You are here: Home Articles English Blair vs Hitchens: The dress rehearsal (2010)

all things new

ecce nova facio omnia

Blair vs Hitchens: The dress rehearsal (2010)

E-mail Print PDF

Is religion a force for good? That's the subject of a long-awaited debate tonight between the former PM and one of the world's leading secularists. We asked two leading writers to set out the rival arguments in advance. Christopher Hitchens, one of the world's leading secularists and former PM Tony Blair will debate in Toronto. [NOTE: the debate took place during November 2010. I am interested in revisiting the analysis of their arguments as presented a few days prior to the actual debate.]

Christina Patterson: The Hitchens argument

You really can't blame us. From the moment we slithered out of the primordial sludge, or sprang to life from a rib, or hauled ourselves upright and watched the hair drop from our stomachs and arms and legs, and were faced with a planet full of food, most of which was in a form that galloped away when we went near it, and told to help ourselves, it was always going to be hard. Nobody explained why we urgently wanted to stick bits of ourselves into bits of other creatures like us, or why, when we did, tiny, screaming versions of us emerged that also demanded hunks of mammoth, as if it wasn't already knackering enough getting hold of them for ourselves. Nobody explained why the tiny creatures sometimes died, and so did the creatures we'd been sticking our bits in, which seemed to suggest that one day we might, too.

Nobody told us anything at all. Which might explain why, once things had calmed down a bit, and we'd got the hang of chasing mammoths, we sat around a camp-fire and decided (quite a long time before New Labour politicians decided the same thing) that it was time to get a "narrative". We started off quite gently, with line drawings of bison in caves, and then with putting stones in circles and looking at the way that the sun burst out from behind them, which was fun, though the stones were rather heavy, but then someone decided that what was needed was some thinking outside the box, and so we were told to toss out any old idea, and not be embarrassed about it, and so we did. Before we knew it, we had armies of gods, some with loads of arms, some with animal legs and heads, some born to virgins in stables and some that were ghosts.

We didn't write them down at first, because we couldn't write, but the more we told the stories of these gods, the better they sounded and when we did write them down, or rather when someone else pulled together the stuff that had been written on little scraps of paper all over the place, and we looked at it, we had a funny feeling in our stomachs, because we suddenly thought that maybe we hadn't made it up. Maybe it was true.

So we thought we'd better start following all those rules that we'd made up for a laugh, though it was a bit of a palaver, but since all our neighbours were following them too, it was mostly OK. It was good to feel that we weren't alone in the universe, even if we were, and it was good to feel that the whole thing wasn't a ghastly accident, which it sometimes looked like, and it was good to get together with our neighbours, even if it was just to follow the rules together, and it was good when someone died to say they hadn't really died, though they certainly looked dead.

It was good to get the comfort, and the routine, and the company, but most of us, to be honest, weren't that interested in the rules. What we wanted was food and drink and shelter and cuddles. It was when we met people who had different rules and different gods that things started to go wrong. Then, some of our own people, who seemed to want to boss us about, said that it was very, very important to show that our gods, and our rules, were better than their gods and their rules, just as it was very important that we got the mammoth and they didn't. These people thought that the rules were worth killing for, worth dying for, even, and they seemed to know what they were talking about, and they were in charge, so if they told us to fight, or kill, or march, or torture, or burn, we did.

You can't really blame us for getting in this mess, but a mess is what it is. Religion, like most things created and enacted by human beings, has the power to soothe, encourage and inspire people to acts of great self-sacrifice and kindness. It also has the power to inflame, depress and inspire people to acts of great aggression and great cruelty. Intelligent people engaging with ancient texts in thoughtful, ingenious ways can present their own religion as a force for good. They can even try to make it a force for good. Stupid people engaging with ancient texts in stupid, literal-minded ways can try to present their religion as a force for good, but they will always fail.

Increasingly, our world is being run by people who have read only one book. In some cases, it's a book that is taken to suggest that the gargantuan gaps between rich and poor are sanctioned by a deity. In other cases, it's a book that's taken to suggest that the mass slaughter of people who subscribe to any world-view that evolved after the seventh century is an excellent passport to paradise. Neither would suggest excessive use of Woody Allen's second-favourite organ, the brain.

Religion, said Marx, is the opiate of the masses. Opiates, as anyone who's ever had a painful operation will tell you, have their place, but personally I'd like to spend as much of my life as possible awake.

Christina Patterson is a columnist for The Independent

Roger Scruton: The Blair argument

Just as there are bad people with religious beliefs, so there are good people without them. So what does religion add to morality and why is the addition good? The first thing that religion adds is the idea of the sacred. This idea is a strange sediment in human consciousness; it might have an evolutionary cause, but the cause does not tell us what it means. The second thing that religion adds is communion.

The rituals of religion are shared and those who participate in them are drawn into another kind of relationship with their neighbours than those that prevail in the world of "getting and spending". People hunger for this kind of membership and the power of religion resides in its ability to provide it. In the rituals of a religion all worldly differences are overcome: the Sultan bows in submission beside his subjects and the good-natured fool takes communion beside the crook who cheated him. The ritual shines on both of them from a place beyond their ordinary experience and includes them in a community whose home is in some way not of this world. And in the Christian case the ritual records a primeval sacrifice, born of love.

