Munk Debate: Chris Hitchens vs Tony Blair on whether religion is a force for good in the world

Great podcast from a really cool series of debates. I might actually consider paying for membership to get access to the old debates.

Hitchens and Blair were (as usual in public debates with this format) arguing more with the audience’s priors than with each other, so they were talking very slightly past each other. I have rather a lot of issues with the arguments made, but here are the two things that seemed most obvious and important:

First, there’s a framing issue within the question that ought to have been clarified, which is whether the question deals with if religion makes a nonzero positive contribution to human welfare, or whether it is a net positive. Hitchens clearly, and I think reasonably, assumed the latter. I am thoroughly (and rather obviously) biased, but it seemed to me that Blair was making a rather silly attempt to argue for the proposition that religion simply has positive aspects (i.e. makes some positive contribution to life that may or may not be outweighed by its negative effects). Of course it does (I would offer up the music of J.S. Bach alone as proof). At one point, though, Blair out and out rejects the idea of trying to total up the positive and negative aspects and come up with an answer. I wouldn’t want to be in charge of making that calculation (OK, fine, that’s a lie–I totally would), but if you reject the premise that such a determination is the goal of the discussion, the whole thing becomes a slightly pointless argument to have.

(Blair also seems to think it serves his argument to argue that horrible repression of difference is not the sole province of religion–non-religious and even anti-religious movements have done the same!–but that seems such a feeble argument as to be barely worth mentioning. I can’t fathom why he decided that such a point was worth making, without even an attempt to show causality between “nonreligion” and “repression.”)Second (and this is the more important one), they were defining “religion” in different ways. Essentially, Hitchens made arguments about institutions; Blair made arguments about people. And thinking about it briefly, that distinction ends up being rather informative as to the negative and positive aspects of religion. The personal motivation to do good things, to help one’s fellow man, to seek meaning and behave responsibly, can be perfectly well derived from individual faith in an omnipotent, loving creator (or, for that matter, an omnipotent plate of spaghetti).*

By contrast, the institutions of organized religion create the overwhelming majority of religiously-derived harm and few of the benefits. Hitchens includes such harms as the subjugation of women, the condemnation of scientific inquiry, and sowing of hatred for members of other religious groups; to that list I would add the condemnation of just about everyone who has ever enjoyed sex in any form and the general tendency to tell everyone exactly how to every little thing in their lives, regardless of whether they asked, and the total disregard for human autonomy and independent reason that motivates it.

Many questions obviously remain open at the close of this debate: whether religious faith would thrive in an environment where religious organizations were somehow prevented from consolidating influence; whether a faith that did survive in such an environment would resemble the forms that exist today; whether the existence of widespread individual-level faith (without strong public institutions) would produce a net social harm or good; whether there would be less private benevolence in a world without religion, or whether humanist reasons would emerge to justify an inherent desire to do good for each other in the absence of supernatural inspiration (either through punishment or reward). Those are important questions, and relevant to the discussion of what we might do (if anything) to make the world better, but they are distinct from the central issue here. And while he failed to make the institutions vs. individuals argument explicit, in my (obviously biased) opinion Hitchens’s points carried the day. His focus on the harms created by religious institutions demonstrated that religion–as practiced today–is a net harm to the world.

*I can’t entirely stand by the idea that faith in the supernatural, even if it motivates good behavior, is costless to society. A cultural acceptance of belief unfounded in evidence is, at the margin, deleterious to forming accurate beliefs about the world (and thus to making good decisions). However, without religious institutions insisting that unverifiable nonsense must be true as a matter of religious dogma, those effects are (I expect) significantly blunted.


About Joe Colucci

From Michigan, now in Boston via DC and NYC. BA in Economics from NYU. A geek and a nerd, of the type that thinks there's a meaningful difference between the two. Avid fan of good TV, good argument, good beer, good food. I work at the Lown Institute on reforming the health care delivery system, and I blog on anything else that strikes my fancy at Obviously, anything that I post on Twitter or Wordpress is my own rambling, and is not endorsed by any employee, colleague, or acquaintance, past, present, or future. View all posts by Joe Colucci

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