Home > Atheism, Christopher Hitchens, Religion, Tony Blair > Is Religion a Force for Good?

Is Religion a Force for Good?

I encourage everyone to watch this debate between Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair on whether religion is a force for good in the world. I’ve watched Hitchens debate and speak on the topic of religion countless times and this might be his best performance.

Start at 3:50 to get past the introductions.

The rest of the debate can be found (at least temporarily) here.


Of course religion inspires people to do good works and to commit evil acts. Apologists like to point out all the good parts of the religious traditions – Sermon on the Mount, love thy neighbor, etc – while opponents point out the barbarous portions – Leviticus, Crusades, etc. I have no problem admitting that religion motivates acts of compassion and no problem recognizing the cruelty religion animates. The trouble with religion is precisely the nature of that malleability. The traditions, texts, rites, and dogmas are still part of a set – you get the good and the bad yoked together pulling the fracturing cart where you sit.  Reason works differently: there are good ideas and bad ideas. Do nonreligious people commit acts of wickedness because of nonreligious reasons? Of course. But as reasonable people we’re free to reject bad ideas in favor of good ones.

Faith in any religion (or secular ideology) makes it impossible to successfully arbitrate between the epistemological truth of one interpretation over another. Not only that, but the more faithful one is to these ancient texts cruelty often becomes easier to justify. Apologists like Tony Blair believe his peaceful and tolerant form of religion is true, but he has no recourse in faith to undermine more extreme strains. God, for some reason, seems content to remain mute. By contrast, ideas held by reason are amenable to correction in light of new evidence and argument.

You might be tempted to counter that religious people ignore the bad bits in their religion despite, for example, the bible reminding Christians that every jot and tittle of the word of God should be fulfilled and Muslims believing the Quran is the perfect unalterable word of the Creator. Certainly the religious often neglect to carry out every commend of their holy book, but notice that it is precisely because they are dismissing part of their religion that the religion becomes more benign. I’m always surprised how often religions’ apologists argue that people doing good by ignoring religion shouldn’t be counted as a strike against religion.

Not being religious doesn’t compel a secular thinker to repudiate the positive messages found within religious texts. I need not refuse to be a good samaritan. I need not rebuke the poetry of the Bhagavad Gita.  I need not rebuff non-violence because it is practiced by the Jains. Inspiration can be drawn from Shakespeare or Dickens, from Bentham or Kant, from Jesus or the Buddha. Skepticism just repels treating any book as inherently superior or moral. It is a component of religion that appraises its message as unearthly. Admit it or not a religion is, among other things, a set of beliefs supposedly divinely inspired. Once someone accepts that a set of beliefs came from God or from a prophet of God only skepticism of those beliefs or our innate and culturally formed compassion can temper any of the pernicious dogmas of that faith.

Religion cleaved from its superstitions and creeds is not religion. If you insist that you are still a Catholic if you don’t believe in Catholic dogmas, the divinity of Jesus, or the holiness of the bible you’re not actually religious. You might identify with that culture, but that’s not religion. It’s for that reason a Jewish atheist, for example, isn’t an oxymoron. Subverting the supernatural need not crumble our communities.

So ask yourself, would the world be better off if people became more religious or more reasonable?

  1. zach
    December 1, 2010 at 3:57 am

    Blair is such a snoozefest.

    • December 1, 2010 at 10:37 am

      Ya, he gets a little repetitive. His best remarks probably come in video 7 but other than that I wasn’t very impressed, which surprised me.

  2. December 1, 2010 at 3:37 pm

    Hitchens is unbeatable, and so delighting to hear, in debates, especially Oxford-style ones.

    But give credit to Blair for showing up: I invited you to imagine his US equivalent in the same position….

    • December 1, 2010 at 5:23 pm

      I definitely give him credit. I was only a bit disappointed in the way he approached his arguments. He didn’t exactly try to refute the specific arguments Hitchens was making. His performance stood in contrast to what I’ve seen of him during PMQs for example.

      That said, you’re right, and I can’t imagine many US politicians or statesmen willing to take on someone as skillful or forceful as Christopher Hitchens on such an explosive subject. For that reason, I was looking forward to this debate and one of the reasons why I posted it over other Hitch debates. I encourage and applaud anyone willing to be publicly challenged on their most deeply held beliefs.

      Not to be sycophantic, but you’re pretty impressive yourself at debating!

  3. December 2, 2010 at 12:41 pm

    Ahem, thanks. That was my first and only Oxford-style debate so far, so I’ll need some practice to get better. Hitchens is actually the model. His British ease and fluidity, humorous and serious at the same time (a difficult balance to strike when you’re on a stage)….

  4. Philippe
    December 8, 2010 at 2:21 pm

    Interesting debate despite both the actors being depressingly similar, since each is an Englishman; each is a fervent religious believer (Atheism is a church like any other); and each is a supporter of the American imperial mission.

    • December 8, 2010 at 2:40 pm

      Thanks for commenting Philippe. I can’t say I agree though; atheism is a lack of belief in the supernatural (or at least a theistic deity), not sure how that qualifies as “a church.” You’re welcome to think atheism is wrong or harmful or both (those are at least arguments), but it most certainly isn’t “a church” unless you think that not believing in unicorns is also church-like… somehow I don’t think you’d characterize that as such.

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