling. His well-publicized illness was a source of vexation for him on two obvious occasions.

Once, while the rather-plastic moderator introduced him with reference to his current ailment, a grimace very noticeably overtook Hitchens' face. One gained the impression that Hitch was, above all, bored with his illness and, more specifically, bored with a recurring new introduction as a "courageous" or "inspiring" cancer patient (read: human-being in an emboldened state of impending expiry). Mr. Hitchens is a debater par excellence: clichés about his tenacity in confronting his illness in public view are irrelevant to his principal role as a public intellectual, writer and master of the English language. The second occasion in which his illness was an obvious hindrance was a brief fit of coughing mid-sentence. I daresay I was not the only member of the audience moved by his carrying on in spite of the circumstances. "Do excuse me," he paused, "this sometimes happens." Indeed.

To be fair to the Right Honorable Tony Blair, as mentioned earlier, he displayed moments of true insight, but it should be noted that they were moments. Blair's preparation for the debate was simply not at the same level as his opponent's. I was seated to the side of both speakers (stage left, to be precise), where I could clearly see Blair's podium and, thus, his written opening statement. These opening remarks occupied only five minutes of the allotted seven: the remaining minutes were filled with long pauses and scattered thoughts on the positive impacts some religious figures have had throughout history. Mr. Blair's main and only thesis of the evening was, and I paraphrase only slightly: there are some "good" religious people in the world. I have yet to meet the human being who would argue to the contrary.

The argument Mr. Blair was supporting -- that religion is a force for good in the world -- remained unsupported and lifeless with such vague, safe and cripplingly simplistic backing "evidence" (and I use that term most generously). To be frank, this argument deserved better. Mr. Hitchens, on the other hand, consistently displayed the characteristic wit, intellect and persuasiveness that has won him such widespread acclaim. Illness or no illness, there are few public speakers on the planet who can contend with his eloquence.

In the interest of full disclosure, I offer the following confession: I arrived in Toronto wholly critical of Mr. Blair's position and, at the risk of a cheap joke, it would have been "miraculous" had I been swayed. However, I do possess an open mind. Being an avid consumer of Hitchens' debates, I have witnessed several opponents who presented a reasonably compelling argument for a role for religion in the twenty-first century. Mr. Blair offered no such thing.

The audience poll results were released a short while after the debate: the majority of the audience supported Hitchens' argument against the motion. A higher proportion of initially undecided audience members conceded that religion was indeed not a force for good in this world. Hitchens 1, Blair nil.

Thus, as I stepped outside, and eventually found my way to the bottom of a cold pint, I wondered whether or not the former Prime-Minister was at all impacted by his very public defeat. I wished, for a mercifully brief moment, that he were there, beside me at the pub. Perhaps I could offer to buy him a drink in consolation. Then, I realized: Mr. Hitchens was likely fulfilling this role at that very moment, somewhere in the Toronto night.

Read the full transcript of the debate here.

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