Blair vs Hitchens: The dress rehearsal

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
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Indy Politics

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

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