Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Blair-Hitchens head-to-head is just another reality show

Belief and scepticism deserve better champions than these two
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The Independent Online

Coming on Friday, in Toronto, the big face-off between Godzone Tony Blair and Godless Christopher Hitchens! They believe that attacking Iraq was absolutely the right thing to do, but the former uses Christianity as an alibi for his political decisions – intimations of divine reassurance brought on by fervent prayers – and ardently believes in celestial goodness, while his adversary is contemptuous of religion, hates its global influence. Should be a titanic clash. The brainy braggarts will use sophistry and scorn, score points and punch – until, the hope is, one finally gives up and is laid low.

Can't see that happening. Can you? Both are excruciatingly self-righteous; their eyes shine with the loony light of absolutism; they are men of ideological wars without end, propagandists who have spun themselves into unedifying prophets. Belief and scepticism deserve better champions than these two, I feel, perhaps because they seem to have no heart and no room in their heads either for ambiguity or that unknowingness so many of us struggle with.

Hitchens has cancer and is handling his serious illness with characteristic audacity – which adds further tension and pathos to the encounter. Weaker mortals in this situation – even atheists – would pray for mercy, a little more time. Not this great, though flawed intellectual. (Yo, Blair! Don't offer to pray for him – wouldn't go down well.) The subject they have been asked to debate: Is religion a force for the good or would the world be a better place without it?

The questions are hopeless, trivialising as they neatly attempt to package some of the most vital and unending quests of humanity from the beginning, before the word. Who are we? Why are we? Is there something beyond this insignificant and often meaningless world of ours, or is this it? From the earliest cave painters; through the sediments of various cultures and civilisations; the ages of industrialisation, science, psychology, revolutions; and now super technology; millions did and do experience life as more than itself (or want to), and the search has gone on and on.

From the early Greeks onwards there have also been philosophical thinkers who found answers in the physical universe, and some great minds who saw no conflict between rationality and spirituality. Einstein wrote: "The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical. It is the sower of all true art and science... To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself to us as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling is at the heart of all true religiousness". Mr Blair has not the tongue nor the profundity for such religiousness, though he fancies himself as a special envoy on such matters.

Fighting atheists are just as shallow and crude. One admires their incisive minds, their dexterous verbosity and incredible knowledge, but when they denounce the faithful as cretins or villains they sound irrational and implausible, drunk on their own home-made hooch of disbelief. Richard Dawkins has dismissed us as "uneducated", "rather stupid" and "paranoid". So, as I say above, people of faith and those with none could do with better defenders and guardians. And more respectable arguments for and against.

I have faith; I need to pray every day, seek solace from Allah, ask for mercy and forgiveness. It helps me strive towards trying to be better than I am. One of my best friends is a devout Catholic. Neither of us would stupidly defend the religions we were born into. Terrible crimes against individuals and nations are carried out by those who think of themselves as true believers – their faith is like one of those warranties one buys, a way of covering their sins and possible retribution. Look how the worshipfuls treat women and girls in all religions; how they lend their names to bloody wars and oppressive states, the way they institutionalise discrimination against gays or people of "low caste", the disgraceful way the wealthy are given special dispensation and value, the brainwashing and child abuse by religious leaders given the right to carry on with their wicked ways. When I was young, I always asked why murderous, rich men were given undeserved respect and high office within our mosque. Hopes in the afterlife are appropriated and deferred gratification used in order to placate the enslaved and turn the innocent into suicide bombers.

Religion – particularly organised religion – has exerted a malevolent influence forever. Those who don't accept this are lying to themselves and us. They lift the best, most ideal bits of religious texts and hold them up as "evidence" of goodness. Yes, agreed, there are fine and noble injunctions in the books of worship. What matters is what people do, not what they are told to believe and practice. Most humanists are more virtuous than many of the so-called saved, yet today in Britain, religious communities are given limitless influence over politics and policies.

However, atheism weaves its own lies and gives itself licence to demean and wreck. Religion didn't give rise to Communism and Fascism, nor does it fuel most of the endless tribal conflicts around the world. Nuclear weapons were made and used by those with no sense of the sacred or the holiness of life. Commercial greed is destroying the natural and social environment and one can't blame Islam or Catholicism or Hinduism for that destruction which cannot be reversed. One could argue that the wreckers care not because they have no sense of a higher authority, of God. Dogmatism, intolerance and an inability to imagine makes the creedless creed as dangerous as religious fanaticism, perhaps more so. Atheist China is guilty of more human rights abuses than is excessively religious India, where people are capable of barbaric religious violence but others are also restrained by prayer, guilt and fear of retribution from the deities.

Religion can be a force for good if it is internalised and divorced from politics and power. As a flickering flame within, it stops you from becoming hateful, careless, self-aggrandising, grabbing and too materialistic. It has its place, must have its place. Blair and Hitchens are fundamentalist gladiators, performing for entertainment, just another reality show. They mean nothing to the millions of us sustained by delicate, fragile, whispered, unspoken, doubt-ridden faith.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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