The great faith debate: Blair takes on ailing Hitchens in Canada

The ex-prime minister came up against a hostile crowd when he and the atheist journalist argued over religion

What was missing inside the plush and awfully polite Roy Thomson Hall was not wit, wisdom or star wattage. For a debate about religion and its influence on world politics and humankind you could do no better than Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens. What was missing was Michelle Robidoux.

More specifically, we needed the indignation of Ms Robidoux, a 49-year-old translator who, with about 60 other angry souls, braved Toronto's sub-zero winds outside as the audience arrived to vent noisily about the former prime minister and the invasion of Iraq. "Don't fete him, arrest him," she told this reporter. "How dare he come and talk about God? He lied not just to Britain but to the whole world."

The pre-debate hour was quite the hurly-burly, in fact. Not only was the event a sell-out but tickets were changing hands on the internet for $300 (£190). Moreover, patrons more used to Purcell and Liszt hadn't been warned to come early, yet every handbag, whichever the designer, had to be searched for grenades. Few knew what the resulting delay – the lights went down half an hour late – was costing. Hitchens is weakened not just by an aggressive cancer but by aggressive chemotherapy, too. If you sat close you could see that his lower eyelids have that thin red edge of distress. When staff came to his small backstage room to inform him of yet another 10-minute delay, he looked up and nearly begged; the energy was leaking away.

One of a series of so-called Munk Debates – Peter Munk is a gold tycoon and philanthropist here – this encounter invited us to consider the resolution "Religion is a force for good in the world". Votes were taken before the encounter and after. The pre-debate scores showed that Blair, looking entirely trim, had a hill to climb. It was 57 per cent for cons and 22 per cent for the pros. (The rest were undecided.)

Both men came amply equipped for this particular battle, of course. Post-Downing Street, the converted Catholic Blair has created a foundation that precisely seeks to close rifts between the world's dominant faiths. To make sure that religion is indeed a positive force, he teaches about it at Yale.

Hitchens, of course, wrote a book on the topic, God Is Not Great, wherein you will find much of the thesis that he brought to Toronto: religion is destructive, is based on superstitious hokum and, a bit like communism, might briefly seem noble until you see that it steals your every freedom away. Religions, he offers in his opening statement, require that we "are created sick and then ordered to be well". He goes on: "And over us to supervise this is a sort of celestial dictatorship, a kind of divine North Korea ... Salvation is offered at the low price of the surrender of your critical faculties."

The advantages for Hitchens over Blair were probably many, even beyond our sympathy for his personal plight. Toronto, judging by that pre-debate vote, is a rather secular place. But, most importantly, it is just much easier to highlight all the bad things humans have done in the name of religion – and even get some laughs – than it is to explain the good faith can do, to individual souls as well as the world.

He might feel "toasted", as he later confided at a post-debate VIP reception where he and Blair shook hands and accepted congratulations, but on stage Hitchens summoned himself well. "Religion forces nice people to do unkind things ... and to do stupid things." Not for the last time in the evening he evoked circumcision. "Please pass me that sharp stone for its genitalia so that I might do the work of the Lord."

When a questioner in the audience asked about the tendency of religions to be exclusive and therefore competitive, it was Hitchens who found the humour. "It has always struck me that there is something strange about having a special church for English people, but I suppose I see the point."

But Blair can do humour too, of course. "I do not consider the leader of North Korea a religious icon," he said in a return of serve. But there, in the early minutes of the debate, he conceded partial defeat before he really needed to. "It is undoubtedly true that there are people who have committed horrific acts in the name of religion." But religious people do good things too, he went on quickly. Christians and progressive secularists joined to abolish slavery, for instance.

So was Hitchens after a world without religion? There were, Blair pointed out, moments of the 20th century "scarred" by leaders who had just that vision – Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot. "Get rid of religion and you're not going to get rid of fascism, and you're not going to get rid of wrong in the world."

It is hard to compete with the pith of Hitch, and Blair had moments of meandering, both verbally and with those hands, which continually clasped and gestured. Just sometimes, he sounded like a decent but slightly dull vicar giving another Sunday sermon. "You can list all the faults of religion but, for so many people, the reason why they try to do good – and what they do – is because faith motivates them." He cited nuns helping HIV/Aids children in South Africa. And he cited reconciliation in Northern Ireland.

The chatter when we were filing out of the auditorium with our final ballots did not bode well for the ex-PM. "He was very vague," complained Joanne Tod, 49, a local painter. "Hitchens had all these great examples, but Blair didn't really have anything."

Not quite fair. There was Northern Ireland, where Protestants and Catholics finally got past all those years of hatred. But did Hitchens let that one go by? "How very touching," he responded. "And where did that religious divide come from?" So, after all those decades of war and killing of each other's children they thought it was a good idea to stop? "I should bloody well think so!" the atheist blustered.

So they jockeyed and teased. But this was sparring with no loss of body fluids. Someone raise Iraq, please. Finally, a scripted question to Tony from the moderator. Did his Christianity influence the decision to invade? "We can nail that one fairly easily," Blair responded, saying that, when it came to policy decisions, faith did not help. The decision to invade was taken "because I genuinely believed it to be right".

That the collision of British-born atheist intellectual and British Catholic statesman happened at all should probably be enough to satisfy, even if nothing – of course – was resolved. (The post-debate vote showed a "technical" victory for Hitchens, with 68 per cent opposing the resolution and 32 per cent supporting it.)

Before an aide bundled him away from the VIP reception for a plane "to the Middle East", Tony Blair acknowledged he has never done a debate of this kind before and professed it had been "fun". He crossed the room to say goodbye to his opponent, who was seated on a low couch signing copies of his new memoir, Hitch-22. "I'll see you soon," said Hitchens, looking up for a second. Maybe they'll do it again.

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