It is natural for someone, taken up in those rituals and in the community that they create, to believe that they point beyond this world, towards the realm that we now call "transcendental". The Greeks situated this at the top of Mount Olympus. But their philosophers were inclined to think of it as outside space and time – and that is the idea that prevailed, when Greek philosophy and Jewish monotheism coalesced in Christianity, and then in Islam. There are plenty of religions in which the belief in gods is a hazy and sceptical afterthought and for which the ritual and the community are far more important than any theological doctrine. The religion of ancient China was like this; so too was the religion of Rome.

Hinduism, with many hundreds of gods, is for that reason adjacent to Buddhism, with none. On the other hand religious belief, as we know it, has another function than simply to make sense of ritual: it is a source of consolation and the cure for our metaphysical loneliness. Believers, therefore, see themselves as engaged in a common enterprise of salvation, in which they benefit from supernatural powers and divine protection. I am not speaking of Christianity only: Apuleius gives a beautiful description of the phenomenon I am referring to in The Golden Ass, in which the long-suffering hero finally enters the fold of a religious community, dedicated to the worship of Isis. Mozart describes something similar in The Magic Flute and Wagner also in Parsifal. In all religion, it seems to me, there is a primordial experience of "homecoming", of returning to the fount of being and bathing in the pure waters of forgiveness. Surely this kind of spiritual renewal is a blessing, not merely for those who undergo it, but also for those who depend on their good will. Suppose someone were to say that love is not a force for good in the world. After all, love often leads to disaster: the love of Helen for Paris, for instance, which led to the Trojan war. Love brings with it jealousy, possessiveness, obsession and grief. People can love the wrong things and the wrong people. They can go astray through love as through hatred.

We should respond to that argument in the following way. Whatever the disasters that love may cause, we should suggest, love, judged in itself and without regard to contingencies, is a human good – perhaps the greatest of human goods. The important thing is to learn to love rightly and in the right frame of mind. Then the disasters, if they come, come as accidents and not by necessity. That is the response that should be made on behalf of religion too. Of course religion can lead to disasters, like the Thirty Years War. Of course people can believe in false gods and attach themselves to evil rituals. But that does not alter the fact that people have a need for reconciliation and forgiveness and that they find these things through allowing into their lives the light that is cast by sacred things. By opening ourselves to the sacred we are also constructing a community, so that the meanings and values that we find are shared with others. A religious community is not a scientific community. It contains idiocy, prejudice, ignorance and stupidity in all the proportions that these are displayed by mankind as a whole. But that is its great virtue: it can draw people, whatever their talents and intellectual powers, into a shared apprehension of their condition. It can teach humility and justice, and remind the one with power, knowledge, wealth or artistic talent, that he is the equal of the one beside him in the moment of worship, however ignorant, weak or sinful that person might be. And to both of them it offers hope.

Now I don't deny that there are wrong ways of pursuing this religious quest. Those for whom faith is a call to arms and religion a blanket justification for violence against the unbeliever, are a threat to all of us. But although they make the most noise, they are not the most numerous among religious people. For most people religion is what it has always been – a cultivation of piety, a humility in the face of creation and an attempt to live according to a shared moral code. Piety, humility and morality are all things that we are losing. I would suggest that we would do better to keep them and to study how they might be directed to the right objects and in the right way.

Roger Scruton is a writer and philosopher


This site is maintained for you by dedicated folks who work for this site, some of them are unemployed due to the current economy. Please consider making a small donation via Pay-Pal to help us help them. Click HERE to donate. No amount is too small!


Last Updated ( Sunday, 13 October 2013 23:02 )  

