Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Rhetorical Quidditch with Blair and Hitchens

by: Nico Lang

On Nov. 26, the world’s most famous Catholic convert, Tony Blair, faced off in a debate with our most outspoken atheist, the Christopher Hitchens. The topic: Is religion a force for good in the world?

And if you listened to the press, the former British Prime Minister got his dashing English hiney handed to him.
To say that the write-ups were grim may be the understatement of the year. Mr. Blair lost “the holy war to heathen Hitch,” according to the Herald Scotland, and the National Post felt he “made it an easy win for Hitchens.” No major publication sided with Blair and even the audience favored Mr. Hitchens by a near 2-1 split.

The conclusion: Hitchens: 1, Blair: 0.

In Mr. Blair’s defense, with the historical record of organized religion, it’s a whole lot simpler to argue against religion than for it, and as always, Hitchens did a fabulous job on capitalizing on that. His energy and wit were nothing short of impressive, especially in opening remarks where he compared religion to a “celestial dictatorship, a kind of divine North Korea.”

Those familiar with the body of Hitchens work expected him to bring his full arsenal of rhetorical weaponry. Hitch may be the wiliest provocateur working today, and he came to take no religious prisoners.

In the response to Hitchens’ ubiquitous jabs, the audience waited for Mr. Blair to “land blows,” to accumulate points as if this all were a very talky game of Quidditch.

While watching Mr. Blair defend his faith, avowed Secular Humanist Roger Ebert found that Blair spent the evening running in circles around Hitchens’ points. Tony Blair came off as increasingly nervous and flustered, kind of like a British counterpart to Richard Nixon in his famous debate with John F. Kennedy.

However, like the Nixon-Kennedy debates, something very different emerges when you parse through the transcript. Cataloguing every seemingly evil of religion ever recorded, Hitchens clearly came to spill blood, but Blair came for something very different, something that doesn’t necessarily read well on YouTube.

Tony Blair didn’t come to take down Hitchens. He came to dialogue.

Almost heroically, Blair came to find compassionate middle ground with someone decidedly uncompassionate toward his views. That might not win Mr. Blair converts in the audience, but dialogue isn’t about entertainment value or proselytizing. It’s about understanding.

Throughout the debate, you can hear Tony Blair listening to Mr. Hitchens’ critiques of organized religion and attempting to work with them. Rather than lingering on Hitch’s criticisms of the church institution, Blair focused on the good that people of faith are doing now. He rightly stressed the relief work and the aid that religious people are so instrumental in providing to countries decimated by disaster, disease and poverty.

In highlighting the people ahead of the entity, many wondered why Blair seemed to run away from the topic of the church. Most especially, many viewers chided Blair for conceding that “religion can act as a force for good in the world” but does not always. Because Blair expressed doubt in the church’s universal ability to good, Hitchens must, again, have landed a major blow.

However, isn’t doubt the core of the atheist and agnostic traditions? Don’t we heathens pride ourselves on the ability to think outside the institutional box?

According to Sam Harris, non-theists should feel empowered by skepticism, by our rational ability to question everything. Agnostics and atheists can find strength in doubt and unbelief; we don’t have to have all the answers to feel secure in our core philosophical tradition.

Although we heathens may champion doubt, we do not exclusively lay claim to using reason and logic to determine our beliefs. In our belief in pragmatism and realism, we are not alone.

Blair cannot possibly answer for all of the crimes of religion or simply explain away why religion has created so much terror and brokenness in the past. Like so many things in life, the answers aren’t that simple. However, Blair does know that we have a responsibility to make religion a force for good in the present and future, as his and so many other organizations are already doing.

Believing in the power of people to transform the world: what’s more humanist than that?

When we look past extremist rhetoric, we can find that heathens and the faithful have more in common than we think.

As a queer agnostic, my belief in other people likewise inspires me to fight for equality for all, whether that be for equal rights for women, full equality for LGBT persons or against injustice toward Muslims. Mr. Blair’s incredible malaria relief work with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation shows me that he, too, believes that motivated people can work for change.

Blair’s beliefs just happen to be inspired by his faith. They are motivated by his belief in the forces of pluralism, a belief that great things can happen when we look past divides to come together in order to create the change we need.
Although Hitchens brings to the table locked-and-loaded extremism, our “argument culture” doesn’t need more bitterness and partisan division: it needs common ground.

That might not be the vision that won Hitchens the debate, but it’s the one we need right now. As someone of Hitchens’ philosophical perspective, I know that humanists can’t be a force for good in the world by burning bridges with religious folks.

If we want to be better together, we have to build them.


Nico Lang is the Communications intern at Interfaith Youth Core and a senior at DePaul University. Lang co-founded Chicago’s Queer Intercollegiate Alliance, acts as head of campus outreach for the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago and is the new Change Coordinator for LGBT Change’s The Faith Project. Follow him on Twitter @GidgetLang.

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