Recently atheist and writer Christopher Hitchens debated former British Prime Minister Tony Blair on the question of whether or not religion is a force for good or evil in the world. You can read a transcript at this link at The New Statesman or pay $3 for video on demand at the sponsoring website of the philanthropic Munk Debates website. Of course Hitchens argues for the side of religion as a force for evil whereas Blair argues the opposite. For me the real interest is in points of debate where these two viewpoints overlap. Both Blair and Hitchens make important points – this is definitely one of the most articulate, carefully considered debates in recent years regarding religion and atheism. Such debates, from lesser minds, are shrill and whiny and often full of odd attacks from both sides. In contrast, both Blair and Hitchens are composed, witty, and serious.
Blair clearly stated the case for liberalism in politics (not liberal as in Democratic in the U.S. but liberalism in the historical sense of a republic in which free citizens have the freedom of speech, have the right to practice or not practice a religion, and the right to vote freely, etc.) He noted that
“I think what most people want to see is a situation where people of faith are able to speak in the public sphere but are not able to dictate, and that is a reasonable balance, and I think that most — you know, most people would accept. But I think, you know, again what I would say about examples of where you get religious people that are fanatical in the views that they want to press on others, fanaticism is not — as I say, it’s not a wholly owned subsidiary of religion, I’m afraid, it can happen outside of religion too. So the question is, how do people of, if you like, good faith, who believe in pluralist democracy, how do we ensure that people who hold faith deeply are able to participate in society, and have the same ability to do that as everyone else, without being kind of denigrated, but at the same time have to respect the fact that ultimately, democracy is about the will of the people and the will of the people as a whole.
The liberalist view warrants that we all leave each other alone and don’t try to dictate belief to each other. The problem with this view, unfortunately, is that many faiths are profoundly public and often do attempt to legislate their dogma.
From the atheist viewpoint, it is too clear that public monies will be spent on Christmas trees, that trusting in god is emblazoned on our money, and so on. All of these are public assertions of people’s private beliefs. Sometimes these public acts are rather harmless (holiday trees are pretty, I think). But sometimes they do become public policy and military violence and theft. Hitchens noted that
“…quoting from the great Thomas Jefferson, I don’t mind if my neighbour believes in 15 gods or in none, he neither by that breaks my leg or picks my pocket. I would echo that, and say that as long as you don’t want your religion taught to my children in school, given a government subsidy, imposed on me by violence, any of these things, you are fine by me. I would prefer not even to know what it is that you do in that church of yours, in fact, if you force it on my attention, I will consider it a breach of that pact.”
As with Great Britain, in the U.S. our political leadership must represent a plural republic, one that includes Muslims and Hindus and atheists, etc. We are all part of society, and we all have the right to vote. In my view this is indeed a point of agreement that atheists and religious people can all assert, the balance acts of our freedoms.
What were some other points of agreement between Blair and Hitchens? When asked, Blair responded that
“the argument that people of faith have got to deal with is actually the argument Christopher has just made, which is that the bad that is done in the name of religion is intrinsically grounded in the scripture of religion. That is the single most difficult argument.
Indeed religious texts are full of violence, and often when religious fanatics are violent it is because they believe in the violent parts of scripture. The religious need to persuade their own members that the violence in the texts is not the core meanings of the writings, that compassion is the more important.
Hitchens responded that “The remark Tony made that I most agreed with this evening, I’ll just hope that doesn’t sound too minimal, was when he said that if religion was to disappear, things would by no means, as it were, automatically be okay.”
Indeed atheism isn’t a magic solution that’ll solve everything. Politics, human nature, and competition for various resources don’t disappear in the absence of religion or in the absence of atheism.
From this point on, Hitchens stated the fundamental feeling that so many atheists have – which I share. Having discarded the idea that the supernatural has a role in our lives, we look to natural explanations of evidence, reason, and inquiry to steer our lives. One result of this larger worldview (often called materialism, or philosophical naturalism) is that we become atheists and skeptics and thinkers rather than followers of one or another religion. Another result is how
“If we give up religion, we discover what actually we know already, whether we’re religious or not, which is that we are somewhat imperfectly evolved primates, on a very small planet in a very unimportant suburb of a solar system that is itself a negligible part of a very rapidly expanding and blowing apart cosmic phenomenon. These conclusions to me are a great deal more awe inspiring than what’s contained in any burning bush or horse that flies overnight to Jerusalem or any other of that — a great deal more awe inspiring, as is any look through the Hubble telescope at what our real nature and future really is.”
Hitchens doesn’t miss how important religion has been for the many arts. He noted that whether we’re religious or not, that religions have often done a great deal to support and promote the arts – which are forms of communication fundamental to human experience that differentiate us from so many other animals. He uses the example of the Parthenon in Greece as a monument made by religious inspirations, but for which today we care little about the cultish belief of ancient Athens. Yet, if we lost the Parthenon, “… we would have lost an enormous amount … of our knowledge of symmetry, grace and harmony.” So it is possible, of course, to lose the religious aspect of the Parthenon and yet still find its form graceful, beautiful, and compelling to experience. And that in turn means that artists today who are not religious may still rely on ancient ideals of form and beauty, and the methods and techniques that construct them, without directly linking with a faith tradition that had helped originate such work.
I think there are many other possible points of agreement. One of them is kindness, the practice of compassion. I bet atheists and the religious can all agree that practicing compassion is good, important, and necessary for our cultures to survive. Compassion, it’s human nature, no supernatural additives necessary.