Hitchens vs. Blair: The Result Depends Upon the Premises

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”.

Some have posited that there are about 6 billion too many of us, and that extermination of same would make things better.  That’s one concept of 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.

2 Replies to “Hitchens vs. Blair: The Result Depends Upon the Premises”

  1. The accusation of relatavism and genocide is to do with the separate more powerful force of Patriotism and Nationalism rather than a refusal to submit to the notion that a, as Christopher Hitchens puts it, “… mere primate is so damn sure that he can know the mind of god?”.

    Religion endorses apocalyptic visions and genocide. The desire for this is much harder to find in Science, Philosophy or Economics without the endorsement of Religion or Nationalsm.

    There is a very simple way to define Good, which in my opinion is superior to any found in scripture. I paraphrase Bertand Russell but the ‘Good’ is defined by that which creates more happiness in people than misery and suffering.

    By this rational let us look at last week’s slight U-turn on the Pope’s complete prohibition of condom use. Since it advocates use only where it prevents HIV infection: it would be a wonderful thing if in Africa we could tell who is infected and who is not by blind faith alone.

    Let us compare the benefit of giving for many millenias the false impression that Catholics only have sex purely for procreation compared against the Aids epidemic in Africa, Homophobia created by the wider implications of this principle and the dangers of entrusting the care of orphans to unaccountable and unvetted sexually repressed priests.

    Religion’s air of superiority in identifying the logical incentive for passing on genes and bonding parents, the erogenous zones, as “dirty” and “immoral” born merly out of the lack of contraception at the time of scripture, is a prime example of relativism. Any evil act such as clitoris removal from baby girls, the complete submission of women, the continual cycle of poverty by forbidding the right for parents to choose the number of dependents they need to educate and attacks on family planning centres is justified as long as the faithful can convince themselves that they are all “purer” than communities or nations that are more secular.


  2. Giri, you can propose any definition of good that you like. But there’s no purely scientific basis for any of it. In a purely materialistic framework, there is no good and evil, there only is.

    Turning to your definition, what happens when some people have to suffer so others can be “happy”? How much misery are we supposed to tolerate in a situation like that? And who gets picked to be miserable? And why?

    As far as “apocalyptic visions” are concerned, in the past we had Marxism as atheism’s contribution to that, as Russell was well aware of. Today we have the environmental movement. Look at what’s going on in Cancun right at the moment. If that isn’t apocalyptic, what is? And what about the decidedly genocidal solution to the problem that I mentioned? Did that come from religious people?

    Hitchens can say all he wants about this primate being unable to know the mind of God. So how much less is this primate able to be that mind?


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