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Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens on stage in Toronto. Photograph: BBC
Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens on stage in Toronto. Photograph: BBC

Tony Blair v Christopher Hitchens: fight the good fight

This article is more than 12 years old
How the atheist polemicist and the Catholic politician debated whether religion is a force for good or evil

Christopher Hitchens walked on stage with the evidence of his cancer plain for the world to see. His dark suit jacket hung off a much-reduced frame and his head – now devoid of hair due to chemotherapy – shone under the arc lights. He shuffled slowly to the white chair and sat down, occasionally sipping from a plastic bottle of water.

But if Hitchens, who knows that his cancer of the oesophagus will probably be fatal, is preparing to meet his maker, it was not apparent. Not that anyone would expect anything else from one of the world's most prominent atheists. "Religion is a real danger to the survival of civilisation… it will be the death of us all, the end of humanity," he declared.

Hitchens was on stage in Toronto to take on Tony Blair and debate whether or not religion is a force for good in the world. Blair, perhaps the world's most famous convert to Roman Catholicism, was on the side of God. Hitchens, author of the uncompromisingly titled book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, was not.

If Hitchens felt any temptation to hedge his bets with God he gave no hint of it. He compared the Almighty to "a kind of divine North Korea" with arbitrary rules and a hatred of freedom and rationality. Religion, he said, was a bargain based on ignorance and fear of death. "Redemption is promised at the low price of your critical faculties," he said.

Not surprisingly Blair – who often appeared slightly shell-shocked in the face of Hitchens's barbs – was having none of that. Religious people, he insisted repeatedly, did good in the world. He listed a long list of charities and mercy missions from Africa to Asia to the Toronto suburbs in a bit of demographic positioning that bore all the Blairite hallmarks of a Third Way. "The proposition that religion is unadulterated poison is unsustainable," he said before adding: "Science and religion are not incompatible and destined to fight each other."

The intellectual face-off had been heavily promoted and the citizens of Toronto had responded by snapping up all 2,700 tickets. A spill-over venue was arranged for those who could not pack inside the space-age venue of the Roy Thompson Hall. Peter Munk, whose Aurea Foundation organised the debate, could not resist gloating about its success. "I hear rumours, I hope they're false, that people paid stupid, crazy prices for tickets," he said as he introduced the protagonists. Munk portrayed the coming attraction as a sort of philosophical cage match with metaphysical blood likely to be shed at any moment.

That was a touch of hyperbole, but the spectacle was more than worth the cost of admission. Hitchens's frail physical appearance did not extend to his voice or his mind; both as sharp as cut glass. In truth he was pushing at an open door. A pre-debate poll revealed that 57% of the audience already agreed with Hitchens's position, and 22% with Blair's. But even so, the journalist's was a masterful and funny performance that often left Blair wrong-footed. Hitchens could be brutally uncompromising. He started by reading a quote from the recently beatified Cardinal John Henry Newman, upon whom Blair had heaped praise in an article on the front page of the Vatican's newspaper.

"The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die from starvation in extremist agony… than that one soul… should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse," Hitchens quoted, throwing Blair's own beliefs directly back in his face. "It is a distillation of precisely what is twisted and immoral of the faith mentality," Hitchens explained as Blair sat a few feet away.

If it had been a boxing match Hitchens would have been described as landing blow after blow, many of them decidedly low – especially those about circumcision or women's rights. He described the aid work done by religious missions as "conscience money" to make up for the harm they have done. After all, why bother treating HIV-infected people in Africa while working against the use of condoms?

Several times Blair waived his right to respond to what Hitchens had said, instead just meekly accepting the next question. When one member of the audience asked each debater what was most powerful about his opponent's argument, Hitchens simply gestured for Blair to go first, in a move that brought loud laughter from the crowd.

Blair repeatedly returned to his defence that religious men and women did good deeds in their millions all around the world every day. But it was also a position that could get him in trouble. Blair outlined the work that religious groups in Northern Ireland put in on bridging the "religious divide" in order to work for peace. Hitchens did not allow that one to slip by. "I never miss an opportunity to congratulate someone on being humorous, even if unintentionally," he said. Then he delivered the punchline. "Where does the 'religious divide' come from?" he asked to another round of laughter from the crowd.

Blair was on stronger ground when he argued that fanaticism was hardly a preserve of the religious-minded. "The 20th century was scarred by visions that had precisely that imagining at its heart. That gave us Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot," he said.

The only area that the two agreed upon was the one area where most of the crowd in liberal Toronto would have judged both of them guilty: the Iraq war. Both were asked whether religion had played a role in the invasion of Iraq – or, as Hitchens and Blair agreed to call it, "the liberation of Iraq". Neither budged an inch. "It was not about religious faith… they were decisions based on policy," Blair insisted. Hitchens was sterner, attacking those who had opposed the war. But, in truth, it was not a night about Iraq. It was an occasion for Hitchens to riff on a subject that has become one of his greatest passions. It was full of sharp humour and, towards the end, a little pathos. Perhaps it was just his way of tweaking the nose of a reaper he does not believe in, but Hitchens hinted at a belief – or a yearning, or an understanding: what he called a "numinous" or "transcendent" element of human experience. "Without that we are really merely primates. It is important to appreciate the finesse of that," he said.

If that was a small concession to what Hitchens's current intimate brush with mortality has meant to him, it was a brief one. He ended with another rousing condemnation of religious doctrine and urged the audience to avoid becoming part of a religious flock because they might end up being "sheep". At the end of it, he suddenly looked a little exhausted, standing up with Blair for an ovation from the crowd but leaning with two hands on the back of his chair. He was tired and indeed during the last half hour of debate had suffered coughing fits.

But that final image was not what one took from Toronto. Rather it was an off-the-cuff remark Hitchens made earlier as the debate moderator cut him off in full flow as his allotted time ran out. "I have done my best," Hitchens had said. "Believe me, I have more."

More on this story

More on this story

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