Sunday, November 28, 2010

Christopher Hitchens Debates Tony Blair

The official starting point: "Be it resolved, religion is a force of good for the world." Spoiler alert: Blair argues the pro side.

This was one of a series of Munk Debates. It was held in Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto, Canada, on 26 November 2010, in front of an audience of about 2700 people. Apparently, scalpers had a field day.

Assuming the Munk people do not force YouTube to take them down, here are links to the nine segments of the debate: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9. The links will open in new tabs (or windows, depending on your browser).

The first eight segments are each about fourteen minutes long and the ninth is about seven minutes long. Total running time is thus about 23 ten-millionths of a century, which proves that two hours is effectively instantaneous.

I have also embedded these nine video segments below the fold, if you'd prefer that.

[Update: looks like the first segment got taken down, but that's just the intro from the moderator, so I don't think you'll be missing any of the Blair/Hitch part.]

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5:

Part 6:

Part 7:

Part 8:

Part 9:

(h/t: JonIrenicus)


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, I was just reading the Gaurdian interview last night.
Have not checked out the (debate)?, yet.

Brendan said...

Did you mean this one?

If so, thanks for the heads-up.

TC said...

Excellent debate, Brendan. Did you ever hear how the vote turned out at the end? Blair dismissed all of religion and wrote his own version in order to make a case for it. It really had to do with him defending his own beliefs which aren't really religious at all, but humanistic.

Brendan said...

According to the Munk Debates website:

Pro: 22% Con: 57%
Undecided: 21%

Post-Debate (Preliminary)
Pro: 32% Con: 68%

In other words, afterwards, 68% disagreed with the starting proposition, "Be it resolved, religion is a force of good for the world."

MunkDebates tweets final results will be posted Monday (today, I guess).

I agree with you about Blair. The only real complaint I had with Hitch is that I wished he had pointed out a little more clearly that if all religious people were like Tony Blair paints (his claimed understanding of) religious people, there'd be very little reason for anyone to worry about religious people. Instead, Hitch got a little too hung up on pointing out that you don't need to be religious to do good works -- which is true, and also needs emphasis -- but he let Blair get away with defining terms a little bit too much.

On the other hand, the amount of concessions Blair went through, partly at Hitch's behest, acknowledging how often religion is used to bad ends was pretty encouraging. So maybe some decent religious people watching that debate will be a little more moved to realize that they have to speak out against the extremists who claim to be coming from the same godly places.

Ocean said...

Somewhat tangential to the topic, but I quickly saw a brief article about a billboard in Northern New Jersey put up by American Atheists that is causing some backlash from religious people. I, frankly, have to say that it wasn't a good idea to put that message. Apparently the message shows a Nativity scene and a statement that reads "You KNOW it's a myth". That's not what is going to advance the cause but rather create reaction and resistance to hear anything coming from that quarter.

What are the AA thinking?

TC said...

So the debate was a draw? The twenty percent undecided split 10% to the pros and 10% to the cons. I think the undecideds weren't really undecided at all. Probably just said that so they could state what they really believed in the end and seem to have been persuaded. Encouraging that 68% of people don't believe that religion is a force for good in the world. Of course it wasn't an American audience but a Canadian one.

I like the message that Ocean reports, but I think a snake talking to Eve or a burning bush talking would be a better visual to go with the AA message.

Brendan said...

@TC: I share your assessments of the statistics.

@Ocean: I take your point, but I'm not sure I agree with it completely. For one thing, the primary intent of the billboard, according to the people who put it up, is not so much to convert believers as it is to encourage those who are already non-believers to come out of the closet. (And see also here and here.)

Secondly, even before I went looking for a picture of it, my reaction, especially following on thoughts about the Blair Hitch Project … uh … Debate, was that it's perfectly appropriate for some atheists to be provocative. I'd go further, and say that jabs like this can in the long run be beneficial. I'm not saying that Tony Blair, specifically, stated the generous concessions he did solely because of Hitchens's aggressiveness in the debate or in his prior writing and speaking, but I believe that having some people making a more in-your-face case helps the overall cause. If nothing else, they make it easier for people of faith to respect what less pugnacious atheists have to say, and they present a counterweight to the sort of people who put up billboards along the Jersey Turnpike (saw at least three of these on my last trip) telling us we're going to hell unless we call this phone number.

I'm not saying the American Atheists' billboard carries no costs. Of course some people are going to be put off by it, at least at first glance, as you were. But I believe that it nets out as a gain, especially in the long run, especially as part of a larger campaign. Always remember the Overton Window.

Ocean said...

Okay, I haven't listened to the Blair- Hitchens debate yet, so I should probably reserve my opinion on this for now. Up until now, I haven't been convinced that the traditional aggressive approach is of any help. I do agrre that a more direct approach is needed. What's really important is to have people come out of the closet when they're non-believers. That's certainly the first step. But shocking or pissing off religious people doesn't seem all that helpful.

Again, I'll tell you what I think after watching the "debate".

Ocean said...

It's taken me quite a while to get to it, but I finally did. Thanks for posting the links. It was an enjoyable debate. Hitchens was impeccable and, as usual, he put his eloquence to good use. Blair, was in a difficult spot, by trying to present the religious view while maintaining a rationalist's perspective. I agree that his brand of religion is an abstract form that filters all the nonsense out of religious texts, practice and religious tribalism, and only keeps the highest moral and inspirational aspects of religion. His case, is in essence neutral, since it is us, mere mortals, who get to pick what's good. So, it ends up being a human creation and not a divine one.

Interesting also, that Hitchens kept presenting, arguments, reasoning and facts, while Blair could only evoke purpose, inspiration and morality. Again, the latter being all found within the realm of human psyche.

Once again the argument of religious belief as a tool to enforce rules, and to fuel action wasn't discussed much. The direction of the rules and the action is variable and dependent on the individual religions and their leaders, but the mechanisms are the same.

As to the AA billboards, I don't know, it would be desirable to encourage non-believers to come out of the closet, without creating more tension between religious people and them. The increased tension can make it more difficult for non-believers to come out.

Brendan said...

So, it ends up being a human creation and not a divine one.

Exactly right.

As to the AA billboards, I don't know, it would be desirable to encourage non-believers to come out of the closet, without creating more tension between religious people and them. The increased tension can make it more difficult for non-believers to come out.

I think this is probably true for some, but I'm just about certain it's not the case for a lot of others. Especially hearing the stories from Dawkins and Hitchens about the sheer numbers of people who contacted them with messages like "Thank you thank you thank you I live in a small town that is very religious and I never have had the courage before reading your book …"

There will never be one and only one correct answer to situations like this. The best we can do, I think, is keep pushing on multiple fronts using a variety of tactics.

Brendan said...

Also: thanks for remembering to come back and watch. It means a great deal to me that the work of posting things like this in the first place is appreciated by at least one other person.

Ocean said...

You're welcome. It had been on my to do list for a while and I finally got around to listening to it.