Odeon

Must Read

Gun Control in the Third Reich: Disarming the Jews and Enemies of the State by Stephen P. Halbrook. Based on newly-discovered, secret documents from German archives, diaries and newspapers of the time, Gun Control in the Third Reich presents the definitive, yet hidden history of how the Nazi regime made use of gun control to disarm and repress its enemies and consolidate power. The countless books on the Third Reich and the Holocaust fail even to mention the laws restricting firearms ownership, which rendered political opponents and Jews defenseless.
No Crueler Tyrannies by Dorothy Rabinowitz. In this book, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Dorothy Rabinowitz re-frames the facts, reconsiders the evidence, and demystifies the proceedings of some of America's most harrowing cases of failed justice. Recalling the hysteria that accompanied the child sex-abuse witch-hunts of the 1980s and 1990s, Rabinowitz's investigative study brings to life many alarming examples of prosecutorial terrors. By turns a shocking exposé, a much-needed postmortem, and a required-reading assignment for prosecutors and judges alike, No Crueler Tyrannies is ultimately an inspiring book about the courage of ordinary citizens who believe in the American judicial system enough to fight for due process.
The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical & Political Essays by Fr. James V. Schall. The author is a treasure of the Catholic intellectual tradition. A prolific author and essayist, Schall readily connects with his readers on sundry topics from war to friendship, philosophy, politics, and to ordinary everyday living. In his newest work, The Mind That Is Catholic, he presents a retrospective collection of his academic and literary essays written in the past fifty years. In each essay, he exemplifies the Catholic mind at its best - seeing the whole, leaving nothing out.
Knowledge and Power: The Information Theory of Capitalism and How it is Revolutionizing our World by George Gilder. Gilder breaks away from the supply-side model of economics to present a new economic paradigm: the epic conflict between the knowledge of entrepreneurs on one side, and the blunt power of government on the other. One of the twentieth century’s defining economic minds has returned with a new philosophy to carry us into the twenty-first. Knowledge and Power is a must-read for fiscal conservatives, business owners, CEOs, investors, and anyone interested in propelling America’s economy to future success.
The Evidential Power of Beauty: Science and Theology Meet by Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M. "This is as complete a theology of beauty in one simple volume as I know, uniting Christian theology, modern science, and daily experience—a sort of von Balthasar for the masses. It vastly expands our understanding beyond 'aesthetics', and shows us how nearly right Keats was in saying 'Beauty is truth, truth is beauty.'" Peter Kreeft, Professor of Philosophy at Boston College and The King's College.
Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism by Fr. James Schall SJ. "A timely treatise when the sources of our being, and indeed of our culture, are challenged on a daily basis. Schall is one of the foremost Catholic intellectuals of our day." Jude Dougherty, Dean Emeritus, Philosophy Department, Catholic University of America.
America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It by Mark Steyn. Mark Steyn predicted collapse for the rest of the Western World. Now, he adds, America has caught up with Europe on the great rush to self-destruction. It’s not just our looming financial collapse; it’s not just a culture that seems on a fast track to perdition, full of hapless, indulgent, childish people who think government has the answer for every problem; it’s not just America’s potential eclipse as a world power because of the drunken sailor policymaking in Washington— No, it’s all this and more that spells one word for America: Armageddon.
1492 And All That by Robert Royal. Readers will learn a great deal, and an honest appraisal of the Catholic Church's true history, not the gunk that passes for such as found in too many college and university courses. Royal argues that the values and beliefs actually held by America's original cultures are being misrepresented. They are merely, he contends, remoldings of ancient Native beliefs in order to fit a modern agenda. His contentions are supported with detailed examples of pre-Columbian Native customs and behaviors.
American Betrayal by Diana West, lights up the massive, Moscow-directed penetration of America’s most hallowed halls of power, revealing not just the familiar struggle between Communism and the Free World, but the hidden war between those wishing to conceal the truth and those trying to expose the increasingly official web of lies. American Betrayal is America’s lost history.
My Peace I Give You by Dawn Eden. The author of the bestselling The Thrill of the Chaste, shows how the lives of the saints have given her hope and aided her journey of spiritual healing after childhood sexual abuse. One in four American women and one in six American men report having been sexually abused during childhood and My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints provides a much-needed resource for spiritual healing from the isolating effects of these wounds. This new book has the makings of a classic. A true must read.
Civilization. The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson. The author of the highly readable The Ascent of Money is magnificent at marshaling a wide range of knowledge to support his opinions. This book is an incisive analysis of the past, a reassessment of the historical developments of the last 500 years that should inform us as we move into the future.
Heaven In Our Hands by Benedict Groeschel. Father Benedict Groeschel believes that we've lost touch with how revolutionary the Beatitudes really are! The plain but astounding truth is that the Beatitudes reveal to us the very heart of God.
The Devil's Delusion by David Berlinski. Berlinski delivers a biting defense of religious thought, daring to ask and answer some rather embarrassing questions.
Mexifornia : A State of a Becoming by Victor Davis Hanson. A revealing look at the changing face of California paints a clear but rather glum picture at the Golden State's future prospects.
Intellectual Morons by Daniel Flynn. Why do smart people fall for stupid ideas? "Intellectual Morons," are smart people who make themselves stupid by letting "ideology do their thinking." Flynn lambastes a series of prominent leftist "gurus" and the ideological movements they inspired.
Demonic by Ann Coulter. How Liberals are endangering America. Sweeping in its scope and relentless in its argument, this book explains the peculiarities of liberals as standard groupthink behavior. To understand mobs is to understand liberals.
How The Catholic Church Built Western Civilization by Thomas E. Woods Jr. For readers looking to defend Western Civilization and their faith.
Dismantling America and Other Controversial Essays by Thomas Sowell. A straightforward and honest discussion of the origins of our current crisis.
There Is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters by Claire Berlinsky. A biographical account of the premiership of Margaret Thatcher.
The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11 by Dinesh D'Souza. The left is waging an aggressive global campaign to undermine the traditional patriarchal family, provoking a violent reaction from Muslims who believe their way of life is under assault. Further, the cultural left has encouraged radical factions to attack the United States in the belief that they can do so with relative impunity.

Latest Articles

Popular Articles

Published Elsewhere

About the Author

Carlos Caso-Rosendi Real progress consists in the movement of mankind toward the understanding of norms, and toward conformity to norms. Real decadence consists in the movement of mankind away from the understanding of norms, and away from obedience to norms. Russell Kirk, Enemies of the Permanent Things, 1969