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Blair and Hitchens keep the gloves on


Polite: Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens during their Toronto debate

The former prime minister, Tony Blair, has defended the role of religion in global affairs in a debate with the prominent British-born atheist intellectual, Christopher Hitchens before an audience in Toronto. Our correspondent Paul Adams was there.

It felt like the event of the season.

Organisers said tickets were selling for inflated prices, and the 2,700 seat Roy Thomson Hall in downtown Toronto was packed.

The subject could not have been more weighty. "Be it resolved", read the motion, "that religion is a force for good in the world."

In the blue corner (actually green, on the organiser's website), the former prime minister and famous Catholic convert, whose foundation promotes "faith as a powerful force for good in the modern world."

In the red corner (yes, red), one of the intellectual world's best known and frequently controversial atheists. This is the man who once called Mother Theresa a "bitch". He's also criticised Blair's "sickly piety."

But anyone expecting verbal pugilism, or a blood-soaked gladitorial contest, with Tony Blair as the Christian thrown to the hungry atheist lion, might have walked out into Toronto's chilly night a little disappointed.

It's not that the two men didn't debate with conviction, but the format, with statements, rebuttals and carefully moderated questions, engendered politeness (this is Canada, after all) and somewhat stifled argument.

Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens: Religion is "a kind of divine North Korea"

And perhaps the lion is wounded. Christopher Hitchens is starting to look frail, in the throes of a cancer that he acknowledges will probably kill him.

Tony Blair, by contrast, looks a picture of well-dressed health.

But Mr Hitchens made his views on religion plain, with his familiar blend of learning and mordant wit.

"Once you assume a creator and a plan, it makes us objects in a cruel experiment whereby we are created sick and commanded to be well," he said.

"And over us to supervise this is installed a celestial dictatorship. A kind of divine North Korea."

But he never rounded on Tony Blair, adopting a respectful tone even as he displayed his disdain for much of what he said.

Mr Blair took it all in good humour, even if he looked and sounded a little exasperated at times.

"Bigotry is not a wholly-owned subsidiary of religion," he complained, striking a defensive note on several occasions.

"I do not deny for a moment that religion can be a force for evil," he said. "But I claim that where it is it is based essentially on a perversion of faith."

Clash over middle East

Inevitably, the former prime minister was asked if religion had played a role in the most important decision of his time in office: to go to war in Iraq.

"We can nail this one pretty easily," he replied. "It was not about religious faith."

"You don't go into church and look heavenward and say to god "Right. Next year. The minimum wage. Is it £6.50 or £7.00? Unfortunately, he doesn't tell you the answer."

Mr Hitchens agreed with the decision to go to war in Iraq, just as he agreed to the interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone.

But when asked about the role of faith in promoting a peaceful settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, the two men disagreed sharply.

Mr Blair said there were men of faith on both sides "desperately" trying to play a positive role.

But Mr Hitchens called the conflict "a failure of the parties of god."

Tony Blair
Tony Blair: War in Iraq "was not about religious faith"

"And it's not something that happens because people mis-interpret the texts. It's because they believe in them. That's the problem."

The two men were asked which of each other's arguments they found most convincing.

"This definitely never happened in the House of Commons," Mr Blair joked, before going on to admit that it wasn't always easy for people of faith to explain the importance of scripture in the modern world.

Hitchens admitted no such intellectual difficulties, saying he preferred the awe-inspiring wonders of the cosmos to what he described as the superstition and mental submission involved in religion.

"You gain everything by repudiating that and standing up to your own full height," he declared. "And you gain much more than you will by pretending that you're a member of a flock or in any other way any kind of sheep."

The audience sat in rapt attention, frequently applauding both men.

But a random sample afterwards tended to tell a consistent story. People weren't necessarily opposed to Mr Blair's argument, but they found Mr Hitchens the more persuasive speaker.

A poll of audience members resulted in a defeat for the motion, by a margin of two to one.

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