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Tony Blair reflects on his debate with Christopher Hitchens

Tony Blair reflects on his debate with Christopher Hitchens

The following comment piece by Tony Blair first appeared on The Washington Post's On Faith website on Tuesday 30th November 2010

Last week, former British prime minister Tony Blair, who converted to Catholicism after leaving office, debated the merits of religion with avowed atheist Christopher Hitchens. Following are Blair's thoughts about the event. event. For Hitchens' click here.

First off, it was great to do the debate. People of religious faith should be prepared to have it out with those of an atheist persuasion, and to stand up for what they believe in.

Christopher Hitchens is someone of huge integrity and whatever the disagreement between us over religion, he is someone who puts the case against religion with vigor.

And of course, his argument requires an answer. No rational person can look at the world today - and especially the history of the last decade - and deny religion can be a source of division and conflict.

Within virtually all the great faiths, there are those who are extreme either in pursuing their own faith or in demonizing those of another faith and sometimes doing both simultaneously. I also believe strongly that it is not good enough for those of us who are religious to say to the extremists: we don't accept you are really religious, so we don't accept responsibility for you. Instead we have to confront this extremism religiously as well as politically and reclaim true religion from the fanatic.

Otherwise what happens is what we see happening now. In parts of the West, there is an aggressive secularism that essentially joins forces with the fanatics to say: that defines religion. Meanwhile, elsewhere and especially in Islam, religiosity grows with no counter-narrative about faith to correct the attempted takeover by extremists.

What was fascinating about the debate was not so much the obvious point of discord; but how some assumptions were in fact held in common.

The most important is in the discarding of the notion that religion is going to die out, wither away, be left behind as a relic of superstition in a scientific world. Back in the day when I was a student, this thesis was rampant. With prosperity, it was confidently predicted, religion would decline. It hasn't and not simply in Islam. In China today, there are more Muslims than in Europe, more practicing Protestants than in England, more practicing Catholics than in Italy. Plus 100 million who consider themselves Buddhists. The fastest growing Christian evangelical movement is in Latin America. Religion is not on its way out.So, even if you're an atheist who considers religious people deluded, the issue is not: who wins, the "God-fearing" or the "godless": both rather how does religion be a force at ease with globalization and the modern world, not contradicting it. The very reason for my foundation - the Tony Blair Faith Foundation - is to bring about greater respect and understanding between faiths, because in the world we live in, people of different faiths and races and cultures are being pushed ever closer together. In that world religion can be a negative - pulling people apart on the basis of religion as a badge of identity in opposition to others of a different faith; or a positive, lending values to and civilizing the process of globalization.

And of one thing I am sure: globalization is not a conspiracy of governments; it is a force driven by technology and by people. Whatever strains imposed on it by the financial crisis, it is not going to stop. It will shape the 21st century.

So in a sense the challenge for both people of all faiths and people of none is to create the circumstances in which those faiths can coexist peacefully in mutual tolerance and respect.

In achieving this, the last thing secularism needs, is an attack on religion so extreme that it is almost a type of atheist fundamentalism. This, to be fair, Christopher avoided, at least in Toronto on Friday night! Sure , we can point to stupid, arrogant and even wicked things done by people who say they're doing them motivated by their faith. That is undoubtedly true. But it is also undoubtedly true that people do acts of extraordinary common good inspired by religion. Almost half of healthcare in Africa is delivered by faith based organizations, saving millions of lives.

A quarter of worldwide HIV/AIDS care is provided by Catholic organizations, and witness the fantastic work of Muslim relief organisations. Day in day out across America and beyond, there are religious groups doing the most amazing work caring for the sick, the disabled, the disadvantaged and the destitute; often caring for those in respect of whom, no-one else cares.

So the proposition that religion is unadulterated poison is unsustainable. It can be destructive. It can also create a deep well of compassion and frequently does. These people are inspired to do good by the true essence of faith: which is, along with doctrine and ritual particular to each faith, a basic belief common to all faiths, in serving and loving God through serving and loving your fellow human beings. As witnessed by: the life and teaching of Jesus, one of love, selflessness and sacrifice; the true meaning of the Torah, which has at its heart, care for others; the teaching of the Prophet Mohammed - in saving one life, it is as if you save the whole of humanity; in Hindu searching after selflessness; the Buddhist states of upekkha, karuna, mudita; and metta which all subjugate selfish desires to love for others; Sikh insistence specifically on respect for others of another faith. This is the true face of faith.

The values derived from this essence offer to many people a benign, positive and progressive framework by which to live our daily lives: stimulating the impulse to do good; disciplining the propensity to be selfish and bad.

Faith defined in this way is not simply a solace in times of need, though it can be; nor a relic of unthinking tradition; and still less a piece of superstition, or an explanation of biology. It answers instead a profound spiritual yearning, something we feel and sense instinctively. This is a spiritual presence bigger, more important, more meaningful than just us alone; that has its own power separate from our power; and that even as the world's marvels multiply, makes us kneel in humility not swagger in pride.

If faith is seen in this way, science and religion are not incompatible, destined to fight each other until eventually the cool reason of science extinguishes the fanatical flames of religion. Rather science educates us as to how the world is and how it functions. Faith educates us to the purpose to which such knowledge is put, the values that should guide its use and the limits of what science and technology can do, not to make our lives materially richer but richer in spirit.

Imagine, indeed, a world without religious faith, not just no places of worship; no prayer; no scripture; but no men or women who, because of their faith, dedicating their lives to others, showing forgiveness where otherwise they wouldn't; believing through their faith that even the weakest and most powerless have rights; and they have a duty to defend.

The truth is that for many people of faith what draws them to God is not history or ritual, important though these are. It is a belief in a divine presence in their lives that gives their lives purpose and meaning.  Christopher in the debate, recognized the place of the transcendent feeling in the human experience; but for him this would be encompassed within humanism. For me, such transcendence comes from God.

One other reflection: the more I read of the great scientists, including Darwin and Einstein, the more I recognize the essential element in neuro-science are opening up whole areas of analysis in emotional behavior and even the spiritual.

Religion has had many bad things done in its name. But then so has politics and the 20th century is littered with such examples. Many millions died as a result of a belief that the will of man should be dominant. So we should all approach this issue with a degree of humility. For people of faith the challenge is obvious: to reconcile faith with reason