It’s not surprising that the Guardian has trumpeted the result of the Munk Debate in Toronto as Hitchens 1 Blair 0. (For a more reasonable take on the debate, one should turn to His Grace.) The results of the polls aren’t surprising either; Hitchens went into the debate with a lead amongst those polled, and he and Blair split the undecideds; Blair’s result in that respect is better than the Democrats managed to do in the recent U.S. elections.
Nevertheless it strikes me that the whole debate is based on a faulty premise, one that can be seen by looking at the debate’s subject: “Be it resolved, religion is a force for good in the world”.
Atheists these days love to portray themselves as guided by reason. I’ve always said that reason is only as good as the premises upon which it is based. So let’s ask the simple question re the subject: what is good? Or, put another way, good for what?
The fastest way to end such a debate is for one of the debaters to do one or two things: either force his opponent to agree with his idea of the good, in which case the first debater is the automatic winner, or for the two debaters to come to an impasse on the definition of good, in which case the debate is over except for the shouting and the audience finds itself with a decidedly unsettling result.
To some extent Hitchens has the upper hand because atheists have in recent years adopted a “humanitarian” idea of good where suffering is to be eliminated and “science” rules. It has not always been so with the godless, especially regarding the former, and there’s nothing in a purely materialistic construct that would lead us to accept this idea and no other. In any case humanitarianism of this kind–especially in an age where Westerners feel guilty about their self-centredness and have made volunteerism a religion in and of itself–plays well, which may do wonders for atheists’ reputation but does nothing for their reality as scientific.
The simplest way of illustrating this is to look at some alternate ideas of what is “good”.
Others, especially revolutionaries from the Bastille to Beijing, have thought that their nations would be cleansed by the blood of the opponents of the revolution. (Franophones who doubt this should sing the words of La Marseilleaise to themselves).
Then there are those who think that the working of the free markets would bring a lot of good to the world, especially regarding the conception and encouragement of small businesses. But socialists on both sides of the Atlantic reach for their barf bags at the thought.
There are the pro-life people who think that those conceived should have a chance at a full human life. But many conceived are inconvenient for those who deal with the results, and in any case it’s an impediment to sexual freedom, so they resist unto death. (Or, at least, the next Supreme Court nomination).
On the other end, we have pro-life people and we have those who feel that elderly people are an expensive burden on the state and should be eliminated, either by force or by making them feel they’re doing themselves a favour.
These are just a few examples. All of them have both religious and political dimensions. But all of them illustrate the simple fact that what kind of good religion (and that also assumes that all religions are about the same thing) can or cannot do depends upon how we define good.
Which is why debates such as the Munk Debate are basically stupid.